A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
One of my favorite reasons for being in the Netherlands is the possibility to travel outside of the Netherlands. My masters program is quite demanding, so my free time is not longer than 3 days at a time. This might not sound encouraging, but personally, I would not consider my Leiden study experience complete without making use of the affordable options to explore Europe, especially since Schiphol Airport is 20 minutes away.
I highly recommend traveling to Southern Europe in February/March or October/November for several reasons. Firstly, this period in the Netherlands is usually dark, rainy and very very windy, so a sunny weekend can be quite refreshing. Secondly, flight tickets are quite cheap, and several websites provide info on the best deals (for more information check out Budget Travel Tips). Last but not least, if you want to experience popular tourist destinations without waiting for hours at entrances and having a million people in the background of your photos travel in this period and avoid the crowds.
I always approach my travel destinations with an open mind, but sometimes reality does not satisfy the hype. On this particular occasion Milan genuinely exceeded my expectations, and I found that there is so much more to this city than general respect for fashion.
Many things to do and visit can be found online, but finding hidden gems with great food is what truly makes traveling memorable for me. Needless to say I was happy to have abandoned my go-to food in the NL, even just for a few days.
As soon as I landed in Milan sunglasses became my best friend, and there was an abundance of beautiful architecture to see. As if it couldn’t get any better, affordable delicious food could be found at every corner. Isola is a very hip neighborhood perfect for dinner. I went there on Friday night, and the restaurants were as busy as what I have experienced in the Netherlands. This basically means that there are absolutely no tables available and the staff informs you that the waiting time is at least 30 minutes. At this point you start contemplating alternatives, knowing that the same faith awaits at any other restaurant nearby.
However, there was a major difference between my experience of waiting 30 minutes for a dinner table in a restaurant in the Netherlands and a restaurant in Milan. In the Netherlands you can choose to buy a drink at the bar or just stand and wait, feeling grateful if you are with good company, making the long wait at least bearable. On the other hand while I was waiting in Milan, complementary prosecco was offered by the staff along with bread and homemade pesto. When in presence of the best company, small gestures like this perfectly complement the occasion, enhance the positive energy, and really put in perspective how relative waiting time can be. This was a fantastic start, to what turned out to be a great dinner and the best weekend getaway.
The brunch next morning did not disappoint either, and I found that opting for an insta-worthy restaurant does not always mean that you sacrifice taste and are left disappointed by the price to portion size ratio. This brunch eliminated my jet lag, and I was ready to kick-start my sightseeing agenda. If a traditional Italian breakfast is more up your speed, there are plenty of bakeries offering sweet pastries and great coffee.
Milan truly offers the best from all worlds. For lovers of traditional architecture and history, witnessing the Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper is essential. This is inevitably accompanied by a glance at the iconic Duomo di Milano, one of the largest cathedrals in the world and the most recognizable building in the Milan skyline. Right across from the Duomo is Italy’s oldest active shopping mall, namely the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. As if all of this is not enough to take your breath away, there are several other churches, basilicas, squares and even a castle to truly leave you at awe.
The Piazza Gae Aulenti is the perfect place to surround yourself with 360 degrees of the best modern architecture can offer. Most notable of which is the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), which consists of two sustainable residential towers, where humans, plants, insects and birds all co-reside. Not only are the towers aesthetically pleasing, but their design carries a meaningful symbolic calling for considerations to novel designs preventing deforestation, when expanding urbanization plans. Once you have admired this architectural masterpiece, take a walk around the Piazza all the way to Corso Como, and prepare to be amazed.
Last but certainly not least are the museums. Milan has museums for everything from science and technology, archaeology, to fashion. Of the latter the most notable ones are the Fondazione Prada and Silos Armani, both dedicated to designs of the corresponding luxury fashion houses.
One unique museumesque experience was the Starbucks Reserve Roastery. Italian coffee is world-renowned; therefore Starbucks only entered the market in 2018 with this establishment. This Starbucks Roastery is the first of its kind, and offers the ability to witness the full coffee roasting process up-close and personal. However, this is not merely an interactive museum. The entrance is free as it is any regular Starbucks, there is branded merchandise unique to the Roastery all around, there are many samples of exclusive coffee beans from all over the world, but there are also several bars serving everything from coffee to Italian aperitivo, small bites, and one of the bar offers a menu of more than 100 cocktails. Therefore, this is definitely worth the visit, if not for the coffee, for the overall experience and the incredibly friendly staff.
If you have more time to explore another destination nearby deserves an honorary mention. My last day in Italy was not so sunny, so not to ruin the great impression of Milan, my friends and I opted for visiting Como instead, since it is one hour away and the train ticket from Milan is quite affordable.
If you do not want to have any regrets for not having a summer villa next to George Clooney, visiting Como off season on a foggy rainy day is perfect. There are plenty of restaurants open and you can explore the streets in peace. However, if you want to see why this destination is a favorite among many celebrities, I recommend visiting Como in summer or at least when it is sunny.
Short travels and change of scenery help me get more energy and motivation to study. I do not recommend traveling the week before your exam, but do make the most of the location of Leiden. Traveling is a perfect attribute to an international student experience, so hit up your international friends and go on an adventure.