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Luca Donia: Your Local Milano Nord, Milan Insighter

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2 months ago

Meet Luca, your Local Insighter for Milano Nord (or North Milan), Italy. Aside from being an avid traveller, Luca is also a writer. Luca wrote Bits From The World: Diari di vita dal Sud America about his time in South America in 2017 after quitting his job and choosing a life of travel.

Luca describes his book as “the account of 103 days lived to the max, of unlikely adventures, of fragile but true friendships, of enlightening encounters, of broken-down pick ups, of sleepless nights, of joy, tears, mud and tiredness.”

Luca has called Milano Nord his base for almost 15 years. Today, we are fortunate to be gaining exclusive access to Luca’s local insights for Milano Nord – and there’s some incredible gems in this one that you won’t find anywhere else.

BAM Gardens in Milan with UniCredit Tower in the background and another building

Luca, welcome to Travel Insighter! Can you introduce yourself to our readers who aren’t yet familiar with your journey?

My name is Luca Donia, I am the founder of Bits From The World where I have been blogging about travel since 2018. I’ve been traveling full-time for 13 years and visited more than 100 countries and I have no intention to stop.

I love hiking, finding the best coffee shops and exploring all kinds of countries off the beaten path. I was born in Palermo in Sicily but I’ve been living in Milan for almost 14 years. I work as a tour leader for Ketrip, bringing people to every corner of the globe.

It sounds like you would know Milan better than most. What do you love most about living in Milano Nord?

Italy is famous all around the world for its historic villages, slow life and ancient history. In Milan, you can of course find many valuable works of art and places of historical interest, but overall the city has a different feel.

Arcade in Milan with Louis Vuitton

It is the most (if not the only) European city in Italy. Milan is internationally focused, modern, progressive and full of opportunities. You won’t find any other city like this in Italy. Life is fast-paced, the city is bustling with events, new restaurants, young people, entrepreneurs and so on.

If you get tired of the slow life, little village, lazy afternoon vibe, Milan is the place to be.

We’ve felt that in Milan. What would you say are some must-visit places in Milano Nord? Particularly those that aren’t in the tourist guides.

Santuario di San Bernardino alle Ossa can be easily overlooked as just one of the many churches you can pass by. But, if you walk inside the church, you will see a narrow hallway that will lead you to the ossuary. Here the walls are entirely covered with skulls and bones.

They are meticulously placed in the niches, on the cornice, adorning the pillars and decorating the doors. Entry is completely free, and there are some panels in Italian and English where you can find out the history behind this creepy place.

milan duomo at night with lit up

Sometimes the Palazzo della Regione opens the Terrazza Belvedere to the public. From here, you will have an incredible view over the Vertical Forest (Bosco Verticale), Gae Aulenti, BAM Gardens and the famous Tre Torri neighborhood. I would recommend checking availability – it is worth the time!

When visiting the Duomo di Milano, don’t forget to visit the underground crypt. Many people focus on the terraces and wrongly leave it behind.

I have a great tip to help save your budget: In Italy, on the first Sunday of the month, many museums are free! You should definitely take advantage of it if you can.

If you love the arts you should check out Fabbrica del Vapore. It is an old train and tram factory renovated into an artistic complex with temporary exhibitions and events on art, music, theater, dance and cinema.

Walls covered in skulls and bones is certainly unique… Can you share with us a hidden gem in Milano Nord which only locals know about?

I have the perfect answer for this: it’s the Binario 21 in Stazione Centrale. Milan’s Central Station itself holds many intricate details, so I would advise looking attentively at the ceilings, statues and friezes. It was built between 1925 and 1931 so you will find many features of fascist architecture (although the most explicit fascist symbols have rightly been removed).

Not many people know that it is possible to visit the Shoah memorial (a Holocaust memorial) at Binario 21. It’s unique in that it’s placed in the track where, between 1943 and 1945, many trains loaded with Jewish deportees and political opponents departed to the Nazi extermination camps.

I highly recommend renting an audio guide for your tour of Binario 21.

The trains in the Holocaust Memorial in Milan (Source: Binario 21)

On a lighter tone, another hidden gem that many travelers might not know is the historical tram tour. In Milan, many historical trams are still in use today. The wooden interior is gorgeous, so I would advise having a ride just to enjoy it fully.

