Mary G.’s Grand Tour

While I spent much of my childhood on family trips around New England and the US, save a trip to New Zealand with my mother at age 8, I didn’t really become a world traveler until age 24 and have been accumulating passport stamps as often as possible ever since.

My mother Mary, on the other hand, has never been to Europe but due to my Istanbul move, that’s going to change next month.  To sweeten the deal, I have a cousin in Milan who is moving back to New Zealand over the summer, so now is our last chance to visit a family member in Italy. Originally, we thought about adding London to the trip, as a Europe “warm-up” and a place she’s always wanted to visit, but decided 3 countries was too much for 2 weeks. Besides, the trip is more about visiting family living abroad than seeing the top cities of Europe.

Now that my move and my mother’s trip are imminently approaching, I’m heavily into planning mode. A tentative itinerary:  Mary would fly from Raleigh, NC, arriving in Milan on a Thursday in May. I’d follow the next day, and stay through Monday or Tuesday. We’d then fly together to Istanbul and she’d stay 5 nights with me and return home Istanbul-Raleigh. Some thoughts/questions:

  • Any recommendations for airline booking sites best for open-jaw tickets? I generally use Kayak and was recommended the excellent for intra-Europe flights, but always on the lookout for other ideas.
  • Skyscanner found me a gonga deal on the Milan-Istanbul flight: $60 on budget airline Blu Express, any feedback on the airline or how to get from Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport to downtown?
  • We definitely plan to see the Last Supper and see an opera at La Scala in Milan, other must-sees for first-time visitors? Day trips from Milan?
  • In terms of timing, any advantage to booking the trip for early May rather than mid-May? Since I’ll be arriving in Turkey the last week of April, I’d rather have a few weeks to get acquainted before hosting visitors but if the cost difference for hotels is significant, I could be flexible.
  • Finally, I’m looking at hotels for Milan and possibly Istanbul (in case we aren’t settled in an apartment) and open to ideas. Worth using some Marriott points for the Milan Marriott?

Any and all advice for a European first-timer is appreciated. Though it won’t be my first time to Italy, it will be my first time in Milan, and my once semi-fluent Italian is quite rusty, my hand-gesturing is almost native. I’m excited to experience two fantastic countries with someone experiencing Europe for the first time.

Edited to add: Fantastic linkage and advice from Jessica of a must-read for anyone visiting Italy!

Looks like you’re talking about a 4-5 day stay in Milan, yes? That’s definitely time to get all the highlights in, plus take a day-trip (or two, if you end up hating the city!). I happen to really like Milan, but I’m looking at it from the perspective of someone who’s planning to live there – and I’m the first to admit it’s not ideal for most tourists in Italy.

Having said that, I do think it’s absolutely Italian – it’s just not the “Tuscan sun” side of Italy. 🙂

Anyway, I’ve written quite a bit about Milan, so here are some articles that should help get you started:
* General Milan travel guide, with lots of links to other Milan-related articles:
* My suggestions on the top 10 things to do in Milan:
* Information about seeing The Last Supper (warning: get your tickets ASAP!):
* Going to the La Scala Museum:
* A few options for day trips from Milan: (which reminds me, I need to update this article)

Other Milan thoughts:
* I’d recommend staying in the city center, if for no other reason than it’s close to the things you’ll want to do/see and it’s a helluva lot prettier than the outskirts (although the outskirts are cheaper). Really, even some parts that can be called “city center” are kinda meh looks-wise (around Garibaldi station, for instance), but again, this isn’t “Tuscan sun” Italy… And hey! Look at that cathedral! Now THAT is pretty, eh?
* Milan is (in my opinion) Italy’s most international city, so you’ll run into plenty of English-speakers (your Italian may come back to you, but the English might be nice for your mom).
* Having someone you’re visiting who’s familiar with Milan (your cousin) will help you steer clear of the so-so food and whatnot, I’m guessing, which is never a bad thing. But do yourself a favor – seek out Il Massimo del Gelato (you can read about it on the Tour del Gelato on my friend Sara’s blog, link below) and get a scoop of the mango flavor. You will be transported. I promise.

On Monday the 5th, I have another Milan article set to publish – “Things You Should Know About Milan” – so that’s one I’d also recommend you take a look at… When it’s live, of course. 🙂

Other thoughts:
* My friend Sara Rosso (@rosso on Twitter) blogs at Ms. Adventures in Italy ( – she lives in Milan and has some good Milan info on her site.
* Another expat friend is Katie Parla (@katieparla on Twitter). She lives in Rome, but is a guidebook author for both Roma AND Turkey, so she’s got you covered on both counts.
* Another blogging friend, Melanie Renzulli (@italofileblog on Twitter), lived in Turkey for a couple of years. I think she just moved back to the US within the last year or so, so she might be another good source of Turkey info.

11 responses to “Mary G.’s Grand Tour

  1. I LOVE Italy! I went there last year with my 74 year old grandmother, and we had a blast! I personally prefer to travel by train when I’m in Europe. It just feels so, I dunno, European! Check out fares on Turkish Railway. Also, if you can muddle through this site with your once semi-fluent Italian, there are some great deals on Have fun!

