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Milan is beautiful and pretty Italian!

Avoid the crowd, go local and don’t miss the lakes

Have you ever asked anybody their opinion on the city of Milan? I did ask various people before going out to Milan and got some very interesting opinions. I confronted my Italian friends with these opinions and to my amazement they confirmed that the opinions I was given are very common in Italy.

So… What do people say about Milan then? Milan often gets bad press from other Italians. Some will tell you the Milanesi are “cold”, others will make you believe the city is boring and some people even dare to claim the city is “ugly”.  Most tourists on the other hand won’t comment on the Milanesi but will immediately associate Milan with Fashion, Shopping & Aperitivo. To a person who is not exactly interested in fashion & shopping but who is very much in love with the beauty of the Italian architecture and the cordial & friendly nature of the Italian people, this was of course a bit of a shock… Was Milan going to disappoint? Well, it didn’t.

To make sure you can enjoy Milan better than the average tourist, I am sharing my top 4 pieces of advice how to enjoy your stay in Milan and to understand why Milan is both beautiful and very Italian.

1. Beauty comes outside the centre

Most tourists make go through the following experience when arriving in Milan: they arrive at Central Station from the airport. The area around the central station is not very good. Although the Central station itself is beautiful, the area surrounding the station is seedy with dodgy people hanging around the station. There is hardly any classic architecture and it doesn’t feel very charming at all.

Milan, Cordusio

Milan, Cordusio

Tourists then proceed to see the historical centre of Milan, which is undoubtedly beautiful. However, due of mass tourism you have to be quite a strong character not to get grumpy amongst the swarms of badly mannered tourists that are herded through the city like sheep, deal with rude waiters who make you pay an extortionate amount for a below-average meal that any self-respecting Italian would be ashamed of and don’t lose your temper if yet another shabby street salesman blocks you in your way to sell you some useless item you never asked for.

That’s why I think every visitor to Milan should be told to please ignore the areas around the central station and visit the city center very early in the morning or if you can’t go there very early, walk through the city center very quickly without stopping. Don’t have lunch/coffee in the city center. Don’t respond to the shabby guys that try to stop you and sell you something, just pretend they don’t exist. Once you are done in the historic centre I suggest doing the following: Walk through the beautiful Parco Sempione and stop for coffee at Triennale di Milano, a beautiful museum with a beautiful garden that’s very light on tourists. This is where the hustle and bustle ends and the relaxed part of Milan starts.

Milan, Via Vincenzo Monti

Milan, Via Vincenzo Monti

Afterwards, leave the park and walk to Via Vincenzo Monti, a very classic and leafy street. Have some lunch at one of the restaurants on Via Vincenzo Monti and then proceed on Via XX Settembre to Piazza Giovine and have a glass of wine in the sun on this pretty little piazza. Then walk past Santa Maria Della Grazie (where you can find the famous “Last supper”) and follow Corso Magenta and Corso Vercelli. There are plenty of nice places on these pretty streets. Finish off the night with an ice-cream from Gelateria Maghera on via Maghera, one of the very best in town. If you have kept your eyes open and observed this side of the city, you’ll know that Milan has a very beautiful side and you’ll think twice before calling it “ugly”.

Milan, St Maria delle Grazie

Milan, St Maria delle Grazie

2. The myth of Aperitivo

People know Milan for its “Aperitivo” culture. The concept of aperitivo is great: if you order a drink in a bar (in the evening) you can also take a few bites & snacks from a buffet. However, this wonderfully simple and gastronomic concept has evolved over time; nowadays people often don’t eat the snacks as an appetizer, but simply have their evening meal during the aperitivo. This behaviour results in the following 3 changes:

  1.  Because people eat so much, the prizes of the drinks have skyrocketed. If you like to have 2 drinks whilst doing an aperitivo you should expect to pay 16 € – 20 €. Ofthen there is a special aperativo rate.
  2. The food gets less and less sophisticated: bars need to feed large amounts of visitors and can’t spend too much on ingredients, the “free” food is therefore relatively simple and mass produced.
  3. Because people come hungry to the “all-you-can-eat-aperitivo” the buffet is crowded, the food continuously runs out and newly arrived plates are empty within minutes.
Milan, the Aperitvo

Milan, the Aperitvo

As a result, aperitivo is often quite disappointing and a crowded, hasty and pushy affair. And it’s not cheap either. If you want to take your time eating you will probably order at least 2 drinks, which often sets you back 20 € per person. For the same money, a local restaurant away from the city center will offer you a nice and relaxed atmosphere, wine, a quality starter and a main course. So think twice before you decide to go for an aperitivo because a local restaurant is often a much better choice. Still want to do aperitivo? Try Akkademia on via Carlo Ravizza.

3. Coldness of the Milanesi

The most often heard criticism on Milan is that the Milanesi are cold individuals, that they have a very closed character. When interpreting this statement one should realise that these statements often come from southern Italians. Yes, compared to Romans, Napolitans and Sicilians the Milanesi are indeed a little less flamboyant, less loud and less chaotic. Compared to any Northern European standard however, the Milanesi are still very Italian, loud & chaotic. You will not be disappointed. And the city is full of southern Italians anyway!

Often when you ask about Milan in the countryside, Italians will paint a picture of a cold, hasty “business city”. Don’t worry, Milan may be a bit cold for rural Italian standards, but to European standards it’s still all very relaxed and has a very laid-back Italian atmosphere.

4. The lakes

The lakes north of Milan are great. Lake Como is a must, really. Why walking through a hot city full of tourists and people that only want your money if you can enjoy the civilised peace and quiet of Lake Como? Get a hirecar and in 45 minutes you could be on beautiful Lake Como. Making a trip around the lake is great (take a ferry across if you want, it’s a very frequent and cost-efficient service) but I would recommend to hire a boat and go on the lake. Did you know that on the lake you can hire a motorboat with up to 40 horsepower without a special nautical license? If you travel with 4 people you could hire a boat and cruise on the lake for only ~35 € each.

Cernobbio, Garda Lake

Cernobbio, Garda Lake

You could drive to Cernobbio, park the car (for free) and get straight onto a motorboat. You can see all the beautiful villages and even disembark on a lido to grab a cup of coffee or a beer if you like, have a swim and bring some lunch to have on board your own motorboat. This is surely an experience you will never forget.

So… It seems my travelling advice for Milan is simple: avoid the crowd, go local, don’t miss the lakes and… Don’t believe everything Italians say: Milan and its Milanesi are very Italian!


Cover pic courtesy of Flickr User Roberto Taddeo

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