Milan: Chic, Stylish, exciting and ...affordable? Si!
A Guide to Exploring Low Cost Hotels, Restaurants and Shops in Milano, Italy
Hotels near train stations, particularly in Europe, are hit-or-miss propositions — with more misses, I’ve found, than hits. The abundance of hotels in these neighborhoods should be no surprise — where travelers congregate, so do places for them to stay — and yet a vaguely unpleasant aura often hovers over them. Perhaps it’s the petty crime that follows tourists, or the idea that few visitors stay more than a single night, often because they are simply making a pit stop to their next destination. So why should one of these hotels extend itself in looks and service? Better to be simply cheap (though never too cheap) and count on the next day’s new crop of arrivals to fill the rooms again.
When I told a family friend in Milan that my wife, Jean, our daughter, Sasha, and I had checked into the Hotel Garda, mere steps from the brooding Central Station — where we’d arrived from Venice (on discounted Amica fares of 20.20 euros, or $25 at $1.29 to the euro, each) — the friend asked, with an undertone of horror, “Why are you staying there?”
Budget, of course, was part of our answer. At 70 euros a night, including breakfast, the Garda was very reasonable, though certainly not the only Milan hotel at that price point. Several, in fact, were cheaper.
But for our week in Milan, we wanted something more than sheer affordability. We wanted a bit of style — if not for me then for Jean, a fashion designer making her first pilgrimage to Italy’s, and arguably the world’s, capital of fashion. She deserved a beautiful room with stylish amenities, a professional staff and a chic sensibility.
Had we just a little more cash, such glamour would have been easily within reach. At around 90 euros and up were bed-and-breakfasts like Vietnamonamour (7 Via Alessandro Pestalozza; 39-02-7063-4614; www.vietnamonamour.com) and Trovailtempo (216 Via Novara; 39-339-502-1730; www.trovailtempo.it), both airy, modern and gorgeously designed — at least on their Web sites.
On the Frugal Traveler’s budget, however, we had to economize, so I turned to EuroCheapo.com. One of my favorite booking sites, EuroCheapo doesn’t just list hotels all over Europe, it also reviews them with a sharp, independent eye, acknowledging drawbacks that you might not see in a guidebook (for example, a Paris hotel across from a “librairie érotique”) and publishing a blog that covers everything from cheap eats in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg to the economic meltdown in Riga, Latvia.
Milan is one of 27 cities that EuroCheapo focuses on, and quite quickly, I found the Hotel Garda (21 Via Napo Torriani; 39-02-6698-2626; www.hotelgardamilan.com), described on the site as “the true budget gem on the block,” with a “blend of old-school family feel and completely modern vibe.”
While we may at first have wanted something boutique and hip, the Garda was actually something much better: a classic hotel run by true professionals. Our room, on the second floor, was wide and uncluttered, with a desk, minibar, generous closet and adorable — and free — crib for Sasha (which she refused to sleep in, but don’t blame the crib).
But it was the color scheme that entranced me: Almost everything was blue — from the midnight blue bedspread to the pale but luminous paisley wallpaper — and what wasn’t blue was a light, tasteful yellow that only made the blue seem bluer still. This wasn’t some design-school dropout’s experiment, though. It was traditional, beautiful and calming.
With every hour we spent in the room, we developed a greater appreciation for small, smart touches. Sturdy coat hooks and a full-length mirror were right by the door, which seems like an obvious way to design a hotel room but, sadly, isn’t.
Even the bathroom, which was long and narrow and at first looked cramped, was a perfectly economical use of space. (This is, our Milan friends said, standard design in that city.) In fact, the shower stall was big enough for two (or three, if that’s your kind of thing).
On top of this, the staff members displayed a remarkable professionalism. They knew the neighborhood well, including the tram routes into the city center, and when I spoke to them in Italian, they responded in Italian. (When I spoke English, so did they.) The deep-voiced porter, Matteo, remembered how I drank my coffee every morning (un espresso doppio — a double) while enjoying one of the free newspapers on offer. And, like everyone who worked there, he cooed over Sasha whenever we passed through the lobby and asked after both her and Jean whenever I walked through alone. Amazingly in a hotel with 55 rooms, I felt like we actually mattered.
This may not have been the boutique hotel of our fantasies. There was no gym or high-tech spa, no lounge full of scenesters, no models prancing about. But the hotel was clean, quiet and comfortable. The Wi-Fi worked, even if it cost 1 euro for 30 minutes. Sometimes you think you want hipness when all you need is the little things done right.