Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy
Welcome to stop number five on our nine week trip across Europe! This post covers the four days we spent in Milan, Italy at the end of June. We flew to Milan from Seville, Spain on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. Earlier in our trip, we visited Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada.
This was our first time in Italy and I didn’t have a clue where to visit. I considered Rome but I figured it would be too ambitious to tackle in just four days so we decided to save Rome for later. Milan, though still a sizable city, proved a good choice to fit in a four day slot in our schedule before we headed onward to Venice.
Milan offers a great mix of the new and the historic. In a single day of sightseeing, one can take a hundred year old trolley line to go from centuries old castles and cathedrals to cutting edge ultramodern skyscrapers. Both the old and new proved interesting to me!
Sforzesco Castle and Sempione Park
The main highlight of our trip was the Sforzesco Castle and the Sempione Park. These two attractions sit side by side in the central core of downtown Milan and are easily accessed by a subway, bus, and trolley.
The castle itself offers free admission all the time. If you want to enter any of the several museums on site, there is a small admission fee. We skipped the museums and explored the castle grounds extensively instead.
Walking out of the castle’s northwest entrance brought us to Sempione Park. It’s a big tree-filled leafy green nature preserve right in the middle of downtown Milan. Kind of like New York City’s Central Park on a smaller scale.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Milan Duomo
The Duomo (or “Cathedral”) marks the Catholic Church’s historically monolithic presence in Milan given it’s prime placement in the very center of the city. Though started in the 14th century, the final touches on the cathedral weren’t finished until the last half of the 20th century. This was one of the more impressive churches we visited in Europe.
Right next to the Duomo is another mainstay of Milan tourist stops. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a high end shopping mall built in the late 19th century. It’s the perfect place to pick up all your must-haves from Versace, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Swarovski. If you need to use the restroom, there’s a free one in the McDonald’s next door to the Galleria (and you can make a pit stop at the Ferrari dealer on the way to McD’s).
Getting Around Town
To get from the airport to the Centrale train station near our apartment, we reserved bus tickets for the five of us for €28 total (about USD$31). It was roughly a 50 minute ride from the airport to the train station. Once at the train station we tried (but failed) to catch a city bus to our Airbnb. After waiting for more than 30 minutes we gave up and decided to walk the mile to our apartment. We travel light (nothing but bookbags) so the walk wasn’t bad and the weather was surprisingly nice. We also got an in-depth preview of our neighborhood.
Subsequent attempts to use local transit were much more successful (with one caveat – read on). Transit tickets were surprisingly cheap considering Milan’s reputation as a high priced city. The €1.50 (USD$1.70) single transit ticket is good for 90 minutes with free transfers between tram/trolley, bus, and subway. Kids 10 and under rode free, so we only had to use three tickets at a time. One time on the way home from downtown we used the flexibility of the 90 minute ticket to make a quick stopover to revisit a cool plaza we were impressed with earlier during our stay.
I got trapped inside the subway once when my transit ticket wouldn’t scan properly. Their subway operates on the scan-in, scan-out method such that you can’t leave the underground without swiping your ticket a second time upon exiting. I tried to explain in horribly broken Italian to the transit police that I really did pay for the fare and I’d really really like to be reunited with my wife and three children on the other side of the turnstile. With a smile and a wave, this nice officer let me through without further investigation or interrogation.
Lodging for four nights with Airbnb
We reserved a two bedroom apartment near the Milan Centrale train station. The historic core of the city was roughly 2.5 miles from our apartment. At $86 per night, this place was a steal! We were on the fourth floor of a seven story residential apartment building and it even came with a rickety old elevator that must have been from the Mussolini era.
Overall the apartment was great. Easy to hop on a bus to downtown. Two minutes from a discount grocery store. Comfy beds. Comfy couch. Nice but small balcony. However this was the one place we stayed out of fourteen apartment rentals across Europe where I took a star off during the review process.
Why did the apartment lose a star? The shower curtain was covered in pink mold (though the bathtub was super clean). And the internet stopped working for a couple days before returning to normal on the last day of our stay. My theory is that we exceeded the usage limit for the month – though we didn’t know there was a usage limit. On July 1st the internet miraculously began working once again. Minor quibbles for an otherwise great apartment. Let’s just say it was 1,000 times nicer than our Airbnb from Hell in Quebec City, Canada several years ago.
I’m still a huge fan of Airbnb due to the value proposition and comfort. USD$86 per night in Milan wouldn’t even get me a crappy hotel for five people, and this apartment came with a living room, dining room, and full kitchen plus nice tasteful decor throughout. If you want to try Airbnb for your next vacation, make sure to take $40 off your stay through this link.
Food in Milan
On our first full day in Milan we set out in search of a local pizzeria. We found one within a five minute walk from our apartment. It was right next to a Domino’s Pizza, the ubiquitous US-based pizza chain (that has really improved their pizza game in the past several years). This was my first chance to muddle through ordering food in Italian (it’s kinda like Spanish, right??). Pointing and nodding my head seemed to work since they had all the pizzas on display behind the counter. We didn’t go hungry in spite of my lack of Italian language skills.
Our slightly racist Airbnb host (maybe he was simply honest?) told us all about the tiers of pizza parlors in Milan. Don’t eat pizza at the pizzerias run by the Chinese – it’s not fit to eat. The Egyptians can make acceptable pizza – that’s where we ended up finding some good slices. But if you can find one – and mind you they are rare – eat at a pizzeria run by real Italians.
While in Milan, we mostly cooked at home. There was a very convenient and inexpensive grocery store close to our apartment where I picked up the staples like milk, cereal, yogurt, fruits, fresh ravioli, meatballs, and gelato. They had raw horse meat carpaccio on the shelf but I decided not to try the horse meat this time around (it looked old and withered – not that I object to eating horse meat in general).
We hit pay dirt with several local treats like prosciutto, smoked salmon, spicy salami, dried dates, local cheeses, and olives. These items were 50-75% less than the prices we usually pay at home.
While at the Milan Malpensa airport, we were treated to fine wines and spirits and plenty of food at the VIP Lounge. For free! During our time in Europe, we definitely put to work our Priority Pass Select benefits from our Chase Sapphire Reserve card (check out that card and more in the credit card offers).
Thoughts on Milan
Milan is a big, wonderful, modern city in Italy. I thought it was a great introduction to Italy since it is more manageable than a larger city like Rome, especially if you only have a few days. Transit is easy. The city is compact. Prices weren’t bad at all. People were nice. There are plenty of old buildings mixed in with newer architectural marvels.
The crowds weren’t too bad in general, though the heart of the historic center was pretty packed. We had a good time and managed to see tons of cool stuff during our brief stay in Milan.
Next stop: Venice!
Have you visited other big cities in Italy? How do they compare to Milan?
Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:
- Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000
- Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal
- From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain
- Exploring La Alhambra and the Narrow Alleyways of Granada, Spain
- Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain
- Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy