For many years I have dreamed of revisiting Emilia Romagna, a region of Italy I had been to as a kid and then passed through on many occasions, but never properly experienced as an adult. Last autumn, I had the opportunity to spend one week exploring Bologna and other beautiful cities in the region. Here’s my travel guide of the 6 Must Visit Places in Emilia Romagna.
Emilia Romagna: Italy’s Food Valley
Emilia Romagna is set between the Apennine Mountains to the west and the Adriatic coast to the east; the Po, Italy’s longest river, flows along the northern side of the region. Its geographical location gave the region its nickname of Italy’s food valley, for all the incredible food specialties produced in this rich and green land.
Some of the most iconic food products of Emilia Romagna, known all over the world, are: ragù, tortellini, mortadella and Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano, and balsamic vinegar (just to name a few).
Once upon a time, an Etruscan stronghold, the area where Emilia Romagna lies today was then conquered by the Romans (Ravenna was a capital of the Roman Empire). Cities across this land flourished in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period becoming part of Italy upon the unification of the country in 1861. Proofs of Emilia-Romagna’s rich past are found in the stunning palaces, churches, paintings, and mosaics that visitor can admire around the region today.
Despite its numerous charms and outstanding attractions, Emilia Romagna remains fairly unknown to international tourists. The region was spared the negative effects of over-tourism that I’ve seen in Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence etc. The cities of Emilia Romagna have retained an authentic Italian town charm that will make you instantly fall in love with them!
Six Cities Worth Exploring in Emilia Romagna
Foreigners most likely know about Bologna, the capital city of Emilia Romagna and home to Bolognese sauce (or ragù); Modena, thanks to Bottura’s Osteria Francescana; or Ferrara, home of the iconic Ferrari car brand. Tourists also love to visit the independent Republic of San Marino, a microstate landlocked by Italy, and add a new stamp to their passport (you can request one at the local tourism office). But there are many more beautiful cities and delightful rural towns to explore, not to mention 11 UNESCO heritage sites. In this guide, I am sharing six cities worth exploring in Emilia Romagna: Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, Rimini, San Marino, and Ravenna.
Bologna is the capital and largest city of Emilia Romagna. The red, fat, learned and turreted are the city’s most popular nicknames.
Red (la rossa) because of its long-term left-leaning political inclinations (it was the anti-fascist capital during the Second World War). Fat (la grassa) because, if Emilia Romagna is the food valley of Italy, then Bologna is its culinary capital. I highly recommend taking a cookery class whilst you are here: the pasta making class with Italy’s Food Nest is a great one; I was ecstatic to learn how to make tagliatelle and tortellini from scratch!
Learned (la dotta) because the city is home of the oldest university in the world, University of Bologna, established in 1088. Finally, Bologna is the turreted city (città delle 100 torri) for there are up to 100 towers left in the city which were built in the Middle Ages by the most important aristocrats as their private residencies (the families lived in the first two floors while their soldiers occupied higher floors).
The most famous one if the Torre degli Asinelli, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world was built between 1109 and 1119.
The tower is 97 meters high and visible to a limited number of people every half hour. Book your tickets at least one day in advance here, they sell out quickly. As you can imagine, the view from up there of Bologna’s characteristic terracotta-red coloured buildings is truly priceless!
Bologna is also known for its picturesque porticoes, so iconic that they are a candidate for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are over 38 kilometres of these covered arch walkways throughout the Medieval historic centre (and more outside the old town).
The city centre of Bologna revolves around the Quadrilatero neighbourhood and its old food market. My apartment was in Via delle Pescherie Vecchie, around the corner from Mercato di Mezzo food market. I loved being right in the centre of the action, surrounded by bars busy from morning till night, from lunch to aperitivo and dinner.
If the Quadrilatero is Bologna’s food shopping destination, Piazza Maggiore is the city’s virtual living room. There are people are literally every hour of the day and night gathering in the square, chatting, singing, drinking, eating and playing music.
To learn more about the history, architecture and culture of Bologna, I recommend joining one of the daily Free Walking Tours in English or Italian. The tour is very crowded during peak season, but is still a good way to learn interesting facts about the city without breaking the bank (the guides are paid with tips at the end of the tour). If you are a food lover, then you should book a half day tour with Taste Bologna.
You and a small group of max 8 people will be guided around the city, tasting local foods and wine along the way. The tour is the perfect way to learn about Emilia Romagna’s specialties, ingredients and flavours and discover the best places to sample local food, like Osteria del Sole for wine, Le Sfogline for pasta, and Cremeria Santo Stefano for gelato.
