Four things to see and do in modern Milan (if you’ve been there and done that)

As someone who spent four years living and working in Milan, I don’t usually expect the city to surprise me upon return visits. I spend time with friends, return to my favorite places, and walk the streets that have so many memories. On a recent trip, however, I was blown away by the city’s recent facelift. Milan feels more modern, more cosmopolitan, more vibrant, and cleaner. If you’ve already visited the city’s iconic main sights, here are four things to see and do in modern Milan that are new and different.

Quartiere Isola / Porta Nuova

This area is in the city center, near the Garibaldi train station, and although it has a long history, the last few years have seen the construction of shiny new skyscrapers, green space, pedestrian walkways, fountains, and the famous Bosco Verticale, also known as the “treehouse” buildings (photo top right). If you haven’t been to Milan in a few years, make this the first stop on your “four things to see and do in modern Milan” tour.

A quick DIY walking tour: I took the Metro to Repubblica and instead of walking along the trafficked Via Della Liberazione, I headed along the pedestrian path behind the first set of shiny buildings (Torre Diamante & Samsung Italia). I walked through the Piazza Alvar Alto and over the pedestrian bridge (photo, lower right) towards Piazza Gae Aulenti — a great spot for people-watching and admiring modern architecture. There are shops, a movie theatre, cafes, friends meeting each other, a huge fountain, and lots of business people on cell phones.

Where to eat nearby: Corso Como is a great pedestrian area just a 15 minute walk to the south, and is home to 10 Corso Como – a wonderful shop, gallery, and cafe. Corso Como has been a hot spot for decades, and continues to be a worthwhile stop. In the opposite direction, the Isola neighborhood has become home to lots of new and trendy restaurants.

The Prada Foundation

A shiny new space dedicated to contemporary art, the Prada Foundation also has gorgeous modern architecture and a great cafe called Bar Luce. (Luce in Italian means light, as in sunlight, not as in the opposite of heavy). The cafe was designed by film director Wes Anderson, and recreates the atmosphere of a typical Milanese cafe. The gallery space houses both permanent and temporary exhibits, and on weekends, families can register for dedicated activities for children – advance booking required.

Getting there: the Prada Foundation is on the outskirts of the city center but it’s not far. We took a tram from Central Station to get there and then it was another 10 minutes on foot. By Metro, get off at Lodi, or take the train to the Porta Romana station.

Milan’s New Harbor in the Navigli District

The Navigli or Canals neighborhood in Milan has long been a trendy destination for its restaurants and bars, but the area has been renewed. The canals themselves are centuries old and were originally an extensive network designed to transport goods, including the marble used to build the city’s famous cathedral. Over the years, however, all but a few canals were covered over, and the harbor that completed the circle of canals was left to dry up.

But recently, the harbor was recreated: the harbor area was once again filled with water and now includes new music venues, cafes, restaurants, markets, and of course boat docks. The photo on the left is what the area looked like in 1964, and I took the photo on the right in 2015. In between, there were years when the area was covered in dirt.

The Navigli neighborhood remains a great spot for a pre-dinner aperitivo, which is exactly what we did (bottom photo) after visiting the new harbor.

Milan’s Highline Galleria

There’s a new walkway that was built on the rooftops next to the Duomo. Entrance tickets are only 7 euros, so Claudia and I decided to go up and explore. An elevator took us most of the way, and then we had to walk up about 20 steps through a narrow stairwell before we reached the walkway.

To be honest, I’m not sure I would recommend this attraction.

Its tagline is “il salotto con il cielo di cristallo” which translates as the living room with the crystal sky. I suppose the crystal part would be the famous glass roof of the Galleria, which is the main attraction and can be seen in the photo on the left. There isn’t anything livingroom-like up there: there’s nowhere to sit down or hang out. Getting from one end to the other of the metal walkway takes under 5 minutes, and then you turn around and exit the way you came in. Although there’s a little bit of a view, there are also a lot of rusty and dirty city roofs. There’s a view over Piazza Duomo (photo bottom right), but the views from the top of the Cathedral are much better.

It has potential, though. There are a few signs with historical information written on them, and a space where one could put tables and chairs to have a drink, in theory. If the stark metal walkway were covered in flowers or vines it would look great. But for now, I’d recommend that anyone who wants to have a drink while enjoying a view of Milan’s Cathedral head to the Terrazza Aperol nearby.

Those are my recommendations for four things to see and do in modern Milan, for those of you who have been there and done that. This facelift was done to prepare for the Expo that was held from May to October, 2015 but its benefits are much longer term. I love how the city’s new and modern architecture complements and even enhances its important historical past.

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