A drink lover’s guide to Milan

Milan's status as the birthplace of Campari makes the city a natural place to visit for the authentic aperitivo experience

Words by Kate Hawkings

Camparino bar in Milan
The bar Camparino in Galleria in central Milan

Milan is better known for fashion and finance than it is for food and drink. But, and it’s a big but, it is also the home of Campari, invented in 1860 and singlehandedly spearheading the aperitivo culture that has now evolved to make Milan a world class and truly trendy drinking destination.

Somberly handsome and imposing architecture gives Milan a decidedly Mittel Europe feel, more akin to Vienna than to Rome and certainly to sun-kissed Venice. Having said that, Milan, like Venice, was once linked together by a network of canals, built between the 12th and the 17th centuries to transport goods around the city.

The canals enabled the economic flourishing of swampy, landlocked Milan that grew to become the most important city in northern Italy but by the mid-20th century they were mostly drained as road and rail transport developed and the city modernised. Today, the remaining Grande and Pavese canals are the centre of the scenic Navigli district, full of buzzy cafes, bars and restaurants and not to be missed.

Duomo in Milan
The Duomo di Milano with the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade on the left, home to shops, bars and restaurants

Things to see and do in Milan

Obviously, shoppers are well catered for with flagship stores of all the major fashion and design brands (Milan Design Week is held in April) but there are plenty of other charms if shopping’s not your thing.

With over 600 churches, Milan spoils you for choice when it comes to ecclesiastical treasures; highlights are the Duomo (the largest cathedral in Italy after St Peter’s in the Vatican; take a tour or slip in quietly during a service), the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio and Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro with its remarkable trompe d’oeil apse painted in 1488 by Donato Bramante, a young architect credited with bringing the renaissance style to Milan and who went on to work with Leonardo da Vinci on various engineering projects in the city.

Teatro alla Scala
Teatro alla Scala is one of the world's most prestigious opera houses

Da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper is on view at its own museum, Cenacolo Vinciano (it gets booked up weeks in advance, so plan ahead) while the modest facade of Pinacoteca Ambrosiana hides his extraordinary collection of drawings, the Codex Atlanticus, as well as a vast collection of works by Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael and many more.

Milan has a brilliant integrated public transport system (don’t miss the vintage trams) but you’ll get a better feel for the city with a bone-rattling tour in a classic 1960s Fiat 500 with Vintage Tour Milano, whose English-speaking guides are a mine of information.

Galleria Campari is a mecca for Campari lovers. Housed in the original 1904 factory, it now displays wonderful archives and memorabilia. Needless to say, a night at Teatro alla Scala is unforgettable, whether you’re an opera fan or not.


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Where to eat and drink in Milan

Bar Basso, legendary birthplace of the Negroni Sbagliato, dates from the 1950s and seems barely to have changed since then. The current cocktail scene is dominated by Benjamin Cavagna and his Farmily group, whose five bars include MAG Cafe in Navigli, the almost mythically secret 1930, and its hi-tech HQ Tripstillery, serving brilliant coffee as well as the full range of their own impressive botanical spirits.

Cantine Isola, Milan
Cantine Isola has more than 2,000 different bottles and is a 'wine lover's paradise'

Look for the many hole-in-the-wall pizza places for on-the-hoof budget food – O Fiore Mio on Via Montebello serves great pizza slices alongside local beer and natural wine. At Pescetto, pick from the raw fish counter, choose how its cooked then eat in the buzzy restaurant alongside smart ladies-who-lunch and local workers.

Via Paolo Sarpi is the centre of Chinatown – try Ravioleria, where there’s always a queue, or more traditional Italian food at Al Vecchio Porco or Il Santo Bevitore nearby. The highlight of this area, however, is Cantine Isola, a tiny wine bar and shop established in 1896 and with over 2,000 impressive bottles on its shelves. Remarkably, the charming and knowledgeable staff will open any of them to serve just a glass; it’s a wine lover’s paradise.

Nombra de Vin
Seats on the pavement outside N'Ombra de Vin. The bar itself is in vaults dating back to the 1500s

On a grander scale and with more Milanese bling is N’Ombra de Vin in the 16th-century vaults of the San Marco Basilica. Its dreamy 2,500+ bin list contains some well-priced gems and it serves very decent food, while natural-wine fiends should head to Vinoir in Navigli, a low-key wine bar/shop with a lovely restaurant alongside.

Where to stay in Milan

Swanky (and expensive) hotels abound; for more affordable options try the chic Lafavia Milano or either of the Ostello Bello hotel/hostel hybrids. There are plenty of AirBnBs – don’t be afraid to head away from the centre to up-and-coming areas such as NoLo (North of Loreto), which have their own little communities of quirky bars and shops.

Sale Gaspare
Sala Gaspare is the new basement bar at Camparino, where cocktails inspired by historic recipes are served

The ultimate drinking destination in Milan

Camparino, on the corner of the gorgeous Galleria Emanuele and the Duomo piazza, is a must. On the site of Campari’s original bar and now beautifully restored to its early 20th century heyday, immaculate bartenders pour the classic Campari Seltz in generous measures, and the adjoining glass-fronted restaurant offers classic dishes such as risotto Milanese and veal cotelleto. The Sala Spiritello on the first floor has a more extensive menu of excellent cocktails, while the just-opened, drop-dead-gorgeous Sala Gaspare in the basement takes things to another level, currently only available for private groups with bookings, serving incredible drinks inspired by historic recipes.