A Locals Guide to Milan, including all the details of the Milan Memories Photo Tour that I’ve taken so many of my Milan portrait clients on in these past years. From Where to Visit in Milan, to Milan Tourist Hotspots (that are worth visiting), and of course Where to Eat in Milan.
Milan is no doubt a transitive city – it’s filled with life and love and a million different stories – but for many of us, it’s a place we know that we’ll only officially call home for a few years. Perhaps it’s for this reason I found myself photographing so many amazing couples and families around Milan’s historic centre, in what I eventually nicknamed my ‘Milan Memories Tour’. As part of it, I even put together my own Locals Guide to Milan that for years, I only shared with paying clients.
Whether you’re planning a trip to Milan or you’ve lived there for years, I’ve decided to share my Milan Memories tour with you today. It includes the main tour I’d take people on around Milan’s historic centre, as well as a few tips for where to visit if you’re just in Milan for a few days, through the lens of client portrait sessions taken over the years. Almost all of these photos were taken during early mornings spent traipsing around the city, marvelling at its gothic architecture and beautiful sunrise light.
I hope this encourages you to explore further than just the usual tourist hotspots! And hey – even though I don’t live in Milan anymore, it will always be home, and I’ll always be back there! So, if you’d like your own Milan Portraits or Milan Memories Tour*, then get in touch! I’d love to show you around the city I love.
True story – I found myself living in Milan by accident. The world’s City of Fashion never particularly interested me. I wanted to be by the sea in Cinque Terre or the Amalfi Coast, to explore the historic streets of Rome or the laneways of Florence filled with art & culture. And yet, it was Milan that stole my heart. This city is grimier than Italy’s other famous places, but it has a certain something. Grit, tenacity, and a sense of determination. People come here to make something for themselves – to chase a dream, to build a business, to make a better life.
If you want to live Milan like a local, then don’t discount it as just the city of the Duomo, of fashion houses, of design. Instead, take a moment to live it and breathe it. Get lost on the streets of Porta Venezia & Nolo, explore Isola, wander into artisan-run stores in Navigli & Tortona. And of course, don’t not visit the tourist hotspots just because they’re touristic…
Milan’s Duomo, or Cathedral, is incredibly beautiful. I still can’t get enough of it and I spent over 5 years in Milano! It’s also well worth climbing to the top of the Duomo for a spectacular view over the city, and of the marble gargoyles.
When to go: first thing in the morning or in the evening to avoid the heat (and in the morning to avoid the crowds).
Tickets: You can book online or there’s a ticket office on the right side of the Duomo. The queue might look scary but it usually moves fast!
Tips: If you want to go inside the church (tickets are needed), make sure to cover your shoulders.
This is a world-famous luxury shopping gallery – home to Gucci, Prada, Marchesi, and more – and it’s also incredibly beautiful. As you walk through, you’ll see the glass dome and beneath that, four city crests built into the mosaic floor. Keep an eye out for the bull, as well! It’s said if you spin on his balls (yes, you read that right) 3 times with your right heel, you’ll have good luck for life! They actually have to redo this part of the mosaic every few years because it wears down so quickly.
If you want to stop for a drink, I’d recommend heading to Camparino and trying a signature Negroni. This old-school Milanese bar has service like no other (just know the drinks here tend to be quite strong!) and is rich in Italian charm.
Locals Guide to Milan Tip: If you’re feeling peckish, take a detour and head to Luinis! Order a ‘panzerotto fritto’ with ham & cheese or tomato & cheese. They’re kind of like a savoury doughnut and they are epic.
The Piazza della Scala is named so because it’s the square in front of the Teatro alla Scala, aka Milan’s opera house! It’s an incredibly famous building, although it’s not much to look at from the outside.
The Piazza della Scala used to be a roundabout, where carriages would arrive before shows long ago. Now, it’s home to a monument of Leonardo da Vinci, surrounded by his four proteges, and some greenery that can make for a nice moment to sit and pause.
When you’re ready to keep going, cross the intersection to via Giuseppe Verde and keep following it until you find yourself in the historic Brera district, filled with artist studios and typical cobblestone laneways.
Brera is an historic art district and is still home to plenty of famous art and design. The Palazzo di Brera is a landmark of the area and is incredibly beautiful. It used to be a Jesuit College, but is now home to an Academy of Art, an Art Gallery (Pinacoteca di Brera) that I’ve visited 5 times and would visit again, the Braidense National Library, one of Italy’s largest libraries, and the Orto Botanico di Brera, a botanic garden used to grow medicinal herbs and flowers since 1774.
