This article covers Ravenna, Ferrara, Modena, and Bologna, each of which can be visited on intraday stops, and each of which can easily support longer stays.
The city of Ravenna ♥♥ does not have the polished, shiny look, but you are more likely than not to come here specifically for the UNESCO World Heritage serial site of early Christian mosaics that is spread across a handful of locations in the city center. Walking between the sites will not leave you with any negative impressions; it is just that Ravenna does not necessarily compare with other famous towns in Italy despite some attractive pockets, the foremost of which is Piazza del Popolo ♥ and the surrounding streets. Duomo is worth a quick look just as any other accessible church.
But the mosaics ♥♥♥ are something else – unique, magnificent, and of the definite must-see variety. Five sights can be seen on a combined access ticket. All are interesting in their own right, providing different facets of the art created in the 5th-6th century.
Basilica di San Vitale ♥♥♥ is spacious, vibrant, and unfortunately crowded. The nearby Mausoleo Galla Placidia ♥♥ is the smallest of all sites, with rationed access for the interior; some wait in line is unavoidable. Basilica di San Appolinare Nuovo ♥ is probably the least impressive of the bunch when it comes to the actual mosaics – but it is also the most cathedral-like. Battisterio Neoniano ♥♥♥ provides the middle ground between space and vibrance. Finally, Capella Sant’Andrea ♥♥♥ is comparatively small but entirely breathtaking; it is reached via Museo Arcivescovile, which may provide some interesting diversion to archaeology aficionados.
Another location on the WH inscription that is found in the town center, Battistero degli Ariani, is not included on the combo access ticket. And there are two more on the outskirts that require dedicated travel to get to.
There are several other museums and points of interest in Ravenna to capture the attention of those willing, such as Museo Nazionale di Ravenna, Basilica di San Francesco, or the final resting place of Dante Alighieri.
Ferrara ♥ offers a nice combo of medieval and renaissance architecture, with a number of fine streets in the pedestrian city core and several impressive sights comprising the UNESCO World Heritage designation. Other areas very close to the center of town, conversely, looked relatively neglected (in 2014); quite a lot of restoration was going on then, so possibly on a return visit, a brighter town will give us a not-as-mixed impression overall.
Castello d’Estense ♥♥ is among the top sights. Although the rooms are mostly empty, the spaces themselves are quite interesting, the ceiling paintings are fantastic (if significantly and visibly patched), and there is a wealth of information about the history of the area and the dynasty of the Dukes d’Este. A nice interesting touch is angled floor mirrors in some halls that allow you to view painted ceilings without craning your neck.
Duomo ♥♥ is quite elaborately decorated, with nice stained-glass windows and a couple of great altarpieces, but it shows the need for renovation.
A number of palaces that are inscribed on Ferrara’s WH record should be considered for stepping inside. Among them are Palazzo Diamante, Palazzo Prosperi-Sacrati, and others, all a few blocks from the medieval core. Close to them is the pleasant little park Massari ♥.
One other oft-recommended point of interest, Palazzo Schifanoia is slightly further out in walking terms. There are also a couple of museums in the city that could be interesting, such as Museo di Casa Romei, Pinacoteca Nazionale, or even Museo Nazionale dell’Ebraismo Italiano e della Shoah.
Ferrara is a biking city. Pedestrian streets are not off boundaries for bicycles, which are everywhere. It may be a pleasant diversion on a not-very-hot day to rent a bike and ride around the town core, which is not too small in size.
Modena ♥ is another attractive town, with eye-catching buildings and nice streets fronted by porticoes so typical for Emilia-Romagna architecture.
The main attraction in town is Piazza Grande ♥, a UNESCO World Heritage site that somehow did not fulfill our expectations of grandness. It may be because both Torre Civica and the Duomo have large daily siesta breaks in access, which coincided with us being in town, so we could only admire them from the outside. The clock tower of Palazzo Comunale is another visual highlight on the square.
There are a couple of other attractions in the town center such as Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari, Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti, Palazzo dei Musei, more than one car museum, plus a Ferrari factory and gallery about half an hour’s drive from Modena’s center.
Bologna ♥ is certainly a town that has to be explored with a multi-day stay, which we have not managed to do yet. The porticoes ♥♥ lining its main streets have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and can by themselves provide a large scope of walking around town, underscoring the stately feel of Bologna. They are also handy for staying dry in case of rain.
Most notable of all attractions in town is the cathedral of San Petronio ♥, a grand medieval building that was meant to be larger than St Peter’s in Rome, but ended up incomplete and lopsided when the funds meant for its construction were diverted by the church authorities. The interior, nonetheless, is bright and airy. Near the cathedral, the “indecent” Fontana di Nettuno is resplendent with its bronze figures by Giambologna.
Among the other top attractions in the city are leaning towers known as simply the Two Towers (their original names are Asinelli and Garisenda), Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Palazzo Poggi, or Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica. As Bologna is frequently named the culinary capital of Italy, food-related pursuits are also aplenty.