The modern-day, vibrant heart of the city revolves around the canals, planned by Leonardo, in the New Darsena among the typical tenement buildings and artists ateliers.
With good reason the New York Times included the streets along the Navigli (navigable canals) among the twelve most beautiful in Europe. The «Ripa di Porta Ticinese», bustling hub of activity in the core of Milan, stretches from Darsena along the Naviglio Grande; it is flanked by waterside wine cellars, trattorias, art galleries, artisan workshops, bookshops and vintage shops.
Many city inhabitants together with university students and numerous tourists pour onto these ancient streets, which formerly served as towpaths for the canals. Not far from the city centre, the area is permeated with an international atmosphere where evenings are spent indulging in the aperitif ritual of sumptous buffet style appetizers and exotic cocktails.
Many trendy locales have sprung up in the area, which are not only attractive to see but are also very appealing to the taste buds. Some of these actually have hidden green outdoor areas while others set their tables out on the water front close to the canals.
There is no shortage of choice: from the modern Rebelot, reminscent to some extent of a French bistrot to the refined El Brellin; from the Osteria al Coniglio Bianco with its excellent traditional cuisine to the new Temakinho, which offers a delicious blend of Japanese flavours and Brazilian cuisine.
You can take a stroll down the picturesque Vicolo dei Lavandai or around the market stalls of the Mercatone dell'Antiquariato which sells antiquities, curios and vintage pieces, pottery, furniture, watches, clocks and jewellery and is held the last Sunday of every month. The Grande Fiera dedicated to flowers, plants and garden equipment takes place in April and October.
Approximately 200 horticulturists from all over Italy participate in the event and are masters in the art of decorating their stalls scenographically thus creating the most spectacular colour effects.
Overall the Navigli include five canals which extend for hundreds of kilometres and connect Milan to the rivers Ticino and Po and to Lakes Maggiore and Como as well as several cities in Lombardy, including Pavia. In the past both people and goods travelled frequently along these waterways; navigation by means of barges facilitated the transport of all kinds of goods not only coal, wine, meat and fish but also wood and even the marble used to build the famous Duomo.
Leonardo Da Vinci, who arrived in Milan towards the end of the fourteen hundreds at the age of thirty, appointed as the duchy engineer by Ludovico il Moro, worked on the engineering of many hydraulic features of the Navigli: the planning of the so-called “Conca dell’Incoronata” is attributed to him and indeed the locks with their original wooden gates are still visible.
Anyone wandering about Milan's former city centre cannot but perceive an extraordinary fusion of past and present, the most interesting example of which must be the Nuova Darsena, inaugurated in 2015 on the occasion of the Expo. This artificial lock created by the Spanish who ruled over the city at the beginning of the 1600s was one of Italy's busiest gates putting Milan on a par with Amsterdam or Manhattan… incredibile, isn't it? It wasn't until the end of the nineteen seventies that the century old commercial dock or darsena ceased to be used and then fell into decline for a period of time before its overhaul and restoration.
These days the entire area surrounding Porta Ticinese has been refurbished and has acquired renewed vitality and turned into a trendy district. It can be reached in fifteen minutes from Piazza Duomo along a route which takes you past the scenographic Colonne di San Lorenzo to the neoclassic Porta Ticinese, built in the precious pink granite from Baveno.
Between street performers, the sale of street food, tourist boat trips along the canals and charming, hidden, little churches like San Cristofero the area of the Navigli encloses a sort of world apart and reveals one of Milan's many different hubs; as in the past it emerges today as a dynamic industrious city, frenetic and glamouous, antiquated but contemporary, soaked in history but always progressive and forward-looking.