Ask a local: what should I do, see, and eat in Milano, Italy?

by gigigriffis

Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.


Today I’m happy to introduce you to Andrea Vid, an IT engineer, hiker, and local, and Alessio Re, entrepreneur, ski enthusiast, and world traveler here to tell us all about Milano – the second most populous city in Italy, known for its devotion to fashion, design, and hard work.

First, tell us about you.

Andrea: I was born in Milano and practically always lived here (save for the summer months, when I travel). I work as an IT engineer and am constantly inside an office from Monday to Friday, so I prefer spending my free time outside. I enjoy tennis, hiking, and traveling.

Alessio: I originally come from a small city in the Italian Alps. From there, I moved to study and work in Milan; I’ve now been living here for over 13 years. Most of my free time is spent traveling, skiing, and drinking beer.

If someone is visiting Milano for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?

Andrea: The historical center has a beautiful cathedral (the Duomo di Milano) and a full-fledged castle (Castello Sforzesco). If you come in the summertime, you should take part in a guided tour of Castello Sforzesco, as you’ll be able to appreciate it better (for example, there’s a huge maze of dungeons underneath, which provided an exit for escaping into the countryside; on a tour, you’ll hear all about this history).

During the evening, the areas of Navigli and Brera are picturesque and welcoming (cars are forbidden to enter them). Especially Navigli, since it’s the district with the channels that, until the past century, made it possible for Milano to be one of the biggest commercial ports in Italy (despite the city being far from the sea).

Last but not least, the opera house (La Scala) is world-renowned and, yet, tickets to an opera or ballet are usually easy to find, even on the same day of the show (especially on a rainy/snowy day).

Alessio: I maintain that Milan’s a great place to live, but not as good for a visitor, due to the damage that occurred during WWII (over half of the city was annihilated) and the badly planned reconstruction that followed. Even so, there’s plenty to see…but it takes a bigger effort than it would take in other European cities.

In general, I recommend that the average visitor check out the area between Duomo Square and the Castello Sforzesco, the Brera district (the only one in town with narrow streets), the Sant’Ambrogio area, and the canals district, Navigli (best suited for the first part of the night). On top of that, I’d add the new Porta Nuova/Garibaldi area, which has some of the finest modern architecture in Italy.

Two hidden, lesser-known gems are the Monumental Cemetery and the impressive Ossuary of San Bernardino.

What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?

Andrea: It depends on the purpose of your stay. Brera and Navigli can be quite welcoming for the aforementioned reasons. If you’re looking for nightlife, Isola and Garibaldi become really lively after sunset. If you plan on doing day trips out of Milano, then your best bet would be to stay close to the central station.

In general, I would stay close to a metro station; the metro system is quite efficient and can take you to any district in a matter of minutes.

Alessio: I’m a bit biased here, as I prefer the northern part of the city by far. I’d recommend staying in the area between the Moscova and Garibaldi subway stations.

Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?

Andrea: Milano is strategically located between the Alps and the seaside, so there are countless possibilities when it comes to day trips. In less than an hour, you can reach many lakes; the Alps and Switzerland are one hour away; and it takes around 90 minutes (by train) to reach the seaside.

If I were to suggest just two places, they would be Bellinzona in Switzerland and Genoa, a port town here in Italy.

If you’re looking for an even shorter trip, a half-hour train ride can take you to Vigevano (where the dukes of Milano used to live) and Certosa di Pavia (where the dukes of Milano are buried).

Alessio: The lakes (Como and Maggiore) and the Alps shouldn’t ever be missed, especially during summer and winter. I’d heartily recommend a day trip to Bergamo as well.

Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?

Andrea: Risotto alla Milanese (saffron rice) and cotoletta alla Milanese (a variant of the wiener schnitzel) are the two most famous dishes. If you aren’t faint of heart, try ordering cassoeula (a dish with plenty of cabbage and pieces of the less noble parts of pig, like the head, the feet, and the skin).

Alessio: Milan’s traditional food is pretty hearty, rich in meat and butter and, thus, it is best during the cold months. I adore ris giald (yellow rice), cassöla (a heavy stew with pork meat and cabbage), and Milan-style osbüs (veal shank).

What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?

Andrea: Tempio d’Oro (located on Via Delle Leghe, near MM1 Pasteur) offers a very tasty aperitivo that includes lots of vegetarian dishes. Sabbioneta (located on Via Tadino, near MM1 Lima) has tasty cuisine from Cremona and makes you feel at home. Go there on your name day and you’ll get a free glass of wine. The only catch: they suffer from amnesia and may forget what you ordered.

For pizza, try Di Gennaro, at Via S. Radegonda 14 near the Duomo.

For gelato: Bottega del Gelato (on Via Pergolesi, MM2 Loreto).

Alessio: Bars: Frida (at Via Pollaiuolo 3 in Isola), Chiesetta (at Via Paolo Lomazzo 12 in Moscova), and Atomic (on Via Felice Casati).

Restaurants: Da Luigi (at Via Savona 20 in San Agostino), Osteria dei Vecchi Sapori (at Via Carmagnola 3 in Isola), and Da Cecco (at Via Solferino 34 in Brera).

I’ll add a mention for Circolo Magnolia (circolomagnolia.it), possibly the best place for concerts in town.

Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?

Andrea: Ordering a cappuccino after noon is considered a crime. That said, we’ll frown, but we’ll also forgive you if you do it (as long as you don’t order a pizza together with a cappuccino, in which case we’ll secretly think you deserve to go to our city jail).

Alessio: Strange: ordering cappuccino after lunch (which I also do, by the way).

What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?

Andrea: Social networks work quite well in Milano, so you’ll find plenty of events and opportunities to socialize on sites like Couchsurfing.org, Internations, and Meetup.com.

Alessio: I’d definitely say using Couchsurfing.org, hitting expat bars (mostly Irish pubs) during aperitivo time, and attending summer open-air concerts in smaller venues if you’re into rock/alternative music. Milan’s not a super easy city to make acquaintances.

Why should people make sure to visit Milano?

Andrea: Because its cathedral and castle are extraordinary and because it’s a good base for exploring northern Italy.

Alessio: To get the feel of a different, less-touristic, and not traditional Italy. At the same time, that is not what most tourists are after, so their mindset should be more about checking out a nice European city as opposed to something distinctly Italian, whatever that means.

What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?

Andrea: Mt. Stella, an artificial hill that was built with waste from WWII. You can easily get there by catching a metro to QT8 (on the red line). During the day you’ll find many hikers and joggers; however, beware of the evenings…it transforms into a sort of “red light district” after sunset.

Alessio: The Monumental Cemetery and the Monte Stella park, the only hill in town.

Anything else you want us to know?

Andrea: Most tourists spend, at most, two nights in Milan. However, there are so many things to see in and around the city that you might consider staying one week, one month, or even a lifetime here…and you won’t be easily bored!

Alessio: Milan and Lombardy have long been called the engine of Italy, and that reflects a lot on the way people think here. Work is not something that ends after the office hours; most of the social occasions are also a chance for networking and it’s not taboo to talk about the subject when you’re chilling out with a beer. No dolce vita here (though the restaurant scene and nightlife are quite brilliant). Whether that’s a positive or negative thing is up to you.

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