Is Ravenna the best place to live in Italy?
Despite being recently voted “Best Place to Live in Italy” by a leading newspaper Il Sole 24 ore, proud possessor of 8 UNESCO sites, burial place of Dante and home to Byron for a couple of years, Ravenna is strangely neglected by tourists.
Distinctive leaning towers, including the Torre del Pubblico, which leans more than The Leaning Tower of Pisa, pleasant pedestrianised streets, characteristic cafés, gastronomic delights and friendly people all provide just cause for a visit. However, the UNESCO sites are the undisputed highlight of the city. Ravenna contains the best example of Byzantine mosaics outside of Constantinople, which UNESCO describes as “crucial evidence of artistic and religious relationships and contacts at an important period in European cultural history.”
Buildings built in the 5th and 6th centuries
The renowned eight artistically remarkable buildings were all built in the 5th and 6th centuries. As good a place to start as any, the Basilica of San Vitale features extraordinarily detailed Biblical Scenes, including a vibrant Sacrifice of Isaac and the story of Moses and the burning bush. Animals, birds, plants and fruit decorate both the ceiling and the floors. The imperial couple Justinian I and his Empress Theodora are represented in strikingly detailed mosaics on golden backgrounds. Don’t miss the marble labyrinth on the sanctuary floor.
Some of the finest treasures in Italy
Just behind the Basilica, a tiny nondescript brick building contains some of the finest treasures in Italy. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, commissioned by the mighty Roman Empress, but thought unlikely to be her final resting place, is almost entirely covered in intricate mosaics. Visits to this monument are restricted to five minutes. Take a deep breath and prepare to be amazed. Pulsating geometric patterns frame The Good Shepherd, in glorious purple robes and the figure of St Lawrence.
The vault glitters with over 800 stars in a deep azure sky, which is said to have so impressed Cole Porter on his honeymoon that he was inspired to pen “Night and Day”.
The Neonian and Orthodox Baptisteries depict different interpretations of the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. The splendid Archiepiscopal Chapel shows an anti-Arian glorification of Christ, preceded by a vestibule bursting with stars and representations of 99 species of decorative birds.
Leopard skin leggings, and disembodied limbs
Two basilicas are dedicated to Sant’ Apollinare, the patron saint of Ravenna. Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo features the most ancient depiction known of scenes from the New Testament. Look out for the Three Magi, sporting leopard skin leggings, and disembodied limbs around the church, which belong to original mosaics that were destroyed under Christian rule.
Glittering mosaics showing the hand of God
Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, situated 8km from the centre, was probably the burial place of Sant’ Apollinare and is one of the finest surviving examples of an Early Christian basilica. The astonishing polychrome apse is decorated with glittering mosaics showing the hand of God, an enormous cross in a starry sky and the figure of Sant’ Apollinare in a peaceful pastoral scene, including 12 sheep representing the Apostles. Ancient marble sarcophagi of the first bishops of Ravenna, line the church.
King Theodoric built his own Mausoleum
The unusually shaped Mausoleum of Theodoric was erected by the King himself and intended to be his final resting place. Two decagonal layers are topped by a monolithic dome. It is the only surviving example of a tomb of a barbarian king of this period.
Mosaic-making is a traditional art in Ravenna
The tradition of mosaic-making is kept alive and well in Ravenna today. Don’t miss the opportunity of seeing art in progress in one of the many workshops around town. You can even pick up tools and materials to take home to make your own creations. A splendid assortment of souvenirs is on sale, ranging from picture frames to ornaments and recreations of classical pieces.
House of Stone Carpets
Well worth a visit is the “House of Stone Carpets”, which dates back to the Roman Imperial era and features Byzantine marble and polychrome mosaics, decorated with floral patterns and figurative scenes. A rare representation of “The Dance of the Four Seasons” depicts spirits dancing in a circle. Perhaps the most unusual mosaics in Ravenna can be found underwater, in the flooded crypt of the basilica of San Francesco. Insert a coin into a slot behind the altar, to illuminate the mosaics and watch fish swim over them.
Dante was here
Following his exile from Florence, Dante moved to Ravenna, where he finished his great work, “The Divine Comedy” and died in 1321. Dante’s graceful memorial, adjacent to the Basilica of San Francesco, is now lit by a lamp containing olive oil from Tuscany, which is replenished every 2nd Sunday in September by a delegation of representatives of the City of Florence. A plaque can be seen at the nearby site where Dante’s ashes were kept during World War II to protect them from bombardment.
