Navigli is one of the most romantic neighborhoods located in Milan. The neighborhood is named for the canals that were once ubiquitous in this former port area.
The canals formed a 150 km long network that connected the city with the rivers and lakes in the Lombardy region. The canals provided the city with water and were ideal to transport people and goods to and from remote areas as far as the Alps and even the sea, reached via the river Po.
The oldest canal
Construction of the oldest canal, the Ticinello, started in 1179. A series of locks were built to overcome the differences in elevation which at the time posed a serious technical challenge. It is said that Ludovico di Moro, duke of Milan at the end of the fifteenth century, requested the help of Leonardo da Vinci to design an innovative system of sluices.
Thanks to this network of canals, Milan had one of the country’s largest inland ports, despite the absence of a main river. The canals were so much part of the urban fabric that some areas of the city resembled Venetian neighborhoods. With the growing importance of road transportation, traffic on the canals dwindled quickly and many were filled in.
Only three canals survived to this day: the Naviglio della Martesana in the north-east and the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese in the south-west of the city. The latter two form the backbone of the neighborhood that is now known as Navigli. They join at the Darsena, a 750 meter long basin that formed the heart of the old port.
While it was long an impoverished working-class neighborhood and still looks a bit rough, things have changed for the better since the 1980s, when houses along the canals were renovated, artists started moving in to find inspiration in the idyllic quarter, and restaurants opened along the waterways. Today there are plenty of bars and restaurants in the area.
The most interesting of the few remaining canals is the Naviglio Grande. Here you’ll find iron pedestrian bridges, a small church – the Santa Maria delle Grazie al Naviglio – and the picturesque Vicolo dei Lavandai.