Milan, Italy

Ryan Morales

ISEP Exchange: International Student Exchange Program, Spring 2024

Major(s): Global Studies and Political Science

2/2/2024 – Pre-Departure

Hey everyone! My name is Ryan Morales, and I am a sophomore here at UMBC. I am a Global Studies and Political Science double major in the Honors College, and in one week, I will be departing to an ISEP Exchange program in Milan, Italy. I decided to choose an ISEP program as it allowed me to study in Milan while paying the same UMBC tuition which is pretty neat.

While I struggle to pack, I have a lot of thoughts running through my head. The first is Italy itself. My TikTok and YouTube feed are full of videos showing what to do and not to do in Italy. I am excited by the idea of exploring ancient ruins, traveling by train, and generally not having to tip at restaurants. Italy is a country that I have always wanted to visit but never really had the right opportunity to do so. This is why I chose Milan as my first-choice program and because of how it could be used as a hub to travel throughout Italy and the rest of Europe as a whole. With a two-hour train ride to Venice and Florence, three hours to Rome, and being situated near the border with Switzerland, Milan seems like it was built in the perfect place. Another advantage is having three great airports near the city which allow for perfect weekend trips with how low air travel prices can be within Europe (seriously I have seen tickets under $30 it’s insane).

Another thing on my mind is Italian, which I have only recently started learning. While I only know a few phrases now, I’m hoping that my Spanish and English can get me by and that I can learn more once I am there. For now, I’m planning on spending this last week in America to read up on Italian history, finish packing, and have one final taste of Chipotle before I depart for the next 5 months.






Ciao! Although my classes do not start until next week, I came to Italy early to tour around some historic sites in the Center of the country before making my way up north. I started by exploring Italy’s famous capital: Rome. When in Rome, the main question you will find yourself asking is “When was this built?” The city holds surprises at the end of every street whether it be a random fresco or mosaic decorating a random building exterior or large stone ruins, Rome is a playground of history. The city’s famous sites of the Colosseum, Pantheon, and Roman Forum all exceeded my expectations and were truly a joy to explore.

While I could go on and on about how great Rome is, I also visited some other sites across the Italian countryside which were equally as fascinating. The first is the region of Umbria. Just a few hours away from Rome, lies this charming, picturesque area which is dotted with amazing Medieval hilltop villages across its green valley. You gain a surreal sensation as you explore the countryside, look out the window, and see completely random castles and aqueducts that have been abandoned for centuries.

From Umbria, I made my way towards Urbino, a small but beautiful town with both Medieval and Renaissance history. The town was the birthplace of the famous Renaissance painter, Raphael and throughout the streets, you can find references to him in the forms of statues and souvenirs depicting his greatest works.

One of the highlights of this week was visiting the microstate of San Marino, a small independent country surrounded by Italy. San Marino has been a country I have wanted to visit for a while, simply because of how obscure and small it seems. The capital and only major city (although it is more like a small town) is also called San Marino and is located on the top of a large cliff. The main attraction of San Marino is its three medieval towers on the edge of the cliff which scenically look over the valley. When walking through the streets I noticed a group of Sammarinese (San Marino citizens) guards marching towards the public palace in the town plaza.


Curious about what was going on, I followed them to the palace and asked a guard what was happening. He told me that I visited on a day when parliament was in session so I could not enter the building, but I was welcome to stand outside and watch the parliamentarians enter. Watching the members of the General and Grand Council enter, I was amazed that such major politicians simply walked among the people into their office. It Is difficult to imagine Congressmen in D.C. walking among the public to get to the Capitol. Finally, after all the parliamentarians had entered a car drove straight down the small plaza, and out came the Captain Regents of San Marino. The Captain Regents are the leaders of San Marino and they serve in pairs of two for terms of six months each. Getting to see the Captain Regents in person was not something I was expecting I am glad I was able to have such a unique experience. Now I will head north towards Milan and let you all know how it goes in two weeks!



3/1/2024 – In Country Post #2

Ciao! So much has happened in these past two weeks after arriving in Milan. My host university (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore) welcomed us with an orientation where we were able to explore the campus for the first time. Our classes are spread out in buildings across the center of the city but since Milan is very walkable and the metro system is reliable, there is not much issue with moving between classes. After orientation, our classes began the following week and covered many interesting topics. The course that I have been the most excited to learn about is a class on the European Union which dives into the complexities of how this intergovernmental organization works. I am also taking classes about cultural psychology, the history of the mafia, and the sociological perspective behind fashion.

