Milan or Rome? Now that’s a tricky one. Most bucket lists would surely put the fabled Eternal City right up top, where you’ll wander between the ruined remains of colossal temples and see the masterworks of the Vatican Museums. But we think there would also be loads of travelers who’d prefer Milan; chichi, chic Milan with its coffee joints and piazzas and proximity to the Como Alps.
In all honesty, you’ll probably have a great time no matter which town you pick – they are both up there with the must-see spots of Italy, and both come replete with artistic masterpieces and architecture that’s among the most glorious on the continent. But there are some key differences between the two that might sway that wanderlust.
Cue this guide. It unearths a number of things about each Italian metropolis to help you decide between them. From the sights and attractions that are on the ground to the taste-bud-tingling food that’s on offer, we’ll try to reveal just enough to help you pick Milan or Rome this year. Saluti!
Milan or Rome for sightseeing and attractions?
The big one. Mhmm, it’s no secret that most globetrotters with their eyes on the Eternal City or the capital of Lombardy will be looking to see some sights. And they’re rarely disappointed. Both of these places are loaded with grand palazzos, enthralling museums, and more churches than you can shake a deep-fried Romana artichoke at.
The sightseeing in Milan usually begins on the Piazza Duomo. There, one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals in the world looms above the Spritz-clinking cafes: The Duomo di Milano. Built over the course of a whopping 600 years, it was started way back in 1386. You can go in for free, but the bucket-list walk on the rooftop will cost around €10 ($11.70).
A short walk north from there can bring you to the exquisite arcades of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a glimpse at the fashion-mad side of the city through windows adorned with Gucci and Prada and more. Keep going and you’ll cross the prestigious La Scala opera house (perhaps the most famous in the world – sorry, Sydney) and then hit the Pinacoteca di Brera, a gallery replete with works by Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens alike.
That’s also just scratching the surface of what’s on offer in the center of Milan because neighborhoods like Navigli and NoLo come with more in the way of modern art and shopping.
And then you have Rome. We wouldn’t be going over the top if we said that there was hardly a better sightseeing city on planet Earth. Look one way and you’ll spy out the muscular arena of the Colosseum, the most famous ancient relic of the lot. That looms over the Roman Forum, which hosts the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the old Senate House, and even the tomb of Julius Caesar, which are wedged between the grand imperial palaces raised by Nero and Trajan.
That’s just 2,000-year-old Rome, though, and it sits plush next to the Tiber River as it wiggles into the Centro Storico, Rome’s medieval quarter. In there, the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona draw the eye with majestic art and people watching, while the sights of Tridente – the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain – are for those who want a little romance. Capping the lot off is the overwhelming load of art at the Vatican Museums. They’ve got arguably the most incredible collection ever put together and finish with the illustrious Sistine Chapel!
Milan or Rome for ease of travel?
This is a showdown between two of Italy’s best-connected cities. One – Rome – is the cultural capital and the seat of the government. The other – Milan – is the economic hub and the powerhouse of the north. That means you shouldn’t have to worry about getting to either.
Rome has two major airports that host commercial flights. Ciampino is on the south side of the metropolis. That’s where you’re likely to touch down if you go for one of the many low-cost flights that jet to the Italian capital with Ryanair or easyJet.
The other option and the much larger of the two arrival points is Fiumicino Airport. That sits closer to the coast on the western side of town. It’s got oodles of arrivals both long haul and short-haul. Most notable are the connections with Alitalia (which have a hub here) and Wizz Air (a low-coster that connects to much of Europe, especially Eastern Europe).
Rome is also the anchor point of the fantastic Italian train network. High-speed routes go north and south from here, connecting to Bolzano in the Alps and Naples on the coast in just a matter of hours. Those renting a car can also get in from anywhere in the country using the E35 and E45 motorways, which run the whole spine of The Boot.
Milan trumps Rome on the airport front. There are a whopping three airports on offer to those looking to jet in. The closest to the center is Milan Linate Airport, which mainly focuses on serving domestic and short-haul links with Alitalia.
