Over the last decade, I’ve lived in Milan during two very different periods of the city. 10 years ago in the early 2000s, Milan was a very different place – one not nearly as alive as it is today. The food scene was simpler, full of boring and classic restaurants that didn’t serve much other than cotoletta (a breaded veal cutlet that is a classic Milanese dish). But when I returned from NYC in 2013, I found a city that had completely changed and was now home to young chefs opening little restaurants and a thriving food scene. Today, there is a beautiful contrast between the new part of Milan that is heavily focused on experimentation - the contemporary Italian 'foodie' scene, and the classic side of the city that has stayed the same for the last 30 years.
Unlike the outward magnificence of Rome, Milan is a hidden city. You have to enjoy the little frames of the town in order to fully appreciate it. This means getting into the courtyards, finding Milan's little corners, her small squares and hidden gardens. It’s often a difficult city for tourists - if you're in a rush you only see the main squares and you'll miss the soul of the city. But, if you visit the places on this list, you'll discover the magic of Milan.
Exploring The City
Although the most famous section of Milan is the Quadrilatero della Moda, the fashion capital’s fashion district, the real Milan is in the neighborhood of Brera. These days it’s an incredibly cool place to walk around, even if 20 years ago it wasn’t quite like this. Back then it still wasn’t so clean or safe, but since then, it’s slowly recuperated and is now home to the little trattorias and small independent shops that make Italian cities so special.
Also near the Duomo di Milano is Cinque Vie (5 streets), a neighborhood near Piazza San Carlo Borromeo. Here you won’t find some of Milan’s larger buildings, but instead small ones crammed into tiny streets, each one more beautiful than the last, with fantastic courtyards. It’s a reminder of an older Milan and a time when the city was run by wealthy families trying to outdo each other. If you love history and old architecture, you can still breathe the spirit of the 1500s in this district.
Another area I really like in Milan is Chinatown, mostly because it’s a very different take on the typical Chinatowns I’ve seen in other parts of the world. Milan's Chinatown is melded with the Italian population of the area, with everybody living together, mixing shops and cultures. The neighborhood is almost 100% pedestrian. When you walk around here, you feel like you're in a neighborhood from a different time. You'll find old Italian shops mixed with new Chinese shops, and no chain stores, only independently owned ones that you won't find anywhere else. It's conveniently located just 5 minutes from Brera, so it's absolutely worth a visit.
The newest and “coolest” part of Milan is the Porta Nuova, a district worth seeing, but that I’m not fully in love with. 10 years ago Milan didn’t have skyscrapers or tall buildings. Now, the whole city has been developed for the Milan Expo, giving life to an area that was basically dead. It doesn’t feel completely like you’re in Milan, but it’s a great chance to get an international feel for the city and take a peek at the city’s new skyline.
And if you're in your 20s, Navigli is the district for you. It’s full of little bars and small places to go have cheap bites and drinks. In the summer it’s particularly fantastic, as the whole area closes to cars and people spend their nights jumping from bar to bar. It’s not a district to find an amazing wine bar or great restaurant, but it's a great place to have brunch or watch the sunset on the canal.
My favorite breakfast spot in all of Milan is Cucchi, one of the oldest pasticcerias in the city. It’s located in Porta Genova in a little square with a bunch of tables outside. At one point, this place was the home away from home for many philosophers, writers, and journalists, and it’s continued to be a perfect place to meet creative people of all kinds. You can go sit in the square, savor a long breakfast, and enjoy not just the fantastic corneto, but the chance to see and understand the vibe of what’s happening in the city.
This is the most beautiful restaurant in the city. It’s an elegant, old trattoria that serves traditional food and makes you feel like you’re sitting in a restaurant straight out of the middle ages. Here, you’ll also find the best fish in town whipped up by Giacomo himself, who continues to cook with the same passion even in his 80s.
Right in the fashion district, this restaurant serves some of the best-cured meats in the city. It sits right on the courtyard of one of the most beautiful ancient buildings of Milan, a courtyard that makes you feel like you’re jumping back to the 1600s. It’s a peculiar place, but a great spot for a super-flavorful lunch.
When you think of Milan, the dish that immediately comes to mind is cotoletta a orecchio di elefante. It's a piece of veal that has been very thinly pressed to resemble an elephant ear that is then deep-fried. Milan is home to the best cotoletta in all of Italy, and this trattoria has the best cotoletta in Milan. It’s a very old trattoria that's been around for 100 years, where many famous poets, writers, and singers used to eat. This is a place you come to for the meats, pastas, and risotto.
This is the place for all of the old Italian VIPs, a restaurant in a lovely building in Porto Venezia. This is a restaurant to eat true Italian food, contemporary dishes not only from Lombardy but from all over the country. It’s a great place for a romantic or intimate dinner, where you can eat in a cozy setting in front of the fireplace.
Ratana looks like a restaurant plucked straight out of TriBeca; it was also one of the first restaurants in Milan where you could eat at the bar. The chef has a deep knowledge of the local ingredients and products he uses, and is constantly changing the menu with the seasons. This is a place where in December you won't find dishes that you ate in November. The focus here is on contemporary Italian based almost exclusively on dishes from Lombardy. It's really a place for people who love food and love to be exposed to cooking from a chef who uses hyper local ingredients.
