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 fourteen part summary 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
- The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy
- Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia
- The Hidden Gems of the Julian Alps and Soča Valley in Slovenia
- Explore Austria: Salzburg, Hallstatt and the Dachstein Ice Cave
- A Week in Munich, Germany plus Neuschwanstein and Dachau
- Czech it out: Exploring Prague in a Week
- The Wall and The War: Exploring Berlin, Germany
- Koblenz, Germany, Eltz Castle, and the Mosel and Rhine Rivers
- Amsterdam’s Cheese Museum and Bike Parking Garages
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Haven’t been to Milan, but Rome was quite manageable when we were there in DEC ’15. Crowds were minimal, especially in the morning, when they were nonexistent. We stayed in a neighborhood near a metro line, and had a quick trip to all the main touristy sites like the coloseum, which we walked right into with no wait in a line at all. The neighborhood had some great places to eat and shop for food as well. 4 days was plenty of time in Rome, so on our 5th day we visited Tivoli, which was about a 45 minute train ride.
Next time anyone goes to Italy, I highly recommend going to Sicily. We snowshoed on Mt Etna in January, while at the base there was citrus fruit growing. And the food and hospitality there cannot be beat!
I was surprised by your report of minimal crowds, then saw the “Dec 2015” timeframe. I wish we could get over to Europe during the shoulder season or off season but we generally travel during the kids’ summer break from school (June-Aug). Unfortunately that puts us in high season (and high heat season for places like Rome!!). Rome and Sicily sound great though!
Great pictures! Pizza is great in Italy, so much better than most places here.
Milan looks great. I’d love to visit Italy again. Venice is my favorite city, though. It’s so different from other cities, especially when you stay at night and most of the day tourists are gone. Looking forward to the next one.
You know, I wasn’t as impressed with the pizza. It was good but we have definitely had better or similar at home (and on an Italian cruise 🙂 ).
Agreed on Venice – it was more amazing than expected (though I honestly thought it would be a tourist trap all around).
Enjoying your slow journey across Europe. Four days for Rome is a good amount of time but Milan is the right call if you want to ease into Italy. Did your family consider a day trip to Lake Como from Milan? According to my kids, Lake Como was the best part of staying in Milan, especially on a hot summer day.
Venice is a tourist trap but it is one you will ever willingly and knowingly go to. It all depends on your perspective. Sitting at an outdoor cafe on Piazza San Marco can either be the most expensive cup of coffee or cocktail ever or one of the best people watching spots anywhere. I’m looking forward to your next post.
We considered heading over to Lake Como for the day but decided to take it slow in Milan (after 4 city in 14 days across Portugal and Spain). I think we had a “do nothing” day in Milan – and we knew Venice (where we went after Milan) would be busy busy busy with only 2 nights there and a lot to see. I really liked Venice in spite of the massive crowds and the sewer and urine stench permeating the busiest areas from the Rialto Bridge to St Marks Square. I’d like to go back off season when it’s not as busy.
Love the post RoG, and the pictures are great! Milan seems relatively affordable too!
Italy is definitely on my bucket list. How feasible is it to travel from city to city as part of a day trip? Are local bus or rail options good enough, fast enough, or affordable enough to make this realistic?
I’d like to do something similar to what we did in Japan — setup a home base and then just take smaller day trips to nearby cities.
Definitely doable. Train service is amazing (not quite as punctual as Germany but very comprehensive and generally fast – like 10000x better than US train service). I think they have family package tickets where kids under 14 or so are free or discounted. And they are super cheap – like a few euros for a short ride. We could have gone from Milan to Lake Como, Switzerland for example on a commuter rail train for a few bucks and it was only 50 minutes from the train station near our airbnb. It was a little more travel than we wanted to do since we only had 3 full days in Milan, but you could easily hit up a half dozen spots around Milan within a 1-2 hr train ride (including Venice probably, which was 2-2.5 hrs away IIRC). We passed Padua and Verona on the way to Venice which would put them both at 2 hrs or under from Milan. And we passed the Lake Garda area (about 1 hr from Milan) which we really wanted to see but couldn’t squeeze it in logistically without losing a day in Venice or Milan (next time maybe 🙂 ). So you could easily set up base somewhere like Milan near the train station and head out on day trips. As for the bus, I don’t think they are as comprehensive in Italy but there are plenty of city buses in each city, and they even cover big rural areas (like near Lake Garda) so you wouldn’t have to rent a car necessarily.
I’ve been to Italy a bunch of times but not Milan, so thanks for the tour. You’re gonna love Venice and Rome, both are amazing in their own ways. And don’t pass by Florence and Tuscany without a stop if you have time. Actually Florence and Tuscany are my favorite!
I think we could spend a month in Italy (and may do so some day!) and hit Florence and the rest of Tuscany and Rome plus some other more southern cities. Just didn’t want to dip that far south on this trip.
