Places to see in Italy

Lake Como – Bellagio and Varenna

If there is another spot on the planet that is as beautiful when the sun is shining as Lake Como in Italy, I’d like to know about it. This is pretty much my idea of heaven–a long, crystal blue lake with picturesque old Italian villages surrounding it and dramatic mountains as a backdrop. For the tourist, this is about as good as it gets. Lake Como is not far from Milan and therefore it’s popular summer weekend getaway spot for locals as well as a primary tourist destination.

Bellagio

Our base for two nights was Bellagio, at the northern tip of the peninsula that separates the lake into two fingers (the lake is shaped like an inverted “Y”).

Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy

The cute town of Bellagio, probably the main tourist destination on Lake Como and our home for a couple nights.

Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy

Evening street scene in Bellagio.

Chiesa di San Giacomo, Bellagio, Italy

Interior of Bellagio’s 11th century San Giacomo Church.

Lake Como Bellagio2

Our apartment in Bellagio.

We arrived on a Sunday in June by car, and as to be expected on a beautiful Sunday, it was a nightmare finding a parking spot. Our apartment was in the heart of the old town (a pedestrian zone), so I had to find a spot at one of the few lots scattered around the loop road. After looping around the narrow peninsula 3 or 4 times, we found a parking spot that was within walking distance of our apartment.

We chose Bellagio because of its central location and it was a good one. We used the regular ferry system by obtaining a pedestrian day pass that took us to the towns on the west and east shores, it was perfect for the amount of time we had. Each crossing was about 20 minutes.

Lake Como, Italy ferry

Example of a Lake Como ferry – this was a tiny one, most had open passenger decks that provided great views of the towns and lake scenery.

Varenna

Varenna is s short distance north of Bellagio and probably the 2nd busiest town in terms of tourists, and it’s easy to see why – a quaint village hugging a little point on the lake with views from all directions.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Arriving into Varenna.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Another view of Varenna, I love the colors captured in this image.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Varenna’s main town square. Just a block or two off the water and the scene quiets down dramatically!

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Varenna’s Church of San Giorgio has some 14th -15th century frescoes near the main altar.

San Giorgio Church, Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Interior of San Giorgio church in Varenna.

One could spend weeks exploring the coastline villages of Lake Como, but since our two weeks in Italy were coming to an end, this wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple final days in paradise.

Menaggio, Lake Como, Italy

This is a view of the town of Menaggio, on the west shoreline of Lake Como.

Lake Como is known for its extravagant villas and as being a home for the rich and famous. With the bustling fashion capital of Milan just 83 km (52 miles to the south), this area reeks of wealth.

Villa Carlotta, Lake Como, Italy

The 18th century Villa Carlotta, on the western shore of Lake Como, just directly across from Bellagio. It is now a national property.

Lake Como, Italy

A view of Bellagio from Villa Carlotta.

The drive along the shore of Lake Como to Bellagio from Como on the south is beautiful, but the road is extremely narrow with no shoulder – even in a little car I was a bit nervous with the buses, trucks and other traffic, but we made it safely. Just take your time and be alert, and dream of what lies ahead!

A Tour of Ravenna–A Roman and Byzantine Marvel

From our stay in Ferrara (Italy) we moved on to Ravenna, about 87 km (54 miles) southeast, near the Adriatic Sea and not too far south of Venice. Ravenna has been on my bucket list for a long time. It has a glorious history as the capital of the western of Roman Empire between the fall of Rome (5th century CE) and the rise of Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (Istanbul). The main tourist sights are the beautiful early Christian mosaics found in the churches and baptistries from the 5th – 6th centuries, amazingly still intact. They are incredible!

Shown below are most of most main sights to see in Ravenna.

Basilica di San Vitale

This church is probably the most stunning of all the locations. The mosaics date from 526 – 547 CE, and look like they were finished yesterday.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Exterior of the Basilica di San Vitale, which may have been designed by someone from Constantinople.

San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

The apse of San Vitale – perhaps the most stunning mosaics in all of Ravenna. One has to just stand there in awe and absorb all the detailed work that went into creating these murals.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

A close-up of the mosaics in San Vitale, showing stories from the Old Testament of Abel and Melchizedek making offerings.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

Right next to San Vitale is the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. Despite its name, this structure became a private chapel rather than a tomb. The Mausoleo was begun in 430 CE.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

Interior view of the Mausoleo. The alabaster windows were an early 20th century gift from the King of Italy.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

One other view of the interior of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.

