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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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DISCOVER ITALY

OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Choosing which coast to visit in Italy can be a tough call, particularly if you’re planning to spend most of the time sunbathing and swimming. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her insights on the pros and cons of both.

OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

The Tyrrhenian west coast and the Adriatic east one are very different, and each come with their pros and cons.

In my view the Tyrrhenian side of the boot wins, because even though it tends to be more crowded due to the many art cities located along it, its beaches have fewer facilities for families and the shores are more ragged, with rocks and cliffs ideal for solo and adventurous young people. 

The Amalfi coast’s picturesque fishermen villages, or Liguria’s Cinque Terre, feature tiny pebble stone bays cut between high cliffs with little space for sun umbrellas and beds.

The Adriatic, on the other hand, is a mass destination for foreign sunbathers, very popular especially among German and Russian tourists. The east coast has Italy’s widest and flattest sandy beaches, which make it an ideal spot for families – but also very crowded. 

READ ALSO: Private lidos take up more than 40 percent of Italian beaches: report

The Adriatic shore is one long line of adjacent beach facilities that run for kilometres from the northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region down south to Puglia. 

Beaches in the seaside towns of Rimini and Riccione, located along the chaotic Riviera Romagnola renowned also for its wild nightlife, feature up to 50 rows of sun beds and umbrellas in summer.

More sunbeds than sand… Some parts of Italy are heavily built-up with an abundance of services. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Beach facilities there resemble open-air condominiums where there are children’s playgrounds, restaurants, sleeping areas, dance floors and changing rooms for clients.

One good thing, though, is the constant presence of bay watchers and lifeguards at each facility, who are present throughout all eastern coastal regions and very helpful if you don’t constantly want to look after the kids. Beach resorts often come with big seaside multi-floor hotel buildings that look like city offices. 

To escape the crowds on the Adriatic coast you need to pick niche, rocky spots with very few beaches such as the Conero Hill in the Marche region and the Gargano promontory in Puglia.

While the Adriatic coast’s wide and easily accessible beaches are great for children and older people, the sea is not always clear and there are just a few top scuba diving and snorkelling spots, such as the beautiful Tremiti islands.

The Tyrrhenian sea, which is deeper than the Adriatic, is packed with diving sites: Ustica island in Sicily and Ventotene isle in Latium are Italy’s top diving meccas brimming with barracudas and giant groupers.

Tyrrhenian waters are cleaner too: in 2021, its shores won more bandiera blu (Blue flag) awards for high water quality standards than Adriatic beaches.

READ ALSO: Where to find even more of Italy’s best beaches

There are also more protected marine reserves along the west coast, which guarantees a pristine environment, and more free beaches without facilities and lifeguards. While this ‘wild’ aspect may be attractive to many, it could make some beaches not suitable for families with small kids. 

Family friendly beaches tend to draw in more crowds. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP)

On the other hand, given its relatively shallow waters, the Adriatic is blessed with reasonable stocks of fish, so if you long for fishing expeditions it’s the perfect destination. 

However the real plus point of the east coast is its strategic location facing other Mediterranean countries and allowing tourists, particularly from the US, to expand their holidays and exploit Italy as the door to the ‘Old Continent’. From the ports of Bari and Ancona, ferry boats depart to Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.

The winning asset of the Tyrrhenian, other than its translucent waters and baby powder beaches, is the huge artistic heritage it offers visitors. The west coast boasts the top must-see Italian cities usually picked by global tourists (Rome, Naples, Florence) which all lie, or are close to the sea – except for Venice (the gem of the Adriatic).

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The cultural appeal of the west side makes the central national highway, the A1 – otherwise known as Autostrada del Sole – a very trafficky infrastructure. 

There are also mesmerising fishermen villages with a mythological vibe along the Tyrrhenian coast, such as Gaeta and Sperlonga, where it is said Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, landed during his wanderings.

Plus, most of Italy’s UNESCO heritage-listed sites are located along or near the west shore. For instance, the archaeological excavations of Pompeii are among the top tourist hotspots in Italy.

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Generally speaking, the appeal of popular places along the west coast inevitably translates into more expensive hotels and travelling costs but it depends on the specific location. 

A photo shows a general view of the archaeological site of Pompeii, near Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The major west coast lure for sea dogs, sailing amateurs and fans of the tan is that nearly all Italian islands are located in the Tyrrhenian sea and reachable from the mainland.

The two island regions of Sardinia and Sicily are accessible by ferry boat from Naples and Civitavecchia, while the Tuscan archipelago, the Pontine islands and Sicily’s dozens of ‘satellites’ such as the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie isles are tropical paradises just a stone’s throw from the cultural highlights.

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Even though both coasts are stunning and are worth exploring, personally, I’d chose the Tyrrhenian over the Adriatic any day, and not just because I’m a Roman who lives in Rome. 

It has a diversified offer of artistic sites and beaches, inlets and cliffs that allow you to savour the most of Italy in just a few days. 

The last time I rented my beach home south of Rome to a French couple, I thought they’d laze all day under the sultry sun. Instead they drove across half of Italy in 14 day trips, visiting Florence, Naples, Sorrento and Calabria. 

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