While the south and the central districts of Milan are no doubt the most grandiloquent and notable, its best kept secret is a district just north of Porta Garibaldi. Isola (Island) is a post-war neighbourhood where Milan’s factory workers used to reside. As the name suggests Isola is isolated from the city, cut off by railway tracks, until now.
The remoteness of the area led to an influx of creatives, street artists and alternatives during the late 20th century and their influence here is still strong. The newly built Porta Nuova, made up of big brand shops and financial offices, next to Isola has led to a gentle gentrification of the area; with art-deco apartments blocks being built and the buildings smartened up. That Isola is relatively unknown in Milan adds to its allure. Aloof and bohemian, it embraces the changes whilst still clinging to its working-class, avant-garde roots.
What to see
In the heart of the old quarter of Isola lies the Renaissance church of Santa Maria della Fontana. The Fontana (fountain) that originally stood here was an underground source of water that was said to miraculously heal the bones and joints. The 5th century governor of Milan, Frenchman Charles d’Amboise, was said to have been cured by the water and subsequently built an oratory in thanks. A thousand years later, Leonardo Da Vinci and Donato Bramante built the church that still stands today. The decorative elements are still intact, the arcades covered in over 600 frescoes, as well as paintings by Luini and the tombs of half of Renaissance Lombardy in the vault.
Via Thaon di Revel
The shift in habitants in Isola has led to the emergence of a homegrown boutique scene. Via Thaon di Revel, a relatively unassuming street at first sight is in fact lined with vintage shops and restaurants devoted to the rockabilly era. Mods, beats, and bikers frequent the cafes, often donning full rockabilly dress at all times of day. The duality of Isola’s industrial past and bohemian influx mean that the area has been regenerated in a way so contemporary buildings can squeeze in between the traditional.
Unlike other cities, Milan’s street art tends to be by local artists, many of whom have been commissioned. In Isola traditional graffiti has been covered with modern-frescos and portraits, the most prominent is the Giant Arnold in front of Frida. The best streets to head to are to see the street art are Via Carmagnola and Angella della Pergola.
Where to shop
Isola’s cool crowd demand an eclectic range of boutiques and alternative fashion shops, as well as numerous interior design studios.
Deus ex Machina, the Australian brand specialising in surfboards, motorcycles and bicycles holds a whole exhibition space, which includes a restaurant. In the store you’ll find ‘motion’ memorabilia, with motorbikes, bicycles and surfboards for sale. The exhibition is flanked by The Bullfrog Barber shop: an authentic grooming parlour that specialises in beard and moustache services and uses traditional wet-shave techniques paired with modern products.
Live in Vintage
A shabby-chic boutique located on Via Thaon di Revel that offers vintage jewellery, clothes and shoes. Many of the pieces are unworn or restored. This and the other small vintage shops are the perfect place to find old samples from designers in Milan or ex-runway pieces.
Where to eat and drink
Tucked away behind a graffitied wall, Isola’s bohemian café is a rare find in a city of shimmering wine bars and old-world trattorias. Excellent aperitivo is served in this artsy warehouse full of coloured tables, vintage posters and photo exhibitions. Outside, the covered, leafy courtyard is a real local secret. Frida has a huge selection of wines and serves over 80 cocktails.
For those in the know on the island, this cucina di mare is a Milanese favourite. A local favourite, this speciality fish restaurant is bright and clean, the chefs seafood experts, the wine list extensive and price very reasonable for the quality of the food. www.ilpesciolone.it
With its motorcycle store next door, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Deus only caters to one kind of customer. But at Deus you’ll find the fashionistas, yummy mummies, the hipsters and rockers inside this low-lit, vintage-furnished café. Serving from breakfast through to aperitivo and dinnertime, this is the perfect place to relax. The staff is bilingual and the food a perfect mix of traditional Italian and more international relaxed cuisine. www.deuscafe.it
After a long morning strolling around Isola, be Italian and grab a quick coffee and gelato at Artico. This family run business has been here for 30 years and serves homemade, organic gelato in over 25 flavours. The exposed brick interior is a delight and late-opening time means you can stop by on your way home from dinner.