In my free time, I have been to Milan and some interesting places around the city. I was able to visit the country of Switzerland which borders Italy to the north and can be reached in less than an hour away from Milan. However, although they are so close to each other, the culture and scenery between both nations are completely different with Switzerland being surrounded by the enormous Alps Mountain range and being influenced by Germanic cultures. Besides the amazing nature, Switzerland also has some cool cities such as Zurich and Lucerne. Zurich was a nice and calm city that seemed very cosmopolitan; however, Lucerne was an incredibly charming city, surrounded by dramatic mountains and built with unique architectural styles. Lucerne also had some cool monuments like the famous Jesuit Church (pictured to the left), but also some interesting wooden bridges and a statue of a lion carved into a large rock.

In Italy, I also visited the city of Verona, which is famous for being the setting of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. Although it is a controversial topic whether Shakespeare visited the city, and whether Romeo and Juliet are completely fictitious, Verona has nonetheless based its image on the famous play. Large numbers of tourists (including myself) flock to see “Juliet’s” house and balcony although there are many other interesting sites to see in this historical city. There are Roman ruins, including a large arena that looks similar to the Colosseum but smaller and more well-preserved as well as an amphitheater that is now next to a Roman archaeological museum. There are also cool Medieval churches and castles scattered throughout the city.



3/15/2024 – In-Country Post #3

Ciao! Throughout the past two weeks, classes have begun speeding up and the weather has begun shifting from gloomy and chilly to sunny and warm. Now that the weather here is nicer, I decided to use this time to spend some weekends exploring some further cities. I first decided to take to train two hours east to visit Venice, the floating city. Although Venice is a city that I have heard about my whole life, I still had no idea what to expect due to so many mixed reviews and stories I have heard. Some people have told me that it is their favorite place in the world, while others claim it feels artificial and like a type of historical “Disneyland”. Deciding that I would enjoy exploring a new city either way, I spent a day trip walking along the canals of this historic town and found the city to be very beautiful. At one point in history, Venice was a powerful merchant empire that controlled trade across the Mediterranean resulting in the creation of a unique city with canals instead of streets, to show the empire’s vast wealth. While the city was fairly small (you could walk across the whole island in less than 50 minutes), I nonetheless highly recommend you visit if you ever have the opportunity to do so, as Venice truly feels like a strange and magical city outside of time and place.

Last week, I finally decided to try out Europe’s famous “budget flights”. I took a short trip over the Adriatic Sea to the small country of Albania for the weekend. I stayed in the capital city of Tirana, but I also took a day trip to visit the historic towns of Krujë and Bovilla Lake. The nature and countryside in Albania are beautiful as shown by Bovilla Lake, a large reservoir which is where the city of Tirana receives most of its tap water from. After spending much time in large urban cities like Milan, it was refreshing to spend some time in nature. However, Albania also has some cool historical sites and cities like Krujë and Tirana which both were once part of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, many remnants of Ottoman culture can still be seen across Albania like in the colorful bazaars in the city centers, imposing mosques, and Albania’s love for Turkish coffee. While Albania is a country that I previously knew very little about, I am glad I took the time to take a trip and visit this small nation as it challenged my preconception of how I thought European nations looked and allowed me to explore a new region of the world I may not have had the opportunity to visit otherwise.


3/29/2024 – In-Country Post #4

Ciao! These past two weeks have been busy for me as our classes have begun to prepare for midterms in a few weeks and I also decided to take advantage of some of the cheap flights nearby to visit Sicily and Austria.

Sicily is an island that is part of Italy and is located at its southern tip. The island has a long and diverse history with it being under the control of the Greeks. Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, Austrians, British, and finally Italians. Needless to say, Sicily holds many amazing ancient ruins from different civilizations, as well as great cities with many cultural influences. My favorite city which I visited was Palermo, which still has historical Islamic architecture from when the island was under Arab control and a chaotic atmosphere with bustling streets and crowded markets. However, another unique feature of Sicily is its amazing nature from rolling green hills, to Mount Etna which is Europe’s largest active volcano, and clear blue beaches. Visiting Sicily was a nice break from the cosmopolitan city of Milan and the island felt unlike anything else that I have seen in Europe.


Last weekend, I took another flight over the Alps to Vienna, Austria. With a completely different culture and atmosphere than Sicily, Vienna is a quiet, classical, and musical city. The city has been home to famous musicians like Mozart and Beethoven and has many monuments left over from the era of the Hapsburg dynasty including three beautiful Baroque palaces. However, what really surprised me in Vienna was how delicious Central European cuisine can be. While vendors sell many different pastries that are also tasty, my favorite dish that I tried has to be goulash. While goulash is technically Hungarian, it is extremely popular across Austria and central Europe and is basically a type of meat stew. I am glad I was able to try a new type of food that I did not know even existed and will try to look out for it when I return home. 

