From the beginning, my travels through Italy seemed infused by the magic of the land and people. Accompanied by serendipitous opportunities and chance encounters making new friends, I was drawn to a small town that I had never heard of among references to Italy and travel stories of my friends. So I was excited to visit and experience what for me was a less frequented part of this enchanting country. Have you heard of it? Ferrara came to be one of my favorite hidden treasures among my travels, and for very good reasons.
I stayed in the heart of Ferrara, and only a block from the castle, at the Locanda Borgonuovo. While I was there I learned that it is the first bed and breakfast that existed in Italy. This unforgettable experience was not only affordable for a budget trip, but the building and accommodations were fantastic quality and historic. The owners were amazing and the included home-made breakfast is gluten-free. Add to all this a free bicycle to use during your stay and you have a wonderfully personable introduction to Ferrara. Read more about this amazing B&B on my post “My Favorite Bed and Breakfast in Italy”.
Background and Sites
Ferrara is known as a living testimony to the ingenuousness of medieval urban planning. It carries on its prosperous success since the Renaissance times in the historical architecture and artistic culture. The University of Ferrara is here, complete with its own botanic garden and the culture is rich with painting, literature, music, and even cinema. That’s only the beginning though.
Right away, you’ll witness Ferrara’s rich cycling history still growing and stronger than ever. They have the highest bicycle rider-ship rate in the entire Mediterranean region and many of the hotels offer bicycles for free when staying with them. Everywhere I went in the town, there were more people riding bicycles than driving cars and many times, even more than people walking. Along the outer edges and circling the town, are fantastic trails maintained for enjoying your bike ride along the top of the ancient town wall. This is now grassy and serves as an enjoyable park, but its original medieval use served as the town wall for protection. For the people of Ferrara, this is part of their commitment to being green and preserving the cleanliness of their beloved home. I witnessed it to be working very well.
The heart of the town is the Castle Estense. I found it very picturesque of a true castle, complete with a moat and drawbridges. Just down the block, is the plaza with gorgeous buildings like the main Cathedral of Saint George in impressive Romanesque style. Here is also the Piazza Trento-Trieste, where I discovered to my delight, the open-air market which takes place on Saturday mornings. It blends the delights of antiques, furniture, artisan-crafts, clothes, and fresh produce from local farmers.
For being a small town, Ferrara boast many museums. I love how many of them are reasonably sized, so you don’t get overwhelmed and tired of roaming endless halls. If you’re a fan of the large museums though, you will not be at a loss for your exhibit-fix because you can hop around to all of them. I enjoyed two of the well-known ones that are located in the center of the town.
The Palazzo dei Diamanti is the most renowned museum in this area. I toured a gorgeous exhibit of Joaquin Sorolla, who was a Spanish painter distinguished by his works of impressionism and symbolism. Visiting the building itself was a hands-on appreciation of the art of architecture. The outer walls protrude over 8,500 diamond-shaped marble blocks, giving it the look of a fierce yet beautiful protection. This is where the museum gets it name diamanti or diamonds.
Next was the Palazzo Schifanoia, which I have to admit I did not tour. But I did enjoy an amazing lunch in their garden courtyard where the Bar Ristorante Schifanoia is located. I tell more about that sumptuous experience below. An enjoyable walk in this area and poking my head into their front entrance, afforded me some interior view of the spectacular architecture. It really is too bad that they had just closed early when I was there. I guess it’s another great reason for going back.
Unexpected Dining Recommendations
A fantastic lunch recommendation that Filippo from the B&B gave me was the café in the center of the Palazzo Schifanoia called Bar Ristorante Schifanoia. Being from Denver, Colorado it reminded me of Boulder with its natural setting and eclectic artwork hanging in random places inside. Outside under the large oak trees and among flowering bushes and trellis’ was a variety of seating, with everything from picnic tables to small round tables from which I enjoyed a deliciously fresh tuna salad. I enjoyed conversations with the server Stellanos who is from Greece. His friend Matteo was doing a photography project here that involved taking pictures of people’s profiles with their eyes closed as they thought of what made them happy. I of course took part, sitting in the bright warm sun of the afternoon on a rough wooden bench along the stone wall of the small café cottage. Moments like these make me stop and relish the sweet realization that this is why I travel the way I do.
Other experiences in Ferrara taught me that food is experiential, especially when you’re traveling. Here’s a big tip on how…when you see a small shop that reads “pasta fresca”, definitely go inside! I did this one afternoon in Ferrara and although the old Italian woman inside didn’t know a word of English and I know “poco Italiano” (little Italian), we managed to complete a transaction that resulted in savoring the most delicious meal of pesto spinach lasagna. Taking this traditional food to a nearby garden with a bottle of red wine, I relaxed on a park bench for hours and indulged in a memorable picnic. Now sadly enough, I cannot find any information on where this little Italian deli is located, but I remember the general area and that it may be located on the south side of the Corso Biagio Rossetti or the Via Arianuova, a block or two west of the street Corso Ercole d’Este. This is also near the museum Palazzo dei Diamanti, so try to tie in this scavenger hunt when visiting there.
Music & Entertainment
This amazing discovery is also a great dining recommendation, but I want to highlight it as a must-do experience for enjoying jazz music. The Jazz Club Ferrara is an incredible combination of the joys of this more recent music genre with the architecture of ancient history. Located in one of the remaining Renaissance towers of the city wall, you can take in the mesmerizing sounds of renowned jazz artists, groups that tour and play at Carnegie Hall, and enjoy great wine and other drinks and delicious food in their stone-walled room below.
Will Visit Again!
For me, Ferrara has been one of the best stops I could make in Italy for a fantastic off-the-beaten-path. It embodies the history and architecture, arts and outdoors. While it of course reflects characteristics of Italian culture that we have come to know and expect as travelers, it also introduces one to a different type of feeling and energy of Italian life from times past and present. Experience Ferrara and you will be wanting to return again for more.