Battistero Neoniano (Neonian Baptistry)

This is Ravenna’s oldest monument, from the early part of the 5th century CE. It is located next to Ravenna’s Duomo (cathedral) and the very cool 10th century leaning bell tower.

Neonian Baptistry, Ravenna, Italy

The Neoniano Baptistry is on the right, the leaning 10th century bell tower is in the background and the Duomo on the left.

Battistero Neoniano, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of the Battistero Neoniano, showing the baptism of Jesus in the ceiling of the dome.

Ravenna Duomo, Ravenna, Italy

Although not part of the historical tour ticket, this is an interior view of Ravenna’s Duomo, located next to the Battistero Neoniano. The Duomo has been rebuilt over the centuries, the current structure dates from the 18th century.

Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

This is a 6th century CE church, named for the first bishop of Ravenna, and it has a bit different feel to it than the other monuments above (rectangular, lighter and more open). It was constructed by Theodoric the Great, as his palace chapel. It is also included as part of the combination ticket. There are mosaics of scenes from Christ’s birth, his miracles and resurrection as well as representations of numerous saints and martyrs in this church.

Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo church (6th century CE).

Sant' Apollinare Church, Ravenna, Italy

Interior view of Sant’ Apollinare Church. On the left lower panel is a procession of 22 virgins traveling towards the Madonna and Child (located near the apse).

Sant' Apollinare interior, Ravenna, Italy

This image captures part of the succession of martyrs (lower panel), opposite from the procession of the virgins. The structure to the right of the martyrs represents the Palace of Theodoric.

To visit the main sights above, go to the tourist office in the old town, and purchase a ticket (€11.50 at the time of our visit) and a map of the sights included.

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This sign, at one of the main sights, shows the places included in the combination ticket.

The streets are also pretty well marked, with arrows pointing and providing directions towards the main churches.

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Example of a street sign providing directions to the sights.

Keep in mind that you will be walking quite a bit, although the points of interest are not too far apart and can be easily visited in 2/3 of a day. During our visit in May, the sights were not crowded, there were no lines to enter any of the churches. However, later in the summer, it will likely be quite a bit busier, we saw ropes to handle long lines at least at a couple of the more popular locations.

In addition to the sights above, there are some other places you should see in Ravenna.

Battistero degli Ariani

I’m not sure why this little late-5th century CE baptistry is not part of the ticket above, but it’s worth taking a look. I think it cost €1 to visit. It is located a few blocks from Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior of Battistero degli Ariani.

Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna, Italy

The cupola of the Battistero degli Ariani, showing the Apostles ringed around baptism of Christ.

Basilica di San Francesco and Dante’s Tomb

The Italian poet Dante died in Ravenna in 1321, and his tomb is just to the side of the Basilica di San Francesco, which is also worth a visit for its flooded crypt.

Basilica di San Francesco, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of the Basilica of San Francesco. Dante’s tomb is on the left side, out of view of this photo. The church was built between the 9th and 10th centuries CE, and then underwent modifications a couple hundred years later.

Basilica San Francesco crypt, Ravenna, Italy

The flooded 10th century crypt (complete with gold fish) in the Basilica di San Francesco. You pay 1 euro to have the crypt illuminated. The marshy land and high water table in Ravenna has kept the crypt flooded for centuries.

Dante's tomb, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior of Dante’s tomb.

Dante's tomb, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of Dante’s tomb, he was 56 years old when he died.

San Giovanni Evangelista

This church, close to Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was rebuilt over the centuries, and has some very interesting fragments of old mosaics along its aisles.

San Giovanni Evangelista, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of San Giovanni Evangelista, which looks similar to Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

San Giovanni Evangelista, Ravenna, Italy

Examples of the mosaic fragments in San Giovanni Evangelista.

Everywhere you turn in Ravenna, there is something interesting to see…

Ravenna, Italy

An old Roman building on a street corner in Ravenna.

The old town has a pleasant main square, with restaurants surrounding it.

Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna’s main square, Piazza del Popolo.

Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna street scene. In the afternoon, the streets are pretty quiet, until the residents come out for their evening stroll.

