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MILAN

OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

Milan or Rome - which of Italy's two major cities would you move to? After living and working in both, Roman-born journalist Silvia Marchetti explains why she would choose Milan every time.

Milan: the Italian city that has it all? 
Milan: the Italian city that has it all? Photo: Siavash on Unsplash

Italians are usually very attached to their birthplace and often think it’s the best city to live in. I was conceived and christened in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, so I’m a full-breed Roman. But whenever someone asks me which is better – Rome or Milan – I say Milan, and I don’t feel one bit guilty.

There are many reasons why I’d choose Italy’s finance capital over the Eternal City. I’ve had the chance to live and work in both, so have had time to weigh the pros (and cons) of each. 

In my view Milan beats Rome because it perfectly blends pleasure with quality of life; two things which do not always go hand in hand.

Milan’s livability depends on the beauty of the city, what it has to offer in terms of activities and events, and the efficiency of its services.  

Milan has always struck me as having a global, cosmopolitan appeal, of being a city always undergoing transformation, that looks to the future, is connected to the outside world and isn’t scared of change – probably due to the fact that it’s the capital of the Lombardy region, the economic engine of the country.

Rome on the other hand, despite all the grandeur and prestige of being Italy’s political center, is still very provincial. Apart from the archaeological wonders of the past and the overall ancient, laid-back vibe, I think it’s frozen in time. 

There are not many art exhibitions, little social buzz when compared to Milan, fewer international summits, and it’s hard to meet ‘global’ people other than expats already living in Rome. 

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Milan has another rhythm. The Milanese are workaholics, always on the run, but in a neat way. 

They know they can bike to work along the many new cycle lanes, or that their morning train will likely be on time. What has always hit me in Milan is that there are more subway lines and stations (more than 100 in Milan vs 67 in Rome), and more train and plane connections to the rest of Italy and to the world. 

If you need to fly to Asia from Rome, you’ll find fewer long-haul flights and your plane will make a pit stop in Milan. Last time I wanted to go sunbathing in Pantelleria, Sicily, I had to fly from Rome Fiumicino to Milan Linate and take another flight. 

Milan’s skyline is amazing. In recent years it has undergone an urban metamorphosis unlike any other European city. Baroque palaces, designer boutiques and elegant boulevards are now juxtaposed with avant-garde buildings, vibrant neighborhoods that have been given a makeover, lush parks and futuristic skyscrapers designed by ‘starchitects’ that blend nature with architectural innovation and technology. 

A view from Milan’s “Library of Trees” botanical park in the Porta Nuova district shows the Unicredit tower (L) and the Bosco Verticale (R) high-rise complex. Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP

I see Milan as Italy’s ‘Little Manhattan’. The most mesmerizing ‘new’ buildings are the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), by Italian architect Stefano Boeri, a set of two residential towers featuring trees jutting-out of glass balconies. The 202-meter tall Isozaki Tower, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki for the new CityLife district, and the towers designed by Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid. 

The new neighborhoods have a bohemian vibe. The revamped, trendy Isola-Porta Nuova district was once isolated from the rest of the city as an island, cut away by the train station, a ghetto where only factory workers lived. The modernist boom has worked a miracle. From once being an outcast zone it’s been given a second lease of life. Milan’s gentry has chosen it as their home, while old factory stores have been turned into artisan shops. Art galleries mingle with street art, bistros, experimental restaurants, jazz clubs and bikers’ get togethers.

But the great thing about Milan is that no matter how great its transformation ,it retains its original spirit and has found a balance between tradition and innovation.

And then there’s fashion, but what I love is the fashion with a ‘little’ F. Not the big brands, the glossy designer boutiques that line Via Montenapoleone, but the small artisan-run ateliers where family members have been making tailored, bespoke garments of the highest quality – from shirts to hats and shoes – for generations.

READ ALSO: Seven insider tips for shopping in Milan

What I probably love most about Milan are the art shows and exhibitions. There’s always so much to see and discover, each day there are new events and during the weekend you just don’t have time to squash everything in.

My second most loved Milanese plus point is the aperitivo ritual. 

The Milanese may be always in a rush, but at happy hour their heartbeat slows down and they finally chill. Aperitivo hour is that special moment at the end of a hard day’s work when you get together with your friends, relax, dedicate time to yourself, break the routine by indulging in evening drinks with finger foods.

My favorite cool drinking spots are panoramic terraces, rooftop lounges with infinity pools to admire the sunset, and ancient thermal baths. Elegant gardens, Renaissance palazzos, aristocratic mansions, old factories and art galleries have been restyled into fashionable and vibrant cocktail bars.

A view from the roof of Milan’s Cathedral extends to the Italian Alps. Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Whereas Rome’s Lungotevere banks come to life occasionally, the Navigli canals network is a buzzy, vibrant nightlife hotspot year-round. People get together on barges to enjoy apericena, another typical Milanese fad which blends aperitif time with dinner. My first one lasted 4 hours.