Then there’s Milan MXP in Malpensa. It’s the biggest of the bunch, sat to the northwest of town, offering fantastic access to the Aosta Alps, Lake Como, and Milan alike. Finally, you can also arrive in Bergamo Airport. The transfer to that is under an hour in normal traffic and you get a whole host of budget airline options, including loads of flights with Ryanair. Milan is also a terminus point on the north-south railway line that links through Rome and Florence, not to mention an international rail hub with connections coming in from Paris.
Finally, the most important motorways in northern Italy connect through the city, including the E35 going south and the A4 to Turin, along with links to Austria via the Brenner Pass.
Winner: Actually, it’s Milan. We’ve found it much easier to get here in the past, mainly thanks to the low-cost flight links to Bergamo Airport.
Milan or Rome for price?
Budget travelers, look away now! You’re probably not going to like what either Milan or Rome costs. The truth is that these are two of the most expensive cities in Italy. That’s especially true if you’re looking to go during the high-season months, which is the main summer in Rome, and the summer plus the winter ski season in Milan.
Travel price curator Champion Traveler estimates that a week-long trip to Rome for a solo backpacker would be in the region of $916-$1,833. That’s with an allowance of up to $119 for food, transport, and sightseeing each day, along with around $100 per night for accommodation.
We think it can be done for less than that, particularly if you go for one of the cheaper hostels in the Termini area (we’ve paid as little as $25/night in those parts in the last couple of years). Food can also be cheap, by checking out bargain eats and street markets in less-touristy areas (we especially loved Ristorante Carlo Menta in La Trastevere and Pizzeria Remo in Testaccio).
Don’t be too surprised to find that Milan actually tops Rome on the price scales. Aside from a few ski resorts (Cortina, we’re looking at you!), it’s probably the single most expensive destination in Italy. A lot of that is down to the fact that it’s the country’s business and banking hub, with hotels that cater to a very monied crowd cranking up the average rates.
Champion Traveler estimates that a week-long trip for a solo traveler in Milan would be around the $1,000-3,800 mark. We’d say accommodation is the main driver there, but food and drink are also a touch dearer on the whole in Milan. However, it is possible to escape the costly areas. Choose to sleep and stay in neighborhoods like lovely Navigli and the pressure on the bank account should release just a little.
Winner: Rome – yep, the Italian capital is actually a touch cheaper than Milan!
Milan or Rome for food?
Yes, both Milan and Rome are in Italy. But this is a country where hopping a regional border can change the cuisine completely. That’s certainly true between Lazio (where Rome makes its home) and Lombardy (where Milan is situated). One’s up north, drawing influences from the Alps and the Po Valley. The other is in the heart of the country, with fresh food from Calabria and touches of rustic Tuscan charm alike.
Roman cooking has its roots in ancient times. Hearty, filling, simple food is the name of the game. We’d say it’s always best eaten in casual osteria; small, family-owned wine bars that spill out onto the streets. Areas like La Trastevere, Garbatella, and Monti are brimming with options. Menus will often change with the seasons, especially in spring and autumn when artichokes and mushrooms fill the markets. Local wine options abound in Lazio, too, but we love the Est Est Est! label from Montefiascone – it’s just a couple of euros a bottle but showcases the essence of Italian country winemaking. Some dishes you simply have to sample in Rome are:
- Carciofi alla romana – Our mouth waters just writing about fresh-picked artichoke hearts fried in olive oil, lemon, and herbs.
- Cacio e pepe – Very simple pasta with just pepper corns and pecorino cheese.
- Romana pizza – Rome’s own take on Italy’s famous dish, this has crispy, charred sides that are flat, not cushiony.
The Lombard kitchen up in Milan is a bit more refined than that of Rome. There are hints of French cooking (Napoleon did love Milan, after all!) and Austrian heartiness in the cuisine. You also get ingredients that are sourced from the fertile Po Valley of the north, which is the stomping ground of culinary hotspots like Parma (for ham), Modena (for vinegar), and Reggio Emilia (for hard cheese). When it comes to wine, we’d say don’t leave without sampling the bubbly Franciacorta from nearby Iseo, or the smooth – if pricy – Barolos of the Piedmont region. Must-try foods in Milan include:
- Risotto alla Milanese – Risotto made with local hard cheeses and packed with aromatic saffron.
- Minestrone – A country vegetable soup that originates in the north of Italy.
