In our 5 Shops series, we’ll point you in the direction of our favorite independent shops across some of the world’s best cities. From food markets to bookshops, vintage and homegrown design, we’ve found a diverse and exciting mix of local retailers where you can pick up one-of-a-kind pieces.
It may be the city where Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and the Prada brothers began their fashion empires – but there’s more to Milan’s shopping scene than haute couture. If, that is, you know where to look.
As a travel writer who’s been living here for over 10 years, I’m constantly on the lookout for local gems, like a vintage store in a 15th-century palazzo or a bite-sized bookshop right in the city center. Here are five places that will whisk you away from the famed Quadrilatero d’Oro and give you a taste of the city’s independent shopping scene.
Best place to buy a souvenir: Pasticceria Cucchi
Opened in 1936 in the Ticinese area, Pasticceria Cucchi is a historic bar, cafe and pastry shop that’s been run by the Cucchi family for three generations. It’s a quintessentially Milanese city institution, where fancy older ladies in fur, fashion people and families come for croissants, coffee and elegant aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks) brimming with old-world charm.
It’s also the place for exceptional panettone (€40 for 1kg) all year long. Since this is the city that invented this airy, fruity cake, one makes the perfect gastronomic gift. I can vouch for the cake’s softness and the delicate flavor of its candied fruit. If you’re low on luggage space, the Cucchis also sell gourmet nut spreads and binge-worthy chocolate-covered almonds.
Best vintage store: The Cloister
Vintage shopping in fastidious Milan is exactly how you imagine it to be. Forget bargain bins and bulging racks of clothing – here, items are selected and displayed with the utmost attention. The Cloister is no exception. Tucked away in a historic building dating to the 1400s, the store also happens to be in one of Milan’s most beautiful neighborhoods (the Cinque Vie). Pieces are sourced from both Italy and France, and curated by expert vintage hunter Daniela Cavero.
This is the place to get your pre-loved Prada heels (€280) or Valentino shirt (€210), although my personal favorite is the vintage workwear in various shades of blue (€80–230). Upstairs, browse independent publications with such intriguing titles as Hiking the Dawn of the Metaverse.
Best independent clothing store: Emil
Created by Milan-born designer Giulia Mojoli, Emil was an online store for six years before recently getting a permanent address in the city’s Chinatown. The store is sleek, minimal and as elegant as the women’s clothing that hangs delicately from its racks. Everything is made in Italy by local artisans. Even at a glance, the quality of the workmanship and raw materials is obvious.
You can find staples here for every woman’s wardrobe, like a fitted striped shirt in silk (€115) or a pair of sand-colored linen pants (€142), both of which I barely resisted purchasing. If you’re lucky, you might even be served by the designer herself, who’s not only attentive but also imparts her passion for the products.
Best bookshop: Colibri
Less than a 10-minute walk from the Duomo, Colibri is a bookshop-bar-cafe that ticks all the boxes. It’s fantastically central yet feels hidden, has a cheerful courtyard decked out in plants and serves coffee that’s as good as its gin and tonic. Most importantly, the bookshop is a well-curated nook (though with a rather small English-language selection). It’s the kind of place you’d go to buy a Virginia Woolf book, then discuss polyamory and politics with left-leaning friends from the nearby university. As an aside, the building used to be a squat frequented by none other than Keith Haring in the ’80s; it still houses a mural he painted (although it’s not open to the public).
Best food and wine shop: Cantine Isola
Open since 1896, Cantine Isola has long been synonymous with good wine and a warm welcome. Originally owned by the Isola family, in the ’90s it was taken over by the Sarais family, who proudly upheld its devotion to wine.
What I love about this enoteca is how cozy and unassuming it is. Its shelves are packed with bottles from around the world, along with hand-scrawled prices and even some poetry, while Luca at the bar is ready to steer your palate in the right direction. (He received a nomination for Miglior Enotecario d’Italia – Best Wine Seller in Italy – in 2022.) In the heart of Chinatown, Isola is great for a night of well-priced wine and nibbles, or if you’re hunting for that life-changing bottle.