We stayed in a lovely B&B just south of the old town, perhaps a 1/3 mile walk to the center of the old town.

Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

Bologna – the Other Italian City with Leaning Towers

We all have heard about the leaning tower in Pisa, Italy, but have you heard of the leaning towers in Bologna? While these towers may be less famous, they are the signature feature of this beautiful city, which is located roughly halfway between Florence and Venice. Two of the most famous towers in Bologna are Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, which are mere feet from each other. These towers were built in the 12th century by two important families, trying to outdo each other by the height of their towers, as a way of demonstrating their power and wealth.

Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

The Asinelli and Garisenda towers. It is difficult to get a photo of these two towers given the proximity of all the surrounding buildings.

The tallest, Asinelli, can be climbed, but get your ticket in advance. We got ours on my phone while waiting in line, not knowing how busy it would be and we were lucky to get a ticket for an immediately available time. These towers are probably the busiest spot in Bologna from a tourist standpoint. Otherwise, Bologna is fairly quiet.

Asinelli Torre, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Asinelli Torre. As can be seen, it leans a bit to the left in this photo.

From the top, you get an amazing view of Bologna and look down on the Torre Garisenda, which had to be shortened by about 36 feet in the 14th century due to its significant lean.

Asinelli and Garisenda towers, Bologna, Italy

Looking down from the top of Asinelli tower towards the Garisenda tower.

Bologna, Italy

A view of Bologna’s skyline and a few other surviving towers from the top of Torre Asinelli. At one point there were 200 towers in Bologna, they must have been quite a sight.

Bologna, Italy

Another view from the top of Torre de Asinelli looking towards San Petronio Church, which can also be climbed for a great view of the leaning towers, shown below.

Torre Asinelli, Bologna, Italy

A view of some of the 500 steps descending from the top of Torre Asinelli.

Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda towers. Torre Garisenda (the shorter) leans 10 feet off of vertical. Torre Asinelli is 318 feet high and the fourth highest medieval tower in Italy.

In addition to the towers, there are lots of other fun sights to visit in Bologna. Several of these are described below.

San Petronio Basilica

This church, named after Saint Petronius, who was bishop of Bologna in the 5th century, was founded in 1390 and was originally intended to be larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Funding for the building was diverted for other purposes and the church was scaled down and never fully completed.

San Petronio, Bologna, Italy

Exterior view of San Petronio. The facade was never finished.

San Petronio Church, Bologna, Italy

The immense interior of San Petrino, with 22 chapels off the main aisle. A bit hard to see, but in the lower left of the photo is a meridian line, drawn by the astronomer Cassini in 1655, providing a precise solar method to determine a day of the year.

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Italy

Piazza Maggiore, next to the San Petronio Basilica.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano

A connected maze of four medieval churches, known as Abbazia di Santo Stefano, was one of my favorite sights in Bologna. There is a long history of churches on this site, originally dating back to about 80 CE. Over a thousand years, the site expanded with additional chapels and other structures.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

Exterior view of Abbazia di Santo Stefano, located just a short walk from the leaning towers.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

The 11th century church of the Crocifisso, part of the Abbazia di Santo Stefano complex.

San Sepolcro, Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

San Sepolcro, containing the tomb of Saint Petronius, is polygonal in shape, not unlike the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

One of the courtyards in Abbazia di Santo Stefano. Note the intricate brick design on the exterior of the San Sepolcro.

Fontana di Pilato, Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

The Fontana di Pilato in another courtyard of Abbazia di Santo Stefano, with a basin from the 8th century.

Bologna University

Bologna is home to the oldest university in continuous operation in Europe, founded in 1088. A few rooms are open to the public and a couple of these are shown below.

Anatomy Theater, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

This is the Anatomy Theater, the cadaver would lie on the table shown for dissection and study by students in the surrounding galleries.

Anatomy Theater, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

The “3-D” ceiling of the Anatomy Theater at Bologna University.

Stabat Mater Hall, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

Stabat Mater Hall, a former reading room for law students.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church

Another beautiful church, not too far from the towers is the 13th century San Giacomo Maggiore Church. The Bentivoglio family chapel within, consecrated in 1486, has famous 15th century frescoes.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

Exterior of the San Giacomo Maggiore church, with its porticoed walkway on the left side, so common in Bologna.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

The interior of the San Giacomo Maggiore church. The church contains numerous famous works of art.

Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Bentivoglio family chapel, with the famous “Triumph of Death” fresco by Lorenzo Costa (1483).

Bologna is a great city to visit with a lot to interest the tourist, and yet it receives far fewer visitors than its more famous neighbors to the north and south respectively, Venice and Florence. If you want to stay in a smaller city, Bologna can be done as a day trip from Ferrara, about 52 km (32 miles) to the north.

Bologna, Italy

Street scene in Bologna, with the 13th century Palazzo del Podesta at the end of the street.

Neptune's Fountain, Bologna, Italy

Neptune’s Fountain, (1566), another famous landmark in Bologna.

 

Ferrara, A Non-Touristy Gem in Italy

Located in northern Italy only 112 km (70 miles) south of Venice or 108 km southeast of Verona is the “undiscovered gem” of Ferrara. This town isn’t really on the tourist map and is one of those places I love finding and exploring. The vibe in Ferrara felt “authentic”, with just a handful of tourists and primarily locals going about their daily business. It is a compact old city, easy to explore in one day.

Ferrara, Italy

A view of central Ferrara from a tower of Estense Castle.

The two main sights in Ferrara are Estense Castle and the Duomo, both adjacent to the main piazza (town square). In addition to these sights, we enjoyed wandering the back alleys, which felt like they had not changed much in a few hundred years.

Estense Castle

Ferrara is home to one of the great castles in Italy, right in the heart of the town.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Street view of Estense Castle.

The castle was constructed in 1385, and although it has undergone many remodels since, it has the classic features that one would expect in a medieval castle–moat, dungeons, kitchens, halls and courtyards.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Moat around Estense Castle.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

One of the castle’s halls. The mirrors on the main floor allow the visitor to get a closer look at the marvelous ceiling paintings.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Stone cannon balls in the castle courtyard.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Entrance to one of the dungeons in Estense Castle.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Prisoner graffiti in one of the castle’s dungeons. One prisoner spent 43 years here, and when he left he was proudly wearing clothes that were 43 years out of fashion!

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

The castle’s kitchen, with room for the fires below and the big pots above on the counter.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Two levels of dungeon doors, you didn’t want to get on the bad side of the d’Este family!

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Another view of the castle, with draw bridges – a difficult place to attack!

The d’Este family, who ruled Ferrara hundreds of years, built this castle and imprisoned their political enemies here. There were also at least two executions.

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Illustrated bible of the d’Este family. The family, although ruthless, was a great patron of the arts.

Ferrara Duomo (Cathedral)
Unfortunately the 12th century Duomo exterior and interior were undergoing restoration work during our visit, but we were still able to see the interior.

Ferrara Duomo, Ferrara, Italy

Interior view of the Ferrara Duomo.

Ferrara Duomo, Ferrara, Italy

One of the chapels in the Duomo.

ferrara cathedral 3

Interesting display in the Duomo. Note the diversity of figures all working together on restoring the church.

The facade of the Duomo is one of the great architectural achievements of early renaissance Italy and I wish it would have been visible! Look it up.

Piazza Municipale and Surrounding Area

This is the central town square and like most in Italy, it is beautiful, with the Duomo on one side and the Palazzo del Commune (palace) on another side.

Piazza Municipale, Ferrara, Italy

Piazza Municipale, Ferrara. The Duomo is on the right. The Palazzo del Comune is straight ahead. Note the old medieval shops nestled right next to the Duomo.

Ferrara, Italy

A shopping street in Ferrara.

Ferrara, Italy.

One of many quiet alleyways in Ferrara.

Ferrara, Italy

Ferrara has an interesting feel to it, with the quiet cobblestone streets and old brick buildings.

Practical Matters

We stayed in a 15th century apartment (Nel cuore di Ferrara, you can find it on various accommodation booking sites), located about 5-10 minutes walking from the main piazza. What a quaint setting it was, in an old house with an enclosed courtyard and exposed ancient wood beams.

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Our apartment in Ferrara.

ferrara famous bread

This bread is a trademark of Ferrara, but we didn’t find it all that great, kind of dry, more like a cracker!

Ferrara, Italy

Another delicious Italian meal in Ferrara!

