Discovering the Isola district: past and future in Milan

In Milan there is a particular area, confined by the railway, outside the chaos of the city, halfway between the traditional and the futuristic: let’s discover the Isola district!

Also thanks to the book I’m reading in this period (I’ll talk about it soon on #exploreading ! By the way: you signed up, right ??), I got a great desire to talk about Milan , my city ​​of the heart and of adoption . We all know that Milan is a city in constant evolution by now: the Expo has given a great boost, but for some years now the city has been trying to renew itself; the thing I like is that, for now, Milan is becoming more modern, but without losing its strong and well-marked personality.

Surely, one of the areas that is most undergoing this process of change and reform is the Isola district . At the beginning, Isola was mostly a working-class district , thanks to the proximity of the railway and many large factories (including Pirelli); in recent years, it has undergone a building revaluation and a strong architectural revisitation . The process of change is good on the one hand, but bad on the other, because many inhabitants of the island are afraid of losing the authenticity of their neighborhood, whose horizon has been and still is a continuous succession of cranes. It is never easy to understand what is right and lawful in contexts like this, but my blog is not the place to make certain disquisitions:I only talk to you about what I saw.

I discovered this neighborhood in more depth during the #milanoAColori blog tour , a few months ago, together with Dr. Antoniazzi, coordinator and soul of the district; then I went back to it alone later, map in hand, to find out more details. And I want to talk about it now because there are so many interesting information, curiosities and things to see !!

The Isola district: where is it located?

The Isola district is located in the north of the city , wedged between the metro stops Zara to the north and Garibaldi to the south. The interesting thing is that the inhabitants of the neighborhood itself usually draw the perimeter lines in one way, while the Municipality of Milan has delimited Isola in another, broader way. In fact, look at the difference:Isola district: its beginning and its name

The district developed  between the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century , following the construction of the railway starting from 1865. The name of the district derives from this: the railway gradually began to physically isolate this area from to the rest of the city, transforming it, in fact, into a sort of island . This “confinement”, over the course of history, has certainly given the neighborhood the opportunity to build its own identity, as if it were a small town in the middle of a big city , where everyone knows each other and life flows quietly and never chaotic.

The main features of the Isola district are still these, weaknesses that have become strengths over time : the narrow streets that do not allow the crazy Milanese traffic to take root; small houses which are therefore mostly inhabited by young people and families with small children; the apartments which, being mainly for rent, give rise to a nice social and cultural mix; the market and small and independent stores, with their own identity: no chain of large stores or multinationals and, therefore, more conviviality, more local products, more authenticity in customer relations.

When I visited it, the Isola area seemed to me a beautiful mix between a cozy and lively neighborhood, in the style of the early 1900s, and the incredible modernity of the Porta Nuova area, which is the most futuristic in all of Milan!

What to visit in the Isola District

Home of about 10,000 inhabitants, the Isola district in my opinion is perfect for a nice Sunday walk to discover its most characteristic features. Which ones are they?

-Piazza Gae Aulenti

We are a stone’s throw from Garibaldi station and the unstoppable nightlife of Corso Como: this is the inevitable starting point for a journey backwards to discover the Isola district (even if this square is not formally part of the district). It starts from the newest area, that of Piazza Gae Aulenti, built in 2009-2012 by the Argentine architect Cesar Pelli. At 6 meters above street level and with its 100 meters in diameter, the square is a completely open, modern, well-kept, almost futuristic space with its infinity fountains. Many skyscrapers with glass walls that reflect the sunlight, beautiful shops, the Unicredit Pavillion for shows and concerts, the Christmas markets, and then “The voices of the city”, the work of the artist Alberto Garutti: 23 trumpet-shaped aluminum tubes that connect the different floors of the square.

Here in Piazza Gae Aulenti, a little lost time is a must, strolling, window-shopping, having a drink and people-watching. And then, it is impossible not to raise your eyes to the sky to admire the whole new Milanese skyline , clearly visible also from the HighLine above the Gallery but, in particular, the Unicredit Tower : with its 231 meters (including the spire), it is the tallest skyscraper of Italy!


-Vertical forest

Already from the Luigi Veronelli promenade you can see the two skyscrapers not among the tallest, but certainly among the most particular in Milan and throughout Europe. These are the two residential buildings that make up the Bosco Verticale complex , inaugurated in 2014 and also awarded the prize for the most beautiful and innovative skyscraper in the world. What characterizes the two buildings is the presence of over 2000 plants, trees and shrubs arranged on the various floors , building a real forest that develops vertically. Doctor Antoniazzi told us something about these buildings but, if you are curious about the notions regarding the microclimate, the plant biodiversity and the irrigation system of the project, I suggest you readthe dedicated Wikipedia page : it’s very interesting and yes, it’s really innovative, whether we like it aesthetically or not!



At the foot of the Vertical Forest there are a beautiful park with lots of games for children, the Google headquarters in Milan and also the Casa della Memoria : it is a building wanted by the Municipality of Milan and which serves as the headquarters for some associations linked to memory. historical and patriotic of Italy (such as that of partisans or ex deportees). I only saw it from the outside: a simple parallelepiped covered with polychrome bricks that draw faces and scenes from the post-war history of Milan. Very simple, but impressive!