Ferrara, known as the city of the Este family and city of bicycles, is one of Italy’s best kept secrets and a must visit destination in Emilia Romagna.
The main sight in Ferrara is the Castello Estense (or Castello di San Michele), a medieval castle from which the Este family ruled over the area from the late Middle Ages until the Napoleonic wars of the 19th Century. The House of Este members became generous patrons of the arts and during the centuries left behind a vast heritage of splendid Renaissance palaces, paintings and literary masterpieces.
The Castello Estense is the symbol of Ferrara, with its four imposing towers, its moat, and its drawbridges. The Torre dei Leoni offers the best views in the city. At the time of writing, entrance to the castle is limited to a maximum of 15 visitors every 20 minutes and the torre is closed to the public. Visitors must book their tickets here.
From the castle, it’s just three minutes to the heart of the old town: Piazza Trento.
The square is dominated by the Cattedrale of Ferrara, a stunning Roman Catholic cathedral from the 12th century. This is where locals meet and gather for a walk and a chat.
The highlight of my half day trip to Ferrara was wandering around the historical centre, on foot, taking in all the beauty of this city. I had never been to Ferrara before and I was utterly charmed by the pastel-coloured buildings, the brown rooftops, the cobbled streets, the picturesque corners, the ubiquitous bicycles.
Via delle Volte (Arch Street) is the pretties street of Ferrara! It is made up of volte, covered passages from medieval times, which joined the houses of the tradespeople to their shops.
One place you should not miss in Ferrara is Enoteca al Brindisi, located just behind the cathedral and next to Ferrara’s university buildings. It is the oldest tavern in the world (featured in the Guinness book) and it was already open in the year 1100 when the cathedral was being built.
Stop at one of these traditional bakeries, Panificio Cappelli or Panificio Perdonati, to buy local biscuits, pastries and bread – such as the coppia ferrarese – only made in this city.
If you want to live and breathe in a quintessential Italian town, Modena ticks all the boxes. It’s a city full of architectural and historical delights and a fabulous gastronomic scene.
Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant (voted The World’s Best Restaurant in 2016 and 2018) by Chef Francesco Bottura is based in the historical centre of Modena.
Modena is also the only place in the world producing the real traditional balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP). I highly recommend booking a guided tour of a certified balsamic vinegar make, like Acetaia Villa San Donnino. I grew up in Italy and yet I knew very little about balsamic vinegar, like the fact it is produced from grapes (Trebbiano Modenese and Lambrusco); or that it is aged for minimum 12-24 years, up to 100 years! A commission of Master Tasters selected by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena have to certify the quality of the balsamic vinegar before it can be called DOP (Protected Designation of Origin).
If you love Italian food, you should also book a tour of a Parmigiano Reggiano producer. Guided tours are offered at 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia near Modena, where you will learn interesting facts about this much-loved cheese. For example, did you know that it takes 600 liters of milk to make 1 wheel of Parmigiano?
The Modena’s region is also known for producing some of world’s most famous cars, which you can see at the Ferrari Museums (in Modena and nearby Maranello). In town you can also visit the home of Luciano Pavarotti, now a museum.
If you are short on time and can only visit the city centre of Modena, then focus on the most important places: Piazza Grande with the cathedral, aka the Duomo di Modena, and the Torre Ghirlandina. Since 1997, they are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Ghirlandina is a giant bell tower with a wonderful spire, located next to the Duomo. The ticket to go up to the top costs just a few euros; from up there you will get the best panoramic views of Modena.
From Piazza Grande, walk a couple of steps to the smaller Piazza XX Settembre.
On the last weekend of every month, the two squares host an antiques market. The an Art-Nouveau covered food hall Mercato Albinelli, built in the 1920’s, can be entered from Piazza XX Settembre.
Before leaving Modena, walk to Piazza Roma to see the majestic Palazzo Ducale, considered the number one Baroque palace in Europe. , the first place where the rules of the XVII century art were fully applied. The Ducal Palace can be visited (guided tours only) on Saturday and on Sunday throughout the year.
I had just half a day to visit the historical city centre of Modena, but I would love to return for a full weekend someday. I just loved the slow-paced lifestyle of this charming city in Emilia Romagna.
