Milan is often seen as Italy’s business powerhouse, and it’s easy to see why. It’s home to Italy’s stock exchange and internationally known for its role in fashion and design. But underneath the bank buildings and snarls of tram tracks, it’s full of as much beauty and history as any major European city, making it a top tourist destination.
Of course sights like Piazza Duomo and La Scala Theatre should be at the top of any visitor’s list, and the shopping and dining options are enough to keep you occupied for days. But when travelling in any city, I like to explore like a local and generally try to avoid a lot of the tourist traps.
If you find yourself headed to Milan, don’t fall victim to these 9 common tourist pitfalls. Otherwise, you may end up spending a lot more money than you need to or even making yourself a prime target for pickpockets and street thieves.
1. Street vendors
I’ve run into street vendors in almost every city I’ve visited. If you aren’t familiar with them and their tricks, they’ll easily catch you off-guard with a flower or a trinket — and then they’ll be asking you for money before you’ve realized they didn’t just give you a gift because they’re friendly.
Be careful to not take anything a stranger offers you, because once it’s in your hand, it’s yours. Avoid eye contact altogether, because they tend to jump on any chance to start talking to you. If someone tries to offer you something, just say no and keep walking. They like to hang out around major tourist stops, so be particularly wary in these locations.
2. Eating near tourist hot spots
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the main tourist sights in Milan — places like the Corso Vittorio Emanuele and absolute must-sees for anyone on their first visit. But be sure to plan for meals around your trips to these areas. You’ll want to stay far away from both the luxurious restaurants and cafeteria-type places near the Duomo and similar areas.
These eateries often have sky-high prices for small portions of so-so food, and aren’t worth the time or money when there are so many better options. You are in Italy after all! Adventure a little outside these hot spots and you’re sure to find an authentic and delicious Italian experience.
3. Unlicensed taxis
Like in most major cities, you’ll find a number of people operating unofficial taxis in Milan. They’ll typically approach you in the streets near big tourist spots or other transportation hubs, like the airport or train station. Many times they’ll offer you a rate that’s actually double, or even triple, what it should be with a licensed meter cab, hoping you won’t know any better.
Do some research on the typical fares at the time of your trip so you can make sure you’re being charged a fair amount. Also, be sure the meter is running in any cab you get in and discuss price up front to avoid any surprises charges after you’ve reached your destination.
4. Shopping at the designer stores
Milan is a huge fashion capital, if not the fashion capital of the world, and as such is full of designer stores you can spend hours shopping at. The beautiful, and sometimes strange, window displays can be hard to pass up, particularly if you have an affinity for fine clothing and accessories.
But truthfully, you can buy many of those pieces online or in a local department store back home. If you really want to buy some new clothing items, keep your eyes peeled for local Italian clothing shops instead. They’ll often be small and tucked down side streets, but many of them are family-owned and feature handmade items, like nice leather jackets. Plus, if you chat with the owner, you may even land yourself a discount!
5. Assuming all places offer the same exchange rates
The first exchange kiosk you come across will most likely be in the airport or train station. Major transportation hubs are notorious for charging painfully high exchange rates. If you absolutely have to exchange currency, try a bank instead.
My suggestion is to not exchange currency at all. You’ll have a much better exchange rate either paying for everything with a credit card or using a debit card to withdraw money from an ATM. Particularly if you have a card that charges a low or no international fee.
6. Buying gifts at souvenir shops
If you want to take something home to remember your time in Milan, or buy some nice gifts for friends and family, forget the Duomo miniatures. Opt instead for some local coffee, the sweet and traditional panettone bread, or a beautiful scarf or leather wallet from a local shop.
Not only are gifts like this more meaningful, because you can buy something that truly speaks to the likes and personality of the people you’re buying the item for, but it also supports local craftsmen and small business owners. I’m a huge proponent of “buying local,” and try to practice this wherever I go.
7. Street performers
You’ll see plenty of singers, dancers, mimes and people doing all sorts of interesting things for money in areas with a lot of tourist traffic. Most of these are harmless, and there’s nothing wrong with tossing a few coins to someone if you’re impressed by their craft. It’s the ones that draw a crowd you have to watch out for.
When these performers draw a crowd, it becomes a prime target for pickpockets and street thieves. They take advantage of the fact that tourists typically carry a lot of cash and are distracted by the performances. So if you do stop to watch, keep an eye on your possessions and put your bag and wallet in front of you, not in back pocket or at your side.
8. Paying international roaming fees
This is one tourist trap you encounter any time you travel abroad. Cell phone carriers hit customers with crazy overage and roaming charges any time they use their phones outside their home country, and it can leave you with a hefty phone bill to pay once you get home.
Don’t fall victim to unnecessary fees. Before you head off to Milan, get your phone unlocked and take advantage of a local SIM card. You’ll save tons of money by not paying international roaming charges, and you’ll be able to share all your beautiful photos of the Museo del Novecento and the Brera Art Gallery.
9. Buying water bottles on the street
Though this one isn’t as major as avoiding pickpockets or outrageous exchange rates, it can save you a bit of money — and when you’re on an already expensive trip abroad, every penny counts!
During the summer, it can get pretty hot, especially if you’re standing in line outside a monument or building all day. Many street vendors at tourist locales will offer sales of bottled water, but they’re almost always more expensive than what you’d get at a supermarket, and half the size.
Have you encountered any major tourist traps in Milan, or do you have any tips of your own for avoiding them? Let me know in the comments — I’m always looking for new travel tips and tricks for my next adventure!