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MILAN

Italian meets international: What it’s really like to live in Milan

As Milan has ranked both highly and poorly in recent liveability surveys, we asked the city's foreign residents to share the truth on what life is really like there. Here's what readers of The Local told us - as well as insider advice if you're thinking of moving to Milan.

Is it possible to enjoy life in Milan as a foreign resident? The Local’s readers weigh in.
Is it possible to enjoy life in Milan as a foreign resident? The Local’s readers weigh in.Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

After Milan was once again ranked in the bottom five in an annual survey of the best and worst cities to move to as a foreigner (this time coming in second-to-last place), we decided to create our own survey asking our Milan-based readers for their thoughts on what life in the city is really like.

The responses were mixed: a little over half of respondents were broadly positive about the quality of life in Milan, checking the ‘life’s fantastic’, ‘I’m grateful to be living here’, or ‘no complaints’ boxes.

Just under half said they have had a difficult experience of living in the city, with around one in ten actively hating the experience.

On an individual basis, readers had plenty of useful insights into how the city ticks and how to get the most out of living in Italy’s economic capital.

Here’s what you had to say about the best and worst parts of living in Milan – as well as your advice for people weighing up whether to make the move themselves.

‘An amazing strategic location’

Those who give Milan a thumbs up appreciate its convenient geographical position and cosmopolitan feel.

“I have Italianness where I want it, and the efficiency, modernity and access of an international-level city when I need it,” says Kate, who’s lived in Milan for a bit less than a year.

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“It’s a cosmopolitan city but it is still small enough to feel manageable,” agrees James Appleton, who moved to the city in 2020. “Things tend to work, and it’s in an amazing strategic location.”

In particular, residents highlight that the city’s close proximity to nature means they can easily take weekend or day trips to a range of scenic destinations.

“Geographically it is in a superb position, near the mountains and the sea,” says resident Melanie, who has lived in Milan on and off for forty years.

Lake Como is just a short car journey or train ride from Milan.

Lake Como is just a short car journey or train ride from Milan. Photo: Anjuna Ale on Unsplash

“It’s amazing to be within an hour train ride of so many beautiful places outside of Milan,” agrees Veronica Policht, who’s spent two living years in the city.

And if you fancy going further afield, it’s also well-positioned for making international trips.

“The airports are very accessible and I really like the convenience of Linate for travel within Europe or to the UK. I think Milan is easily one of the most accessible and navigable cities I’ve ever lived in (I’m from Sydney and have lived in Hong Kong, London, Amsterdam and Tokyo),” says Nicki, who’s lived in Milan for two years.

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‘World class’ public transport

Another highlight of life in Milan, say readers, is the excellent public transport system.

“Milan’s public transportation is amazing, honestly world class,” enthuses Veronica.

It’s “very easy to get around, great public transport and bike lanes and easy to walk everywhere” seconds Nicki.

The city tends to gets a bad rap for its appearance compared to places like Florence and Rome, but several readers said they find Milan an attractive place to live. 

And when it comes to food and culture, many of you agree: Milan’s is second to none.

James cites Milan’s “food and drink options, its beautiful and underrated centre, its modern architecture” as some of city’s best qualities, while Veronica appreciates the “many cultural opportunities available”.

Pre-dinner aperitivi are considered a highlight of Milanese life.

Pre-dinner aperitivi are considered a highlight of Milanese life. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

“The food, aperitivo, architecture, parks, and art,” are all highlights for two-year Milanese resident Joshua; and Steve Geddis, who’s lived in the city for four years, agrees that there’s a “huge range of restaurants, constantly lots to do.”

So what’s not to love about Italy’s economic capital?

‘The pollution is awful’

Two negative aspects of life in Milan consistently cropped up in reader responses: the high cost of living and the elevated pollution levels.

“One of the most polluted places in Europe” is how former Milanese resident Laura summed it up, and Veronica agrees that “the pollution is awful”.

According to Paul Pontecorvo, who’s lived in the city since 2006, it’s particularly bad in the winter: “the period between Jan-Feb with no air moving and smog is dreadful…you feel it in your lungs.”

