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Navigli: the canal district in Milan

In Milan we find a very special neighborhood, full of canals, and that – perhaps – reminds us of Venice. We're talking about the charming Navigli, one of the most beloved neighborhoods in the capital of Lombardy.

Credit: Fabiana Cavalcanti @fabianacavalcantiphoto

Navigli: the canal district in Milan

Today our destination is one of the most famous neighborhoods in all of Italy. It is located in Milan, capital of the Lombardy region, and is full of charm, beauty and history! This neighborhood is the effervescent Navigli, a meeting point for tourists and locals, and an obligatory stop for anyone with a scheduled trip to Milan.

With its wide and ancient canals, Navigli tells much of the history of Milan, Italy and – at a glance – it can remind us of Venice! Today we are going to Navigli: the canal district in Milan. Here at Your Travel to Italy with Ana Patriciayou make the trip of your dreams!!! ALSO: see our “Accommodation in Italy – Tips for your holidays!”

Our introduction

When we talk about Milan, one of our first thoughts is undoubtedly the city’s beautiful Duomo. Of course, immense as it is, Milan goes further and offers much more to its visitors: neighborhoods full of charm, beauty and history. Find out here: How to use public transport in Milan?

Today we are going to Navigli, the canal district in Milan. Navigli means sailing, and it received that name, of course, for obvious reasons: its huge canals.

Located southwest of Milan, Navigli starts at Porta Ticinese, where the Darsena is located – which is the old port of Milan, and passes through Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese.

The canals of milan

First of all, let’s find out what the Navigli (*) are: they are a system of artificial and navigable canals built between the 12th and 16th centuries to supply water to the center of Milan, in addition to being a path for transporting goods between Milan and other cities. A curiosity: the marble used to decorate the Duomo passed through these channels to get there.

(*) Navigli is the plural of naviglio, which means sailing as we said before.

The Navigli canals are “crossed” by small bridges, which connect the sides that have alleys where we can see the typical ringhiera houses, fashion stores, underground style stores, antique shops, art studios, bookstores and bars, restaurants and countless clubs that animate zone nights.

This is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city and here is where most of the city’s nightlife is concentrated.

What to do in Navigli?

Navigli is a delightful neighborhood to enjoy at any time of the day or night. Here are some tips for you to enjoy the most bohemian neighborhood in Milan. Also read: What to do in Milan when it rains?

Sail by Navigli

How about sailing along Navigli during sunset while having an aperitif? Make your reservation HERE!

Where to eat in Navigli? At Osteria di Classe!

How about a tasty dinner at an affordable price in Navigli? Visit the Osteria di Classe, here you can try the real specialties of Milanese cuisine in the Navigli Zone.

Where to sleep in Navigli? at Maison Borella

Maison Borella is located on the banks of the Naviglio Grande canal, in Milan’s Porta Ticinese district. The property is housed in an 18th-century building. Decorated in a simple yet elegant style, all rooms at the Borella include air conditioning and a private bathroom with fluffy bathrobes and slippers. Some units feature wooden beamed ceilings and a balcony with city views. Porta Genova Metro Station on the Green Line is 600 meters from the hotel and links with Milano Centrale Train Station. Click here to find out everything about trains in Italy!

To find out more and book this hotel, click here!

What to see along Navigli?

As you walk along the edge of the Naviglio Grande, after passing through Gaggiano and Trezzano, you reach Darsena. There you can see Milanese symbols such as the Church of San Cristoforo sul Naviglio, which was known as the “lighthouse of Milan”.

Be sure to look at the shops in the area: some antique shops are beautiful and have real finds!

Golden Tip:

For those who love antiquity, you can’t miss the Mercatone dell’Antiquariato sui Navigli (the Antique Market in Navigli). It happens every last Sunday of every month and it’s crazy, there are so many beautiful things you can find there! There are almost 2 kilometers of stalls with almost 400 exhibitors that fill the canal bank with selected and carefully checked items. There you can find furniture, watches, ceramics, art pieces, toys, prints, modern art, porcelain, records, silverware, and everything you can imagine!

Where? Along Naviglio Grande

What do you also find piled high along the main channel? Countless restaurants and bars! The difficulty, in this case, is choosing which one to enter: they are all amazing!

