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MILAN

‘It takes time’: Foreign residents on what it’s really like to live in Milan

As Milan has ranked both highly and poorly in recent liveability surveys, we asked the city's foreign residents to share the truth on what life is really like there. Here's what readers of The Local told us - as well as insider advice if you're thinking of moving to Milan.

Is it possible to enjoy life in Milan as a foreign resident? The Local’s readers weigh in.
Is it possible to enjoy life in Milan as a foreign resident? The Local’s readers weigh in.Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

After Milan was once again ranked in the bottom five in an annual survey of the best and worst cities to move to as a foreigner (this time coming in second-to-last place), we decided to create our own survey asking our Milan-based readers for their thoughts on what life in the city is really like.

The responses were mixed: a little over half of respondents were broadly positive about the quality of life in Milan, checking the ‘life’s fantastic’, ‘I’m grateful to be living here’, or ‘no complaints’ boxes.

Just under half said they have had a difficult experience of living in the city, with around one in ten actively hating the experience.

On an individual basis, readers had plenty of useful insights into how the city ticks and how to get the most out of living in Italy’s economic capital.

Here’s what you had to say about the best and worst parts of living in Milan – as well as your advice for people weighing up whether to make the move themselves.

‘An amazing strategic location’

Those who give Milan a thumbs up appreciate its convenient geographical position and cosmopolitan feel.

“I have Italianness where I want it, and the efficiency, modernity and access of an international-level city when I need it,” says Kate, who’s lived in Milan for a bit less than a year.

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“It’s a cosmopolitan city but it is still small enough to feel manageable,” agrees James Appleton, who moved to the city in 2020. “Things tend to work, and it’s in an amazing strategic location.”

In particular, residents highlight that the city’s close proximity to nature means they can easily take weekend or day trips to a range of scenic destinations.

“Geographically it is in a superb position, near the mountains and the sea,” says resident Melanie, who has lived in Milan on and off for forty years.

Lake Como is just a short car journey or train ride from Milan.

Lake Como is just a short car journey or train ride from Milan. Photo: Anjuna Ale on Unsplash

“It’s amazing to be within an hour train ride of so many beautiful places outside of Milan,” agrees Veronica Policht, who’s spent two living years in the city.

And if you fancy going further afield, it’s also well-positioned for making international trips.

“The airports are very accessible and I really like the convenience of Linate for travel within Europe or to the UK. I think Milan is easily one of the most accessible and navigable cities I’ve ever lived in (I’m from Sydney and have lived in Hong Kong, London, Amsterdam and Tokyo),” says Nicki, who’s lived in Milan for two years.

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‘World class’ public transport

Another highlight of life in Milan, say readers, is the excellent public transport system.

“Milan’s public transportation is amazing, honestly world class,” enthuses Veronica.

It’s “very easy to get around, great public transport and bike lanes and easy to walk everywhere” seconds Nicki.

The city tends to gets a bad rap for its appearance compared to places like Florence and Rome, but several readers said they find Milan an attractive place to live. 

And when it comes to food and culture, many of you agree: Milan’s is second to none.

James cites Milan’s “food and drink options, its beautiful and underrated centre, its modern architecture” as some of city’s best qualities, while Veronica appreciates the “many cultural opportunities available”.

Pre-dinner aperitivi are considered a highlight of Milanese life.

Pre-dinner aperitivi are considered a highlight of Milanese life. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

“The food, aperitivo, architecture, parks, and art,” are all highlights for two-year Milanese resident Joshua; and Steve Geddis, who’s lived in the city for four years, agrees that there’s a “huge range of restaurants, constantly lots to do.”

So what’s not to love about Italy’s economic capital?

‘The pollution is awful’

Two negative aspects of life in Milan consistently cropped up in reader responses: the high cost of living and the elevated pollution levels.

“One of the most polluted places in Europe” is how former Milanese resident Laura summed it up, and Veronica agrees that “the pollution is awful”.

According to Paul Pontecorvo, who’s lived in the city since 2006, it’s particularly bad in the winter: “the period between Jan-Feb with no air moving and smog is dreadful…you feel it in your lungs.”

Residents say the high levels of pollution is one of the worst things about life in Milan.

Residents say the pollution is one of the worst aspects of life in Milan. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

Several respondents also warned that unless you’re on a reasonably high salary, you might not earn enough to take advantage of all that the city has to offer.

