Milan on a Whim, on a Budget

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Visiting Milan was an impulse, something tacked on after hours of price-hacking when booking our 2018 Eurotrip. Our eyes had glazed over and our judgement had become cloudy by the time we purchased the flight. Getting to Milan was an ordeal I’ve shared several times and won’t get into again. I will say, all in all, that is was totally worth it.

Milan Duomo at Night

We were only in Milan for 2 days so we did the counter-intuitive thing… instead of cramming 48 hours to the brim with “must see” hot spots, we didn’t plan anything. We didn’t even look up things to do until we were sitting in our comfortable hotel resting from our flights. Is our age catching up to us? (We are now in our 30s). Was it travel fatigue? Were we out of money? (Definitely). So, we winged it, and were honestly really happy with the results.

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Getting There

Milan is in the Lombardy region of Italy, situated at the base of the Alps mountains. Getting there by ground is easy from Italy: you can drive or take the train from Florence or Rome, and arrive in a few short hours. We flew in on EasyJet from Berlin. The largest airport (Malpensa, MXP) is a considerable distance from the city center and the airport train is not necessarily cheap, at €13 one-way. Keep this added cost in mind if you are booking multiple stops around Europe. This website has an excellent summary of how to get to Milan.

Things To Do

Apertivo

When looking up places to eat dinner in Milan, we found a vlogger who, much like us, arrived in the city with no real plan. A young backpacker, she found out about apertivo, a happy hour-like tradition involving a drink and some light food around 5 or 6. We headed to the Navigli neighborhood which has a higher concentration of university students and therefore the cheapest, most generous apertivo spreads. We went to Vintage the first evening and Manhattan the second evening.

I’m sure the quality of food and drink would be better in another neighborhood, but we were focused on the quantity. For just €7-€10 we got a drink plus all-we-could-eat pizza, pasta, side salads (like a chickpea salad or rice pilaf), antipasti, and charcuterie. They give you a small paper plate, but you can get multiple. I exercised restraint but did fill up my plate three times.

The lovely thing about Navigli, and the reason so many people flock to this area for apertivo, is not just the cheap prices but also the lovely way the sun sets over the canal. This view was a lovely way to finish our last day in Europe.

Duomo

Unlike any cathedral I’ve ever seen, the shining white Duomo must be visited twice: once in the day and once at night. Located in the heart of the city, it faces a large, open square filled with fellow tourists taking photos. As I mentioned at the top, we were out of money so we didn’t go inside (€2) or take a tour (€13), although I totally think that would be worth it.

Here’s my tip: if you want your photo taken by a stranger, find a young hipster with a fancy camera taking multiple shots of their friends: that’s how you know you’ll get a good one.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery

Is there anything more American than arriving in Italy and going to Starbucks? Hear me out. The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan is something to behold, and even the locals who were there with us were quite impressed. Interestingly enough, when we visited, the location had been open less than two months. Just so you know, we had plenty of authentic Italian espresso while we were there, too.

Anyway, we were taking the above-ground tram (taking the slower, above ground transit is a great way to see the city instead of taking the underground metro) when a beautiful building with a patio filled with green plants caught my eye. Looking closer I noticed it was a Starbucks Grand Reserve roastery. A former post that is now transformed into a soaring spectacle adorned in copious amounts of copper, it was seriously impressive. To be honest, it was really nice to have a big (12oz) drip coffee after a week of small espressos across Germany and France.

Find and book Milan tours and activities; book ahead to save time and money! From Viator.

High Fashion

My main impression of Milan was that it wasn’t as flashy as I expected it to be, considering it is one of the word’s fashion capitals. Apart from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping center adjacent to the Duomo, Milan could have been any other large city.

We walked through Quad d’Oro, where there are many high fashion boutiques. It was relatively early on a weekday and many stores were closed. I saw lots of recognizable brands that I cannot afford, but I’m both proud and ashamed to say that the thing that impressed me the most was that I got to see an Italian greyhound in its native homeland: Italy! (My husband and I have our own Italian greyhound).

The Last Supper

One of the most famous frescoes in the world resides in Milan: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Access to this painting is highly controlled due to its age and condition. There are a very limited number of tickets every day, and you have to get them online months in advance. However, online they get snatched up almost immediately by professional tour guides. Of course, you can also book one of these professional tours to view it (at a steep markup) and reinforce their bad behavior… We did not view it.

And More

Clearly, there is a lot more to do in Milan than the things that I shared. Here are a couple more suggestions to inspire you on what to do in the EU’s fifth-largest city:

  • Visit Sforzesco, a medieval castle
  • Relax in the sun in Sempione Park
  • Have gelato every chance you get
  • Attend an AC Milan or Inter Milan soccer game
  • Fine dining for dinner instead of apertivo
  • Take a Leonardo Da Vinci themed tour

As you can probably tell, we had a good time but barely scratched the surface. For suggestions from people who actually planned their trips to Milan, check out the Milano essentials posts by Nomadic Matt, This Crowded Planet, and We Are Travel Girls. You will discover the perfect items to fill 2, 3, or 4 days in the city. Or, just be like me and plan nothing!

Where to Stay in Milan

We had a nice time at the affordable Ibis Milano Centro. Ibis is a great bet if you are looking for a reasonably priced chain hotel experience, like I was. Staying inside the ring road (see map below) costs more, but is more walkable. We stayed just outside the ring and took the above-ground trolley, which I really liked.

Booking.com

What did I miss? I’m sure it’s a lot. Have you ever arrived in a new city with absolutely no plan whatsoever? How did that go? Let me know in the comments!

Photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.

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2 comments on “Milan on a Whim, on a Budget”

  1. Great post! I went to Milan for a day and we had a really good time. However we decided to walk to Navigli for dinner after a day of walking, then realised that we were walking in completely the wrong direction hahaha. Anyway we never made it there, which is a shame, we ended up eating at a pretty crap place, and I feel like it would have been perfect going to Navigli. Ah well, haha. My navigation skills haven’t got much better since then!

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