-The colors and atmospheres of the Isola district

At this point, we launch into the heart of the neighborhood! Via Pietro Borsieri is the main artery, with its succession of doors, the peeling plaster of the railing houses, some Liberty buildings, shops and bars that are real meeting points, many closed shutters (on Sundays) but very colorful, real works of art . It is nice to take a tour, listen to the chatter of passers-by, smell from the windows of the restaurants, maybe immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the local market.


If you have time, take a trip to the Parish of the Sacred Face or the buildings of the Covered Market , built in 1946 in Piazzale Lagosta, and take a few seconds to admire the monument to the many “islanders” partisans who died during the Resistance, in the center of Piazzale Segrino. 

-Sanctuary of Santa Maria alla Fontana

Since ancient times, thaumaturgical qualities for the treatment of arthritis and arthrosis were attributed to the water sources that flowed from this area; for this reason, the governor of Milan Charles II d’Amboise had a Marian shrine built here in 1507.

The church itself is very beautiful, built in the Renaissance style and full of frescoes, but the part that I liked the most is that of the back, with beautiful porticoes that overlook a cloister and the room where, once, there were springs (they still exist, but of normal tap water): the magnificent frescoes on the ceiling and walls  literally left me speechless !!

-Fonderia Napoleonica Eugenia

Unfortunately I was able to see it only from the outside, but I would love to visit it! Dedicated to Eugenio di Beauharnais (viceroy of Italy and stepson of Napoleon), this is where many of the bells and castings of Milan and all of Lombardy were produced , as well as the monumental bronze statue of Vittorio Emanuele II which today stands out in Piazza del Duomo. Remained in the hands of the Barigozzi family for over a century, today the Foundry is home to a museum and a location for exhibitions, installations and events.

Random curiosity about Isola

-The Mojazza Cemetery

In an area of ​​the Isola district, once stood the cemetery known as the “Mojazza” , due to its permanently muddy ground. It is difficult to think so now, but many illustrious people , such as Parini or Beccaria, were buried in this cemetery . In 1895 the (wonderful) Monumental Cemetery was opened and therefore many of these tombs were moved there, although many others were miserably lost in the course of the move. Today, of that cemetery only two rusty columns remain on a sidewalk, but also the tombstone of the tomb of Giuseppe Parini . Not in some square or who knows what solemn place, but… in the inner courtyard of a popular condominium, where a piece of the wall of the ancient cemetery has survived!


-Barbieri and the Ligera

The Isola neighborhood was a working-class and poor neighborhood, and it is perhaps for this reason that a certain underworld began to wind its way in the post-war years. You know the “Ligera” , that is the Milanese underworld also sung by some Italian artists (like Jannacci or Gaber)? Here, it seems that the island was the main seat. One of the greatest exponents of this evil was Ezio Barbieri, a sort of modern Robin Hood: aboard his car with license plate 777 (which, at the time, was the number to call the police), he robbed passers-by or robbed banks in a quite spectacular way, and then redistributed the wealth among the inhabitants of the neighborhood. He was captured and escaped many times, until his final arrest in San Vittore in 1946. Today, Barbieri is still alive and seems to be a merchant somewhere in Sicily. Read here and here for more in-depth info, the story is fascinating!

-The Lilac Islands

Going back to the present day, one thing that struck me about this neighborhood is the cohesion between the inhabitants , the feeling of being in a country where people really care about the place they live in. In addition to the many social and cultural associations, there are several websites and blogs that talk about the island and, in addition, wandering through its streets, you will easily find maps of the neighborhood with the most interesting points to visit. These maps are mainly found in the Lilac Islands, the “street lounges” , or wooden huts all colored in lilac (the color of the neighborhood and of the new metro line), where you can also leave your bike or rest for a while, perhaps by charging the mobile phone with the appropriate USB ports.


It is a new urban furniture making part of the “Island and its squares” project , aimed at improving the quality of life in the neighborhood, and I found it a very simple and almost banal idea, but… it works! ! I like.


Addresses :
 Church of Santa Maria alla Fontana : Piazza Santa Maria alla Fontana 11.
 Napoleonic Eugenia Foundry : Via Thaon di Revel 21.
 Parini’s tombstone : Piazzale Lagosta 1.

How to get to the Isola district :
– Subway : Garibaldi or Gioia stops (green line M2), Zara stop (yellow line M3), Isola and Zara stops (lilac line M5).
– Train : get off at Garibaldi SF station. Lines: S1, S2, S5, S6, S7, S8, S11, S13, S14.
– Bus : lines 60, 70.
– Tram : lines 2, 7, 33.

– Where to eat : during the blog tour we stopped for lunch in the Pizzeria alla Fontana (via Thaon di Revel 28), a historic place in the neighborhood, where you can taste pizza by the slice and simple dishes in a welcoming and informal setting.
On another occasion, again for lunch, I ate a very good polenta accompanied by different ingredients from 30Polenta , (floor -1 of Piazza Gae Aulenti). A really simple and well-kept place, we like it.


Finally, the Testina Restaurant  (via Abbadesse 19) is rapidly climbing the ranking of my favorite restaurants in Milan: informal but very nice place, very kind staff, traditional and delicious dishes. But really good, that if I think about it now I am hungry!

– More information : I suggest you take a look at the websites dedicated to the neighborhood, where you can find lots of information (including practical ones), news and events, as well as beautiful photo galleries.

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