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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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Ever visited a picture-perfect Italian village that felt too idyllic to be real? There's a reason for that, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Italy’s many beautifully authentic, ancient villages are a major reason why foreigners flock here, fall in love with the lifestyle, and often settle down for good. 

But in some places, that ‘dolce vita’ feel can be so well-fabricated that it is just fake.

It might have happened to you that while visiting an apparently idyllic borgo, or village, you felt there was something totally off with it; be it the neat windows, the empty, shuttered houses, the lack of locals around. Maybe it was so picture-perfect it seemed unreal.

There are places that have been totally restyled and hence lost their soul, and are just mere tourist postcards that contribute to distorting the real image of Italy abroad. 

They appear to be medieval, but even if they do date back centuries they’ve been given such a thorough makeover that everything is tidy and shiny, giving you the impression of being on a movie set.

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I’ve visited some of these villages, and what hit me was the attempt to recreate that ancient vibe just to fool visitors – while at the same time destroying what Italy’s authentic villages are all about.

Most have been elegantly restyled. This is positive given they might have otherwise ended up in the grave as ghost hamlets, but the extreme ‘maquillage’ has killed the original spirit of the place.

The ancient village of Castelfalfi, in Tuscany, dates back to pre-Roman, Etruscan times and is – was – a jewel. Following massive real estate investments it has turned into a luxury retreat for wealthy foreigners looking to bask under the Tuscan sun. 

Pretty as a picture – but where is everyone? Castelfalfi, Tuscany. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

During winter everything is shut, boutiques sell modern things and signs are written in English. The vast estate, formerly belonging to aristocrats, has been transformed into a huge golf club, and local residents are nowhere to be seen. There’s even a high-end restaurant in the castle tower for lavish meals. But no matter how beautiful it is, it gave me a feeling of sadness and emptiness.

I think places like this feed and recreate that stereotypical idea of a typical rural Italian setting, of elegant mansions with pools, ceramic boutiques and flower shops.

Nearby the village of Certaldo di Castro is another example of a fake old-style spot. It is indeed medieval and is famous for being the hometown of Italian poet Boccaccio: his museum-house is a must-see and the main highlight. You get to admire his room, bed, slippers and nightgown – that’s why I visited.

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But other than that, it seems like the whole village has been rebuilt solely on Boccaccio’s legacy – there are just a few bars, restaurants, and B&Bs. No real village buzz, no elders sitting on benches. Last time I went, and it was during Christmas, most places were closed and I ended up eating a panino. 

The reddish roads and brick tile roofs have been perfectly fixed as per medieval style, and the chapels are also stunning. But life seems to have been frozen in time when Bocaccio inhabited it.

Certaldo di Castro has impressive medieval history but no village life. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I recently drove hundreds of miles to explore what has been named as one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Greccio. I found a ghost town.

It was perfectly renovated, but all shutters were down and not one single resident could be spotted. There were just holidaymakers having picnics on benches.

The streets were super clean. The stone walls were covered in paintings by local artists, hailing peace and friendship among countries; images that have nothing to do with the town’s old roots, nor character.

I must say it was a real disappointment. It surely is one of those places that come to life on weekends or during summer, when people visit. It is not ‘vissuto‘, as Italians would say, meaning it is not ‘lived’.

In the Tiber valley, the Calcata hamlet is a top destination for Romans looking for a weekend escape. The village is aesthetically charming, shaped like a giant mushroom jutting out of a deep green chasm. It’s perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river, with cave houses, moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels and wall openings overlooking a thick jungle-like canyon. 

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But the original residents no longer live there and it’s become a ghetto of hippies and artists who each weekend come to turn it into an Italian-style Halloween village. Witchy objects, pumpkins and puppets are everywhere, while souvenir shops and boutiques sell weird, spooky amulets. Benches and doors are painted in bright colors and restaurants prepare exotic dishes.

This has killed the original old vibe, and though I love the scenery, I dislike the ambiance and village decor, which has nothing to do with its history.

Calcata is very similar to Civita di Bagnoregio, also in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ as soil erosion could make it crumble any day. 

Civita is world-famous for its dramatic scenery: sitting on a rock surrounded by a precipice, one single narrow bridge connects it to the mainland. I visited it several times: ten years ago it was lively. 

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Two years ago, it was Easter, and I found a dead city. Just three locals going up and down the bridge, and a colony of hungry cats. It’s just luxury expensive B&B’s, taverns, souvenir boutiques and spots for selfie addicts. Artists and VIPs use it as their lair, yet despite its breathtaking beauty there’s really not much left.

I stayed the night once and ended up taking the car and driving to the nearest town for a slice of pizza for dinner because I couldn’t find an open trattoria.

If you can’t find so much as a single tavern open, no matter which day you visit, and if you don’t overhear some chit-chat among local grannies or some gossip at the bar, then you’ve likely landed in a ‘fake-authentic’ Italian borgo: perfect but unreal.

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