Milan is one of those cities in Italy people seem to either love or hate – or love to hate, in some cases – and after spending last week there I’ve decided I fall into the camp that loves the city. No, it’s not all medieval squares, Roman ruins and cobbled streets, but it’s also absolutely not bland or cookie-cutter. It’s definitely more fast-paced and modern than much of the rest of Italy, and it’s a very international city (you’re likely to hear several other languages on streets and the subway along with Italian), and I don’t think I’d recommend Milan to tourists on a whistle-stop tour of “the best of Italy,” but for people who truly love Italy Milan is not to be missed – not because it epitomizes all things Italian, but rather because you’re missing a significant piece of what it means to be Italian if you skip it.
For tourists who are stuck flying in and out of Malpensa Airport, Milan has enough sights and tourist-worthy attractions to make it a pleasant enough place to hang out for a day or maybe two. There’s the magnificent Duomo and grand Piazza del Duomo, where if you take things slowly you might be able to spend a few hours just people-watching (and that’s including the hour or so you spend on the Duomo’s roof). Next door, you can start shopping in the fantastic historic Italian version of the shopping mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. There’s Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” which you’ll need to make reservations for in advance and won’t take up much time, but which you’ll talk about forever. There’s window-shopping to be done in Milan’s fashion district, a soccer museum and grand soccer stadium where sports fans can take in a match, and even a couple of easy day-trips to Italy’s famous lakes district (if you’re staying long enough).
Having said all of that, and already having acknowledged that I love Milan, if you’re not a serious Italophile or a fashionista, I’d recommend that you book your flights in and out of the country at a different airport – Rome or Venice (my personal favorite choice) – and skip Milan. It’s an expensive city, and not necessarily well-suited to travelers. While many of the “sights” are within walking distance from one another, there are basically no inexpensive hotels in that same area. So you’re stuck either paying through the nose or staying farther from the things you want to see and learning to use the public transportation network. Given the cost and the relative lack of attractions, you won’t feel like you’ve missed anything by giving Milan a pass.
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If on the other hand you’re determined to see the city (if for no other reason than to find out why so many people dislike it), there are ways to have a great time without spending a fortune. You will spend more for a hotel here than in many other cities around Italy, so be prepared for that, but if you’re not concerned about learning to use the Metro (the city’s fantastic subway system), tram and bus network – which is extensive – you’ll be able to get anywhere in the city you want to go from wherever your hotel is located. And because the city is so big, it also doesn’t matter where your hotel is – you’re likely to find inexpensive local restaurants and eateries nearby which will help you save money on your dining budget. There are also hostels in Milan which you can stay in to save money on accommodations. Plus, if you’re looking for a great nightlife city, Milan also fits that bill. Dinner starts late, and at that point the party is just getting started!
So, the answer to the question, “Should I include Milan in my Italy itinerary?” is, unfortunately, not so simple as a yes/no question. For most people, I would say probably not. But if something about Milan is calling to you, then don’t let anyone (even me!) dissuade you from going. There’s nothing quite like seeing a place for yourself.
For more information on visiting Milan – whether it’s for a few hours or a few days – drop me a note!
Photo by: Spencer Wright