As many of you know, Kelly and I spent all of June and July in Budapest, where we decided that after the end of August we’d be heading back to the U.S. for a bit before our next adventure. While we were in Europe, we decided that we should make the most of the opportunity and take a weekend trip since airfare from Budapest to anywhere else in Europe was going to be cheaper than flying from the States at a future date. In true budget traveler style, we landed on Milan – a city that I had never been to and that Kelly hadn’t visited in over a decade – based on what the cheapest flight was from Budapest the weekend we wanted to travel.
There was also a little bit of personal nostalgia for us returning to Italy, since we’d honeymooned there in 2013, traveling to Venice, Florence and Rome. I’ve outlined below what a solid 3-day itinerary for Milan looks like and how much it can cost you. It’s got some of the usual Italian highlights – good food, good wine, good art, and a few insider tips that will have you singing “That’s amore.”
Where to Stay in Milan
One of the best features of Milan is that the city is very well equipped with transit and continuing to add more lines and stops every year. Most of the action and sightseeing is going to take place in the center of town, and will rarely be longer than 30 minutes away via transit. While staying in the city center can get a little pricey (70-80 Euros/night) we were able to save around 20% by staying in a place just outside the center, like we did in Amsterdam.
We had a studio apartment to ourselves, with restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and transit nearby, allowing us to get our morning espresso and croissant. Transit cards can be purchased for 24 or 48 hour increments and the clock doesn’t start until you validate the ticket on your first ride. As long as you’re within the city itself, it won’t cost you any extra to ride outside of the city center, and after some of the walking we did during our stay, the extra few minutes on a tram or bus were welcome.
What to Do in Milan
- Duomo – One of the most impressive architectural structures in a city known for its beauty, the Duomo di Milano is not only one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, but by cubic meters, is the third-largest cathedral in Europe and the sixth-largest in the world. It took many architects and six centuries to construct, being finally completed in 1965, and it costs just €2 per person to enter the cathedral, the crypt of St. Charles and the adjacent Duomo Museum. You can pay extra for access to the Archaeological area, as well as the terraces of the cathedral. Like avoiding the Petronas Towers and KL Tower in Kuala Lumpur, and the Sydney Bridge, paying money to go up high just isn’t our thing, but may be well worth it to some. Budget around 2-3 hours to see the cathedral and museum. The Duomo also has an app that’s actually pretty good for a free guide to both the cathedral and museum.
- Museo del Novecento – Adjacent to the Duomo and its museum is the Museo del Novecento, a 20th-century Italian art museum that moves chronologically through the country’s several amazing art modern movements from neo-Impressionism to futurism to surrealism and more. While the whole museum isn’t huge and only takes a few hours to complete, there is a cafe located within the premises in case you need to take a break and soak in the views of the Piazza del Duomo. Entry is €5 per person over 26 years old and audio guides are an additional €5. However, from our experience they weren’t really checking IDs and if we were feeling less moral could have gotten away with free entry. The audio guides, while recommended to us by our AirBnB host weren’t essential as everything in the museum has an English translation and is very easy to understand. Budget 2-3 hours to see the whole museum, depending on your pace.
- Da Vinci Museum – Officially known as the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci”, this is a great spot for kids and science nerds of any age. There are tons of interactive and informative exhibits to take in here ranging from aviation to recycling to a large section on DaVinci himself. This museum can easily fill a whole day depending on how much you want to see and do. Giving the museum its family-friendly vibe, there’s a place for you to sit and eat a bag lunch (along with vending machines), plus you can leave the museum and come back the same day if you need to step out and grab a bite. It costs €10 for visitors 25 and older, while ages 3-24 are €7.50. We got the under-25 tickets without even asking for them or having to show ID, so hooray for baby faces!
- Castello Sforzesco – A 15th-century castle built by Francesco Sforza out of the remains of a 14th-century fortress. Today it contains 9 different small museums that you can explore for varying fees as a way to spend a day. Even without the museums, there is a lovely adjacent park that makes for a scenic stroll. However, the true highlight of the complex might be the cool fountain out front into which you can dangle your feet and get a small reprieve from the heat on a warmer day. If you’re into art, just on the other side of the street from the fountain is Milan’s triennale, which is running until September 12th of this year.
- Cimitero Monumentale – There are plenty of famous cemeteries across the world that are billed as must-see experiences and somehow Kelly and I have been able to stay away. However, when you add in the artistry of Italian sculpture, the Cimitero Monumentale changed our minds a little bit. Each single or family grave is marked with some sort of sculpture, including abstract objects, entire scenes and even full-blown monuments. While the cemetery is completely free to enter, with maps in several languages and a helpful front desk staff, be warned that it does have a high mosquito population (at least, it did after a few days of rainy weather in summer), so bring bug spray. There are over 30 different marked highlights, so you can definitely spend a couple of hours walking the grounds
- Last Supper – Da Vinci’s masterpiece hangs in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie as one of the most famous works of art in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bad news is that you need to reserve your tickets weeks if not months in advance. In addition to tickets just to the fresco, there are many types of packages available involving all sorts of extra add-ons. We weren’t able to reserve a ticket to just see the Last Supper without buying a €60 multi-faceted package, so we passed. If you’re trying to see this, especially on a budget, do your planning weeks in advance and find the option that suits you best.