Alley of Laundress

Strolling along the canal you can also see the famous Alley of Laundress. This alley represents an important part of Milanese history and dates back to the time when clothes were washed there by men!

In Naviglio Pavese you can see several very old houses, but full of charm.

Already on the waterway, which passes through Conca del Naviglio, you can see the old lock – which connects Conca to Darsena, and is the oldest lock in Milan, being – perhaps – the oldest in all of Europe. This lock covers an altitude of about two meters.

Note, next to the structure, that there are references to a neoclassical temple and the Sforza coat of arms. You can also be a reference to Our Lady that formed part of the coat of arms of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo and an inscription that recalls that Ludovico il Moro, who allowed the free transit of the materials used for the Cathedral of Milan.

Important to Know:

Take your tour with comfortable shoes, as the streets there are very irregular and made of old stones!

Let’s get to know a little more about Navigli and its centuries-old history

Much of Milan’s history has literally passed through the Navigli canals.

The origins of this neighborhood go back to the 12th century when, after the destruction of the city by Barbarossa, the development of a system of artificial and navigable canals began for defensive purposes, but which would also serve to supply the city with water.

In 1179

Of all the canals, the first to be built was the Ticinello, in 1179; then came Naviglio Grande, in 1209, which explored the waters of lower Ticino, and the Naviglio della Mertesana was built in 1457, north of Milan.

The system was intended to link Lake Maggiore, Lado di Como and lower Ticino to the city, and was perfected by Leonardo da Vinci under a commission from Ludovico il Moro, with the intention of improving navigation within the city and overcoming the problems of altitude difference – which was solved with a lock system. Even today it is possible to admire, in its original version, the Conca dell’Incoronata in Via San Marco.

In 1805

Already in 1805, in the Napoleonic era, the construction of Naviglio Pavese was completed and the system reached the maximum functionality of all connections.

Until the second half of the 19th century, when the railways appeared, navigation was gradually replaced by trains. Although it was possible to navigate, the practice became more difficult, as the channels began to get dirty, as industries began to pollute their waters. Over the years, the canals were almost filled with land, due to the amount of dirt dumped there.

However, in order to defend the Navigli canals and keep history alive, the canals were recovered and are now fully navigable.

The site also serves historic institutions such as Canottieri Milano which, since 1890, has never stopped training new river rowing champions in the region’s waters.

Although the channels are not yet 100% open for recreational use, some institutions are struggling to make this happen soon; the most fervent is the association “Riapire i Navigli” which proposes to reactivate the Lombard river system by reopening the urban ditch taking the waters back to the center.

Fun Fact:

Ripa di Porta Ticinese, which is a street that runs along the Naviglio Grande, was listed by The New York Times as one of the 12 most beautiful streets to walk in Europe.

The main Navigli: Grande, Pavese and Martesana

Let’s get to know a little more about the Navigli canals.


The Canal de Naviglio Grande is the oldest of them all. The main purpose of the canal was to irrigate the fields outside Milan and serve as a defensive ditch.

It only became navigable in 1257 by order of the prefect Beno de Gozzadini, but for that he had to tax the assets of the clergy in order to have the money needed for the construction. This cost him his life, as shortly afterwards he drowned in his own ship – they say, there is nothing confirmed.

Napo Torriani, in 1272, completed the navigation works and from then on small boats began to transport people and goods there. And this happened until 1985, when trains “won” the “battle of favorite means of transport.”.


The Naviglio Pavese is the waterway desired by the Visconti to link Milan and its lands towards Pavia. Galeazzo Visconti started work in 1359 and thereafter interest in this canal was gradually lost, especially soon after the fall of the Visconti and Sforza dynasties. It was then that the Spanish governor Pedro Enriquez de Acevedo ordered the reconstruction of the Pavia canal, and elected Giuseppe Meda for the feat, who also built the city’s pier.


One of the smallest canals, but very important for Milan is that of Martesana also known as Naviglio Piccolo. This canal was commissioned by Francesco Sforza in 1460 and legend has it that much of the canal and locks were personally designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

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Navigli: the canal district in Milan. One of the places in Milan that will surely make you forget that you are in Milan! Navigli is pure poetry, you will fall in love with this magical place, be sure!

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