Have a few spare days in Europe and wondering whether to spend them in Rome or in Milan? This guide should help you decide.
Rome or Milan: which to choose? The short answer
Rome, Italy’s capital (nearly 3 million people) is one of the most visited cities in the world. It has 3000 years of history and is home to an amazing historical, artistic, and architectural heritage. Rome is also where the Vatican city, headquarters of the Catholic Church, is located.
Milan is a provincial business center in the North of Italy with about half the population of Rome. Primarily a working and business city, Milan is the center of high-fashion and design. Milan also has a nice small historical center and a few world-class historical and artistic sights, and is famous for its high-end restaurants and fashion shops. Milan is much less touristy than Rome.
If you have to choose between the two, pick Rome for a deep journey into Western civilization history and arts and a good taste of Italian culture. Choose Milan to experience modern and business Italy, and if you love the fashion world and luxury lifestyle.
Rome Or Milan: what travelers say
Here’s a brief highlight of travelers’ most common feedback about choosing between Rome or Milan:
- Rome is all about history, architecture, art (the Vatican Museum), and great food. Milan is fashion and shopping at its best, also has some history (Castello Sforzesco), art (The Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci), and culture (the La Scala opera house).
- For the vast majority of travelers, Rome is the #1 recommendation. Except for La Scala, Rome wins over Milan. It’s the cradle of Western civilization, thousands of churches, museums, and archaeological sites. it’s hard to get but a taste of the city in a few days. Rome also has better local cuisine and more lively street life.
- In Milan, aside from the pedestrian area in the center, the piazzas (squares) are flooded with car traffic. Milan is a working city before a tourist destination. It’s not for the average tourist, being more industrial and with fewer sights to see on a budget than Rome. Milan has some beautiful historical architecture but also ugly modern buildings.
- Rome has a big center, but many of the sights can be visited on foot. Those that are further away from the historical center are easy to access through public bus or subway.
- The main cultural sights in Milan can typically be visited in 1 or 2 days. Many travelers see the Last Supper in about 1 hour, and an extra 1/2 day for all of La Scala, the Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (without shopping), and Castello Sforzesco.
- Rome has massive tourism, and clever pickpockets are abundant especially on buses and subway. Keep your valuables very close to you.
- Travelers often recommend flying in through Rome, then visiting Florence, Venice, and then leaving through Milan (or the other way around)
- Milan is a good place to work and entertainment, with great theaters and concerts. It also offers nice day trips to the sea or the pre-Alps for skiing.
- If you are on a budget, Milan is typically an expensive place, while Rome can cheaper both for accommodation and food.
Rome Or Milan: access & transportation
Travelers often prefer flying into Milan’s Malpensa (MXP) airport, which they find more modern and less chaotic than Rome’s FCO airport.
MXP is further away from the city and takes more time to get to. However, both Milan and Rome airports have train stations. In Milan, the airport station is a 5-minute walk from the terminal, and the train takes 40-50 minutes to the city center.
The train is the fastest, most comfortable, and cost-effective way to travel between cities. High-speed lines connect Milan, Rome, Naples, Florence, and Venice. You can get from Milan to Rome city centers in about 3 hours
From Rome city center to the airport, you can also take the train from Roma Termini (about 15€) or by taxi (about 50€), both an about 35-minute trip.
Rome Or Milan: vibe & people
Both Rome and Milan are big bustling metropolises. Both are quite busy and fast-paced, with significant traffic and people everywhere. Rome’s historical center is quite large, but it has a special village feel with all the beautiful ancient ruins and little parks scattered all over the city.
It’s quite difficult to have a good feel of Rome if staying only 2 or 3 days. Most visitors visit the most famous sights, including the Vatican, the Colosseum, Piazza di Spagna etc, also the most crowded places. There are, however, many other charming hidden gems.
For many travelers, wander and getting lost in Rome often offers the best experience, including around small streets and parks with the locals.
While Milan is great for luxury shopping (fashion design, bags, shoes etc) and is a modern Italian business and financial hub, aside from a few major monuments it does not have as much tourist attractions as other Italian cities.
Rome Or Milan: sights & culture
Rome has innumerable archaeological sites, ancient art, widespread antique ruins, Renaissance works, medieval buildings, basilicas, Gothic fountains and piazzas, museums, covering 2500 years of history.
The Vatican city is an independent state inside Rome, the center of Christianity. The St Peter Basilica is the largest Christian church in the world. The Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s Renaissance frescoes masterpieces, Bernini’s Baroque works, the 136m tall cupola and its stunning city panorama, are all outstanding sights. Saint Peter Square is where the Pope addresses the people each year.
The Trevi Fountain and Piazza di Spagna (Spanish steps) are two of Rome’s most renowned Baroque landmarks and meeting places. The Pantheon is a beautifully-preserved ancient Roman temple with the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
Nearby, Piazza Navona is an ancient square with several fountains. It is a lively place with numerous outdoor cafés and street performers.
On the Capitoline Hill, the oldest of Rome’s 7 hills, are the Victor Emmanuel II and Piazza del Campidoglio monuments. Nearby sit the Colosseum (ancient Rome’s greatest symbol), the Romanum and Imperial Forums (public plazas), and antique Rome’s biggest stadium, Circus Maximus.
Milan also has significant art and architecture. The Duomo di Milano is a major Gothic cathedral and museum that took 600 years to build, located right in the city center. The best view of Milan’s skyline can be seen by walking on the roof of the cathedral.
The Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie is a Renaissance Church with a sophisticated Gothic interior. The Convent hosts the 15th century Last Super mural by Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the most recognizable paintings in the Western culture.