Where to Eat in Milan
Milan is a fantastic place to mix and match your eating between little cafes, picnics in the park and authentic Italian restaurants. Here are a few of our top picks:
- Spontini – Yes it’s a chain, but their location just a few blocks from the Duomo is delicious and seems to have a line out the door every day. Grab one of three varieties of thick delicious pizzas from between €3-4 Euros per slice and indulge. There’s limited standing room, especially during the lunch rush, but like many patrons, you can take your slice to go and partake on the curb.
- Salsamenteria di Parma – Also not far from the Duomo and the Novecento museum, this place is renowned for their heaping plates of Italian meats and cheeses. For a unique twist, grab some wine that’s served in a bowl to drink from. They have varying sizes of meat and cheese plates, but even the smaller ones are pretty large, so don’t feel like you need to get the biggest (and priciest) option to fill up.
- C’era una Volta una Piada – If you’ve never come across a piada, it’s sort of a cross between a panini, a crepe and a gyro. A large thin bread is filled with all sorts of ingredients and then toasted to perfection so that the cheese melts. Unlike most sandwiches, this one absolutely takes a fork and knife to eat and may be worth splitting amongst two people, especially to save room for one of their dessert piadas. This is roughly a 10 minute walk from the Da Vinci museum, and a pair of piadas along with a dessert will only set you back about €10.
- Aperitivo on Corso Garibaldi – One of the most famous Milanese food traditions is aperitivo, or the Italian version of happy hour. While there are places all across the city with a similar setup, Corso Garibaldi is the hot spot to walk down and find a bar of your liking. For some restaurants, aperitivo means you get a small plate of finger food with the purchase of a drink, while others have a full buffet-style spread. The custom we’ve heard is to only get a plate or two of food for every drink you order, but we saw plenty of locals piling up the food with their one glass of wine. Served between 6-8 p.m., aperitivo can be a great way to spend €5-10 euros for a drink and – at the right bar – fill up on enough food to qualify as dinner.
- Eataly – Another chain here on the list with 30 locations around the world, but like Spontini, it started in Italy and is worth stopping by just to peruse their gargantuan selection of all things Italian food, including several restaurants with big portion sizes that won’t break the bank.
What we spent in Milan
Food and Drink – $155 total or $51.66 per day
Even though this was the most expensive part of our trip, we didn’t have any crazy meals. The most expensive meal was about $30 at Eataly which included a half liter of wine. We could have easily avoided a meal that expensive, as well as the $24 we spent at Salsamenteria di Parma, if we wanted to be more budget-conscious. We also spent just $20 to cook a pair of huge meals at our AirBnB along with a bottle of wine.
Transportation – $60 total or $20 per day
Malpensa airport is about 50km outside the city of Milan, making a shuttle bus the most efficient way to get into the city. We spent over half of our transportation budget just getting two round trip tickets, but it was less expensive than the train and very efficient. There are plenty of bus companies and they all run fairly frequently. Our departing flight was at 8 a.m. and we had no trouble hopping on a bus around 5:30 in the morning. Like I mentioned above, get unlimited transit passes once you get into the city at a newsstand. It’s €4.50 per person for a 24-hour pass and €8.25 for a 48-hour pass. We got one of each for our three-day journey and it absolutely saved money.
Lodging – $123 total or $41 per night
Staying outside of the city center really saved us here. Our AirBnB wasn’t very big and didn’t have A/C, but we were able to get a studio to ourselves and a big enough kitchen to cook a couple of meals there and save money. Looking around on AirBnB, it would have cost us nearly twice as much to stay closer to the city center and wouldn’t have been worth the price with the wealth of transit options.
Attractions – $38 total or $12.66 per night
The only sights we paid for were the Duomo and Duomo Museum, Museo del Novecento and the National Science and Technology Museum. This is another category that has the potential to really climb if you choose to go into a few of the paid museums at Sforza Castle or buy tickets to the Last Supper.
Total – $376 total or 125.33 per day
Overall, this was a cheaper trip than I would have anticipated, finding some pretty good deals on lodging, food and transit, and not spending more money than was necessary by going into a lot of paid attractions. If we did it all over again, I would skip the audio guide at Museo del Novecento, but if we paid full price at the Da Vinci Museum it would have cost the same anyway. Three days seems like the right amount of time to spend as well. We took everything in a very leisurely pace, spending a good amount of time just sipping coffee and relaxing, so you could definitely fit in everything mentioned above within a long weekend.