Italy is reopening: 11 things I learned as a tourist there this week

May 19, 2021

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When I landed in Milan on Monday morning, the airport was quiet. Cafes were open in the arrivals hall, taxi drivers were available and public transit was running. But most of the typical tourist booths selling SIM cards, tours and bus tickets were shuttered. And when I went to the Piazza del Duomo to get my first look at the Duomo di Milan, I found a sparse mixture of locals and tourists in the square.

Italy is in the process of reopening to tourists now. To see what it’s like, I flew from the U.S. to Italy to try out the first COVID-tested flight open to American tourists last Sunday. For this Delta flight, every passenger had to take two COVID-19 tests before departure and one test upon arrival. By undergoing these tests and getting negative results each time, we were all able to enter Italy without any quarantine. But Delta’s not the only airline to offer quarantine-free flights to Italy: American Airlines and United Airlines also offer similar flights.

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Not having to endure a lengthy quarantine may be a significant step toward normalcy, but there are other things that matter to tourists. When TPG sent me to Milan for this last-minute trip, I was told to experience the destination like a true tourist and see just how much had reopened.

Sure, everyone is wearing masks. But even though the pandemic is still very much ongoing, Milan is open for tourism. In my opinion, now is a great time to go since you can see the city without the thick crowds you might expect at this time of year. If you decide to visit Italy soon, here are several things to keep in mind.

In This Post

You need to understand Italy’s COVID-19 zone system

Milan, Italy views from the roof of the Milan Cathedral
View of the Piazza del Duomo from the Duomo di Milan’s rooftop. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Let’s start with a tedious but critical aspect of traveling to or living in Italy right now: the Ministry of Health’s colored zone system of COVID-19 risk. Each region or autonomous province is classified into one of four zones each week based on this zone system:

  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • White

Alitalia’s website gives a good summary of what you can and can’t do based on a region’s color-coded zone. But, as of May 17, 2021, almost every region is in the yellow zone. So, here’s a quick summary of what it means to be in a yellow zone:

  • You can move freely within your region as well as travel to other yellow regions
  • Most commercial activities are open to the public, with some restrictions
    • Shopping malls are only open on weekdays
    • Museums and cultural sites are open, but you may need to book your visit in advance
    • Bars, pubs and restaurants are open, but you can only consume food or beverages outdoors
    • You may participate in sporting activities outdoors
    • Shows, plays, theatrical performances and concerts must use seat reservations and adhere to social distancing requirements

As of the May 17 update, Milan is in the yellow zone.

Related: Everything you need to know about the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

You won’t struggle to find outdoor dining

Outdoor dining in Naviglio in Milan, Italy
Outdoor dining in Milan’s Naviglio neighborhood. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

There’s an abundance of places to eat outdoors in Milan. And, although I’ve passed some cafes and coffee shops that are full, I’ve always found a quieter venue nearby with availability.

I even snagged a walk-up table overlooking the Duomo di Milan (also known as the Milan Cathedral) for a late lunch at the typically crowded Fendi Cafe on the seventh floor of the Rinascente shopping center.

Terrace dining at the Fendi Cafe overlooking Milan Cathedral in Milan, Italy
Outdoor dining at Fendi Cafe overlooking the Duomo di Milan. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Every restaurant staff member I’ve seen has worn his or her mask correctly. And most restaurants and cafes have tables adequately separated outdoors.

Related: How to book a COVID-tested flight to Italy from 51,000 miles round-trip

Prepare to wear a mask

Katie Genter in mask on roof of Milan Cathedral
It was hot on the Duomo di Milan rooftop. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

As mask requirements relax in the U.S., U.S. tourists may be unaccustomed to wearing a mask outdoors. And, as temperatures rise, you may find doing so to be uncomfortable.

However, you should expect to wear a mask at all times and maintain a distance of at least one meter (slightly more than three feet) from other people while in Italy. While I’ve been here, I only removed my mask in my hotel room and when eating or drinking.

Related: An overview of Italy’s best destinations for tourists

Tickets are required for most attractions

Milan Cathedral in Italy
Duomo di Milan. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

I’m not sure which tourist attractions typically require tourists to purchase tickets online ahead of time. But now, especially if you want to sightsee on the weekend, it’s critical to plan in advance since Italy currently requires tourists to purchase weekend tickets to cultural sites online. And some attractions, such as the Duomo di Milan, require you to do so no later than the day before your visit.

However, I was able to snag a ticket in person during the week to see the Duomo di Milan. And although tickets to see the Last Supper mural typically sell out far in advance, tickets are currently released around 9 a.m. each Monday for the following week. So, around 9:30 a.m. on Monday, May 17, I checked and had my pick of dates and times for this week.

I also checked ticket availability for Sforzesco Castle and don’t expect I’ll have issues booking a same-day ticket for a weekday visit.

There is one ticket I wasn’t able to snag, though. The La Scala opera house recently reopened for shows with limited capacity. But, the only performance during my time in Milan was completely sold out. You can, however, book a tour of La Scala’s museum that typically allows you to at least peek into the theater.

Related: Northern vs. southern Italy: How to pick your ideal Italian vacation destination

Most attractions are open and uncrowded

Last Supper mural in Milan, Italy
Viewing the Last Supper mural with just 13 other people. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Perhaps the best argument for visiting Italy right now is that most cultural sites and attractions are shockingly uncrowded. For example, the Last Supper currently caps the capacity of each group to 18 people for health reasons. But my group this week was just 14 guests.

And I didn’t see another guest the entire time I was in the Duomo di Milan’s museum. So, I was able to enjoy the exhibits in complete silence.