- Ossobucco – A carnivore’s delight, this meat cut is still on the bone and served in rich wine sauce with onions.
Winner: Draw. This comes down to different cuisines in different parts of Italy. Those artichokes, though…
Milan or Rome for romance?
Milan can be a real heart-string-puller. With the Alps looming behind and the Gothic spires of the great Duomo looming overhead, it does well to cater to just-married types. Your days here together can be spent shopping through the Gucci stalls and dining on fine saffron rice in the traditional trattoria. You’ll also get to wonder at priceless pieces of art like The Last Supper in each other’s company. Oh, and Milan offers some seriously lux hotels to boot.
But it’s Rome that wins out here. Hey, the city is literally the root of the word “romantic.” Steer clear of the gritty outskirts and stick to areas like La Trastevere. It’s a taste of Italia from yesteryear, where paint-peeling taverns serve cold beers and aperitivo under blooms of bougainvillea. We also love the area around Tridente. Many of the stunning hotels there – which might cost a bit – offer rooftop gardens that gaze over to Saint Peter’s and walking access to impossibly romantic landmarks like the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain.
Milan or Rome for nightlife?
Millions of people live, work, and play in both these Italian cities, so you’re not going to be short on action after dark in either. Rome has beating enclaves spread all throughout its historic core, each with their own unique vibe and atmosphere. You might like the tourist-centric scene that revolves Campo di Fiori, which has people-watching cocktail bars that spill into narrow side streets. Maybe you’d prefer the boho district of San Lorenzo, a local’s favorite that hosts smoky pubs and jazz clubs and more. There’s also always thumping Monte Testaccio, the place to go for EDM clubs.
Overall, though, we’d say that Milan just about tips this one. The modern edginess of Italy’s second city means that there’s a nightlife scene here that’s almost unrivalled throughout The Boot. Areas to know about include the youthful hubs of Navigli and Isola, where craft beer joints meet Parisian-esque cafes come bars on the canalsides. Super-chic Brera is for those who hunt Spritzes on the sidewalks, so too is the Fashion Quarter. Then you’ve got Porta Venezia, the LGBTQ+ center that welcomes all.
Milan or Rome for exploring Italy?
Last but most certainly not least, we come to whether Rome or Milan is best for exploring the rest of Italy. If you’re planning a little more than just a city break, this is a super-important consideration. There are some seriously spectacular parts of The Boot right on the doorstep of both places that adventurous travelers will not want to miss…
You can ditch the Colosseum from Rome and head north on the trains. They offer a ticket to the eye-wateringly enchanting town of Orvieto, a onetime papal seat but now a chocolate-box Umbrian hill town with cobbled piazzas above ground and strange catacombs below. Go west and you’ll come to the Lazian coast, where the old ruins of Ostia reveal the ports of ancient Rome.
Also close are the blustery waters of Lake Bracciano (for wild swims and windsurfing). So too are the rugged rises of the Simbruini Mountain Range (for waterfalls and hiking). Generally speaking, Rome is better placed for entering the classic holiday hotspots of Italy, too – think Umbria, Tuscany, and Marche.
Milan is the perfect gateway to the north of Italy. For most travelers that signals one thing and one thing only: Mountains. Yep, the Alps rise on the horizon to the north of town. Flying into Milan MXP, you’ll be just a stone’s throw from the glorious waters of Lake Como, where fairy-tale towns and chic villas spill into azure alpine bays.
If you come into Bergamo, you’ll spy out an old city draped over the Prealps, just before Lago d’Iseo – one of the lesser-known Italian lakes. Milan also offers an access point to some of Italy’s best ski fields, with the Dolomiti slopes a few hours’ transfer to the east and famous resorts like Livigno the same distance to the north.
Winner: Draw – will it be mountains or Italian countryside?
There’s no real answer to whether you should pick Milan or Rome for your holiday this year. However, we hope this guide has gone some way to helping you weigh up the differences and similarities between the two.
On the whole, we’d say Milan is chicer and more stylish, with a heftier price tag but good access to the glorious Italian Alps. Rome, on the other hand, is a culture lover’s dream come true, offering great museums and travel links throughout the heart of Italy. Hey, why not visit both? A high-speed train connects them in a single morning!