One of Milan’s best-kept secrets lies in the north of the city: the 19th-century working class and sleepy residential neighbourhood of Isola, which translates as “island”. As its name suggests, Isola is isolated from the rest of the bustling city, cut off by railway tracks. Increasingly, however, the area’s industrial and art nouveau (or liberty) buildings are being smartened up, and new high-end apartment blocks are being built.
An influx of artists came here for cheap property in the 1990s. Although prices are a lot higher now, the neighbourhood is attracting international companies. Google, for example, is locating its Italian headquarters in a new block next to the skyscrapers of Porta Nuova, an ambitious regeneration development that is already home to UniCredit, the Italian bank.
“Isola used to be purely a blue-collar area but today it’s undergoing huge change,” says Marco Randolino, an estate agent at Gruppo Toscano who has worked in the area for 16 years. “Families, young professionals and some TV personalities are buying here but the area’s original craftsmen and workers have remained.”
On Via Volturno, the location of the new Isola metro station, and where Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi spent some of his childhood, one café has a stack of second-hand books to browse through while sipping a coffee. It is one of many bustling traditional cafés with outdoor tables; small family-run trattorias and modern brasseries are everywhere.
Further down the road, a contemporary block of flats with artistic metal balconies squeezes in between traditional buildings. This is V33, named after the street and number, designed by architects Vudafieri and Saverino. A three-bedroom apartment with a terrace overlooking the city skyline costs €1.35m; a 240 sq metre penthouse, spread over two floors, is €2m. A one-bedroom pied-à-terre on the second floor is selling at €465,000. The three properties are on sale through Altitalia and Realty MMO.
In a more traditional building, a large top-floor two-bedroom attic flat is for sale in Via Lambertenghi, at €1m, with LH Immobiliare. The 180 sq metre property has been attractively renovated, with a large, light sitting room and open-beamed ceiling, two bathrooms, a study, laundry room, lift and terrace overlooking Isola and the skyscrapers of Porta Nuova beyond.
Like many European city neighbourhoods, the area is largely made up of apartments in period buildings and modern blocks, with a limited supply of houses. Surprisingly in a city that struggles to shake off its industrial past, this area of Milan is green, with many of the streets tree-lined and leafy. In the centre of Isola, Via Borsieri is pleasantly shady for people sitting at the cafés and restaurants dotted along its pavements. But street parking is a problem here, as it is throughout the city. Old-style trams clank through the area, providing a slower transport option.
A local covered food market sells good quality hams, meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables, and a lively street market sets up in the area twice a week. At night the famous jazz club Blue Note attracts jazz fans from across the city and beyond.
One young Italian banker moving into the area likes the juxtaposition of “secret gems” such as the Bramante-style cloister at Santa Maria alla Fontana. Its faded frescoes face a wall of bold colourful graffiti, which is plentiful in the area. Around the corner is Deus ex Machina, a stylish motorbike shop and brasserie serving brunch, cocktails and biking accessories.
Apart from the UniCredit-sculpted steel spire, which rises above the area, among the biggest contrasts to the traditional architecture are the two towers of Bosco Verticale, high-end apartments designed by Stefano Boeri. True to the name – Vertical Forest – each upmarket flat has terrace gardens, clad with trees and plants.
The properties will be completed in a few months and are priced between €1m and €10.8m. At the top end, a 495 sq metre split-level flat on the 24th and 25th floors with five bedrooms, five terrace gardens and parking for three cars, though no gym or pool, is on the market for €10.8m via Residenze Porta Nuova.
“In the Milanese mind, Isola was on the wrong side of the railway tracks and not a place to choose to live. Now people see the area has been regenerated in an attractive way and 60-70 per cent of buyers are Milanese,” says Manfredi Catella, chief executive of Hines Italia, the developer behind the project. “Families from Milan’s historic centre are buying here for themselves, their children and grandchildren.”
Randolino describes this part of Isola as having been “a no-go area of abandoned warehouses”. In spite of this there was local opposition to the project, and Catella says there was a lot of discussion between the local community and Hines. Building a new community centre for young people and a small local garden has done much to improve relations.
There is now more interest from international buyers, he adds, who are partly attracted by the nearby neighbourhood Porta Nuova, which is becoming a vibrant area. A large landscaped public park is also being built at Porta Nuova and will be finished in time for the Milan Expo 2015.
● There are good transport links, with a metro station at Porta Garibaldi and a new line to Isola, M5, which is being extended. An express train to Malpensa airport runs from Porta Garibaldi station
● The summer climate ranges from a pleasant 24C for an average June to about 29C in July and August
● Property taxes are 3 per cent of the value of the property if it is a first house or apartment in Italy, but 10 per cent for a second property
What you can buy for . . .
€550,000 A two-bedroom apartment above shops or offices
€1m A top-floor two-bedroom flat with balcony
€10.8m A split-level apartment in a luxury tower block with five bedrooms, five terrace gardens and garage space for three cars