Milan Cathedral Museum in Italy
Some of the artwork in the Duomo di Milan Museum. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

I also had an elevator to myself when I went to the Duomo’s rooftop. And didn’t see many other guests for most of my time on the rooftop. If you’re wondering, it’s worth the money to visit the roof.

Milan, Italy views from the roof of the Milan Cathedral
Views from the Duomo di Milan rooftop. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

If you enjoy gyms, sporting events, fairs, spas, thermal water centers and amusement parks, know that these locations are currently closed. However, Italy has plans to allow these types of facilities to reopen soon.

Related: Beat the crowds at these 3 ‘secret’ Italian spots

Audio guides aren’t available to rent

Unstaffed audio guide book at the Milan Cathedral in Italy
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

I rented audio guides at various cultural sites in Europe before the pandemic. But, although many cultural sites in Milan have audio guide signs, none of the sites staffed the rental booths during my visits.

Luckily, many cultural sites have apps that you can download to listen to an audio guide on your phone. And you can find audioguides for other places with relative ease. But, you’ll want to plan and download these apps on Wi-Fi at your hotel if you’re paying per gigabyte with Google Fi (like I am).

Related: How to have a budget vacation in Italy

Aperitivo is still possible

Outdoor dining in Naviglio in Milan, Italy
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Aperitivo is a northern Italy tradition that provides appetizers or snacks with each drink you purchase. Typically, your drink will be wine, beer or a bitter cocktail. And the snacks are typically served either as a buffet or pre-made plate.

I was looking forward to participating in the experience during my trip and was thrilled when I walked around the Naviglio neighborhood and noticed several bars with aperitivo specials starting around 5 p.m. From what I could tell, most prepare you a plate now instead of offering a buffet.

Related: Don’t make these 9 tourist mistakes in Italy

You can travel to other Italian cities

View Of Saint Peters Square In Rome, Italy
(Photo by Peter Unger/Getty Images)

As I mentioned above, tourists in a yellow zone can travel to Italian cities within the same zone. However, for red or orange zones, you’ll need a Digital Green Certificate that confirms you’re vaccinated, recovered from COVID-19 or taken a negative COVID-19 test within the previous 48 hours.

Unless it’s absolutely necessary, you may not want to book nonrefundable reservations in multiple regions for your Italy trip right now. Instead, I recommend being flexible with your plans if you plan to travel to Italy while the colored zone system is in place.

Related: From Venice to Rome: 6 cities you can easily visit on Italy’s high-speed train

There’s a nightly curfew

Views from the Hyatt Centric Milan's rooftop bar
Views from the Hyatt Centric Milan’s rooftop bar. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Currently, Italy has a nightly curfew, and you’re not allowed to move locations between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. There are several acceptable reasons to move, including work, health or other urgent reasons. But, you must carry a self-certification. And, presumably, running late on the way home from dinner or a bar won’t be acceptable.

However, some restaurants and bars may stay open later. For example, the Hyatt Centric’s rooftop Organics SkyGarden@Cielo bar currently serves a wide variety of drinks until 11:30 p.m. and small cold plates until 10:30 p.m. And some hotels may offer food and drinks overnight via room service.

Related: These are the best hotels in Italy for every type of traveler

Public transit is available and mostly distanced

MXP airport bus
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

I’ve tried various methods of public transportation so far while in Milan. First, I chose a 10 euro (about $12) bus for the 50-minute trip from the Milan airport (MXP) to Milan Centrale on Monday. These buses run every 30 minutes and the passengers distanced themselves enough to allow for one or two rows between each group.

I also tried out the Milan metro several times. Despite my Google Maps navigation app noting several stations were busy, I quickly found a seat for each trip and noticed that everyone abided by the signs to leave middle seats open.

Milan metro seating sign for COVID-19 distancing
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Milan also has street trams that you can ride. The one tram I rode in the center of Milan wasn’t crowded. But even if I’d traveled during a busier time, the seating on the tram I rode was conducive to social distancing.

A tram in Milan, Italy
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Related: 30 essential travel apps every traveler needs

You can still go shopping

Shopping in Milan, Italy
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Since Milan is currently in the yellow zone, shopping centers should be closed on the weekends. But, at least during the weekdays, there are ample shopping opportunities. None of the stores were closed in the Rinascente shopping center near the Duomo when I visited this week.

And the shops in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II nearby were also open.

Shopping in Milan, Italy
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The book stores at several churches I visited were closed. But, the souvenir store for the Duomo di Milan was open.

Milan Cathedral gift shop in Italy
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

In short, you’ll likely find fewer places to shop if you visit on the weekend. But, if you can shop during the week, there are plenty of stores open and ready for tourists.

Related: My experience using the instant at-home COVID-19 test that’s CDC-approved for travel to the US

Bottom line

I’ve loved my time in Milan this week. After all, relatively few tourists mean inexpensive hotel rates and easy-to-obtain entrance tickets. Plus, limited crowds meant I had some experiences mostly (or in the case of one museum, entirely) to myself.

Sure, the COVID-tested flights to Italy are confusing and require lots of COVID-19 tests and forms. And there are some activities, like attending a sporting event or going to the spa, you still can’t do. Plus, wearing a mask outside in the heat isn’t fun. But, I’m happy I decided to take this trip.

If you decide to take a similar trip, I recommend booking a COVID-tested flight on the way to Italy and keeping your travel plans flexible to allow for unexpected changes to your itinerary.

Featured image by Katie Genter/The Points Guy

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