Doh, we are going to Rome in Sept of 2018 – wish you had some tips 🙂 great trip thanks for sharing
We were in Milan for less than 24 hours so we didn’t see any of this. Now I am looking to go back because you highlighted a lot of really cool things.
We have another trip to Italy lined up in a few months so maybe then? Or the next time. I feel like we need a lot more trips to see everything.
I agree Venice was my favorite city in Italy that we visited this summer.
I looked at is a pick and choose situation. There must be 10-20 cities in Italy that are very much worth visiting but we knew we couldn’t do more than 1-2 if we want to see a wide swath of Europe in one summer. The trains between cities are very easy and quick so you could go city to city in Italy and spend 2-4 days in each city if you have the time/energy!
If you’re near Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, hit up a place called Luini’s for their panzerotti around lunch time. Its quick, cheap, and the best eats we had in Milan all week
This seems like such a lovely stop. I’m going back to Salerno soon because I have a place to stay. I let my knowledgeable host choose the day trips. Maybe Pompeii will happen this time. He was super upset that I didn’t properly “appreciate” pizza in Napoli. It just wasn’t my jam. It was good, but I like other varieties.
When we were on the MSC cruise we spoke to the Hotel Director (the head guy in charge of all hotel and dining functions) and he was from Naples and said the pizza on board was Napoli style. It was the best pizza we’ve ever had anywhere I think.
Si, la pizza Napoletana is one of the best, if not the best! 🙂
“I tried to explain in horribly broken Italian to the transit police that I really did pay for the fare.”
This happened to us too, in Panama. The transit police were also really nice and let me through even my Spanish was muy malo.
Love those pictures of Milan! Good to know city transit is so affordable. That’s my favourite thing about Europe…the cities are walkable and even the massive ones that aren’t have AMAZING public transit.
We haven’t been back to Italy since 2008. Maybe we’ll go next year.
After paying through the nose for US big city transit, it’s a nice refreshing change in Europe. And so easy and comprehensive!
Really like your reviews of Airbnbs. We never traveled abroad so even though we’re hosts, in another foreign country, I get just as much anxiety as a new guest to airbnb. If it wasn’t for the price difference favoring airbnb, I would chicken out and get a hotel! My biggest fear isn’t running out of internet, it’s if I had to deal with a bad/racist host.
Btw, I think he’s being honest. I know no Chinese person (including myself) who can make a good pizza.
I stick with 4.5-5 star rentals and don’t touch the place if there’s a sketchy review or two. This host had some other choice words for “the black refugees that loiter around the corner near the refugee center – avoid them. Not that they are all dangerous but you never know and we have heard things”. Pretty shocking comment in our race-sensitive America but maybe in Italy his use of skin color was just to clue us in as to which group of loiterers he’s referring to and his English wasn’t 100% fluent so he would miss the nuances and undertones of what he said. And after all, he doesn’t want his guests to become a victim of crime and leave a nasty review about the bad neighborhood (which wasn’t bad at all!!). FYI the refugees we encountered in Italy from Africa were impeccably polite (perhaps they feared reprisal and deportation and knew the tourist police have their eyes open).
Awesome pictures as usual! My hubby went to Rome in high school and was not impressed, so Italy is low on his list of travel destinations. But I think in a few years I can get him convinced to give it another shot following our travel style (not his parents’).
We stayed at our first Airbnb last week, and it was mostly a good experience. I just wish the hosts would fix their constantly leaking showerhead…I feel like they are making money on the rental that they could get it fixed. I haven’t decided if it’s worth knocking them down a star though on the review 🙂
We expect some tiny little problem in every airbnb since we’re usually renting something that costs just a little less than the average price (in other words, we aren’t paying for luxury but ARE paying for what should be a decent place). Sometimes they are perfect but usually it’s something tiny to laugh about and know that you’re leaving it behind in a few days when you move on 🙂 Dripping/weird/difficult faucets are something I would put in that category. And honestly, hotels can be the same way. AC is too loud, it blows straight on your bed, the faucet is tough to turn on/off, tub drains slowly, toilet runs randomly, microwave/door lock/coffee maker/etc is randomly broken so you have to call the front desk.
Compared to other regions in Italia, Roma is just so so. There has been in later years lots of gangs issues and the city is polluted with graffiti, and il metro is dirty also. But for a few days to just see the monuments..is ok.
Horse meat, yuck. Don’t think I could eat that. Otherwise, great post and pictures.
I’ve never had it (after several opportunities that never worked out for various reasons). I don’t really see a difference in horse vs cow vs pig vs smaller game and poultry. So I’m up for trying it but not sure if I’ll like it when I do!
Looks awesome! Are you already planning next years trip?
Recently read Physicianonfire’s trip during the school year — do you guys ever plan on learning vacations as well?