Sit down at one of the many restaurants or bars to drink a glass of way or eat a pasta dish. To avoid disappointments, remember to book your table in advance: Modena’s best restaurants are small and very popular. I enjoyed a delicious glass of red wine and homemade passatelli pasta con crema di Parmigiano Reggiano e tartufo at Latteria #21, a bistrot perfect for a casual lunch. For the best coffee, visit Menomoka, a small local speciality coffee roaster.
Located on the Adriatic coast, Rimini is a seaside town and a popular summer holiday destination, known for its nightlife and jam-packed beaches. In Rimini you can taste all the typical food, in particular the piadina romagnola, which you can taste at Casina del Bosco restaurant.
Unless you plan to spend the day suntanning on the beach, you can skip the modern side of the city. Focus instead on the historical centre of Rimini, where you can admire 2000-year-old monuments from the Roman times (like the Tiberius Bridge and the Augustus Arch). The Tempio Malatestiano, Piazza Cavour and Castel Sismondo are from Medieval and Renaissance sites.
It’s worth planning a half day to visit Rimini, walk around the old town centre at your leisure and stop for a coffee in Piazza Tre Martiri to watch the crowds.
Rimini has changed a lot in recent years, for the better, thanks also to new openings such as Cinema Fulgor an homage to film director Federico Fellini, who was born here.
My favourite discovery in Rimini was Borgo San Giuliano, a picturesque neighbourhood that offers lots of photographic opportunities with its colourful fisherman houses and street art dedicated to Fellini.
Borgo San Giuliano is located just across the Ponte di Tiberio, about 10-15 minute walk from the old town centre or from Rimini train station.
If you don’t have a car to get around during your holiday in Emilia Romagna, but still want to visit the microstate of San Marino, then Rimini will be a necessary stop for you. The bus Rimini – San Marino runs daily, about every 90 minutes.
5. San Marino
San Marino is the most ancient republic in Europe and the 5th smallest country in the world, measuring just 61 square kilometres. Its capital, San Marino, is perched on the slopes of Mount Titano at 740 metres above sea level. The legend says it was built here by Saint Marino in 301 ad. All the buildings are made entirely from sandstone excavated from this mountain.
Piazza della Libertà is the main square of the city, with the town hall and the official Government Building. Since the 13th century, San Marino has two presidents (called capitani reggenti), elected at the same time for a period of 6 months, and never for consecutive terms.
Even though San Marino is just 7-8km away from the sea, the country does not have border a coastal border, and it’s completely surrounded by the Emilia Romagna region.
On a clear day you can see the coast of Ravenna, Comacchio and Rimini. It was very cloudy on the day I went and the old walls surrounding the city were enveloped in a thick blanket of fog. I skipped a visit to the towers as there wasn’t much to see in that weather. Though I admit the mist gave the old town of San Marino an enchanting fairytale look!
The Three Towers of San Marino are a symbol of the city, depicted on both the national flag and coat of arms.
The tiny country is completely surrounded by the Emilia Romagna region. And no, you don’t need a passport to enter the country, though you can get your passport stamped if you want at the tourism office.
If you are in San Marino, go to il Ritrovo dei Lavoratori restaurant for cheap, no-frills but really tasty local food!
Ravenna is a UNESCO Heritage Site and one of the most richest cities in Emilia Romagna in terms of artistic treasures. It was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century and later a powerful state during the Ostrogothic and Byzantine period.
Ravenna is famous for its Byzantine mosaics, and rightly so. They are some of the most intricate, extensive and spectacular mosaics you will ever see. Some of the best known decorate the walls and ceilings of San Vitale Basilica. The a starry night sky of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is one of the oldest mosaics in Ravenna.
With the combined ticket, you will get entry to: Basilica of San Vitale, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Neonian Baptistery, Archiepiscopal Museum and Chapel, and Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (valid for 7 consecutive days from the date of issue).
The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is a basilica church in Ravenna, not to be confused with the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe which is located 8km outside the city centre, about 20 minutes by local bus. It is an important monument of Byzantine art and one of the most impressive Basilica of the Early Christian period.
Once you are finished with sightseeing of Ravenna’s churches and religious buildings, make the most of this charming city by walking around the elegant streets, savouring local food specialities like piadina.
How to get around in Emilia Romagna
With its central location within the region and the convenience of an international airport, Bologna is the perfect base to explore Emilia Romagna. Bologna is also the main airport for the region.
You can travel from Bologna across the region by train on a variety of high-speed and slower trains running multiple times a day. Book your ticket online on Trenitalia to avoid queues at the station’s machines and ticket office.