Milan is isn't the first place in Italy that springs to mind for a weekend away. It's somewhat overshadowed by its prettier neighbours Florence, Venice and Verona. But this ancient, sophisticated city has some attractions that's can't be beaten anywhere else in the country. From the sartorially sophisticated locals, upmarket restaurants and opulent museums and galleries, Milan is a city that is surprisingly cool despite it's industrial reputation.
Whether this is your first visit of a return of many, there are a few things to be aware and reminded of and a couple of things not to do. That way you can really enrich your experience of Milan and the local landscape.
If you're going to be in Italy for a while, the eating rituals should start to ingrain themselves on your constitution. Italians are nothing if not conformists, especially when eating; this means a small, sugary breakfast: usually coffee and brioche, and then a large lunch and small dinner. However, these small dinners do not transition so easily when it comes to aperitivo.
Most foreigners' ideas of aperitivo come from the French 'aperitif' where you have a cocktail and canapés before dinner. If you're invited for an aperitivo in northern Italy the tradition is somewhat different and more drawn-out, you buy one drink (priced from €8-12) and are hereafter given licence to eat as much of the bar food as you like. Aperitivo culture has really taken off in Milan and most locals now see it as their main meal instead of the warm-up.
2. Learn some Italian
Most professional Romans speak excellent English, especially in the larger, touristy areas where you will be hard pushed to find a waiter who won't reply to you in English. Despite this it's always an idea to learn some conversational language which helps build a rapport with the locals. Here are some basics that should get you through any eating experience in Italy...
Prendo (I'll have) tre birre, un caffè, una pizza etc.
Per favore, Grazie (please, thankyou)
Un tavolo per due (a table for two)
Il conto per favore (the bill please) – You have to ask for this, see point 3.
3. The waiter isn't being rude when he leaves you alone to eat
This phenomenon isn't unique to Rome, but it's worth mentioning because it catches so visitors many off-guard. Italian food rituals command that food (and people) take their time, so it's up to you to wave a cameriere (waiter) down and ask to order and also for the bill.
The same relaxed attitude also applies to tipping which is rarely done in Italy. I was once chased down the street by a barista for leaving an extra €5 on the tray after paying. Ok that's not true, but often bar staff will question a tip, especially if the establishment is small.
If anything were to cause trouble in Italy's industrial paradise it would be the smallest of parasites, no? Yes. Milan is a hotbed of mosquitos (le zanzare) and they punctuate the night air from May-October. The city is built on swampland and the hot, humid weather brings these creatures out in droves. The best protection comes from pharmaceutical sprays and plug-in repellents; it's best to buy these in Italy, as the chemicals work best to fight-off the natives. There are many things that could ruin a trip to Milan, but the zanzare needn't be the biggest threat, unless you want to pay in blood for your foolhardiness.
Milanese tram in the city centre © Bert Kaufmann/flickr
5. Mussolini didn't make the trains run on time
There's an urban legend that 20th century fascist leader Mussolini made the trains run on time in Italy, well it's not true, despite the protestations of many of the older generations. Italians and their watches very much march to the beat of their own drum. This is not an elaborate music metaphor Italians pay liitle attention to time keeping - it's not uncommon to see two clocks in a piazza displaying totally different times, even in Milan. Trams, buses and trains rarely run on time, neither do meetings or lunch-hours. This can be infuriating for a foreigner trying to do business here, but the best advice I can give is that you'll do well to just go with it. Meetings start when the most important person arrives, and if that's not you grab a coffee and wait; it's the Italian way.
6. Not all roads lead to Rome
Milan is a great city of course, that's why you're here! But if you're on an extended trip you'd be crazy not to escape the commotion and pollution and get some fresh air in some of the picturesque local countryside. Wealthy Milanese have been frequenting the lakes of Maggiore, Lugano, Iseo and Garda and Como since Roman times, the latter is mere 40 minutes train journey from the city centre. With their red-roofed holiday homes, grand hotels, warm, flower filled shores and on-the-water restaurants the lakes are a luxurious paradise where the city's bright lights seem a million miles away.
Villa Monastero in Varenna, Lake Como © Simon Greig Photography
Florence is also a close call from Milan, with the fast-train (FrecciaRossa) taking you into the city in an hour and half. The smaller cities of Pavia, Bologna, and Verona are also short train-rides away and offer a more authentic experience of Italian city dwelling than cosmopolitan Milan.
Nowhere does coffee like Italy. Making a good caffè here is an art in itself and the Italians know how to serve and consume it with style. The Milanese are busy people and the surcharge imposed upon sitters means they drink small espressos standing up at the bar. Please note: order a caffè and you'll get a simple espresso; all other types of coffee need to be distinguished as such.
8. Cash is king
You might now be used to paying for everything on your debit card; and the thought of carting around a wallet full of cash isn't ideal when you're in a strange city, but in Milan get used to it. Independently run cafes and shops (of which there are many) in Milan often have minimum card spenditures. Italy has years of mistrust in banking systems and merchants pay huge card bills. It may seem backward, like a lot of things in this country, but it's better to just carry cash and get on with it than to argue with a bar tender because he won't let you put a €1 coffee on your travel money card.
*Bonus tip: Always keep your receipts. Local police patrolling can ask for a proof of purchase as you leave a shop, if you've already chucked-out the receipt the merchant can be fined up to €1200.
Milan's Navigli district in the south of the city
9. Romantic ideologies
Italy is still a new country, (unification didn't occur until 1847) and for this reason many people identify themselves with their region first, and their country second. With this heightened sense of local identity comes certain stereotypes. For example...southerners see the northerners (in particular the Milanese) as cold, money-driven and high-maintenance whereas those from the north see the southerners as hot blooded lazy, tax-evading outlaws.
Like all stereotypes these views can be debated. But it's fair to say that Milan, as a dynamic and international city is still affected by some of Italy's rigid traditions and customs. Though these are charming and unique they often seem detrimental to the country's economic progress. Whenever an Italian tries to impress a certain way of doing things on to you don't take it as gospel...I guarantee that they'll be doing the same in reverse.
Parco Sempione, Milan
10. Actually, none of this matters so much because...
Italians love to talk, and if you're friendly enough the owner of the restaurant, shop or hotel will happily tell you all about themselves, their family and their country. They'll advise you on where to eat, where to shop and tell you all the secrets of the place you're in. This is a really lovely part of Italian society; even the busiest Milanese people will help you or chat if they can. You'll also learn an awful lot that no travel guide can tell you. Milan is one of the best places for people watching: the clothes, the language and the expressions are all a part of what makes this such a glorious place to be.
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