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Both Budapest and Milan are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?
We understand your dilemma. There is a wealth of information about both cities, but little stating which is the better destination and more suited for your trip.
This article will provide our unbiased opinions, and hopefully help you to choose the best city to visit.
The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City scores -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4) When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6) The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)
Mention the name Milan, and it instantly conjures up visions of fashion, refinement and exclusive shopping. This is a city where looking your finest is an obsession, and even the main tourist attraction, the Galleria, is shopping arcade. Luxury brands and designer boutiques may fill the historic centre but out on the outskirts are edgy districts where this creativity originated from.
As a visitor, you should realise that Milan does not have the breadth of monuments and standout tourist attractions as of other Italian cities. This is primarily a business focused city, which reveres in sophistication and looking good.
Which city would I go to?
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Which for my food obsessed friend?
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)
The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city.
We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip!
The main sights of Milan can be easily seen in a single day of sightseeing. A second day allows time to explore the more atmospheric districts (Navigli, Zona Tortona) or provides extra time for shopping. To capture the essence of the city, you need to experience the early evening drinks culture and the evening strolls where everyone wears their finest clothes.
Milan may lack many tourist sights, but there surrounding region certain compensates with many enjoyable day trips. This includes the historic towns of Bergamo, Brescia and Pavia, the beautiful lakes of Garda, Maggiore and Como, plus the Italian Alps. It is even possible to visit Verona as a day trip.
Fly-in visits for three days are enough to check off the major must-see sights of Budapest. This is a compact capital with good underground and bus links. You can get easily get across town – going from Buda Castle on one side of the city all the way to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths at the other takes less than an hour on public transport.
That said, Budapest has plenty of hidden secrets up its sleeve. You could easily while away a whole week enjoying cheap happy hours in the ruin bars, bathing in the Art Deco spas, and visiting islands up the Danube. If you're coming in summer, you could also extend a stay to include the art galleries and cobbled lanes of Szentendre, the mineral-rich waters of Lake Balaton, and the rustic Tokaj wine country to the east.
For the real Milan experience, you want to visit during the summer or winter fashion weeks (Sep/Oct or Feb/Mar), to mingle with models, stylish and Aficionados. For a city break, Milan is almost year-round, but it is cool and possibly wet in the winter, while in hot August most residents head to the beach for the whole month.
One of the quirks of Milan is at the weekends, most of its affluent or mobile residents leave the city for the coast (summer), the Alps (winter) or lakes (Spring/Autumn), leaving the city to tourists and foreign shoppers.
Late spring and early autumn are when locals often say Budapest is at its best. Temperatures average around 23-25 degrees in May and September. There's not an overload of rain then either. And it's perfect for avoiding the crowds of midsummer city breakers that come during the European holidays.
There's also something to be said for visiting Budapest in the midst of winter. Mercury plummets between November and March, and it's not uncommon to see the Danube freeze over with huge chunks of ice. What's more, the tenements and side streets of the Jewish Quarter and the historic Inner City areas ooze atmosphere on cold, snowy days. Just be sure to pack the thermals!
Budapest's layers of history combine with a sleepless nightlife scene, making this European capital a great pick for a whole host of travellers. The backpacking crowd can make for the Jewish Quarter's ruin bars and glug uber-cheap Hungarian beers in bohemian courtyards.
More culturally aligned visitors might prefer to unearth the past of the Hungarian empire on the grounds of Buda Castle, or pay their respects at the haunting House of Terror museum that chronicles the dark days of Stasi rule.
You might not feel totally at home here if you're a big fan of beaches and sun. Budapest is a landlocked city in a landlocked country, so the ocean is never near. Hungary's capital isn't the greenest of towns, either. There are parks, but they're really on the outskirts. It's very much an urban destination.
If you adore fashion, embrace style, and willing to spend a little extra, then Milan is calling you. The city excels in designer shopping, trend-setting, and simply looking good.
Many visitors leave Milan slightly disappointed; it is without the flare of Rome, the culture of Florence, or the photo opportunities of Venice. Milan is a business city, where the reward for the industrious attitude of its residents, is cutting edge fashion and sophisticated nightlife.
