Messing about on the canals.
Most people only know Milan’s canals from having a drink or a meal in the café quarter along the Naviglio Grande, and I strongly recommend at least one evening in this buzzy atmosphere. But come back in daylight and explore a very different side to Milan. The city’s canals form a fascinating network that played a key role in Milan's industrial heritage and are well worth exploring. Apart from anything else – what is nicer than a day spent messing about on a boat?
The Naviglio Grande, which connects the city with Lake Maggiore, was started as far back as 1177, but only finally opening as a fully navigable waterway nearly a century later in 1272. It was Europe’s first great canal and one of the great engineering marvels of the era. It was joined by others during the Renaissance and the 18th and 19th centuries. Used for transport, trade and irrigation, the canals remained a crucial part of the region’s infrastructure right up until the 1970s when the road lobby finally won. Many of the canals within the city centre have now been filled or paved over, but enough remain to give a flavour of what life might have been like.
In the summer months, Navigli Lombardi runs a series of wonderful boat tours around the city canal system. At any time of year, it is worth taking a walk along the banks of the canals to get a sense of the old industrial buildings, bridges and warehouses that made up this most mundane face of an industrious city.