Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico

These Are the Diverging Fates of Italy's Two Greatest Cities

From GDP to soccer, Rome and Milan face starkly different realities

One was the 2015 New York Times pick for top destination. The other is hogging headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The rivalry between Milan and Rome is a tale as old at time, a favorite topic of discussion by Italians over their morning espresso. Italy's financial nerve center and fashion capital is efficient and elegant. The seat of government and Catholicism is gorgeous yet decrepit and full of crooks. The Milanese are stuck-up and work hard. Romans are laid-back and lazy.

But how true are these common tropes? Here is how the two cities really stack up.

1. Economic resilience

Milan, regional capital of Lombardy, is quasi-Teutonic in its resilience post-European debt crisis. By contrast, the central region of Lazio encircling Rome is doing worse than ever. During the longest recession since World War II, gross domestic product per capita in Lazio fell 24.3 percent, according to Bloomberg projections, compared to a 8.5 percent drop in Lombardy.


2. Unemployment

The province of Rome's unemployment rate climbed to 11.3 percent in 2014, while Milan's edged up to 8.4 percent. The City of Rome also has a bloated public administration: about 24,000 employees without taking into account about 26,000 working for municipal companies providing services from garbage collection to electricity. This is par for the course of being the country's capital, but still. There is little reason why Atac, for instance, which runs the city's buses and subway, has a staff of about 12,000, compared to 9,000 for the Milan equivalent. 


3. Efficiency

Milan reached 100 kilometers (62 miles) of subway this year, compared with 62 km in Rome. It's worth remembering that Rome is seven times as big with twice the population. Also, there are real difficulties in developing an underground system when the city is an archaeological site and any digging can uncover a priceless antiquity.


Milan’s transport network carries 750 million passengers a year. In Rome, about 927 million passengers use buses and trams, with only 273 million for the subway. Bike-sharing in the capital was a fiasco. By contrast Milan boasts 4,600 users and its car-sharing fleet is about double. 

4. Allure

The Eternal City attracts more than 10 million foreign tourists a year, compared to about 7 million for its northern competitor. But the World Expo, running from May 1 to Oct. 31 is giving its northern rival a chance to fight back. The number of tourists rose 9 percent in May and 12 percent in June in Milan.  In Rome, they rose 5 percent in June.

In spite of the buzz around Milan and the recent mishaps with actually getting to Rome — a fire at its Fiumicino airport not to mention electricity failures causing delays and cancellations during peak season — there is still no question of where people would rather go. 

Rome province has 27 state museums, including the Colosseum, the most visited tourist site in Italy. Milan has two. 


When Audrey Hepburn was asked at the end of "Roman Holiday" to pick her favorite city, the answer was unequivocal: "Rome! By all means, Rome."

5. Corruption

Both Milan and Rome have had their share of scandal. The Calabrian mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta, runs organized crime in Italy's richest city. Milan's reputation was also sullied by a series of arrests around alleged attempts to influence public tenders for the Expo fair. The Milan probe linked to Expo contracts saw more than 15 arrests and at least 50 under investigation in three probes since March 2014.


This year, it's Rome's turn to wallow in the mire. The "Mafia Capital" probe into bid-rigging of public contracts for waste and refugee shelters involves high-ranking former city officials. About 80 people have been arrested and more than 100 have come under investigation since December. 

6.  Soccer

Perhaps, in the end, it all boils down to which city has won more "scudetti," the coveted trophy awarded to the winners of Italy's premier soccer league. Things get tricky because not only does each city have two teams with a loyal fan base, but the rivalry between clubs in the same city is almost, if not, fiercer. Here is how they size up.