Insight: There are few historic buildings in Milan, as many were destroyed by the extensive bombing of the second world war.
48 hours in Milan.
Begin the first day at the Piazza del Duomo, the heart of Milan. On this plaza is the gothic Duomo di Milano cathedral (head to the roof for amazing views) and the beautiful Galleria shopping complex, filled with boutiques and exclusive retailers. On the opposite side is the Palazzo Marino, and the elegant Teatro alla Scala.
For afternoon explore the sights around the Sforzinda castle and Parco Sempione. Do include the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, where the famed “The Last Supper” fresco is housed. For the latter part of the explore the chic Brera district, with its mix of high-end stores and fashionable people.
The early evening is when Milan excels, as the offices close and workers head to the bars for Apericena (happy hour with light buffet food) to drink exquisite cocktails and flaunt the latest fashions; Navigli is a great area to experience this modern cultural tradition.
The Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, the location of one of the most controversial religious paints….
For the second day, wander down from the Duomo along the bustling Via Torino and then the Corso di Porta Ticinese, passing the Basilica San Lorenzo Maggiore, and enter the atmospheric Navigli district. This canal district is filled with artisan shops, fashionable bars, and where young Milanese frequent.
The canal and train lines separate Navigli from Zona Tortona, the once-gritty but now design and creative hub of Milan. Here designers create the latest fashions in the former warehouses. Understatedly cool, but the place to experience the drive and passion of the Milanese.
If you are a football fan, you probably want to include the tour of the San Siro stadium, in the second day.
48hours in Budapest
Day 1: Start on the Pest side of the city. That's home to the huge Dohány Street Synagogue. It's one of the great landmarks of Budapest and reigns as the largest synagogue in Europe. From there, head to the wide boulevard of Andrássy, a spectacular thoroughfare and UNESCO site that's lined with Neo-Classical mansions.
Visit the House of Terror museum on one end to unravel the haunting past of Communist rule in Hungary. Then, go for a hard-earned spa session in the famous Art Deco baths of Széchenyi. Dinner can be nothing less than a paprika-smoked goulash in Gettó Gulyás, followed by a beer in the mind-boggling art gallery come bar that is Szimpla Kert.
Day 2: Breakfast in the Central Market Hall that dates from 1897. Grab some sweet Hungarian pastries and then hop across the Danube on the handsome Liberty Bridge. In front of you, the elegant Gellért Baths are an optional stop. Or, push on up to the Fisherman's Bastion and the Citadella. These were once defensive outposts where Hungarian armies protected their capital. These days, they have stunning views of the Danube. A walk to the north takes you to the Castle District. You can tour the grounds and take in the architecture, or go inside for regal court rooms. Be sure to take some photos of the imposing Hungarian Parliament Building across the water. Finally, drop back into Pest for dinner in the Inner City. That area has everything from Tex-Mex joints to smoky 1930s speakeasies.
Talking of the airport, Budapest Airport sits around 22 kilometers from the city center. You can get to and from the terminals using the dedicated express bus (€2) or by train (€2.70). Both options take between 30-40 minutes. Be sure to buy tickets at machines by the stops – they're more expensive when purchased direct from drivers.
When it comes to picking hotels in Budapest, you're best off focussing on the Pest side of the city. That's where the bulk of the best lodgings are located. Being in the Jewish Quarter can be noisy, but perfect if you want to hit the nightlife of Szimpla and the other ruin bars. The Inner City area is charming and quieter, with some boutique options. Meanwhile, Újlipótváros is a local's favourite, with its cool cafés and art galleries and sleek Airbnbs.
Budapest is largely safe and crime statistics are in line with European norms. Some well-known scams include taxi drivers who overcharge and sellers of fake goods. Pickpocketing is also a rare but real problem. Just be aware of your personal possessions and be vigilante, especially when on public transportation.
Price wise, Budapest is surely up there with the cheapest of European capitals. A large beer can cost as little as 500 HUF (€1.50). Food in a midrange restaurant will set you back between 2,000 HUF and 3,000 HUF (€6-9). Nights in hotels are noticeably less than in nearby Vienna, too.