Finally, after seeing the main sites in Vienna, I decided to take a quick one-hour bus ride to the nearby city of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Slovakia is a country that I knew very little about so I was glad to be able to visit its capital even if it was only for a day trip. One day in Bratislava is enough, however, to see all the main sites as the city is pretty small compared to Vienna. I was able to join a city walking tour, where we visited Bratislava’s famous monuments such as St. Michael’s Gate which is located in the old town district. After returning to Milan I only had a few days of class before my spring break quickly began with more adventures planned that I will tell you about in another two weeks!


4/12/2024 – In-Country Post #5

Ciao! These past two weeks have gone by so quickly with spending my first week on spring break and then having midterms on my second week. For my long break, I decided to take advantage of being in the Mediterranean region to visit a country which I have always dreamed of visiting: Morocco.

Northern Africa is a region which I am completely unfamiliar with however I was attracted by the beautiful Islamic architecture, picturesque cities and scenery, and delicious Moroccan food. I started my visit in Marrakech, a historic walled city filled with narrow and chaotic markets. Some of the city’s main attractions are the regal and magnificent Bahia and Badi palaces and the numerous peaceful gardens scattered across the city. I was also able to take some day trips to other cities and towns across Morocco including the city’s economic capital and most populous city, Casablanca. This large city is home to the world’s tallest religious structure, the Hassan II Mosque which is one of the most stunning buildings I have ever visited. I was also able to visit the town of Ait Benhaddou, which is an earthen clay village that has been featured in many movies and shows, including Gladiator, the Mummy, Game of Thrones, and many more.

After visiting Morocco, I decided to squeeze in one more destination before my spring break ended and stopped off in Lisbon, Portugal before heading back to Milan. Vastly different from the bustling and busy cities of Morocco, Lisbon was a quiet, calm, and colorful seaside city. Perhaps one of the most unique places that I visited was the National Palace of Pena, which is located outside Lisbon, in the nearby city of Sintra. The palace is vibrantly colored and perched dramatically on a large hill overlooking the Portuguese countryside.


Finally, after a long spring break, I returned to Milan and spent the week studying for my midterms which went well. To celebrate, I visited an Italian restaurant chain that serves American food called: Old Wild West. It was very interesting to see how the Italians thought of American culture and food as Old Wild West was as stereotypically American as it gets, with southwestern theming and menu items such as the “Grand Canyon Mix”, “Billy BBQ” burger, “Kentucky Salad” and “Carolina Chicken”. While fun to visit as an American, I imagine this is how Italians might feel when they visit Olive Garden. Overall, these past two weeks have been very fun and busy, so I look forward to taking some shorter day trips around Northern Italy this upcoming week.



4/26/2024 – In-Country Post #6

Lake Como
Varenna, Lake Como

Ciao! After the midterms ended, I decided to relax by taking some time to explore nearby places in Northern Italy. I first visited the famous Lake Como, which is only an hour north of the city and is one of the most popular day trips from Milan. Located at the beginning of the Alps near the border with Switzerland, Lake Como is a natural wonder with clear blue water, lush green and forested lakeshores, and snow-capped mountains. Throughout the lake, there are plenty of picturesque small and historic villages with charming cobblestone streets and great architecture. My favorite village was Varenna, but with an easy-to-use ferry system, I was able to explore some other nearby towns like Bellagio. The next day, I took another day trip to the city of Bologna which is a couple hours south and is known as the gastronomical capital of Italy. While the food definitely was amazing, Bologna also had spectacular architecture and iconic historical structures like large cathedrals and its famous two towers which are the city’s main landmarks and date back to the Medieval era. Another interesting fact about Bologna is that it has the oldest university in Europe which was founded in 1088.


Krakow, Poland
One of the Bologna Towers

The next weekend, I decided to visit the city of Krakow in Poland as there was a cheap flight available and while I did not know much about Poland, I heard that Krakow was a nice city to visit. Poland is rich in history and has many fun and interesting attractions. The first is the old town in the city of Krakow itself. Krakow has a well-preserved historic medieval center with large cathedrals, castles, and even a metal statue of a dragon that breathes fire every few minutes.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The city also has amazing food from pierogis and Polish sausages to Polish donuts called Paczki and delicious chimney cakes. There are also a couple of sites of interest around the city as well. On my first day, I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp from World War II which has since been transformed into a museum and memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. An incredibly depressing and profound site, but I feel like it is still an important place to visit to learn about one of history’s darkest periods. A bit closer to Krakow is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, an underground network of caves and tunnels that historically provided Poland with large supplies of salt which were crucial to its economy. The mines are also filled with artwork from large salt sculptures to intricately carved churches deep underground which makes exploring the maze-like complex much more exciting and full of surprises. Overall, I greatly enjoyed Poland as it holds many fun but also many historically important sites that guarantee great and meaningful experiences for all types of travelers. These next two weeks, have a couple of Italian holidays and some extra days off which I plan to use to explore some nearby places and a few other countries.