If you’re interested in art, it’s worth spending a couple of hours exploring the Pinacoteca di Brera. And if you’re lucky, and the Orto Botanico is open, go for a stroll! It’s usually open on weekdays and is free of charge. Brera’s Botanic Garden is actually an incredibly well-kept secret. More than once I’ve taken friends who live in Milan there only to find they had no idea it existed!
From here, walk through the laneways of Brera and take it all in! Just avoid the restaurants – they look touristic because they are.
My preferred route is along via Fiori Chiari, before I turn left down via Marco Formentini. I follow that around, enjoying the view, and then turn left onto via Madonnina which leads to the beautiful Piazza del Carmine.
If you’re feeling hungry, stop here to eat something at God Save the Food. Here, they have brunch and cocktails. It’s not classic Italian, but it is always good. Most of the restaurants along via Ponte Vetero/via Mercato are also decent quality if you’re not sure about GSTF.
Otherwise, just take a second to take in the beautiful piazza, inhabited by the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine, a beautiful Baroque church.
It’s time to head to the last stop of the tour, the Sforza Castle. Walk along via Ponte Vetero, and take a right on via Cusani. Here you’ll arrive at Largo Cairoli, a large roundabout with a monument to Garibaldi, one of Italy’s founding fathers. From here, it’s pretty hard to miss the castle!! Head over and take some time to walk through.
On the other side, you’ll find Parco Sempione, a large park in the centre of Milan that’s great for a picnic, to chill out, or just to enjoy some greenery in the city.
And that’s it – my Milan Memories Tour! If you follow my Milan Memories Tour on your own, I’d love to see your shots! Just tag me on social media, @rhiannamay_.
We’re not done with Milan yet though – there’s still so much more to explore…
It’s always worth heading to the Navigli (Alzaia Naviglio Grande and the Darsena), for a walk along the canals. Milan used to be filled with artificial canals, designed by Leonardo da Vinci to transport the marble that was used to build the Duomo. These are the only ones left (apart from the Martesana in the north of the city, which is the loveliest place for a long lazy walk).
The Navigli area is usually filled with nightlife, as well as small boutiques and quirky stores. You can walk there from the Duomo by going up via Torino, then take a left on Corso di Porta Ticinese. Enjoy taking in the beautiful Columns of San Lorenzo, and keep following the same road. Eventually, you’ll arrive at the Piazza Ventiquattro Maggio. Here, turn right and you’ll run into the canals!!
If you like art, the Fondaziona Prada is a really interesting little spot away from the usual hubbub of Milan. It’s a little out of the way, but the exhibitions are always fantastic or quirky or just straight-up weird, and the architecture is totally different from what you usually see in Milan. Just book tickets in advance because it can fill up depending on the time of year and exhibition schedule.
And don’t forget to visit Bar Luce while you’re there! Designed by Wes Anderson, this little bar is a treat for the senses with its quirky interior design. And of course, it’s a great spot for a coffee and a snack.
Porta Venezia, for me, will always be home. It’s a beautiful area of Milan that hosts a wonderful mix of design, old-school Milanese style, and young bars. It’s also home to Milan’s LGBTQ* area (via Lecco, specifically) and quite international. Plus, it’s really well connected with the metro, suburban train lines, and the 9 tram that goes to Porta Romana, Bocconi, and the Navigli. Places I love in this area include Orsonero (quite literally my favourite coffee shop in the whole wide world), Tone (delicious pastries if you’re tired of the usual croissants), and Pesa Pubblica (aperitivo, anyone?).
*It’s important to note I’m not an official tour guide and this is not an official tour. Being a tour guide is a protected job in Italy and you need to study extensively to qualify.
Orsonero is my absolute favourite coffee spot in Milan, and actually, in the world! They have two different locations, in Porta Venezia and Risorgimento. They also have great croissants, biscuits, and sometimes, little cakes and Portuguese tarts. When I lived full-time in Milan, you’d find me at their original Porta Venezia location nearly every morning for my daily coffee and morning stroll around the neighbourhood.
Tone is a relatively new bakery, or ‘Bread Lab’ in my old neighbourhood and it’s delicious. They have great pastries for breakfast, a snack or focaccia in the evenings, all inspired by traditional baking techniques around the world. Just double-check opening hours before you go! It’s especially worth hitting up if you’re tired of the classic Italian croissant (don’t worry, we’ve all been there).
