In Milan, when the clock ticks over to 6pm and the sun starts to slowly sink, something rather magical happens: the shuck-shuck of ice in a cocktail shaker heralds the aperitivo hours, a time when locals gather to chat, clink glasses and savour a few nibbles.
But in a city where pre-dinner drinking is almost ubiquitous, it’s hard to know where to begin. Here’s our guide to the best spots in Milan for a glass of Negroni and a feast of strong Parmigiano, wafer-thin prosciutto and bowls of plump olives. Cin cin!
In the shadow of the Duomo
Located right next to the Duomo, Straf Bar is where young fashionistas tend to gather. Don’t feel intimidated though, the atmosphere is relaxed and casual. An extension of the design hotel, the bar resembles a tiny art gallery, but if the weather is good try and join the locals outside on the red sofas.
Where the hip things hang
For something creative, seek out Rita in the vibrant Navigli area, where the bartenders aren’t afraid to get inventive with their ingredients. With a wide selection of spirits arranged like a liquor library behind the bar, a drink can mean anything from a classic Campari-based pick-me-up to a sharp Gin Zen (gin, ginger, sugar and lime cordial). The nibbles change, but expect homemade pizzettas, plump green olives and stacks of vegetable crudités.
The bar that turns back the clock
One of Navigli's more unique spots, Mag Café sells a remarkable array of cocktails with the drinks menu changing regularly. Inside, it’s all a bit Midnight in Paris as bartenders dressed in braces handcraft extraordinary cocktails, each served in a 1920s-style glass. Try and grab a seat on the small terrace where there are some serene canal-side views.
The bar where it all started
With velvet chairs and polished wooden tables, little has changed since Bar Basso first introduced the aperitivo to Milan. As bowls of olives and plates of crisps find their way to the tables, smartly dressed bartenders still shake up signature Negroni Sbagliatos under the shimmer of a crystal chandelier. The sparkling cocktail, which comes with a huge hand-cut cube of ice, even has its own glass – a huge goblet known the Colossus.
Something a little stylish
Little brother to the acclaimed Milan bistro Pisacco, Dry strikes the perfect balance between tipples and nibbles with carefully assembled cocktails and pizzas so good they deserve their own restaurant. Michelin-starred chef Andrea Berton is the man behind this stylish idea; wash down the calzone (stewed onions, baked olives in anchovy butter with smoked cheese) with an ever-popular Gin Gin Mule (Tanqueray 10 gin, fresh mint, sharp lime and ginger beer).
A vintage emporium
Close to Porta Romana, Lacerba is an Aladdin’s cave for aesthetes, with bright Fortunato Depero prints adorning the walls and all manner of objects (empty bottles, miniature VW campers, a bike) hanging from the ceiling. Arrive early to get a seat at the low, mismatched tables and try the Bloody Mary, which can be served in eight different ways, including a fiery variation with tequila, yellow pepper and turmeric.
Drink with a biker gang
It can feel like you’re trespassing when you first arrive at the main gate of the Deus Café (deuscustoms.com), but get past the door and you’ll be immediately dragged into a world of motorcycles, bikes and surfboards. A bar, shop and workshop rolled into one, this hip place has a great selection of beers and cocktails and serves a classic selection of finger food and antipasti too.
The local wine library
Homey Cantine Isola has been serving fine wines to the Milanese for well over a century. Located in the heart of Chinatown, this teeny shop is treasure trove of plonk, where almost all of the sparkling Italian vintages, full-bodied reds and sharp whites are available by the glass. Locals tend to stand at the bar, sip and then leave, but there is a single table in the shop too. Watch for the waiter putting out plates of fresh bites towards the back of the cellar.
The cocktail catwalk
Something of a statement bar, it’s not unheard of to see a celebrity or two sipping on a spritz at the Radetzky Café. With a terrace that spills out onto a cobbled pedestrianised street, this lively hangout mixes classic aperitivo drinks like Negronis and gin lemons, as bowls of salted nuts, chilli fried rice crackers and plates of crisps arrive directly at the table.
The cosy choice
Even with such limited seating, Pandenus remains a Milanese favourite. Why? Take one bite of their soft focaccia bread and all will be revealed. Food is the main draw at this much-loved Largo La Foppa cafe and bakery, where the cheesy pizza bites are just as good as the wine on offer.