Tram in Milan with orange band 1798

There are guided tours where you can travel throughout Milan in the oldest trams, passing by all the main attractions. For the food lovers, there is also a tour where you can have a delicious typical Italian dinner in one of these historical trams. The view from the windows will certainly be an added bonus!

Speaking of dinner, what are your favorite cafés and restaurants for a leisurely lunch and for dinner in Milano Nord?

The most loved place by locals to have a cheap, fast and scrumptious lunch is Panzerotti Luini. A panzerotto is a fried calzone (folded pizza). It can have different fillings though the classic one is with mozzarella and tomato sauce. I would advise you to keep some space for the sweet versions too – they are so delicious!

Another rightly famous place perfect for a quick lunch is All’antico Vinaio. Here you can try the best sandwiches you can find! They are made with focaccia bread, the ingredients are super high quality, and they are generous portions.

The Antico Vinaio near the Duomo often has long queues, you often have to wait for hours to order. Fortunately, another one has opened up at Stazione Centrale, here you won’t have to wait long – and it’s just as good.

Sandwich from Antico Vinaio, one of the best places to eat in Milan

Each sandwich has the best Italian products: a vast selection of cheese, prosciutto, salami, truffle and mushroom cream and much more. Every sandwich I tried was incredibly good, but the ones I love most are the ones with truffle cream and ‘nduja.

Milan is known the world over for its incredible food. What’s the best pizza and the best local Milanese food in Milano Nord?

The best pizza I have eaten in Milan is at Da Zero. The restaurant is really nice, the service is excellent and the pizza is perfect. I would recommend calling the restaurant to reserve your table, since the restaurant is not so big and the demand is high.

To try some handmade pasta, Mi Scusi is the place to go. You can try so many different types of pasta, the ingredients are fresh and the price is good. You definitely won’t find Pasta Alfredo here, each dish is authentic Italian cuisine!

If you want to try some Milanese dishes, I would recommend getting ossobuco alla milanese at Al Cantinone and the cotoletta milanese at Osteria Brunello.

Osteria Brunello in Milan at night
(Source: Osteria Brunello)

Okay, going to all of those is going to keep us very busy. And we have to ask: where’s the best coffee in Milano Nord?

In Italy, you will find multiple bars serving espresso on every street, but besides espresso and cappuccino, it will be difficult to find many other types of coffee. For the best espresso you can try in Milano Nord, you should go to Torrefazione Caffè Ernani.

Entrance to Torrefazione Ernani, one of the best coffee shops in Milan

To try Neapolitan coffee, you should go to Caffè Napoli (it’s a chain store so you will find many). Princi is another chain store that serves espresso. It’s very much appreciated by locals in Milan.

When you order your espresso at Caffè Napoli, ask for the cream to sweeten the coffee – it’s incredibly good.

Espresso is usually consumed quickly, but if you want to take your time and relax in a nice bar or work remotely there are some amazing options too. One of my favorite places to work while sipping good coffee is oTTo.

LùBar is a bit more fancy and is absolutely gorgeous coffee shop, but if you’re looking for bigger tables then Radicetonda is the place to go. They also have a vast selection of vegan snacks and dishes with organic ingredients.

This is all sounding too good. You would definitely know where to get the best Milanese dessert. What’s your favorite dessert or snack in Milano Nord?

Caffè Pascucci is the perfect place to have a classic Italian breakfast: coffee and something sweet to go with it, usually brioche. Even if you just want to try some delicious Italian desserts, you will definitely find something to satisfy your curiosity.

Filled brioche at Caffe Pascucci in Milan

The pistachio cream-filled brioche at Caffè Pascucci is my personal favorite.

Pavé is another place where you can find handmade sweets that are made daily. Try the famous maritozzo or let yourself indulge with the handmade brioche.

What’s your favorite landmark or place to go in Milano Nord, even if just to pass the time?

For some window shopping, I like to go to Corso Buenos Aires, while Indro Montanelli Gardens is great for a relaxing walk. The BAM Gardens are full of flowers, and many families gather to have a picnic.

Indro Montanelli Gardens building
Indro Montanelli Gardens (Source: Italia.it)

In the spring, when the weather is fine, Piazza Gae Aulenti becomes even more wonderful.

What’s a unique experience/activity/food in Milano Nord that only locals would know?

Milan is known throughout Italy as the city of ‘apericena’. Apericena mixes the Italian words aperitivo and dinner. Aperitivo is very popular in Italy: it is the habit of going out with friends during the afternoon to drink an alcoholic beverage (usually Spritz) and some salty snacks.