“Cost of living and taxes drastically outpace average income making it difficult to do much beyond survive,” is the gloomy assessment from Kurt, who’s lived in Milan for four and a half years.

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Isibor Sunday, who has lived in Milan for four years, characterises life in the city as: “Working like elephant eating like ant.”

The high cost of rent is seen as a particular culprit when it comes to draining funds: they’re “too high and rising” says Veronica.

“Even after the pandemic housing prices are unreasonable, especially for students or anyone who’s salary is based on a fixed nation-wide standard (like university staff).”

And if you’re considering buying your own place, “the cost of buying a house is almost as bad as London but requiring a bigger deposit,” warns Steve.

‘Rainy and grey’

Other bugbears?

For an Italian city, Milan has a cold and rainy climate that some denizens find particularly unpleasant.

“It’s rainy and grey in November – it’s definitely not a Mediterranean climate,” says Kate.

Readers say Milan’s grey and wet weather leaves a lot to be desired.

Readers say Milan’s smog and weather are major downsides. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO/AFP

“The weather is awful,” agrees Marta, who has lived in the city for two years.

If you’re coming from northern Europe, though, it’s likely to be no worse what than you’re used to. “It can be a little damp in November, but only by Italian standards!” says James.

The traffic and driving culture is also considered a drawback: an “over-abundance of drivers make the streets dangerous, ugly, and stressful,” says Veronica.

Charlie, who’s lived in Milan for 14 months, agrees: “FAR too many cars and everyone thinks the pavement is a car park.”

READ ALSO: Ten things you need to know before moving to Italy

Then are some facets of the city that aren’t all that bad in their own right, but that may disappoint new arrivals who have certain preconceived notions of what it can offer.

A few of you noted although Milan is cosmopolitan for Italy, it’s less international than other global hubs.

“Don’t expect such a cosmopolitan hub as London or NY or even Paris,” was the advice from a new resident who’s lived in Milan for five months.

“It pretends to be international but it is not at all and even integrated, speaking the language and having friends there it never gives you the feeling of living in big city like London or Paris,” is the scathing review from one ex-resident of four years.

Milan: not as international as it thinks it is?

Milan: not as international as it thinks it is? Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Says Melanie, who first moved to the city four decades ago: “It has improved and become more international but the Milanese do have a small town mentality!”

And those who think Milan’s status as Italy’s most modern metropolis means they won’t have to deal with the country’s infamous red tape are in for a rude awakening.

“The bureaucracy is as bad as anywhere else in Italy,” says James; while Adam Rugnetta, who’s been a resident for five years, identifies the bureaucracy as the worst part of living in the city – though adds that “it’s the same in the rest of the country.”

Making the move

What guidance do our readers have for foreigners looking to make the move?

Make an effort to learn the language, before and after moving, was the most commonly issued advice.

Not only is the ability to speak Italian almost always critical if you want to find a job with an Italian company, “it makes a huge difference to understanding everything about the culture,” says Melanie.

“Try to speak Italian, even if you’re bad, people will appreciate the effort either way and probably reply in English most of the time,” advises Steve.

Learning Italian will ease your transition to Milan, say residents.

Learning Italian will ease your transition to Milan, say residents. Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Several readers suggested exploring different neighbourhoods of the city and being open to moving around until you find the one where you feel most comfortable.

And with rents as high as they are, Veronica even suggests looking outside the city for accommodation: “Really consider if it’s important to you to live *in* Milano proper or if you could be happy living in a surrounding suburb and commuting to work.” 

Some respondents pointed out that you can feel isolated in a big city like Milan, and it’s not always easy to make friends.

With that in mind, it’s important to take the initiative when it comes to finding a community.

“Be open and outgoing, speak to people, and if you want to make new friends and don’t have school age kids, get a dog!” is what Lulu, who’s lived in the city for five and a half years, suggests.

“Join clubs for expats, the local gym, book clubs, toddlers groups etc, it will be easier for you,” says Melanie.

And if you’re new to the city and struggling?

“Don’t worry about hating it all at first,” she says cheeringly. “It takes time!!”

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MOVING TO ITALY

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

Many people dream of enjoying a slower pace of life in rural Italy after decades of the 9-5. But some make the leap much earlier. One former UK professional tells Silvia Marchetti how she swapped the London office grind for winemaking and never looked back.