Residents say the high levels of pollution is one of the worst things about life in Milan.

Residents say the pollution is one of the worst aspects of life in Milan. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

Several respondents also warned that unless you’re on a reasonably high salary, you might not earn enough to take advantage of all that the city has to offer.

“Cost of living and taxes drastically outpace average income making it difficult to do much beyond survive,” is the gloomy assessment from Kurt, who’s lived in Milan for four and a half years.

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Isibor Sunday, who has lived in Milan for four years, characterises life in the city as: “Working like ? elephant eating like ? ant.”

The high cost of rent is seen as a particular culprit when it comes to draining funds: they’re “too high and rising” says Veronica.

“Even after the pandemic housing prices are unreasonable, especially for students or anyone who’s salary is based on a fixed nation-wide standard (like university staff).”

And if you’re considering buying your own place, “the cost of buying a house is almost as bad as London but requiring a bigger deposit,” warns Steve.

‘Rainy and grey’

Other bugbears?

For an Italian city, Milan has a cold and rainy climate that some denizens find particularly unpleasant.

“It’s rainy and grey in November – it’s definitely not a Mediterranean climate,” says Kate.

Readers say Milan’s grey and wet weather leaves a lot to be desired.

Readers say Milan’s smog and weather are major downsides. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO/AFP

“The weather is awful,” agrees Marta, who has lived in the city for two years.

If you’re coming from northern Europe, though, it’s likely to be no worse what than you’re used to. “It can be a little damp in November, but only by Italian standards!” says James.

The traffic and driving culture is also considered a drawback: an “over-abundance of drivers make the streets dangerous, ugly, and stressful,” says Veronica.

Charlie, who’s lived in Milan for 14 months, agrees: “FAR too many cars and everyone thinks the pavement is a car park.”

READ ALSO: Ten things you need to know before moving to Italy

Then are some facets of the city that aren’t all that bad in their own right, but that may disappoint new arrivals who have certain preconceived notions of what it can offer.

A few of you noted although Milan is cosmopolitan for Italy, it’s less international than other global hubs.

“Don’t expect such a cosmopolitan hub as London or NY or even Paris,” was the advice from a new resident who’s lived in Milan for five months.

“It pretends to be international but it is not at all and even integrated, speaking the language and having friends there it never gives you the feeling of living in big city like London or Paris,” is the scathing review from one ex-resident of four years.

Milan: not as international as it thinks it is?

Milan: not as international as it thinks it is? Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Says Melanie, who first moved to the city four decades ago: “It has improved and become more international but the Milanese do have a small town mentality!”

And those who think Milan’s status as Italy’s most modern metropolis means they won’t have to deal with the country’s infamous red tape are in for a rude awakening.

“The bureaucracy is as bad as anywhere else in Italy,” says James; while Adam Rugnetta, who’s been a resident for five years, identifies the bureaucracy as the worst part of living in the city – though adds that “it’s the same in the rest of the country.”

Making the move

What guidance do our readers have for foreigners looking to make the move?

Make an effort to learn the language, before and after moving, was the most commonly issued advice.

Not only is the ability to speak Italian almost always critical if you want to find a job with an Italian company, “it makes a huge difference to understanding everything about the culture,” says Melanie.

“Try to speak Italian, even if you’re bad, people will appreciate the effort either way and probably reply in English most of the time,” advises Steve.

Learning Italian will ease your transition to Milan, say residents.

Learning Italian will ease your transition to Milan, say residents. Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Several readers suggested exploring different neighbourhoods of the city and being open to moving around until you find the one where you feel most comfortable.

And with rents as high as they are, Veronica even suggests looking outside the city for accommodation: “Really consider if it’s important to you to live *in* Milano proper or if you could be happy living in a surrounding suburb and commuting to work.” 

Some respondents pointed out that you can feel isolated in a big city like Milan, and it’s not always easy to make friends.

With that in mind, it’s important to take the initiative when it comes to finding a community.

