Benvenuto a Milano!
Italy has a way of completely engulfing anyone who visits: with every bite of food, or glance down a street, you know exactly where you are and the rest of the world seems so far away from this never ending paradise. You can feel its warmth on your skin… Most of the time. Welcome to Milan, certainly the most peculiar city I’ve seen in Italy thus far. It has a reputation of being the fashion capital of the world; a city brimming with effortlessly chic men and women, sipping aperol spritzes or driving their Vespas around in suede driving loafers and perfectly cuffed linen pants. This is partially true, in some areas of the city.
What sets Milan apart from other places in Italy is that you need to find Milan. Poor planning or an adventure too far down the wrong street ultimately may not meet your expectations for an Italian getaway, and may yield a disappointing trip. If this is your first trip to Italy, I say book a ticket elsewhere, such as Rome, Palermo or Florence. But if you’re definitely headed to Milan, many amazing things await… if you know where to look. This Milan city guide is a great place to start.
Luckily Milan is a small city with good public transportation, making it easy to get around by foot or by bikeshare, but I recommend getting a day or week pass to freely ride the network of subways, trams and busses. I think three or four days is enough time to see the city.
Quality Food at a Quality Price
Italy is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, which means it is rife with tourist traps. Large monuments, such as the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower may as well serve as a landmark of ‘where not to eat within half a mile.’ There are many landmarks in Milan, but they’re smaller and spread out, so the restaurants to avoid are sprinkled around all around the city. The best way to keep your wits in a city like this is to know what the price of a meal intended for locals should cost. Know that pasta should cost about eight euros or less. The pasta pictured above cost seven euros. The 250ml carafe of red wine (“vino rosso a casa”), was two euros and fifty cents. If a simple, homestyle restaurant is charging 25 euros for a single meal, keep walking. If apertivo costs more than eight euros, ten at the most, also keep walking.
This of course applies to your average, run of the mill restaurants. If you want something a little more sophisticated or upmarket, a meal that costs 30 to 40 euros per person is appropriate, but find a restaurant to make it worth it. Don’t pay those prices for an average meal. Also know that there is no tipping in Italy, and in no way are you required to take a ‘primi‘ and a ‘secondi.‘ You can order whatever you’d like. Now that we’ve gotten the nitty gritty out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.
A Tiny Venice in Milan
The Naviglo Grande and it’s smaller brothers and sisters make up i navigli, a set of canals that were built in the 1100s, and then later renovated by Leonardo DaVinci. Their purpose was to facilitate marble deliveries to the construction site of the duomo, which was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the much smaller church that had been on the same site since the fourth century. It is now considered a hotspot for creative people; artists, musicians and even fashion executives who have recently taken over the nearby Zona Tortona, another small area worth exploring in the same day.
The canals are filled with small shops, popular bars and traditional restaurants, where you can head for either apertivo or dinner. Half of a day is more than enough time to take in these sights. It’s best to go in the afternoon because the sunset makes it that much better. Head to Zona Tortona for lunch at Angelo’s Bistrot, then wander over to El Brellin (listed below), for dinner. If you’re looking for an alternative or a strange place to have drinks after dinner, head down the canal to a place called Sugar, a popular pan-Latin American tiki outpost that is sure to entertain.
The Imperative Apertivo + The Enigmatic Aperol Spritz
If you’re traveling to Italy on a budget, apertivo is the most amazing thing ever. If you’re an obsessive food-vacuum like myself, it’s even better. Essentially, it’s happy hour con cibo. Anywhere from five to ten euros gets you a drink, and a whole lot of food as well. In a smaller, no-frills local place, this can mean a plate of prosciutto crostini, some pizza sticks and a bowl of potato chips with your glass of red (about five bucks), and in a more popular, well-known place, it means an all-you-can-eat selection from a massive buffet of snacks and pastas. A fair price for this is eight euros, and ten should be the limit you’re willing to spend, unelss you’re getting craft cocktails in an upmarket space. Apertivo, though technically meaning ‘before dinner,’ is certainly enough to make a meal of, making it perfect for anyone watching their bank account. This is a signature novelty of Milan, and so you can find apertivo almost anywhere. If you want to be truly Milanese for a day, opt for the aperol spritz, a classic Italian pre-dinner cocktail of aperol, prosecco and carbonated water. The first taste is bitter, but after that they taste like summer and Italy and paradise and class. If you’re looking for a spot on the canal, I really enjoyed the food and drink at Jab.
