We're not about to sit here and tell you that Milan is Italy's newest "it" destination, or that it beats out Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast when it comes to scenery. However, several recent developments in the travel world have made us stop and reconsider the northern Italian city's tourism potential.
Travelers who show up in Milan expecting a budget vacation may have a hard time finding their place in this high-fashion, business-focused, straight-faced metropolis. A quick glance at the city's top hotels – Bulgari, Maison Moschino, Principe Di Savoia (a favorite of Madonna's), Armani– ought to give you a sense of the kind of clientele here.
But you can certainly find some great deals. All it takes is some digging. Suppose you wanted to spend a single night in Milan after an 8-hour flight from JFK, before continuing onto your final destination in Europe (or, perhaps, Dubai). Easy! Idea Hotels, a new budget boutique hotel brand aimed at business travelers, offers six properties dotted around central Milan, where rates start at around $66 per night, breakfast included.
Meanwhile, for something a little more unique, Hotel 22 Marzo is a family-run hotel located walking distance of the city's famous cathedral; free WiFi, friendly staff, and a generous breakfast buffet help offset the cozy, but simply-decorated rooms (from $169.50).
While tourists are quick to name a few of Milan's great sightseeing monuments – things like the Cathedral (free), Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II (free), La Scala (tickets vary), Palazzo Reale (9 EUR) – a few lesser-known sites not only show off an alternative side to the city, but also save you money.
The Cimitero Monumentale, for example, is the city's most impressive cemetery, with beautiful tree-lined walkways, marble statues, and a soaring chapel known as the Famedio. The tranquil site is a great addition to any itinerary, as admission is free. (As far as green spaces go, the 95-acre Parco Sempione is another winner, as long as the weather holds up!)
Milan's artillery of uber-trendy lounges, tourist-trap restaurants, and prix-fixe dinners will quickly have you spending too much money for too little food in a too-stuffy space – but if you look for them, there are quality cafes to be found. One such spot is the Bottega Caffe Cacao, a retro-style deli in the Brera neighborhood with a selection of salads, sandwiches, and fresh-baked pastries, all at an affordable price. And if you're in Milan, at least one meal should be devoted to the piadina, a cross between a sandwich, calzone, and a taco. One of the city's best can be found at C'era Una Volta Una...Piada, where piadinas start at 3.60 Euros.
As for getting around, Milan's iconic trams are a quintessential – not to mention incredibly easy – part of the experience. For just 1.50 Euros per ride (4.50 Euros for a 1-day pass), you can zip between neighborhoods in cars that date back to WWII, though newer ones are constantly introduced into the network. Is biking more your style? Milan's bike-share program, BikeMi has stations throughout the city center, with a maximum riding time of two hours per trip.
Over at VisitaMilano, the city's online tourism portal, travelers can select a special "Low Cost" section of the website that helps you find cheap and free events to attend and venues to visit. The listings pointed us to a guided tour and lecture series every Thursday at the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, where you could immerse yourself in early 19th century art and hear directly from curators and art historians for just 8 EUR. Alternatively, if it's Renaissance art you're after, Pinacotec di Brera has one of the city's best collections, with works by Caravaggio, Raphael, and more.