Italy’s financial and fashion capital has long been considered the one of its priciest cities as well. With entire blocks dedicated to fashion designers, contemporary art scenes for the mega-rich to frequent and private courtyards closed to common folk, Milan can seem like a tough place to travel cheap. But it is possible to visit Milan on a budget.
Actually, Milan is an inexpensive destination with activities that fit any budget.
Once upon a time a European vacation was a fancy, almost once-in-a-lifetime trip. It meant saving and planning. It wasn’t done by everyone. Now, however, with hundreds of flights and a more favourable exchange rate, Europe is much more accessible – that includes pricy Italy. Flight prices are down (this Huffington Post article says that Milan saw the largest drop in prices last year) and the crises is felt by everyone, meaning local prices are a bit lower as well.
Milan can be as expensive as you want her to be – and many of the models and international businessmen aren’t playing around when they come in to town – but for most travelers will be happy to know that they don’t have to skip the glamorous city.
Most of the top things to do and see in Milan are free or nearly free.
Here’s how to do Milan on a budget:
Eat at Luini
Luini is one of those tourist things that even Italians partake in. Luini’s sells sells panzerotti, a food similar to a gourmet hot-pocket. A small hole-in-the wall establishment, Luini’s is Italian’s take on fast food. For just 2.50 euro you can get a classic tomato, mozzarella and ham panzerotto, either fried or baked. Located just off of Piazza del Duomo. Check out the Duomo and Galleria, then stop from all that sightseeing for a fast, and cheap, lunch! (also, delicious.
Or go to the supermarket
If you’re not around the Duomo or a yummy, gooey, gourmet hot pocket isn’t your think (who are you anyway?) then keep an eye out for the small grocery stores that hide themselves throughout Milan’s neighborhoods. Though those in the center can be pricier than most, they are still a cheaper option than the tablecloth restaurants lining the streets. Head inside for snacks, drinks and sandwiches. At the very least, avoid the food trucks for your bottled water and get it at a supermarket instead. It will likely cost you up to 75% less.
Go for an aperitivo!
No visit to Milan is complete without an aperitivo, and luckily for you it’s also the all-time-cheapest dinner option. Order a cocktail and get free food as well. Unfortunately, your beer or wine will cost as much as a cocktail during an aperitivo, there’s usually a flat fee of 8-10 euro, but the amount of food typically offered should more than make up for it. An aperitivo combines all the best that Milan has to offer – fashion, people watching, gossip, drinking and nightlife. Gab, gawk and gorge, for cheap.
Hit up the parks
After you go to the supermarket for a cheap lunch, take it to one of Milan’s many parks. Parco Sempione is one of the most centrally located parks, right behind Castello Sforzesco and next to Brera, but the Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli, near Porta Venezia, is probably the biggest park within the Milan city limits. Here you’ll find the Planetarium and the Museum of Natural History, both of which don’t cost much. Just outside the center, you’ll find the Parco Lambro, a large park perfect for sports or a barbecue (Metro 2, stops: Udine, Cimiano or Crescenzago) or Parco Nord, the largest park in all of Milan. A park is always a great place to rest, kill time and enjoy the city.
Walk walk walk
The absolute best way to see a European city is to walk it. Start from one end, walk to the other. Start in the center and move your way out. Go from one neighborhood to the next. Move from site to site on foot. My all time favorite walk in Milan for new-comers is from Garibaldi Station and the Unicredit Tower (see modern building dominating the skyline above) all the way to the Duomo. (See: From Corso Como to Brera) Though it takes a bit, you’ll pass the new Unicredit Tower, Corso Como 10, Eataly, Brera and all its galleries, Castello Sforzesco and Parco Sempione. And what better way to end a walk then with a full frontal view of the gorgeous Duomo? Turn into the Gallery and reward yourself with Luini’s panzerotti– You’ve just toured through many of the major sites of Milan on one grand walk.
When that fails, take the subway.
Ok let’s say your short on time, tired or just lazy, Milan’s subway system is well-serviced, convenient and inexpensive. It costs €1.50 per ride, but you can get an unlimited day pass for €4.50 or a pass of 10 for a small discount as well.
Visit churches and all the other free sites
One of the biggest draws to visiting Milan on a budget is that most of its major sites are free. The first that come to mind are all the major churches, every one of which is free. Visit the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, named after the city’s patron saint; Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of the Last Supper (which sadly is not free); or the massive Duomo, which only charges two euro if you want to take pictures but otherwise is free. The Stazione Centrale is so grand it’s worth a visit, and free.
Other free things include the impressive and historical Cimitero Monumentale (this photo essay might convince you why a cemetery is worth visiting), and La Galleria, known as the world’s first shopping mall. Other places worth visiting that aren’t free are still quite reasonable. The Castello Sforzesco costs only 3 euro for adults, but it’s free to all from 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and from 2 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. on Friday. La Scala’s museum costs 5 euro and it costs 6 euro to climb to the top of the Duomo. Though some claim it’s a “tourist trap”, I happen to think it is one of the only major touristy things worth doing in Milan. Nobody can take that breathtaking view from you and the close-up of the gargoyles is worth seeing.
People watch, anywhere
Though they don’t realize it, Italians stare. They stare much more openly than Americans do, with none of that quick averting of the eyes when caught. Girls stare, guys stare, this isn’t just a sex thing. They size you up, check out your clothes, pass the time away observing others. There’s hardly a better place to do this than in Milan, where the entire city feels like a catwalk. Find a park bench, sit on the steps of a church, stop by a cafè and while the hours away observing the many characters that visit Milan. People watching is perfect travel activity, and luckily for you it’s free!
Shopping in Milan has a tendency to be ex-pen-sive! But it doesn’t have to be. Window shop the day away on via Montenapoleone, but do your real shopping far away from the center. The easiest stretch is Corso Buenos Aires. It’s still central enough that you can find hotels and enjoy a nice dinner or aperitivo in Porta Venezia, but actual street is Xkm of shops shops and more shops, mostly mid-priced. Here you’ll find classics like Aldo, Zara, and H&M but you can also find small shoe stores and chain brands popular overseas like Mango and Pimkie, or head outside of the city to shop at an outlet store.
I know you’ve come to see the city, but leaving Milan isn’t a bad idea at all. It will almost certainly save you money! Get a cheap train ticket to some of Lombardia’s best cities: to Monza where there’s a a lovely city center and an enormous park (of course I’m biased), Pavia, Bergamo, or the absolutely gorgeous (and delicious) Mantova. Take a train north to visit the Lake District. We all know my favorite destination on the lake is Varenna, but there are dozens of lovely towns to tour. Milan is a great location for a base and a day trip could be just the way to save a bit of money and still see all that beautiful Milan, and Lombardia, has to offer!
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