Fola is another spot that’s different to the classic Italian bakeries in the area. When friends and I wanted something a little fresher, aka not a big old bowl of pasta, we’d head to Fola. They have a range of lunch options and the most delightful cakes. Locals Guide to Milan Tip: It’s also one of the few spots in Milan I’ve found that has kombucha!
Tipografia Alimentare is a little off the beaten track, but they have a great selection of pastries, make a decent cup of coffee, and in the evenings, do excellent cocktails and aperitivo! They’ve also got a great selection of natural wines if that takes your fancy.
I haven’t been to Cafezal in quite some time, but I believe they make a great cup of coffee closer to the centre, so it’s worth a mention!
If you’re a fan of super sweet breakfasts, Gelsomina makes epic Roman sweets like Maritozzo. Honestly, it’s worth a visit just for the novelty factor of having a pastry filled to the brim with delicious, sweet fillings.
Pave makes some of my favourite pastries (treccia al caffé, anyone?). It’s more expensive than most Milanese bars, but it’s worth it! Their gelateria is also epic – a friend and I use to walk for hours on our regular, unofficial ‘gelato tours’ so that we could try their new quirky flavours.
Piz is genuinely one of my favourite places to take friends who visit Milan just for a few nights. It’s a great pizzeria right in the centre at a very reasonable price. You can’t book a table, but the wait for a table here always moves fast (and it’s absolutely worth it). I have also been known to tell them it’s a friend’s birthday (it almost never is) just for the fun of it 😉
Le Striatelle is a lovely little restaurant in the Navigli area, that makes a kind of flatbread sandwich. My friend Ilona and I discovered it by accident because it was right under her first Milanese apartment, and I’m so glad we did. It’s one of my go-to spots! Not only is their food delicious, it’s also very reasonably priced.
If you love seafood and pasta, make your way to I Pupari in Nolo. The service is always so friendly, and the food is outrageously good. I don’t have a favourite plate to recommend because I’m always trying something new, and it never disappoints.
If it’s pasta you want, then MiScusi is the place to go! They have a number of locations around Milan so just pick the closest one to you and enjoy. Fun fact: MiScusi opened their first location the same night I officially started to call Milan home!
Last but most definitely not least, Osteria dal Verme is where you can go for classic Milanese food, like risotto and cottolette. It’s the other place where I always bring friends who are visiting just for a few days. The service is always wonderful, and the food is transformative. Plus, the Isola area is a really interesting part of Milan, so it’s worth going for a walk here!
I’d recommend ordering the bruschetta with mozzarella di bufala and acciughe, and the ossobuco with risotto alla milanese, and of course, a bottle of red. Just be ready to roll out of there when you’re done.
I know I don’t have any photos from my recommended restaurants. It’s because it’s all too good to wait 😉
Milan is the city of aperitivo! It’s a lazy cocktail before dinner, with snacks like cold cuts, cheeses, chips, olives and more, and it’s one of my favourite things.
Mag makes some of the best cocktails and it’s right along the Navigli. Get in early or call ahead.
I mentioned this already under the breakfast list!
If you’re a fan of Campari, or even if you’re not, head to Camparino for a drink in a typical Milanese bar. Yes, this is the same as the one I mentioned in my Milan tour!
Bar Basso is famous for inventing the Negroni Sbagliato (a negroni made with prosecco instead of gin) and is popular with the fashion and design crowds, as well as Milanese locals. It’s worth the visit just for that old-school Milanese feeling, as well as the old waiters who’ve worked there for years.
If you’re more into craft beers and grungy breweries, Birrificio Lambrate is a Milanese classic. It’s a little off the beaten track, and you’ll be surrounded by a different crowd, but it’s perfect for a relaxed beer after dinner.
Pesa Pubblica makes some seriously delicious cocktails in the Porta Venezia area, even later into the night. It’s also a great spot for people-watching and spending time around locals. If you want to keep going after you’ve visited Pesa Pubblica, walk over to via Lecco and the surrounding streets for more cocktails and an always lively atmosphere!
And that’s it! The end of my Locals Guide to Milan, featuring my Milan Memories Tour and the places I most love to visit whenever I’m back in Milan, from the Best Coffee in Milan to the Best Cocktails, and the perfect spots for a real Milan experience.
Did you love this post? Or perhaps you have some questions that I didn’t answer here about where to visit or what to do? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll get back to you! And don’t forget to tag me in your photos, @rhiannamay_, as you explore Milan! I’d love to see where you end up <3