Now that I’ve finished exploring two of the three major cities of my Northern Italian walkabout, I can say that I definitely preferred Milan to Florence.
Both cities have plenty of history and are full of things to do. They both have the same monasteries, baptisteries, abbeys, or whatever other religious structure they could come up with in the 1300s. And both of their main architectural attractions are simply called “The Duomo” (they have real names, but I honestly doubt that many people even know that).
But Milan’s history feels better integrated into the city—the cathedral that took 600 years to build, the historically fancy Vittorio Emanuel II mall, the Navigli district with locks that were designed in part by da Vinci. All this is the backdrop to the more modern developments that Milan has made itself known for—its high-brow fashion industry, business and finance, and so on.
Plus, Milanese people, overall, were super friendly. I had lots of great interactions with shopkeepers, people working in museums, hostel receptionists. It’s not like Milan isn’t a tourist destination, but I wonder if they’re less tired of tourists than the Florentines, for whom tourists have become just an annoyance.
In contrast to exploring Milan, a walk through Florence felt like a walk through Disneyland. Everything was almost too perfect, almost manufactured. The history of the city didn’t feel like it was part of Florence’s DNA, but rather something that had turned into a big, kind of exploitative tourist trap. Tourism has obscured the intrinsic value of the history with mountains of David keychains and T-shirts.
Within the confines of the most historical parts of the city—the parts where you’ll find traces of the Medici lineage like the Palazzo Pitti and the Museo Vecchio—you’re almost guaranteed to get ripped off on food and souvenirs and to be treated like a nuisance in the process! There are exceptions, of course, but the general feeling I got was much less friendly than the way I felt in Milan.
It’s hard to articulate exactly the way I feel about the differences between Florence and Milan. It’s hard to talk about without using the word “vibes”; Milan’s vibe was a little more laid back about its centuries-old history, whereas in Florence it was shoved into your face 24/7, unless you ventured outside the most popular areas.
If I were to revisit either of the cities, it would be Milan because I feel like there’s still more to discover. The culture of Milan feels still alive and thriving, as opposed to the more sterile, tourism-based culture of Florence. It’s not that I’m in love with high fashion (although I really appreciate a classy pair of striped suspenders), I just like the idea of a diverse culture in a city that acknowledges its history and continues to create some of its own.