Next year’s trip is done. It’s very simple too. Short flight to the Bahamas for a month in an oceanfront condo where we can walk outside from our patio and straight onto the beach or pool. 1/2 mile of undeveloped beach all for us (and the other 19 condo units).
I don’t know if we’ll take any more big trips during the school year. Perhaps for a week or two right before Christmas or right as school ends in June since they don’t seem to do much academically during those times. But with the oldest 2 in middle school and in high level academic classes, they miss a ton even in a week. I asked them about spending a few weeks somewhere in Mexico so we could attend a Spanish language school a couple hours per day and the kids didn’t seem too interested in that (they take Spanish in school so it would be a natural extension). So for now we’re sticking with short weekend trips and a really really big long summer vacation.
I’ve never been there, but I’ve read and heard from others that Milan is definitely worth skipping compared to the rest of Italy. As a Swiss friend tells us, “It’s just a big, stinky city.” LOL.
BUT, if you’re retired early, you don’t have to worry about where you spend your time, because time is on your side. So you can opt to go check out Florence, Tuscany, and Cinque Terre, et al whenever you want.
I read the same thing about Milan but don’t think it’s true. Venice stunk WAY worse than Milan and it was super packed with tourists. Milan was easy and relaxing. I guess you could compare it to New York City but I found it much less busy, nicer, cleaner, and cheaper. The only complaint was the 3,000,000 Italian residents that all smoke 3 packs a day which seems to be a southern European commonality.
I’ve heard Cinque Terre is absolutely overrun with tourists and doesn’t have the infrastructure to keep up with the demand (at least during the peak tourist season in summer). So it might be more picturesque than Milan (because, hey, cliffside villages on the edge of the ocean and all!) but in terms of comfort and ease, a big YMMV. I keep thinking of the canal-side restaurants by the Rialto bridge in Venice where every tourist must dine to say they “did Venice”. It’s kinda gross and uncomfortable looking. Cigarette smoke mingles with sewage odors while the waiters rush you through ordering a grossly overpriced pizza or a sandwich. You’re packed shoulder to shoulder with your dining companions as 1000 other tourists push by you in the narrow sidewalk. We avoided that area once we got an eyeful.
But yes – Milan fit like a jigsaw puzzle piece into the rest of our itinerary so we picked it over possibly more scenic destinations. Easy cheap non-stop flight from southern Spain, quick train ride to the next stop in Venice. Next time around maybe we’ll go further south and see a different Italy 🙂
I don’t know if you need AirBnB giftcards, but you can get a $100 one for $90 on ebay right now
Looking forward to seeing the rest of your Europe trek. Also looking forward to seeing a great article on the new tax reform bill. As a reader your site has a lot of insight and I am looking forward to future articles.
Long time reader, first time commenting. This was a great post and glad you had a nice time. During your long trips, how do you handle your personal residence? Is it rented out to provide additional cash flow?
We seriously considered renting it out over the summer. But decided not to. We’d have to put a little effort into fixing a few things and then only make a few thousand $ max. We have people come by and check on things, move the van around, even had a guy park his boat in our backyard. I shut off the water and turn the AC to a high temp. In the past we have had family come and live here while we were gone.
We were in Italy this past summer, what a blast! I was surprised at the amount of tourists. We didn’t get to Milan however we did see Rome and it was awesome. Venice was also nice, I guess we lucked out because it didn’t smell.
Venice’s smell wasn’t too bad and it was only in some spots. Definitely worth seeing in spite of the stink 🙂
I am Italian, from Milano and I have lived in the US for about 10 years in the past.
I have a comment concerning pizza, your landlord was right: Italian pizzerias cannot compare to the US ones, but you need to find a real one, managed by Italians and Milano is not the right place…or at least it is not easy. In
fact pizzerias managed by Italians are now focusing on quality, of both the ingredients and the dough, with long hours raising and mix of flours which improve the digestibility and the taste of the pie, with “DOC” (denomination of origin) tomatoes and mozzarella.
My advice is to ask around for a quality pizza next time, which objectively you cannot compare with the slice from the pizza place on the corner in the US.
Having said that, pizza is to be tasted in Campania, the region of Naples. Whenever you are in a different part of Italy, always look for a pizzeria with a pizzaiolo, manager and name from Campania. This is the trick we use in Italy, not to be fooled around with pizza.
Thanks for the tips! Time to plan a trip to Naples. 🙂
We are looking to take a trip to Italy next year with a family of four. For accommodation, we have points with Marriott/SPG but I am not sure if it is possible to book any type of room with points for a family of four? If not airb&b is next best option?
European hotels are weird. Many have a max of 2 or 3 in a room. Check the Marriott site and put in 2 adults, 2 kids and check the box to use points. See what options are available. I know there are some decent Marriott redemption options in Italy but I don’t know if they can accommodate 4 in a room.
Otherwise, we found Airbnb to be very affordable.