Emilia-Romagna has some of the best food in Italy
The region of Emilia-Romagna is widely considered to offer some of the best food in Italy, and Ravenna is no exception. Feast on fresh pasta particularly tortellini and lasagne, cold meats including Parma ham and Mortadella, Balsamic Vinegar from Modena and creamy Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese. No trip to Ravenna would be complete without tasting a “piadina”, a traditional flatbread that can be stuffed with almost anything- savoury or sweet. Try filling with Parma ham, squacquerone (a soft cheese) and fresh fig jam for an unforgettable treat.
Special Events through the year:
The City of Mosaics hosts various special events including the summer “Ravenna Festival”, featuring opera, classical music, ballet, jazz, drama and exhibitions in various venues. September brings the “Divine Commedia nel Mondo” an event which revolves around readings from Dante and in November you can experience the “Giovinbacco Festival” which celebrates the evolution of Sangiovese de Romagna wine.
Beaches, nature reserves are close by
You really need to stay in Ravenna for at least 2 or 3 days to savour her art treasures. The city also makes a good base for exploring further afield. The beaches of Ravenna stretch along 36km of fine sand and offer 9 seaside resorts. The stylish head for Marina di Ravenna, whereas families and nature lovers prefer Lido di Dante and Lido di Classe, which are surrounded by pinewoods and sand dunes. Porto Casino is ideal for sporty types who can try out surfing, fishing and horse riding in the area. North of Ravenna lies the Punte Alberete and Mandriole Valley nature reserve, an area of freshwater marshes which are a paradise for birdwatchers and feature an impressive range of flora and fauna.
Excitement: the highest water coaster in the world!
For those seeking excitement, a day out at Mirabilandia is essential. An amusement park about 14km from Ravenna, it houses the highest water coaster in the world and the number one inverted coaster in Europe. Apart from rides for thrill seekers, the park contains a sedate carousel, a water park, tranquil gardens and plenty of attractions for younger visitors including “Dinoland” and the “Brontocars.”
Absorb a unique part of Italy’s history and culture without the hustle and bustle
The city that inspired poetry by Oscar Wilde and Herman Hesse and works of art by Gustav Klimt is an ideal destination for those who want to absorb a unique part of Italy’s history and culture without the hustle and bustle of the kind of tourist attractions you get in Rome, Florence and Venice.
Ravenna: Useful Information
How to get to Ravenna
- By Plane: The nearest airports are Forli (20km), which is served by Ryanair and Bologna (80km), which has connections to major European cities.
- By Train: Ravenna is on the main line to Bologna and Rimini
- By Car: Take the A14 highway from Bologna, SS309 state road from Venice and the E45 highway from Rome.
The Basilica San Vitale, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Neonian Baptistery and Archiepiscopal Chapel can only be visited by buying a combined ticket. The ticket is valid for 7 consecutive days and costs €9.50/ Reductions €8.50. Combined and separate tickets are available for The Mausoleum of Theodoric and Sant’ Apollinare in Classe. Admission to the Arian Baptistery is free. Opening hours vary according to the time of year. See http://www.ravennamosaici.it for details.
Queues for the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia can be very long, so try to get there early in the morning or around lunchtime. Visits are restricted to five minutes only but if you go at a quieter time, you may be allowed to re-enter.
Alternatively, you can join one of the many tours of Ravenna’s UNESCO World Heritage sites and get the inside story of Ravenna’s fascinating history from your local guide.
Where to eat and drink
For tasty piadinas:
La Piadina del Melarancio
Via IV Novembre
Cupido Piadina d’Oro
Via Cavour, 43/a
Restaurants in Ravenna tend to get very crowded so it is best to book:
Ristorante Osteria del Tempo Perso
Via Gamba, 12
A good place for a leisurely meal. Serves fish.
Via Massimo d’ Azeglio, 28
A cosy restaurant specializing in homemade traditional dishes.
Ca’ de Ven
Via Corrado Ricci, 24
A large bustling enoteca with a wide range of wines. A good spot for lunch or an aperitivo. Don’t forget to look up at the frescoed ceiling.
Trattoria al Cerchio
Via Cerchio, 13
Good food with simple ingredients. Excellent wine list.
Antica Bottega di Felice
Via Ponte Marino 23-25
Gastronomic heaven for the cheese-lover. Serves tasty pasta and fine wine.
Music and Opera
Where to stay
Ravenna has an abundance of bed and breakfasts with price ranges to suit all budgets. Many B&B’s provide guests with vouchers giving discounts in restaurants and bars.
Ravenna also has a large number of hotels, ranging from the four-star Palazzo Bezzi Hotel, NH Ravenna and Grand Hotel Mattei to boutique hotels set in historic buildings, such as the Palazzo Galletti Abbiosi. You can search the complete list of Ravenna hotels Here.
Map of Ravenna: