Canals in Milan: 5 Fun Facts About the Navigli

April 27, 2020

When it comes to canals in Italy, Venice isn’t your only option: Milan’s Navigli neighborhood is famed for the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese canals. With its great bars and boutiques, the Navigli is one of our favorite areas in Milan. Not to mention one of the most historic: The neighborhood dates all the way back to 1179, when the waterways were constructed to connect Milan to the nearby lakes.

Here are five things to know about the canals in Milan (and the Navigli district!).

Milan's canals were used to transport marble

Candoglia marble in Milan’s Duomo, transported via Milan’s canals. Photo by Bramfab (WikiCommons)

Milan’s canals were built because of the Duomo

Milan’s canals aren’t only beautiful, but functional: They were constructed to transport goods from the nearby lakes. One of the most important deliveries? Precious marble from Candoglia, which was used to construct Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo.

The canals are no longer used for shipping, but you may see some tour boats floating by for sightseeing tours in the summer.

Da Vinci might be the designer behind the canals

Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci was called to Milan in 1482 by Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, to improve the city with his talents and ideas. The Last Supper is among da Vinci’s most famous contributions to Milan—but legend has it that he also helped plan the renovation of Milan’s canals.

Navigli of Milan

A boat on Milan’s canal in 1886

The canals once made Milan look like Venice

With five active canals, this neighborhood once was connected by waterways. People built country homes and even castles here, some of which you still can see today. And to get from one location to another, the Milanese often went by boat. In fact, historians note that, for these reasons, this part of the city once resembled Venice!

Canals in Milan

An art gallery at the Naviglio Grande. Photo by Walter Saporiti

The Navigli district is an art lover’s haven

Love art? Then don’t miss exploring the many galleries along the canals! You’ll see signs pointing into the courtyards for collections of local artist’s work. And the galleries aren’t just fun to browse; the art on offer makes a great souvenir to bring home, too!

As well as galleries, you’ll find design showrooms and temporary outdoor photography and art exhibits, especially during Salone del Mobile (Milan’s design week).

Naviglio della Martesana, a canal in Milan

Naviglio della Martesana. Photo by Ian Spackman

Head to the canals, and you’ll feel like you’ve left Milan for the countryside

Want an escape from the city? Head off the beaten path toward Milan’s suburbs along the Naviglio della Martesana (also know as Naviglio Piccolo, or “small canal,” opposed to the Naviglio Grande). There, it’s easy to enjoy a picturesque walk or a bike ride along the beautiful, tree-lined paths.




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