Castello Sforzesco is one of the largest medieval citadels in Europe, a 15th-century fortification which also houses great art by da Vinci and Michelangelo. One of the greatest sights in Milan with many attractions in one place.
The Pinacoteca di Brera gallery is a Napolean palace and museum specialized in Italian paintings with works from Titian and Caravaggio.
La Scala opera house is the center of Milan’s cultural scene, an 18th-century grand theater where classic Italian opera and ballets are played.
Milan’s Quadrilatero Della Moda is an international center for fashion and hosts glamorous fashion weeks twice a year. The AC Milan and Inter Milan’s San Siro Stadium are also important sights for soccer fans.
Rome Or Milan: weather
Unlike Milan, Rome tends to have nice weather all year, being in one of the most temperate parts of Italy (Mediterranean climate). Milan often suffers from heavy smog, though Rome also has significant air pollution.
Spring is the best season to visit either Rome or Milan as the weather is not too hot or humid. Temperatures are also pleasant in early Fall.
Summers tend to be hot and humid, generally worse in Milan than Rome. Winter can be quite cold in Milan, often under 10ºC, whereas Rome’s temperatures tends to stay between 10º and 20º. Milan also gets much more rain.
Rome Or Milan: food & nightlife
Milan is known for its cuisine experience. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a 19th-century gallery with a glass roof, luxury shops, and upscale cafes offering authentic Milanese risotto and veal stew (osso buco).
Milan’s city center generally has the best places for drinks. Bar Luce, the Monkey Cocktail bar, the Doping club, the Blue Note (Jazz), the Club Milano (nightclub for the young crowd), Backdoor 43 (aka world’s smallest bar) are a few good examples. Mila’s Chinatown quarter is also packed with a variety of street food joints and bars.
The Fonderie Milanesi has an outdoor terrace with different drinks and cocktails for the pre-dinner 7-9pm aperitivo. The Navigli district, the Brera area, or the Colonne Di San Lorenzo area, are also good options for drinks and live music surrounded by art landmarks.
In Rome, travelers recommend avoiding chain food places (bright and colorful looking), and instead looking for small restaurants in out of the way areas – often offering traditional dishes like carbonara, amatriciana or saltimbocca, along with nice house wines.
Popular bars and cafés are found near Piazza Navona and Via della Pace, Campo de Fiori, Trastevere (cool Bohemian multicultural vibe), the San Lorenzo student neighborhood, and the Testaccio area (old slaughterhouse district) for clubs.
In a different style, the beautiful Teatro dell’Opera offers classic Verdi operas.
Rome Or Milan: shopping
Milan is often considered the winner when it comes to shopping, namely due to the cutting edge fashion in the Via San Andrea area. However, Rome is a close competitor with its Via Condotti. For well-known Italian designers like Armani and Versace, Milan and Rome are roughly comparable.
In Milan, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the center of luxury shopping. Quadrilatero d’Oro, housed in historical palaces with great architecture, also has very high-end brands. Other good shopping areas in Milan are the Golden Triangle and the Piazza Portello shopping mall. Street markets in Milan also offer designer knock offs at good prices.
As the capital and largest city of Italy – and one of the most visited in Europe, Rome also has a rich shopping offering. Much of the designer shopping takes place around the Piazza di Spagna. Aside from Via Condotti, Via del Corso, and the Galleria Sordi/Colonna with its stunning decor, are upscale fashion areas.
Rome Or Milan: lodging
In Rome, most travelers recommend staying in the “downtown” area around the Pantheon, Campo Fiori, and Piazza Navona since you can walk to most sites. Accommodations in this area are more expensive though.
Slightly less central but still charming areas include Trastevere (well-connected), Monti/Celio (the Colosseum), Barberini, and Vatican. The cheapest accommodations can be found in the Termini train station area, modern and sometimes seedy, and a couple of miles away from the center.
Often-recommended hotels include:
- Palazzo Manfredi, a luxurious 5-star hotel close to the Colosseum
- Rome Hotel Esposizione, a 3-star hotel near Piazza Venezia
- Mario de’Fiori 37, a budget hotel located in Piazza di Spagna.
In Milan, the area surrounding the Milano Centrale train station has the highest number of hotels. Four Points Milan Center and the Michaelangelo Hotel offer good customer experiences and are a walking distance from the train station.
Around the Milan Malpensa Airport, the Moxy Hotel (Marriot brand), the Holiday Inn Express, and the First Hotel Malpensa have relatively affordable prices and decent accommodations. If you stay in the airport area, you can store your luggage at the Milano Centrale station and take the Metro to Duomo to visit the downtown area.
Rome Or Milan: day trips
From Rome, you can take day trips to visit Castelli Romani, the Ostia Antica, the catacombs, or Villa Adriana in Tivoli. Travelers often praise Ostia Antica’s renovated ruins and reconstitutions of people’s everyday life in antique times.
From Milan, you can take a 45 minutes train ride to Lake Como and take a ferry ride through the villages. Bellagio is a nice place to visit with its cobbled streets, well-designed buildings, and the Villa Serbelloni Park.
(1) Featured photo: “Rome sunset” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by G.Alonso
(2) “Milano” (CC BY 2.0) by david.orban
(3) “Spanish Steps and Fontana della Barcacci” (CC BY 2.0) by Alessio Nastro Siniscalchi
(4) “Rome” (CC BY 2.0) by SciF0r
(5) “Duomo di Milano” (CC BY 2.0) by kevin_lavorgna
(6) (Public Domain) by Philippe Vieux-Jeanton
(7) “Louis Vuitton in Galeria V. Emanuele, Mi” (CC BY 2.0) by Veselina Dzhingarova
(8) “Rome” (Public Domain) by Carlo Raso