5-10 euros | punchdrink’s 10 best apertivo in milan
10€ for apertivo | google maps
Hang with Locals at Bar Magenta
One of the best places to experience apertivo is at Bar Magenta near the park. On any day of the week, the bar fills in quickly with students, locals, and visitors alike. Their apertivo is a large corner of the bar that gets filled with foods like fresh grilled vegetables, Italian cheeses and salumi (cured meat products), pastas and frittatas, arancini (rice balls), croquettes, marinated olives, artichokes and peppers, seasoned rices, and more. It costs eight euros, and it is not to be missed. Before or after, you can explore the Castle Sforzesco and the sprawling Parco Sempione.
8 euros for a cocktail apertivo | google maps
A Trip to the Farm at Cascina Cuccagna, Un Posto a Milano
Tucked into a tiny plot of land on the eastern side of Milan is Cascina Cuccagna, a renovated farmhouse which has been preserved throughout time, despite the development of everything around it. You’ll find a wine cellar, a farmers market, community gardens, public events and art exhibits, and an incredible farm to table restaurant called Un Posto a Milano. On Tuesdays they put out an apertivo, and any other day you can purchase wine from an expertly curated list, and bar snacks such as fried sardines, meats and cheeses, and more. A glass of wine and a plate of sardines is six euro. If sardines aren’t your favorite, try them here, and they just might be!
Plan to stay for dinner, where you can enjoy an incredibly fresh, well-prepared meal in a beautiful space, with excellent service in Italian or English. The restaurant works directly with almost 100 different farmers, so the meals are simple and focus on embracing the quality of the individual products, rather than masking them or tampering with them too much. I had an appetizer of burrata cheese, oven-roasted tomatoes and eggplant puree. This was the best thing I ate during this particular trip to Italy. I also had octopus with a green sauce for my dinner.
Every aspect of Un Posto a Milano was an experience, from the service and the ambiance to each glass of wine and bite of food I had. Though it is a bit pricey for the budget traveler, spending anywhere from 25 to 50 euros for an unforgettable meal such as this one is still an excellent deal, and it’s very worth the extra splurge. I don’t think I can eat burrata from a grocery store anymore.
There are many things happening on this farmland (which has a rooftop, by the way), though not everything happens at the same time. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner (starting at 10am and finishing at 1am), and you can waste the day away here if you’d like. Check the websites to see exactly what is happening, when, so if any surprises are headed your way, they’re good ones.
The Milanese work quite hard but when the work is finished, it’s time to relax. Rushing through a meal is a cultural taboo, so it’s best to embrace the slow, laid back pace of the locals. If you’re looking for a cheap, leisurely lunch while exploring the Isola neighborhood of Milan, come to Nordest Caffé. The covered outdoor terrace and far-reaching wifi make it the perfect place to eat a relaxing lunch, or spend an afternoon working on your blog and drinking
cappuccino wine. Prices are really reasonable, and the service is friendly.
Get Lost in the Brera District
The oldest, and certainly the most beautiful section of Milan, Brera district is filled with small shops, tons of art and many restaurants frequented by locals at lunch and after work. You can spend an entire day here wandering Via Fiori Chiari and other tiny side streets, sipping coffee (or wine) at each of the many sidewalk cafes. It’s also right next to the Castelo Sforzesco and the Parco Sempione, the expansive park which makes up most of western Milan. If you want to spend the day in the park, hit a market or a grocery store and stock up on picnic supplies. Sit on that pashmina that I know you thought to pack for both picnics and covering your shoulders (as is required to enter any religious sites in Italy), and chill out for the day, chowing down on prosciutto, tuna-stuffed hot peppers, mozzarella, fried rice balls, and a nice bottle of Nero D’Avola.