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

At some point in life living the dream means abandoning one’s job, and this usually happens when people retire and think about what to do next. 

But one UK professional made the opposite choice: in her early 20s, she decided to ditch a promising career in the corporate and consultancy sector to move to deepest rural Italy and recover her ancestors’ long-lost vineyard. 

Scottish-Italian Sofia di Ciacca, with two degrees in law and history of art, worked for four years at KPMG in London and Edinburgh before she took the opportunity to do something different in life.

Her ancestors, who hailed from the tiny village of Picinisco in the province of Frosinone, Lazio, had migrated to Scotland decades ago. Every time she visited Italy as a child during the holidays, Sofia would feel the pull of her roots.

READ ALSO: ‘What we learned from moving to Italy and opening a B&B’

“I found myself presented with an opportunity very young, thanks to my family’s historical connection to the area, and thought: I either take time to build a career, or I can grab this chance,” she says.

“When you’re building a career, you already know what your trajectory will be: that you’ll be in an office here, and another office there. I realised I didn’t want that.”

At 23 she asked herself: why do later in life what I can do now? 

Sofia at work. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

This awareness took a while to develop, she says.

“As a child when I returned to Italy it was only as a holiday, not my day-to-day life. Imagine a young girl from Scotland, who had to learn about wine. I never thought about it when I was young.”

“Picinisco is so real, out of my comfort zone. That fascinated me”. 

Sofia, now 33, says she decided “to create something of value, that lasts in time and memory”.

Her family had started renovating old buildings in the area, and supported her career leap, but the wine business was something she was going to personally handle and dedicate years of sacrifice, study and hard work to building.

READ ALSO: ‘Do your homework’: An American’s guide to moving to Italy

Sofia had to learn from scratch, in a job that wasn’t quite like sitting in an office in front of a computer, and that required specific physical and social skills. 

She spent around four years studying the secrets of winemaking with Italian wine consultants in other parts of Italy, mainly on vineyards in Tuscany, where she learnt how to clean tanks, press grapes, plant vines, organise and run a canteen, and do the vendemmia (grape harvest). 

“I did traineeships, met experts, other international wine students, and all this helped me to grow,” she explains.

“The wine world is very complicated, you need to learn basic principles and engineering before you can even fathom how to start anything. Only once you learn, study, then you can have your own say, go see how local farmers work, understand how deep they plough the soil”.

Almost 10 years later, her winery now produces premium wines, honey and extra virgin olive oil. The wine is from an ancient grape variety grown in the area, called Maturano, of which production had been forsaken when local families migrated. 

She says it’s all a matter of gaining self-confidence built on hard graft, and it’s best to be honest and humble about things you don’t know, and are willing to be taught. Understanding the “rural respect for farmers” was key for her.

Sofia in the vineyard. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

One challenge was figuring out how to split her life between two countries: Scotland and Italy, and deciding where to locate the sales site, whether it was best to be in the cantina in Picinisco or marketing her products in Edinburgh. She says the balance is still not perfect.

But the toughest obstacle was tackling Italian bureaucracy. 

“I shed a lot of tears. The regulations hindered the business, like getting grants. You really need to follow the rules, understand the system, get the right people to advise you,” she says.

“But above all, stay honest. People will try to befriend you pretending to help, but it’s not worth it. As foreigners at the beginning you just don’t know how things work in Italy, you need to ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to do that”. 

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Another feat was the practical side of wine-making itself, which requires a lot of physical work, from hand-picking the grapes in the organic vineyard to getting the winery in shape. 

“You need to get physically fit, and the machinery at first was really not for me,” Sofia says. 

“I wasn’t great at understanding how it worked but luckily I had the right people to teach me”. 

The first harvest came after years of tough vineyard revival. The six-hectare vineyard produces some 30,000 bottles a year, which have already won three international prizes. Alongside the premium white 100 percent Maturano wine, it also yields a sweet amber-coloured passito wine. 

Sofia with her children. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

“I’ve always been fascinated by grapes, passionate about how they turn into wine,” Sofia says. 

“Recovering the indigenous Maturano variety was a success, it grew well with the fertile soil and the climate. The grapes are left to do the talking, no yeasts are used.”

In the meantime, it’s become a family affair: Sofia got married – her husband, also Scottish-Italian, is a wine importer – and their two toddlers have now started taking part in the vendemmia.

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