I am often asked for recommendations of places in Milan, both as photographic subjects and settings. Many of the inquirers are looking for the must-see places – those that are in the tourist guides and every visitor deems mandatory. That bucket list of landmarks are the Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele + the luxury fashion streets nearby (via Montenapoleone and via Della Spiga), the Sforza Castle and Arco della Pace. And indeed, they are spectacular and also within a limited perimeter, so one can cover them within a day. But unless you have a specific idea in mind or a lot of time to find it, these pictures will look just like everyone else’s.
Is that wrong? Of course not. I firmly believe that photographing landmarks that everyone else has checked off is not just a rite for tourists but also an act of communion for all of us. By photographing them, we stand in the same place and look to experience the same connection that so many others have done as well. We are not looking for originality or photographic recognition but belonging and sharing. Photographing in general is relating to one’s subject matter, so it’s totally legitimate to do what everyone else has already done.
However, if you have checked those off your list and want to experience some less-known places, here is what I recommend.
Just as Venice is all about canals, Bologna is known as the city of porticoes, walking around Milan is passing by entryways inviting explorations. Most residential buildings, historic or early 20th century, are built around an internal courtyard accessible through an elaborate, richly decorated or simple and plain ingressi. While they are not usually open to the public, you might be lucky to also peek in or walk through them. Photographing from the outside is always permitted, while entering them depends on the special arrangements you might have with a resident or the doorman. If you do so, however, you will get to know a glimpse of the real Milan that is usually not known to outsiders. The most lavish ingressi are, for example, Palazzo Luraschi at Corso Buenos Aires 1 or the corner of via Statuto and via Lovanio, but I find the more humble ones more interesting. Just walk the streets and look for them.
Colonne di San Lorenzo
There are so many areas in the city that are excellent spaces for people-watching (and photographing). What makes the difference is the stage created by the elements of the local environment. Especially fascinating are Galleria Vittorio Emanuele for the fashionable (and tourist) crowd as well as the fashion district, but a more unusual one I recommend is a space that is a great walk-through for the human river as well as an iconic (but little known) monument. The Columns of San Lorenzo, a colonnade remnant of an Ancient Roman temple surrounding the plaza in front of the San Lorenzo church. Highly recommended as a place of rest for your feet, pointing your camera and just enjoying an unexpected atmosphere in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city.
The murals of Ortica
Ortica is a storied working class neighborhood in Milan with a strong community tradition. Due to the irony of the naming gods, even its name (meaning “nettles”) has a connotation of a place of abandonment in Italian: to give something to the nettles means to throw it away (so it becomes overgrown with weeds). It had been considered a scruffy periphery suburb and because of its logistic disconnect from the city, it has been able to keep its distinct atmosphere and tight-knit spirit for much longer than the rest of the little towns that became integral part of the growing metropolis.
Photographers will find some amazing treasures here, starting with the murals that have been painted all over the area buildings by a couple of art collectives. These murals have become so important to the identity of the neighborhood that there are now guided tours offered to show them off. Also, visit the famous Balera dell’Ortica, the popular dance hall that hosts community dinners and dances, along with other historic entertainment establishments where icons such as Dario Fo, Giorgio Strehler and Enzo Iannaci worked. In addition to the murals, just walking down the streets that mostly still look like they did some 50 or 100 years ago makes for a great photography subject. As Milan’s real estate prices are rising, the area is now in the process of gentrification and change, so make sure to visit soon.
To reach Ortica, take buses 53, 54 and 61 or tram 5. I recommend traveling their complete route on board to get an overview and then decide where to get off and explore. When taking pictures of people, though, be mindful of their personal space and respect their privacy. But that goes for all photography.
Milano Centrale, the main train station in Milan, is a magnificent building with an intriguing history. It was erected in the 1930s to replace the old station that was too obsolete to accommodate the major transportation hub that the city was becoming, which means Mussolini – prime minister at the time – took the opportunity to transform it into the grand statement of his regime. Even during the post-WWI crisis at the time, no resources were spared to make it impressive and become the largest train station in Europe currently (in terms of volume). To the photographer, the station offers prime Art Nouveau (or Liberty in Italian) aesthetics, elaborate architectural details, nooks and crannies, multi-directional pathways and perspectives, great opportunities for people watching. All this on a grand scale, so plan for at least half a day to explore. Also, if you go there, do visit the Shoah Memorial marking the platform where so many Jewish Italians were taken to concentration camps.
Milan’s identity is based on a strong manufacturing history that has left a heritage of large or small former factories and other industrial buildings. They are sprinkled throughout the region of Lombardy, but many of them are in Milan proper. Needless to say, the manufacturing has now moved elsewhere, but the factories have remained. Some of them have become something else – like contemporary art museums, such as the Prada Foundation and Pirelli HangarBicocca (and visiting them is highly recommended) – while others are simply vacant. Still others are off limits, dangerous and to be enjoyed from afar. In the images above, you can see the Gasometro (gas storage) near the Forlanini park, an abandoned factory along the Navigli canals and a water tower northwest of the city.
And speaking of city limits, these recommendations are focused on Milan only. There are so many places just outside or a bit farther, from Lake Como to Pavia, the Navigli or the wine regions around that hold a great diversity of visual richness – not to speak cultural depth and slow tourism joy. Maybe that’s a good topic for future posts?
If you need more specific advice, let me know! Or just get in touch with me and we can walk together. Best wishes for exciting explorations!