“Be open and outgoing, speak to people, and if you want to make new friends and don’t have school age kids, get a dog!” is what Lulu, who’s lived in the city for five and a half years, suggests.

“Join clubs for expats, the local gym, book clubs, toddlers groups etc, it will be easier for you,” says Melanie.

And if you’re new to the city and struggling?

“Don’t worry about hating it all at first,” she says cheeringly. “It takes time!!”

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QUALITY OF LIFE

‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Yet another survey of Rome’s foreign residents has rated the Italian capital dismally for quality of life. Jessica Phelan explains why she too disliked the city when she first moved here, and what helped to change her mind.

A view over the city of Rome at sunset.
Life in Rome can take a while to get used to. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be coming to Rome’s defence, I would have told you: Ma va’. Yeah right, get out of town. And I would have said I’d be long gone myself. 

And yet, as the latest InterNations survey of expats around the world puts Rome in last place for city life and work, here I am not only still living here but saying out loud: this place isn’t so bad.

It’s not that I don’t get where my unhappy fellow foreigners are coming from. I never dreamed of Rome before I moved here and found it far from dreamy once I arrived, in summer 2017. I’d grown up a short flight away (the UK) and lived in European capitals (Paris, Berlin) for several years, and after a stint further afield (Japan), I naively thought that moving to Rome would feel like coming home. 

Instead I found myself complaining to anyone who would listen about the same things that InterNations’ respondents listed as Rome’s downsides. The unreliable public transport. The scant public services. The politicians on the take. The provincialism. The rubbish – good grief, the rubbish. The inequality and lack of opportunities for young people – and lack of young people themselves, as it seemed in certain neighbourhoods. 

READ ALSO: Rome and Milan ranked ‘worst’ cities to live in by foreign residents – again

Sure, I liked the food and I couldn’t argue with the weather, but it felt frivolous to enjoy the small pleasures amid what I began to see as existential flaws. They spiralled for me into the impression of a city on the brink: the trash is piled shoulder-high because people here don’t care about anyone else, I told myself.

The fact everyone assumes I’m a tourist means they’re not used to anyone who doesn’t look or sound like them. I’m struggling to meet other young professionals – it must be a sign that the best and the brightest have all left. Because really, who’d choose to live here?

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

Partly it was because I didn’t feel I had chosen to live here. I had moved for my American partner’s teaching job, and nothing was more alienating than encountering people who were stubbornly, unaccountably, in love with the place – or an idea of it. An awkward pause would ensue as I contemplated whether to mumble something innocuous about gelato or take it upon myself to debunk their romantic notions and expose what I was convinced was the ‘real’ Rome – dirty, dysfunctional, doomed. 

It wasn’t all in my head. As the InterNations survey has shown for several years straight, many foreign transplants report deep dissatisfaction with the city. So do Romans as a whole: one survey in 2020 found that most residents said their quality of life had worsened in the past five years. Global studies have named Rome one of the unhealthiest cities in Europe, and its roads some of the most dangerous. When Italians compile the list of the ‘best places to live in Italy’, there’s a reason why Rome never comes close to the top ten. 

In fact, every time I lamented the city’s decline, I fitted in better than I realised: no one complains more about Rome than Romans themselves.

Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI/AFP

There was perverse comfort to be had in realising that people born and raised here saw the same things I did and found them just as galling. La grande monnezza, they call it: forget ‘the great beauty’ (la grande bellezza), it’s the great rubbish dump. Roma fa schifo, as a popular local blog has it. Rome is disgusting. 

Huh, I began to think I scrolled through photos of egregiously parked cars or smirked at another meme about the incompetents in city hall, maybe we can get on after all. It was a glimpse of a dark, deeply cynical humour that was one of the first things about Rome I had to admit I liked.

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Gradually, other qualities forced their way into view. I moved from a stuffy neighbourhood in the west of the historic centre to outside the city walls in the east and discovered that yes, other people under 50 do live here, no, not every foreigner is a tourist or study-abroad student, and thank goodness, not every restaurant serves only Italian food. Our new apartment was bigger, and bigger by far than anything our relatively modest incomes would have got us in the capitals of our home countries.

