In 2010 I moved to Florence, Italy for a semester abroad.
That is how it all started for me. Five years later I’m back, celebrating my two year anniversary with Italy and gearing up for my two year anniversary with my Italian husband.
But even if you don’t end up falling in love with an Italian and moving here (sooo cliché, huh?) Italy is a top study abroad country. Home to the world’s oldest university, one of the most advanced ancient civilizations and a world-celebrated culture, the academic factor is here. Home to laid-back people and the world’s top wine, the fun aspect is here.
Recently one of my roommates from that very same Florence study abroad program texted me, asking if I think Milan would be a good place for her brother to study. While I’m an openly biased advocate of Florence, the question got me thinking a bit deeper about my new city and what it has to offer a student. I’ve written extensively about how to choose a study abroad program here for TransitionsAbroad.com, but I’ve never considered in depth how to choose the city.
Choosing a study abroad location in Italy depends on your personality and what you hope to get out of the experience. If you’re trying to party with the international students, stick with the major cities. If you want to learn the language fluently in four months, run to the smallest town you can find.
Actually, Florence and Milan are nearly complete opposites, but each has something specific to offer:
I definitely have a place in my heart for Florence. Like most study abroad programs, mine influenced me in ways I could never have prepared for. The city is small and personable. With cobblestone streets and some of the world’s most amazing art and architecture, it’s a second course of culture served piping hot.
That said, living in the center of Florence can be like living in a bubble. You’re surrounded by tourists and, of course, you are a tourist. Though I have no regrets with the program I chose, nor the city, Florence does have some downsides for those going for an intensive Italian language program. For one, everyone speaks English.
With its extensive study abroad networks, sometimes it can feel like Florence is a mini-America instead of one of the most beautiful Renaissance cities in the world. Art majors and history buffs don’t need to think twice, but those looking for “real Italy” should head to the hills (literally) or, maybe even Milan.
Check out: A Day in Florence to read about the top sights.
In the past, I didn’t understand those who chose to study abroad in Milan. Dirty and industrial, it has none of that exotic, European charm that you dream of before your move abroad. Now that I live here, I have to admit that I was wrong.
Milan is large in physical size and world view. It’s cosmopolitan. The financial and fashion center of Italy, its history and art are definitely not as in your face as Florence. If Florence is a quirky and curious professor, Milan is his fashionista step-sister. You’ll have to work to get to know Milan, she can be aloof, but once you peel back the layers you’ll see how beautiful she actually is.
Milan, like any big city, can be tough, but I think it’s a great way to get to know the real, modern Italy, rather than the fantasized Tuscan farmhouses. And while Florence is a prime location for day trips and travels throughout Italy, I’d argue that Milan is also a great base for travels. Well connected by train, students can easily take day trips to the Como or Lecco, Lake Garda, Verona or Venice or jump on a high speed train to any city in all of Italy. Milan also has three airports, all of which are accessible by bus or train, making it a great base for traveling thought Europe – even more so than Florence!
Check out: Corso Como to Brera to follow through the center of Milan.
Choosing a study abroad location is all about evaluating what kind of experience you want. If you’re looking for the quintessential Under the Tuscan Sun experience, Florence is your pick. If you’re looking for everyday Italy in a fast-paced city, Milan is where it’s at.
Overall I’d say not to worry too much: When your options are between two of the most famous cities in all of Italy, it’s impossible to make a bad decision!