If the choice this year is between Milan or Naples, then you’ve got a pretty nice decision on your hands. These are two of Italy’s most alluring, most iconic, most historically rich cities. They are places steeped in art and history, with amazing settings either by the Med or the Alps. They also happen to offer some fantastically luxurious hotels and great eats – this is Italy, remember?
But Naples and Milan are not all that similar. One is the fashion capital of the north; a buzzy business hub with its own Wall Street and financial quarter. The other is known as the gritty port town of the south; the home of pizza and San Marzano tomatoes, where the skyline is dominated by the sometimes-smoke-belching outline of a certain volcano called Vesuvius.
This guide can help you pick the one that’s right for you. How? It will outline several key aspects of travel to both destinations and weigh up all the ins and outs, offering insights as to where’s best for nature lovers, which town has the most culture-rich sights, and where is easier to get to overall. Let’s begin…
Milan or Naples for ease of travel
Both Milan and Naples have their own airport or airports. However, Milan goes the extra distance by offering not just one, nor two, but three separate arrival points. You’ve got Milan Malpensa (MXP), the main port for long-haul links. There’s Milan Linate (LIN), which is a central hub for business travelers and very close to the city itself. And then there’s Bergamo (BGY), now one of the biggest low-cost airline changeover spots in Europe. Combine those with long-distance, high-speed train links from Paris and other high-speed rail lines going all over Italy, and it’s easy to see why Milan is one of the best-connected towns in the country.
Naples Airport (NAP) is big but not as big as Milan’s major airport. It’s the fifth busiest in the country, so comes served by a large mix of major airlines and budget carriers, along with a growing contingent of budget airlines like Wizz and Ryanair. Naples also happens to be one of the southern terminuses of the Italian high-speed rail network, which means you can arrive in just a few hours from Rome, although it’s harder to get in from other Western European countries like France, Germany, and Austria.
Milan or Naples for things to do and see
Look – you won’t be bored in either of these spots. They are quite different on the sightseeing front, though. Naples is about delving into historic neighborhoods like the gritty Spaccanapoli, where you’ll encounter pollution-stained medieval churches and houses strewn with washing lines. It’s about seeing the underground catacombs of San Genaro and the Castel Ovo on the shoreline. Of course, there’s also that iconic duo of out-of-town history sights: Pompeii and Herculaneum. Still, we think Naples is less about must-see monuments and more about soaking up the vibes and the street life.
Milan certainly is about must-see monuments. The Milan Duomo steals the show. It’s the 14th-century treasure of the city, with a spire that looms more than 100m above the cityscape showcasing some of the finest Gothic building work known to man. You can even walk on the roof these days. This is also the home of the famous Last Supper by a certain Leonardo da Vinci (be sure to book ahead for that at the chapel of Santa Maria delle Grazie), and the rich Pinacoteca di Brera (one of Italy’s finest galleries). That’s also only a taster of what’s in the offing.
Winner: Draw. Both towns have big sights and atmospheric neighborhoods.
Milan or Naples for history
History runs thick and fast through Milan. The city has been a leading player in the power struggles of Italy since the Middle Ages and emerged as the industrial hub of the country in the 19th century. It’s got palaces to show for that, like the Palazzo Reale di Milano and the grand Sforzesco Castle. All that’s now worked into the fabric of the modern town – a centuries-old relic popping up between boulevards here, a 1,000-year-old cathedral rising there.
Naples’s history is older and more startling if you ask us. The best of it is on the outskirts of the town, at the enthralling sites of Pompeii and Herculeanuem. They were once grand Roman estates but were totally destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, an event which acted to preserve many of the ancient buildings under layers of ash. You should spend at least a day touring both. Also don’t miss the Naples National Archaeological Museum, which has some of the preeminent finds from the aforementioned sites.
Winner: Naples. It’s older history.
Milan or Naples for food
Weighing up the various foods is always a tricky one in Italy. Thankfully, it’s made a touch easier here on account of one thing: Pizza. Mhmm…Napoli is the veritable home of the legendary Italiano pie. The annals say it’s been made here for over 2,000 years, though the margarita that everyone adores is a much more modern invention. They make it in classic pizza restaurants to age-old rules, using only 00 flour and San Marzano tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. You’ve never tasted anything quite like it.