Like many Italian cities, Ferrara has a ZTL (zone of limited traffic) which means that you must park outside the city walls and walk to the center of town (only 10-15 minutes). I am glad Italy has created the ZTL’s, they remove noise, pollution and traffic from the city centers. But be careful, unless you have a pass, you will get a steep fine if you drive in the ZTL area.

We made Ferrara our home base for a couple of days, visiting Bologna (only 50 km or 31 miles) from here, which also is not overrun with tourists – this will be my next post. We like staying in smaller towns which are easy to get in and out of. Ferrara is also close to Modena, home of Ferrari’s and Maserati’s, if you’re an Italian car enthusiast.

Verona – Beyond Romeo and Juliet

Located about halfway between Milan and Venice in northern Italy, Verona can be visited as a day trip from those locations, but this magical city deserves more time than just a day trip.

Verona, Italy

Street scene in Verona

Although Verona is most famous for being the setting of the story of Romeo and Juliet (Giulietta in Italian), the city has much more to offer, like all of Italy.

Roman Verona

Of course there are reminders of Roman times, including a huge arena which is still in use, a bridge, a gate, and walls and foundations underneath the streets and churches.

Roman Amphitheater, Verona, Italy

Verona is home to the third largest amphitheater in the Roman world. It dates from the 1st century C.E. It is located in the spacious Piazza Bra, near the old city walls.

Old city walls, Verona, Italy

Part of the old city walls, near the Roman Amphitheater.

Roman ruins, Verona, Italy

Roman foundations below the current street level.

Roman gate, Verona, Italy

Roman gate in Verona.

Verona, Italy

The bridge in the foreground is of Roman origin, it was partially destroyed in World War II and subsequently rebuilt. Verona’s Cathedral (Duomo) stands out with its tower.

It is easy to see why the Romans chose this spot – Verona sits on a u-shaped bend of the Adige River, providing a natural defensive setting, an ample supply of water and a central location that would become a hub for major trade routes across northern Italy, through the Alps and into the rest of Europe.

Map of Verona, Italy

Old map of Verona, showing its defensive position along the Adige River.

Other Sights

The only tourist sight that was crowded in Verona was the (supposed) house of Juliet, with its famous balcony (O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?). There is no confirmed link between this building and the story of the two doomed lovers.

Juliet's home, Verona, Italy.

The courtyard of Juliet’s “home” which was a 13th century inn.

Verona House of Juliet0

Graffiti on the walls from zillions of tourists passing by, with their stories and symbols of love, leading into Juliet’s courtyard. The panels are changed twice a year to allow more room for memories. The panels keep tourists from writing on Juliet’s house itself.

The rest of this city with its multiple treasures was pretty quiet. In Verona, one can find beautiful piazzas, interesting churches, a castle and huge city walls, along with the magnificent natural setting.

Pizza Erbe, Verona, Italy

Verona’s Piazza Erbe has been a center of activity going back to Roman times.

Sant'Anastasia, Verona, Italy

In the 13th century church of Sant’Anastasia we find this beggar figure supporting the holy water stoup, carved in 1495.

San Zeno bronze door panels, Vernona, Italy

The 12th century church of San Zeno, just outside the old city, houses many treasures including these 11th and 12th century bronze door panels containing biblical scenes.

Verona Duomo San Giovanni, Italy

In Verona’s Duomo (cathedral) complex, there is an 8th century baptistry, carved with biblical scenes.

Piazza Signori, Verona, Italy

Another of Verona’s Piazzas, Piazza Signori. The crenellated brick building was the 13th century Scaligeri family residence, the ruling aristocrats of Verona.

Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy

Verona’s medieval castle (Castelvecchio) is now an art museum. At Castelvecchio, a passageway leads to a pedestrian bridge over the Adige River, heading west out of the old city.

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The Castelvecchio Bridge.

Of course you can find fantastic gelato and even British-like chips (french fries). Just about everything a tourist could want!

Verona Chips2

Hard to pass up those almost British chips in Verona!

Finding spots with fewer tourists was part of our quest on this most recent trip to northern Italy. Most tourists concentrate their time in Rome, Florence and Venice, and while I understand why those spots are popular, there is so much more to see in this stunning country. In future posts, I will share some additional less-visited gems, all hiding in plain sight.

Put Verona on your list of places to see in Italy, it is just 115 km (or 71 miles) west of Venice or 156 km (or 97 miles) east of Milan.