Milan isn’t known for its quiet and picturesque neighborhoods – you know, the kind that seem ideal for just ambling along aimlessly, preferably with a gelato in hand, strolling from from shop window to shop window and sighing constantly. This high-powered city (not to mention the people who live there) always seems to be on the go, and many times I’ve found myself moving at strolling speed I feel like I end up getting in the way of the people behind me. Having said that, there are a couple of areas of Milan that are perfect for aimless wandering, though you aren’t likely to have them to yourself. This is, after all, a busy city – and the busy people will probably be bustling right by you.
The Brera district is perhaps my favorite area of Milan for strolling, and it’s conveniently just north of the area around the Duomo (where most tourists congregate anyway). The pretty streets are often narrow and lined with nice apartment buildings that have boutiques and shops on the ground floor. This is a relatively expensive area of the city to live in, so be sure you spend some time looking up at the buildings – the people who live in them have often taken great care to decorate their balconies with overflowing flower pots, and you can even sometimes get a peek into the apartments if the shutters are open and the light is right.
There are several churches in the Brera district, many of which have a similar architectural style on the outside and are free to enter if you’re looking for a break from either hot sun or chilly rain. A few of the streets in particular are also lined with charming cafes and restaurants, many of which are perfectly placed for people-watching as you sip your caffe or wine.
The Brera is also where you’ll find the Pinacoteca Brera, arguably Milan’s best art museum, and just outside the Brera is the Castello Sforzesco (with its many museums), the Museo del Risorgimento and the Museo d’Arte e Scienza.
Though it’s not technically considered part of the Brera, the main high-end shopping streets are within easy walking distance of the Brera and are good for the kind of window-shopping you can do best in Milan. This area is known as the Quadrilatero d’Oro, or “Gold Quarter,” and you’ll find all the big names in fashion have stores here. Even if you can’t afford to do anything but look, the shop windows are fantastic and the people-watching is great, too. These streets are especially fun to wander just before Christmas, when lights hang overhead and everyone is laden with armloads of fancy shopping bags.
The Navigli neighborhood, located to the southwest of Duomo square, is one of those up-and-coming neighborhoods where you’re just as likely to find construction/reconstruction going on as you are to find interesting shops or restaurants. There are two canals running through the Navigli district, the smaller of which is based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci, and during the summer you can go on boat tours of the canals. In the off-season, however, don’t be surprised to see parts of the canals drained for cleaning and/or maintenance.
This is an artsy neighborhood, and if you’re on the lookout you can find art studios and little galleries on side streets. There are also lots of cafes and restaurants, great for a midday break while you’re wandering, but the Navigli really comes to life at night. It’s one of the areas of the city that’s particularly known for its nightlife, so if your daytime visit leaves you wondering why it’s so quiet, come back after dark for another look at the Navigli.