  2. Thanks for your tips, Jennifer! I totally agree about the European-ness of train travel, but at over 1,000 miles, I don’t think it’s feasible for this trip. Maybe a future trip for me to a closer destination? I long for the Orient Express!

  3. I was in Italy for 10 days ont he ground in July 08. It was wonderful!

    Definitely go to Lake Como for a day trip from Milan. Go overnight if you can. It was beyond description.

    I was able to go to Last Supper, and try for the earliest time. It gets so busy later. I will check up on how we got tickets, but I tihnk they are online now.

    I loved our hotel. Very nice people, easy access to train and not overly expensive.

    No Venice?


  4. More great ideas, thanks Michele! Do you remember what hotel you stayed at in Milan? We might try to do a day trip/overnight in Venice, I was there for a day in July 2008 and found it very romantic but way overtouristed.

  5. I will check for Milan; I can’t remember off the top of my head. It was great, though.

    I wonder if we were there the same time in Venice? I stayed at Hotel American in Disoduro ( I know I’m spelling it wrong) & it was a perfect spot. Close to the touristy sections, but far enough away to get away. Good price too. I was only there for 1.5 days (2 nights) and hopefully will go back in 2012.

    I will check my Italy folder & get back to you.

  6. Hmm… Just tried to leave a long comment and it disappeared when I hit “submit.” Thankfully, I wrote it offline & saved it. 🙂

    I put in lots of links, is that maybe why it didn’t take? Let me know if I should try again, Meg, or I can email it to you instead (email me at jessica {at} bootsnall {dot} com if you’d like me to send it via email).

  7. Hi Meg,

    Milan hotel was Starhotels Anderson & Venice hotel was Hotel American Dinesen.

    I did 6 cities in Italy in 10 days; rail travel was pretty good. Let me know if I can help more.

  8. Hi Meg,

    Just wanted to drop-by and say “Thanks” for the Skyscanner-kudos! I’m glad that we could help you plan your trip(s).

    Happy Flying!

    Scot Carlson
    US and Canadian Country Manager

  9. A must-do in Milan as well is visiting the Cathedral – absolutely gorgeous. Do buy the tickets to go up in the elevator and hang out on the roof for awhile.

    I’m so glad I decided to do this while there. We stayed up for for a couple of hours! The detail is astonishinh, considering no one really would ever see it.


  10. Keep meaning to write you this note on Facebook, but this will work too! All notes on Istanbul, as it has been many years since I was last in Milan and it was when I did not manage my own travel (age 14!) so has been largely forgotten. We spent 3 days in Istanbul last summer as part of a larger trip to Turkey, and my brother-in-law is from Istanbul, so I can recommend a few things.

    Getting to downtown from Sabiha Gokcen: we fly in there from Bodrum last summer and took a taxi in to town. Most expensive option, but not dreadful and also you get an amazing view of Topkapi and the European side as you cross the Bosphorus on the ferry. The taxi driver procured cups of Turkish tea (best with plenty of sugar) as we advanced into the Golden Horn and took some direly poor photos of us against the backdrop of Hagia Sophia.

    In terms of hotels in Istanbul, my sister recommends Sofa Hotel. We stayed in a sort of b&b near Hagia Sophia, which was fine for us as we were on holiday but probably not suitable if your husband has to go to work – had a very ‘pensione’ kind of feel to it.

    If you have not visited Chora Church, it is worth doing so – the mosaics are beautiful and it is less busy than Hagia Sophia. It gives more of a sense of what small churches were like in Byzantium – much more intimate than awe-inspiring. As always, I’m led by my stomach, and must also recommend the excellent restaurant Asitane in the grounds of the Kariye Hotel. We ate in the garden last summer, and the food was amongst the best we had in Turkey. Truly excellent, and quite different from a lot of other Turkish restaurants.

    On a different note, and as I know you enjoy reading work related to where you are going, have you listened to the podcast 12 Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth? If not, very worth doing so – I listened to it during our trip to Turkey last year, and it really enriched it, particularly the Istanbul element. We were there for the anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople, and I had just listened to the relevant podcast, telling the story from the Byzantine perspective – the fall rather than the victory. Was fascinating to see it from both sides – victor and vanquished. It is available on iTunes or from

  11. So happy to have discovered your site via @TravelswithTwo on Twitter! We are getting ready to depart from Seattle to South America in a few months, so I’ll be combing through your site looking for tips as we get ready for our big adventure.

    It has been a few years since I last visited Italy, but my friend Paula Russell (@PaulaRussell) takes small groups of women on art history tours of Italy. Her background is in art history, so she really knows her stuff, and she has lots of experience with first-timers in Italy.

    She has a great blog with a lot of info about the art and cultural places in Italy. Check her out at

    Interesting side note: Italy was my first overseas trip, and I flew into Milan. The first person I saw after deplaning was boxing promoter Don King. In real life, his hair is a lot flatter. 🙂

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