The Navigli district is one of the top ten attractions of Milan:
The Navigli District is said to be one of the most romantic neighbourhoods of Milan. Located south-west of the historic centre, this lively area is known now for its plethora of funky cafés, restaurants, night clubs, galleries, art shops and markets. Yet, this picturesque Milan attraction had somehow managed to escape my attention, until recently.
Once a city of canals
The Navigli District takes its name from the network of canals (navigli) that once provided transport and irrigation for the Lombardy region. I’ve never thought of Milan as a city of canals and was surprised to learn that there used to be 150 km of navigable and interconnected canals around Milan. In the past, people and all types of goods were transported by water, including the marble used in the construction of the Duomo. The five main canals included the Naviglio Grande, Naviglio Pavese, Naviglio Martesana, Naviglio di Paderno and Naviglio di Bereguardo. With the advent of roads and railways, the importance of the canals as a means of transportation declined. Today, only the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese are in use, mostly for touristic boat cruises.
The Naviglio Grande has morphed into a bustling area, known now for its markets, galleries, art shops, restaurants, funky cafés, night clubs and bars, including a place claiming to be the smallest bar in the world. The front door is just wide enough for Tony to fit through. However, the sign at the door warns against entering until you have spoken to the bartender first. Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be seen!
Famous Antique market
A good time to visit is when the antiques market is in operation. This is the most important market in Milan and takes place on the last Sunday of the month. When the market is on, there are more than 400 stalls between the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese. You can buy furniture, porcelain, silver and all sorts of objets d’art and collectibles.
Our visit, unfortunately, did not coincide with the antiques market. We were however lucky that the flower market was on today. All along the Naviglio Grande there were hundreds of stalls selling all kinds of pot plants, flowers, bulbs etc. Being the beginning of spring, the flower market was a hive of activity, with locals buying new spring blooms for their gardens.
Many of the spring flowers were similar to the ones we have at home. However, there were a couple of strange looking plants, one of which was the cylindrical snake plants. They looked a bit weird, like colour pencils. I did wonder how they’ve managed to get the plants to be so colourful, but they’re not real of course. The tips of the snake plants are dipped in paint to give it the colourful tips.
Abuzz with bars and cafés
The bars and cafés lining the canal were also doing a roaring trade. If you just want some snack food, mixed amongst the flower stands were stalls selling breads, pastries and other snacks.
I bought a bag of candied fruit from the fruit and nut stall. However, my favourite was the cheese stall with its huge tub of gorgonzola. You can buy a baguette filled with this delicious king of Italian cheeses. I must say the baguettes came with a very generous lashing of gorgonzola.
We walked along one side of the canal and then back along the other side, and saw just as many plant sellers on the opposite side. From the flower market, we went on to the Pavia Canal (Naviglio Pavese) where a small arts and craft fair was in progress. This canal area was much quieter as all the bars and cafés were shut. It was Sunday and they were probably having a rest day after a rowdy Saturday night.
Naviglio Grande is interesting place to stroll around during the day and the night-time scene would be worth checking out as well.
How to get there
It is easy to get to the Navigli District by tram or metro. From the Duomo we caught tram number 3 which took us to Piazza Ventiquattro Maggio. If you’re feeling energetic, the walk from the historic centre takes about 35 minutes.