While this is a fantastic option for lunch or dinner, I prefer it for dinner, during which the atmosphere is much more alive and interesting. At lunchtime, you'll find men in jackets with laptops meeting for business lunches from the nearby offices.
If your Italian vacation isn’t leading you all the way down south, this is the place to visit in Milan for the best Sicilian food outside of Sicily. Every dish is amazing. This is the kind of restaurant where you'll always find other Michelin-starred chefs dining alongside you. Chef Filippo is really loved by older Italian chefs. The space is a a bit fancy, formal, and can feel cold, but it’s a great place to go for a business dinner or a meal with a big group, and is excellent for people watching. The quality of the food here is just incredible and nothing short of amazing.
This rooftop spot is on the top of La Triennale di Milano, a great place to wind down after a day of checking out the museum. The architecture of the restaurant is pretty amazing, with entirely windowed walls that make both lunch and dinner beautiful experiences. You’re eating while looking out on Sempione Park with a view of the Duomo and Sforzesco Castle on one side and the new skyline on the other, making for one of the most unique locations in the world. The menu is a little bit small, but the pasta and the meat there are both worth the visit to what is probably the coolest location in town. Milan was always missing a place like this, so make sure to make a reservation far in advance and enjoy.
This is one of the few places open seven days a week in Milan. It's a restaurant that puts together some really quality dishes from very simple recipes. There are a ton of gluten free options to pick from while you sit out on a lovely patio with some nice wine.
The restaurant is very informal, with a retro-feeling atmosphere from the 70s. It’s a great place to go for breakfast and then sit for hours reading or working on a laptop.
This restaurant, a 20 minute taxi ride from the center of Milano, serves the best Milanese food. It's elegant, classic, and full of history and soul. Even if you have just 2 days in Milan, if you are a real food lover, it's worth it to make the effort to come here.
Trattoria Arlati has been owned by the same family for 150 years and makes the kind of rich, heavy Italian food that everyone but vegetarians can love. Arlati is a cozy, wintery place where you’ll find the best risotto in town to go with some really incredible meats. For any chef from New York, this is the place to go to see classic Milanese food done really well. A great place for an important business dinner, a big date, or an important celebration with friends. I
Milan is not a city for brunch, but if you're looking for one really great place, make sure to check out Al Fresco. The space is divided into different rooms and has a great outdoor garden that makes you feel like you’re eating out in the countryside. It’s Italian food, but they have tapas, small plates, and lots of fresh vegetables to make for a really interesting meal.
For fish lovers, this tiny little place is a great spot for a small lunch or an easy early dinner with a friend. It’s a bit shabby, with some simple food and furniture, but the quality of the fish is incredible. The owners are fishermen from Naples that bring fish straight from the port to put together varied, interesting plates.
This is another spot for someone looking to eat some great fish. The space is beautiful, and it’s an amazing place to go with a big group of friends, sit for a long time and watch people go in and out. The raw fish is unbelievable, and the restaurant as a whole specializes in lobster.
Milan, more than anywhere else in Italy, is the capital of the aperitivo. At the end of the work day, the Milanese all gather at their favorite spot for a drink and an hour of snacking on a small selection of pizza, olives, breads, and some nuts. For one of the city’s best, head to this wine bar near the San Marco church for an incredible glass and a truly relaxing hour. If you’re a wine lover, make sure to ask to see the cellar, where you can get a little tour and check out the massive barrels where the restaurant stores the wine.
This is another fantastic place for a wine lover. It’s not quite as fancy as N’Ombra, but it has a wine collection that is really unique in this city. It's more of an 'insider' place - if you're a real wine and champagne lover, this is where you come.
Cantine Isola has been owned by the same family since forever, and what makes this place unique is that they'll open any bottle you want from the list, even if you only wish to buy a single glass. Sometimes I'm in the mood for a great glass of champagne and I'm by myself. It's actually a great marketing thing they do because every time I go there, I never buy just one glass. I always end up chatting with someone else in the bar, sharing recommendations, and finding more there that I want to drink. Many people love Cantine Isola for this reason.
Dry has the best pizza and cocktails in town. You’re right in the heart of Brera when you’re here, enjoying the beautiful scenery of the old city and the unbeatable combination of amazing drinks and pizza. Before you come here, be sure to have a little walk down Via San Marco and Via Solferino.
Meri Mura is the owner of Followmu.com, a blog about food, foodie insights & food trends. She is also the cofounder of SanShin sas, a digital strategy agency. She currently splits her time between Milan and London.
Photo Credits: Pasticceria Cucchi, Giacomo Ristorante, Four Seasons Milano, 12Hrs, SauceMilan, Vanderlust, Langosteria 10, Caterina Zanzi, Club Milano, InvoltiniDiPeperone, Wonderful Milan Blog, Four Magazine, Roda Online, Swide, The Chic Fish, Mary Goes Around Blog