Milan is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. Sure, it may not be as distinctly picturesque as Venice or as historically significant as Rome, but this bustling city does have a lot to offer, including a vibrant arts scene, unique gastronomical delights and breathtaking sights. All it takes to make the most of the Italian fashion and finance capital, and discover its true nature, is to know a few useful bits of information before you go. Here, we’ve put together a list of the top 10 things to know before visiting Milan.
Milan lies in the Lombardy region, in the north of Italy. While most people are familiar with the typical southern Italian effervescence thanks to heavy representation in film and television, the cities closer to Switzerland have a culture all their own. In this fast-paced metropolis, you’ll find people bustling to and from work in much the same way as those in London or New York. You may see some of the hustle and more reserved attitudes often noted of colder, northern cities – of course, in addition to enjoying the finer things in life, aperitivo and family meals. But life just runs at a different pace here.
Aperitivo is a cultural phenomenon made famous by Milan. While you won’t find the Milanese sitting down for a long, boozy lunch as you might in Rome (where they take a kind of midday “siesta”), you will find them enjoying a sunset drink in the evenings (more similar to a “happy hour” when the work day is done). Aperitivo, strictly speaking, means a pre-dinner cocktail. But here in Milan, the tradition includes a buffet that, at many of the bars, is included for free with your first drink. Sit by one of the canal-side venues for a wondrous view of the sunset, nibble on some cold meats, salads and pastas, and watch Milanese life go by.
Most of the restaurants and cafés in Milan will have an umbrella stand available for you upon entry, which says a lot about the weather here. It can quickly turn from blue-sky day to rainy, drizzly afternoon with little warning. So it’s a good idea to keep a small, foldable umbrella handy with you when you’re out and about.
Milanese food is unique to Italy and incredibly tasty. The Lombardy region in general tends to favour butter and meats, versus the southern regions’ olive oil and carbohydrates. So, you’ll find Milanese menus awash with gorgeous, buttery risottos, lamb cutlets and other distinct specialties. Try the risotto Milanese, which you’ll find on offer at most local restaurants. This bright-yellow dish is seasoned with saffron and often topped with cheese or a meat sauce – depending on the restaurant. Many of the restaurants will also have a signature cocktail to pair with your meal, so be sure to ask your waiter about theirs.
Bars and cafés are abundant in Milan, so no matter the time of day, it’s not hard to find a spot for a drink. However, when a Milanese person tells you they’re going to a bar, they often mean a café. The two are almost interchangeable terms, as both tend to serve alcoholic drinks and coffee. When ordering a coffee, keep in mind that a regular coffee, or caffè, means a shot of espresso. If you’d like a latte, ask for a latte macchiato (milk and foam with a small amount of espresso). For a late-night drink, there are no shortage of speakeasies and trendy bars dotted throughout the city, especially in the Navigli area.
Buying tickets for the trains, trams and buses in Milan is quite simple if you’re staying within the city limits. Available at ticket machines near the Metro, or at many convenience stores, tobacco shops (or tabacchi), or newspaper stands, the standard ticket will give you 90-minutes’ access to any of the transport lines within the city. If you’re going outside the city, it’s worth asking the staff at the Metro or the counter staff at the newspaper and convenience stores which ticket you’ll need, as they vary depending on the area.
Even in this busy metropolis, business hours can be quite old-fashioned. Many stores will close for a couple of hours at lunchtime and won’t open at all on Sundays. Hours differ greatly between businesses, so if there’s something in particular you need to get your hands on, be sure to check the trading hours for a particular business before making plans to visit. The restaurants and bars, however, are generally open quite late, as the Milanese tend to eat dinner at around 9pm. So, you won’t have any trouble finding something to eat or drink at almost any time.
Although Milan can seem like a bit of a concrete jungle, it is an incredibly beautiful and vibrant city, if you know where to go. For example, you’ll find an enormous park right inside the city. Parco Sempione is full of historic buildings, museums, a grand lake and many picturesque spots to sit for a picnic. In fact, on a sunny day, you’ll find scores of Milanese sitting and enjoying the sunshine here. Milan is also host to one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in Italy. The Orto Botanico di Brera is located behind Palazzo Brera and spans some 5,000 square metres (54,000 square feet). Originally established over 200 years ago, the garden was designed to grow medicinal plants and assist in the study of horticulture in Milan. Today, it’s a quiet green oasis open to the public. Stroll through the lush grounds and you’ll come across fish-filled ponds, geometric flower beds, water fountains and many a comfy bench where you can take a break and listen to the birdsong that fills the gardens.
No matter where you travel, it’s always handy to know a few key phrases in the local language. Please and thank you are a must: per favore (purr fav-or-ay) and grazie (graht-see-eh). Order an espresso by saying “un caffè per favore” or, to ask for the bathroom, “Dov’è il bagno?” (sounds like doh-vey eel bahn-yo). To order a couple of large beers, say “due grandi birre, per favore”, and to ask for the check, say “il conto, per favore”.
As is the case throughout much of Europe, tipping is not essential in Milan, but it is appreciated. Some businesses will include a service tip in the bill (especially in the touristy spots near the Duomo), so look out for that on your bill. When you don’t see the service included, at a restaurant it is customary to leave a 10–15% tip for great service, whereas in cafés, leaving the spare change behind from your bill is more than adequate (although not expected). When staying in hotels, it is not necessary to tip cleaners, concierge or other staff, although you won’t offend by offering a tip.
This is an updated version of a story originally created by Akane Shiba.