For those seeking to escape the social buzz, Milan also has a ‘quiet’ side which fascinates me. 

There are hidden, secret neighborhoods where time stands still, featuring weird buildings and ear-shaped statues such as those found in the Silence Quadrilateral where you can even spot real flamingos in gardens. Old historical mansions with lavish inner courtyards are worth visiting, too, they’re open to the public only on certain occasions known as ‘Cortili Aperti’ (Open Courtyards) and I recommend booking ahead. 

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The cool thing about Milan is it perfectly blends the modern with the old. There are mysterious spots I adore visiting each time: spooky crypts, ancient Roman underground ruins and damp chambers stacked with thousands of skeletons that were once used as hospital graveyards.

However, even the posh fashion district allows for a quick escape. Last time I was there I found refuge by losing myself in the maze of neat alleys behind the chic Via della Spiga.

I think Milan will always be Italy’s trend-setter, a city with an ‘international breath’, as Italians would say. You really feel that you’re in one of the world’s centers, and not just because there’s the stock exchange.

Sure, Milan is much more expensive than Rome. And that’s because the Milanese have higher salaries, thus a higher GDP per capita, which means the cost of living is higher compared to Rome (from food to property). The Milan-Rome comparison is the emblem of the south-north dichotomy.

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TRANSPORT

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

In a country as attached to the car as Italy, what would it take to get more people to use greener transport? Silvia Marchetti looks at what’s behind the country’s high levels of car ownership.

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

Many foreigners I speak to are shocked by the ‘car first’ mentality that rules in Italy, and by Italians’ degree of addiction to any wheeled vehicle. 

There’s practically one car around for each Italian. Between 2010-2020 the population dropped but there were three million more cars on the roads, despite soaring living costs and falling salaries. 

Italy’s rate of car ownership is the second-highest in Europe after tiny Luxembourg. All Italian regions have a lot of cars running but surprisingly, the number of passenger cars which is the highest at EU level can be found in the Alpine regions of Valle D’Aosta and the northern autonomous province of Trento, where particular regional statutes envisage special tax incentives helping locals to buy new cars.

Most Italians just don’t like walking. They aren’t active travelers who’d opt for a bike, and can’t go even 500 meters without a wheeled vehicle, be it a Jeep, motorbike, Vespa or motorino. 

But it’s not really their fault. People in Italy haven’t been educated on eco-friendly modes of transport, simply because infrastructure like bike lanes, pedestrian paths, high-speed trains, efficient trams, subways and buses are rather lacking. And there aren’t many walkable pavements in cities, let alone in old villages. So the car is Italians’ second home. 

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

There’s an historical reason for this, too. After the second world war, during the economic boom when Italy finally rose from the ashes of the defeat, owning a cinquecento or maggiolino was a status symbol. In the 1960s my father would squeeze eight friends into his cinquino and drive around all night, sharing the fuel cost. Then the car fad turned into a frenzy, and now it’s an obsession.

Iconic Italian car and motorbike models fuelled a post-war fad – which has become an obsession. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Whenever I need to go somewhere far from my house I wish I could do the entire trip by public transport and ditch my car, so as to avoid having parking problems too. I remember once when I was at university there was this huge party near the Colosseum, I drove around for an hour looking for a parking spot and eventually I gave up, went back home really frustrated. 

Car sharing also is something totally foreign to Italians. You just need to look around in the morning at rush hour to see that there’s just one person per car, which is totally unsustainable climate-wise.

READ ALSO: Rome ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Even in areas like Milan, where public transport is more efficient than in the southern regions, people still stick to their car or motorino which just proves how it’s a matter of mentality rather than of transport provision. 

On the other hand, if I want to visit Tuscany or Umbria from my house in Rome’s northern countryside, there aren’t even any direct connections.

My Italian millennial friends refuse to take a bus or tram to the gelateria a few blocks away from their home – the car is the rule, and they don’t care if they risk a fine for double parking, or parking in front of a building entrance. Forget walking, it just isn’t ‘done’.

Italy will soon invest some €600 million in projects aimed at improving bike and pedestrian lanes under initiatives funded by the PNRR, but the mindset of drivers must also modernize for all this money to be really effective. 

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Italy needs an information campaign to raise awareness of environmental and health issues, and this must start inside schools and continue in college. Families also should educate kids to healthier transport modes, and stop buying those ‘micro cars’ when they’re 13 which don’t require a driver’s license. 

I often ask myself what it would take to get Italians – but also other nationalities – out of their cars, or off their noisy motorino with illegal upgrades that make a hell of a noise. Rising oil prices haven’t done the miracle in making car ownership unaffordable. 

Hiking car prices would kill the industry, so the only way is to give tax breaks or incentives to families who keep just one car and manage to share it, or raise taxes if each family member has one. 

Perhaps in a very remote future, interconnected green transport from the doorstep to the destination might be the solution, but at the moment that’s science fiction.

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