Up in Milan, the cuisine certainly isn’t bad. Known as Lombard cuisine, it’s a bit of a fusion between the cooking of the Med and the cooking of Central Europe, with noticeable influences from Germany and Austria alike. The most iconic dishes here are the saffron-infused risotto known as Risotto alla Milanese, minestrone soup, and the sweet Panettone, a cake usually made with rind of citrus fruits and eaten at special occasions. Oh, and don’t forget the drinks and the wine – the mountain bubbly from Franciacorta DOCG and the Spritzes are nothing short of fantastic on a summer’s eve.
Winner: Naples wins, mainly because it’s the home of pizza!
Milan or Naples for day trips
It’s hard not to be tempted by the looming presence of the mountains in Milan. The Italian Alps begin just on the northern edge of the city. On a clear day you can see them, crumpling the horizon into lush hills and even rocky summits. They host the best day-trip opportunities, particularly in the form of Lake Como. Head there to tour handsome villages that are flanked by millionaire villas (one of which is owned by George Clooney, you know?). You can also do day outings to the gorgeous hill city of Bergamo and the more distant reaches of Lake Maggiore from here.
Naples is all about exploring its eponymous bay. That’s host to the twin UNESCO sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii, which will require at least a day each. Keep going and you can do day trips to the eye-watering Amalfi Coast. That’s a pretty darn incredible region, where roadways snake on precipitous ridges around pastel-painted towns and lemon orchards to pebble beaches washed by teal waters. Be sure to stop by Positano and Sorrento on your way. To the north of Naples, the grand palazzos of Caserta are another worthy excursion.
Winner: Almost a draw, but we think Milan just about pops it because of the Alps.
Milan or Naples for nature
Choosing a big city like Naples or Milan might not be the best way to go if you’re keen to see the more natural side of Italy. But there are some secluded and wild reaches within striking distance of both. In the south, Mount Vesuvius is the obvious place to go. Soaring 1,281 meters up to the southeast of town, you can hike scree ridges to the very crater! Go beyond and you can walk in the untrodden reserves of the Parco regionale del Partenio and the lovely Monti Picentini. Or there are the beaches of Capri and the Amalfi Coast.
We think Milan must win out here, though. Again, that’s all down to the proximity of the Alps. Drive north for 50 minutes and you can be immersed betwixt the jagged tops of the Parco delle Orobie Bergamasche, where alpine lakes glow under gnarled pinnacles. Go further and you can even hike the glaciers of the Adamello Range. Keep going and you’ll eventually come to the epic Dolomites, arguably the prime hiking region on the planet. There’s also skiing and lakes on the menu.
Winner: Milan steals this one.
Milan or Naples for price
It should hardly come as a surprise that Milan is the dearer of these two city destinations. The northern hub of the country is hailed as the financial capital of Italy. It’s home to a trading street that’s the country’s answer to Wall Street. It’s also the home of European fashion, a rep that brings in some serious high rollers. The whole lot has a knock-on effect on the cost of travel, so much so that it’s hard to even get a hotel for under $100/night. Food is also pricy, with meals coming at about $40 a head with wine.
Naples should be your pick if you’re on a tighter budget. There are hostels on offer in these parts for a wallet-friendly $25 a night, and hotels in outer districts can be had for $60-80 a night without any issues, even in the high season. The tasty Campanian street food is a gift for diners seeking low-cost eats, too – even the famous Neapolitan pizza won’t set you back more than $10 a pop. The only risk here is when you travel south into the Amalfi Coast, where prices can soar to be more in line with Milan and the north.
Winner: Naples – it’s cheaper for pretty much everything.
Milan or Naples – our conclusion
The truth is that any bucket list out there should include both Milan and Naples. These are unquestionably two of the best-known cities, not only in Italy, but also in the whole of Europe and the world. Overall, we’d say that Naples trumps it on the history and food front. It’s the gateway to the amazing relics of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are surely the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Rome itself. It’s also the birthplace of pizza, so there’s no arguing when it comes to nibbles. Milan wins out for shopping and luxury. It’s got some seriously top-class hotels and the iconic Fashion Quarter. On top of that, we think it’s slightly better for day tripping and adventure travelers.