In fact, I suspected I wasn’t living in a capital city at all. Milan is where most of the money and opportunities within Italy are to be found, which has long made it a more logical place to move to for Italians and foreigners alike. I envy Milan’s metamorphosing skyline and cosmopolitan population – things I associate with ‘real’ cities.

But what do you know: if Rome comes 57th in the InterNations survey, Milan comes 56th. The responses suggest that housing is more expensive and harder to find up there, and the cost of living higher. 

I’ll leave it to people who live there to say what it’s really like, but I wonder if there are other trade-offs: I’d take the people-watching and window-shopping in Milan over Rome any day, but would I have to wear the ‘right’ clothes to fit in? I might have more chances to get ahead, but would I be judged on my job title or salary, and would people be more competitive? For better or worse, these aren’t things I have to worry about in Rome.

OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

Lucky for me I can afford not to: I’m not one of the 41 percent of foreign residents in Rome who told InterNations their disposable household income is not enough to cover expenses. Salaries are low here, and the cost of living – not visiting – can be higher than you might think. I’m in the privileged position of working for international employers, who pay better than local ones, and of splitting the bills with someone else in the same boat. We’re comfortable, but Rome isn’t the place to make your fortune.

So it’s no economic powerhouse. But culturally it’s got more life than I first gave it credit for. The things I’d assumed were missing altogether – new music, interesting events, a mix of people and backgrounds – were all there, they were just on a smaller scale and correspondingly harder to find. (Places to start looking: mailing lists, venues’ Facebook or Instagram pages, Zero.)

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In other cities I felt I’d made inroads by the end of the first year; in Rome, I was still at least another year away from meeting the friends who’d become my group here and, in turn, introduce me to people and places I wouldn’t have found on my own.

More than other cities, people say that Rome – the Rome that’s not in guidebooks, at least – is da scoprire, ‘to discover’ or even ‘unearth’. While you’re digging, having an ‘in’ can make all the difference. 

In some ways, Covid-19 also helped to rehabilitate Rome for me. The seriousness with which most people took the pandemic, and the camaraderie my neighbours showed throughout that first bewildering lockdown, proved that Romans were more than capable of caring for strangers. The months that followed, when we were confined to city or regional limits, taught me to appreciate the possibilities I might otherwise have ignored: travel might be impossible, but at least I had woods, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and the Mediterranean on my doorstep.

Other things I had to work around, or simply live with. I’m as convinced now as I was four years ago that Rome’s public transport system is woefully inadequate, but now I mainly avoid it: I walk or cycle as much as I can. In fact a whole alternative network of shared transport has sprung up in the time I’ve been here, from e-bikes to car shares and scooters, or monopattini.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

I’m yet to see a fix for the city’s rubbish problem, but I no longer assume it’s all the residents’ fault. It’s the result of decades of misuse of public funds, graft and organized crime – hardly reassuring, but marginally less bleak than thinking that none of your neighbours give a damn.

Because always, of course, there are people trying to improve things – by protesting, by voting, by picking up litter, even by filling in potholes on the sly. (Remember that if you’re a citizen of another EU country living in Rome, you have the right to vote in city elections too.) Doing the work yourself doesn’t absolve the authorities of the responsibility to do it, but in the meantime, as one acquaintance put it, at least your sidewalk is clean.

And those small pleasures: I finally gave myself permission to enjoy them. I like cracker-thin Roman pizza, supposedly kept from rising by the city’s hard water. I like sun that dries my laundry even in December. I like the view of mountains on a clear day. I like the light that glows golden around half an hour before sunset and works a kind of magic on ochre walls and brick bell towers and crumbling aqueducts.

In my fifth year here, I know now that these things don’t blind me to Rome’s faults, nor do I have to pretend not to see them to prove I’m not just another tourist. I live here; sometimes it’s bad; and most days, at about 5pm, looking over the rooftops, it’s good.

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