Create a centred horizontal navigation

Written by on CSS Wizardry.

Centring block level elements is easy, just define a width and set margin:0 auto;, but what if you don’t know that fixed width? You could use text-align:center; but that won’t work on 100%-width block-level elements either… that’ll only work on text-level elements.

Defining explicit widths and heights should always be avoided wherever possible, as doing so will make the document a lot less future-proof, flexible and extensible… Suppose you have four items in your navigation menu–you can work out the width of these and use margin:0 auto; to centre them. Adding a fifth will increase the width, meaning you’d need to alter the CSS, too. This is far from ideal, and more so with a CMS to power the site (a client can add pages, but perhaps can’t edit CSS).

However, there is a way to have a centred horizontal navigation without knowing an explicit width, and without adding CSS. It’s also remarkably easy.

The markup:

<ul class="nav">
  <li><a href="/">Home</a></li>
  <li><a href="/about/">About</a></li>
  <li><a href="/work/">Work</a></li>
  <li><a href="/clients/">Clients</a></li>
  <li><a href="/contact/">Contact</a></li>

Pretty standard, an unordered list of menu items. The CSS is where it’s at. I have highlighted the bits that do the majority of the work:

    border:1px solid #ccc;
    border-width:1px 0;
.nav li{
.nav a{

What I’ve done here is simply create a navigation list and given it a border top and bottom (purely to highlight its centred text). Instead of floating the block-level <li>s left I’ve given them display:inline;, that is to say they no longer occupy 100% the available width and they now stack up nicely against each other.

Next we use (the much underused) display:inline-block; to make sure the links themselves don’t break onto new lines but still obey any padding values accordingly. Here I have given them a larger hit area by adding padding:10px;

You could have, if you wanted, applied inline-block to the <li>s. however IE6-7 will only allow inline-block to work on elements that are inherently inline elements. display:inline-block; will not work on block-level elements.


Here’s a quick demo. Try using Firebug or similar to add other list items on the fly, and watch as they seamlessly centre in the list. I have tested this in IE7-8 to find it works perfectly. I haven’t checked IE6 but I imagine it’ll be fine.


You asked and I heard; I have made a CSS powered dropdown version of this for you. The line top:100%; will make the dropdown work in IE7, but kinda ruins the experience a little in all other browsers. Whether you leave it in or not is up to you. Again, view source for the how-to…

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