I would recommend trying the Spritz Campari since it is typical of Milan. Almost all locals in Milan provide apericena.

Apericena in Milan with sandwiches, salami, vegetables and spritz

In the apericena, the drinks are paired with a lot of snacks that will function as a dinner. I think Piazza Sant’Alessandro is the best place to enjoy apericena or aperitivo.

Are there any warnings you would give to visitors to Milano Nord?

Be careful of pickpockets, especially at the Central Station and in the metro. This has been a growing problem in the last few years for the locals too, but tourists are the ones at most risk.

Exterior of Milano Centrale railway station with Luca Donia in front of it
Milano Centrale railway station

If you have rented a car, I wouldn’t use it in Milan. It is very easy to be fined and you will probably take much longer because of the traffic and many stoplights.

And you won’t really need to drive anyway. You can use public transport to reach almost everywhere in Milan.

If someone had just one day in Milano Nord, where would you tell them that they must go to do or see that they wouldn’t otherwise know?

Start at Piazza Gae Aulenti which you can easily reach on foot from the Stazione Centrale. Wander through the BAM gardens, marvel at the Vertical Forest and UniCredit Tower, as well as the other modern buildings nearby.

BAM Gardens with the UniCredit Tower in the background
UniCredit Tower as seen from the BAM Gardens

If the weather is good and the Terrazza Belvedere at the Palazzo della Regione is open, take the elevator and look at the gorgeous landscape.

You can then reach Via Paolo Sarpi and walk through Milano’s Chinatown. Stop at Ravioleria Sarpi to try the best baos and dumplings of Milan. Walking past Via Paolo Sarpi, you can reach the biggest and most famous park in Milan: Parco Sempione.

Walk through the lovely park and arrive at Castello Sforzesco. You can end your day with an apericena or walk towards the famous Duomo di Milano.

Are there any events, festivals or celebrations that are particularly special in Milan Nord?

There are many different events throughout the year. The most loved by locals are Fashion Week and Salone del Mobile (Furniture Fair). The city is filled with many contemporary art installations scattered throughout. Many shops join the event by showcasing art and hosting exhibitions.

Zipper building art installation in Milan by British artist Alex Chinneck
The famous Zipper building, an art installation in Milan by British artist Alex Chinneck (Source: Visit Milan Official)

For me, my favorite event would definitely be Artigianato in Fiera. It usually takes place in the first week of December in Rho, Milan. Here you will find all kinds of handicraft products from all over the world and from all over Italy too. You’ll find stands selling local products of all kinds: delicious food, handcrafted liquors, high-quality clothes, jewellery, artworks, furniture and more.

In your experience, when is the best time to visit Milan?

Every season has its pros and cons, but I would definitely recommend visiting during autumn. The foliage is gorgeous (at this time of year the Cimitero Monumentale is especially beautiful (and has the same design style as architecture in Damascus) but also Parco Idro Montanelli and Parco Sempione) and the weather is as best as it can be.

Cimitero Monumentale di Milano exterior with graves in the foreground or the Monumental Cemetery
Cimitero Monumentale di Milano

I would avoid the month of August. It is unbearably hot and the city is empty, as most of the locals leave for vacation.

Are there any unique souvenirs from Milano Nord? Can you recommend any unique shopping?

There is always an opportunity for shopping in Milan! I would recommend checking out 10 Corso Como Café. In addition to being a gorgeous café and restaurant, it also has unique products such as clothes, perfumes, artbooks and more.

La Rinascente is the most popular place to shop in Milan. Here you can find many brands of clothing, design shops and high-end food.

If you could give one piece of local insight to tourists visiting Milano Nord, what would it be?

Milano Nord is a newly developed area. In the last couple of years many places have greatly changed their appearance and are probably going to change again. Piazza Gae Aulenti was inaugurated just in 2012!

What was once was considered the outskirts of Milan is now a main part of the city’s bustling life. Nowadays, as the city keeps expanding, many modern glass buildings surround parks and historical buildings and old factories are renovated and turned into cultural complexes.

Always keep a look on the events and temporary exhibitions and stroll through the streets. You will find yourselves marvelling at the elegance of both new and old buildings.

Luca, this has been truly enlightening. We’re excited to see your version of Milano Nord. How can readers get in touch with you or learn more about your experiences?

You can search for me on Instagram at @bits_from_the_world or on YouTube at BitsFromTheWorld.


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