If you’re feeling the city streets instead, be sure to see the Arco della Pace, and head to Le Rosse once you’re hungry. They take their cheese and salumi very seriously, and are a worthwhile visit to anyone who feels the same. Though slightly pricier than most, the quality makes it worth it. Afterwards, grab a craft cocktail at Dry or a drink (or brunch) at Redetzky Bar. On Monday and Thursday mornings, there is a street market on Via San Marco. Whatever you do, note that the popular and widely-recommended Pescheria Da Claudio has in fact closed permanently. Another interesting find is the restaurant listed below…
Japanese + Brazilian Fusion at Temakinho
What may be seen as a random and unexpected detail, is that residents of Milan are quite obsessed with pesce crudo, or raw fish. Because of an incredibly large Asian population in Milan, this can mean anything from sushi to ceviche, or in the case of Temakinho, both. Located in the heart of the Brera district, Temakinho blends the flavors of sushi and ceviche, Japanese and Brazilian cuisine into one, colorful meal. Stepping into the restaurant is like stepping into a jungle bungalow in a place where summer never ends. Ice cold cocktails come in the form of caipirinhas made with traditional cachaça or with sake, which is much less sweet, and in my opinion more enjoyable. My acai ‘sake-rinha’ was more delicious than I expected it to be, and if I wasn’t alone I definitely would have ordered a second. The restaurant specializes in salmon, but has a little of everything on the menu, served as sushi rolls, ceviche, tartare, and tamaki. My spicy shrimp roll was really good, as was my mixed ceviche, which had salmon, white fish, lobster, shrimp, and octopus. There is also a second location in Navigli.
It would be foolish to leave Milan without eating as much risotto milanese as humanly possible. Different regions of Italy take great pride in their local variations of risotto, and many would argue that Milan’s saffron and bone marrow risotto is the best. I’m inclined to agree. It’s often enjoyed as an appetizer or a late-night snack after a trip to the bar, but it’s also enough to make a meal of. I couldn’t imagine fitting any veal Milanese anywhere in my body after consuming a rich, cheesy risotto such as this one, especially considering I already filled my hollow leg with all those apertivo treats. There are a million and one places to find a good risotto in Milan, but many would agree that El Brellin on the main canal, and Trattoria Masuelli on Via Umbria do it best.
Quick Tip: If you’re heading to El Brellin, grab an apertivo before. Skip the overpriced veal cutlet and other menu options, and stick with the risotto, which is covered in a bone marrow sauce. They don’t list wines by the glass on the menu, but they are available if you ask your server. This will keep your bill around 22€, 14 for the risotto, 5 for the wine and 3 for the unavoidable cuperto charge for bread and service, though I should note they give you a complimentary glass of prosecco upon being seated, so it’s alright. Dine al fresco, and this makes for a very worthwhile and delicious meal.
TRATTORIA MASUELLI SAN MARCO
The Daily Gelato
Gelaterie remain open late into the night, making it the perfect after-drinks snack to grab on your way home. It’s easy to discern the good from the bad, so help yourself to anything near your hotel. Less than three euros for a gelato is a fair price. My favorites are pistachio and the signature Italian bacio, which is sometimes also called gianduia, a chocolate and hazelnut combination. If you’re truly seeking out the best, head to Gelato Giusto, near the farmhouse listed above.
And for the Cheapest Meals Possible…
Milan is a great place to save up for and splurge a little. Meals that would normally cost you fifty or sixty euros elsewhere only cost about thirty here. That being said, if you’re really looking to spend very little, choose a hostel or hotel that includes breakfast. From there, you can head to the Parco Sempione, or any smaller parks or piazzas for a grocery-store picnic lunch (bound to be delicious). You can also pick up a sandwich or piadina almost anywhere in the city for just a few bucks. Last but not least, all-you-can-eat apertivo for dinner is definitely the way to go. If you’ve got a hankering for a traditional meal, local and lesser-known trattorias will serve up pasta dishes for less than eight bucks. Now you can have more money for shoe shopping, or your next destination.
I hope you enjoyed this Milan city guide, the second of many guides headed your way in the coming weeks. My goal is to continue these projects as I travel in the future as well. Please let me know what you thought. Xo. Have you been to Milan already? Drop a comment if you’ve got another favorite worth a visit (or five)!