5/10/2024 – In-Country Post #7

Ciao! These past few weeks have gone by so quickly due to a few long weekends we had because of a couple of Italian holidays. The first weekend, I decided to try a EuroNight train which is a special type of train that takes you to your destination overnight so you can wake up in a new city in the morning. While I cannot say that I was able to get much sleep, I did successfully make it to Munich, Germany by morning which I immediately began to explore. I really liked Munich and it was a unique city with nice green relaxing public parks and grand buildings. One of the most interesting things I saw in Munich was the River Surfers who lined up to surf on a river with a strong current in the city’s famous English Garden as Munich is quite far away from any type of ocean or sea. My main reason for visiting Southern Germany was to see the Schloss Neuschwanstein, a fairytale-like picturesque castle perched in the Bavarian hills. The castle was beautiful and although small on the inside it was ornately decorated.


This past weekend I also visited another city with great art, Budapest, the capital of Hungary. My main motive in wanting to visit Budapest was to see its stunning architecture which can be seen across the entire city. From the impressive and magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building to the colorful tiled roof of St. Matthias Church to the white geometric fortress-like towers of Fisherman’s Bastion, Budapest is filled with architectural wonders. Overall, I greatly enjoyed Budapest and consider it to be one of Europe’s most underrated and overlooked cities.

As finals are approaching near the end of the month, I have one more weekend trip and a couple of day trips planned which I will tell you all about in the next few weeks.



5/24/2024 – Final Thoughts Post

Ciao! These final few weeks have been extremely hectic and filled with group projects, studying for final exams, and last-minute trips. The first weekend I took two day trips with the first one being to Cinque Terre, five scenic coastal villages in the Italian seaside province of Liguria. Made up of vibrant pastel-colored houses on rocky cliffs, the villages have a long fishing tradition and lure in many tourists who come for the great seafood, beaches, and hiking trails.

The next day I took another day trip to the micro-nation of Monaco, a rich and luxurious city-state situated on the Mediterranean Sea and completely surrounded by France on all sides. I unknowingly visited Monaco on the day of the F1 Grand Historic Prix which featured historic cars that raced around the city. I was surprised by the powerful noise of the cars and how they could be heard throughout the entire city. Monaco is known for more than just racing however and has many great historic sites such as the old town and the Prince’s palace which I was able to visit. Another one of my favorite places which I visited in the small country was the Oceanographic Museum which is a large aquarium/museum dedicated to ocean exploration and was once led by the famous oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau.

Finally last weekend I visited the city of Barcelona in the province of Catalonia, Spain. Another seaside city, Barcelona has quickly become my favorite city that I have visited this semester with stunning architecture, amazing city planning and delicious food. My favorite part of Barcelona is the architecture of Antoni Gaudi, one of my favorite artists who created impactful and unique buildings and parks which can be found across the city.

Perhaps his most famous work is the La Sagrada Familia basilica, an enormous church which has been under construction since 1882. I was impressed by its sheer size and massive facades and hope to visit it again once it is completed. Overall visiting Barcelona was a great experience and an amazing final weekend trip to bring my semester abroad to a close. Now I have one final week left which will be filled with final exams and lots of packing before I return back home.


6/7/2024  –Return Post

  After a long semester I finally arrived back home on June 1st. Returning back in the United States felt weird as this was the longest I had ever been away from my family and home. The first thing I did upon arrival was reunite with my family, drive back home and fall asleep. The second thing I did was visit Chipotle, the number one place I missed most while abroad. The food tasted delicious as always and I feel as if my time in Europe has helped me appreciate some aspects of my life back home that I had always taken for granted. One of the main features of the Baltimore-DC area that I never truly appreciated was the large diversity of food present. Finding good Mexican food in Italy was an extremely difficult task and finding restaurants specializing in Thai or Ethiopian food was nearly impossible so I am glad to be back in a region where it is easy to be exposed to new foods from across the world every day.

One aspect of European life which I will miss however are the walkable cities and great public transit networks across the continent. As I had some free time this past week and am still in a traveling mindset, I decided to travel to some nearby cities in the region to experience them with a new perspective in mind and was disappointed to find cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore were not as easily walkable as I thought they would be. However, I will admit that some important aspects of  European cities are just as present in American cities as well. Amazing city planning and beautiful monuments can be found in Washington D.C. while world-class museums can still be explored such as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore(which I definitely recommend). Even Philadelphia has amazing layers of history all throughout the streets. My study abroad experience helped me appreciate what I have always had in front of me at home and gain a new perspective to view the world through.

Overall, I want to highly encourage you to pursue a study abroad experience whether it be for a couple weeks, semester or even a whole year. I will forever be grateful for this once in a lifetime experience which gave me memories that I will always hold on to. I hope you enjoyed following me on my journey and I hope to read about yours one day as well!


Thanks for reading,

Ryan Morales