Milan – The Navigli district and the canals

When you visit Milan you should definitely take a look at one of the nicest neighborhoods in Milan, the Navigli. Here you will find various interesting sights such as the Naviglio. This is an ingenious system of waterways that has its origins in the 12th century. You will also come into contact with beautiful history and culture.

The Navigli canals

In the 13th century, Milan created a fascinating system of waterways, the so-called Navigli. The Navigli connected Milan with the city of Ticino in Switzerland. Someone who collaborated on the Navigli project was none other than Leonardo da Vinci. The canals have a total length of about 150 km. In the 1930s the Navigli were partly filled in. In 1979, shipping on the Navigli stopped. That is remarkable, because in 1953 Milan was the 13th port city in the country, thanks to the many canals that the city had. Until the 19th century, this district was the city’s port district. One of the most important of the Navigli canals was the Naviglio Grande. Digging of this canal started in 1177. A special detail is that these canals contained locks, allowing boats to sail over the canals at different levels. Especially considering the era in which these were built, we can call it a technical tour de force! The boats entered the city with coal and salt and left with many handmade products and textiles. A lot of work has been done on the canals over the centuries. For example, in the 15th century Lodovico il Moro improved the canal system with the help of Leonardo da Vinci.

The Navigli district

Nowadays, the Navigli is considered the nicest neighborhood in Milan. On the quays of the Naviglio Grande you will find many antique workshops and antique shops. In June you can visit the Festa del Naviglio in the Navigli district. It is not only a must for antique lovers, the festival program is very varied. So something for everyone. In the Navigli district you will find the typical Milanese residential blocks, ‘Milanese yellow’ in color. A nice detail is that the balconies continue around the courtyards of the houses. Also visit the Vicolo dei Lavandai. Here you will find a towpath (path over which horses or oxen pulled the boats). If you look closely, you will see old sinks under the wooden shelters. In the past, women washed their clothes with water from the canal! The church of Santa Maria della Passione overlooks the Naviglio Grande. Another interesting church is San Christoforo al Naviglio. Appropriately enough, this is the church of the patron saint of boatmen: San Christoforo. This church includes two buildings, one from the 12th century, the other from the 14th century. Nowadays there are not as many boats passing by as there used to be. The big boats have made way for nightclubs. During events the canal is often richly decorated and boats sail over the canals again. A very special attraction!

Interesting facts about the Navigli

  • In the 14th century, the Candoglia marble used in the construction of Milan’s Duomo was transported along the Navigli canals. An important waterway for this transport was the Naviglio Grande.
  • The amphitheater in Milan (built in 1806) used to be filled with water from the Naviglio canals. Ship demonstrations took place here.
  • In the 1950s boats also sailed over the Navigli. They transported building materials for post-war recovery.
  • The largest church in Milan after the Duomo is Santa Maria della Passione. This church was built from 1486 onwards. The majestic octagonal dome of Santa Maria della Passione offered a beautiful view of the city. In order to enjoy the view even better and to connect the church with the Naviglio Grande, an abbot (called Gadio) had the Via della Passione constructed in front of the entrance to the church in 1540.

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