Rolling hills, romantic waterways, and passionate people… Italy is a place that draws many dreamers to its shores. But to really experience authentic Italy, you need to get off the beaten track.
Part of the fun is watching Italians going about their lives as they always have. Here are three often overlooked cities that offer an authentic Italian experience.
Renaissance Splendor in Padua
It was Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni chapel that drew me to Padua. This city in northern Italy is just 25 miles from Venice. I had been here before but somehow missed its most important treasure. According to popular belief, banker Enrico Scrovegni built a chapel beside his palazzo to save the soul of his father, Reginaldo, the usurer mentioned by Dante in The Divine Comedy.
Giotto possibly had a hand in the design of the chapel, which was purpose-built in 1302 to house a complete fresco cycle. Giotto’s scenes are chapters in a coherent, sequential, visual narrative on the life of Jesus and man’s journey to salvation.
There’s a bit of a procedure to purchase a €13 ($15.60) ticket and wait for your allotted 15 minutes in the chapel. But it’s worth the fuss to see the work of this great early Renaissance artist. You need to book at least one day in advance. (See: Cappelladegliscrovegni.it.)
On my most recent trip, I stayed at the well-located Hotel Casa del Pellegrino. It’s within easy walking distance of the city’s many delights, including the stunning church of Saint Anthony, which is just across the road.
The interior requires several visits. I went three times just to see the nine reliefs in marble depicting the “miracles performed by St. Anthony.” They were created in 1521 and invite you to reach out and touch them…which, of course, you can’t.
Padua is a very livable city. The center is not big, is easy to navigate, and is filled with wonders. The Prato della Valle is the largest square in Italy: 969,000 square feet of green park, surrounded by a canal and two rings of statues. It’s the perfect place to meet friends or relax in the shade on a hot day.
Not far from here is the Botanical Garden, established in 1545, the first of its type in Europe. For €10 ($12), you can still see the Palm of St. Peter, planted in 1585, and the Magnolia Grandiflora, planted in 1786, as well as hundreds of other beautiful specimens.
The enormous Palazzo della Ragione, built in the 13th century, is in excellent condition and is surrounded by markets most days. For just €4 ($4.80) you can visit the upper floors to see frescoes and a huge wooden horse commissioned in 1466 for a carnival show.
The famous Caffè Pedrocchi (Caffepedrocchi.it) quickly became my local. It was designed in 1831 to impress, and it still does today. It’s the perfect place for coffee, lunch, or an aperitivo. Be sure to ask for its signature coffee, a long espresso topped with a delicious mint cream. It’s expensive at €5 ($6), but I went back three times just for this.
Bologna: A Vibrant University City
Bologna, in central Italy, enthralled me from the moment I walked under some of its 25 miles of porticoes.
These covered verandahs—some have huge wooden pillars and ceilings, and others are more elaborate, with arched ceilings and decorated pillars—came about centuries ago, when students began to flock to Bologna’s university, the oldest in Europe. There wasn’t enough accommodation, and many owners built the porticoes to house students…who must have been uncomfortable in the cold winters.
The city eventually made laws about the structures, including requiring that they be high enough for a horse and rider to move comfortably beneath them. Now many of them are decorated beautifully. One even has an arrow embedded in the timber, the result of a fight. Legend has it that a rich lord suspected his beautiful wife of cheating. He hired three assassins to shoot her with an arrow. She suspected something and appeared naked. They were so distracted that they shot their arrows into the ceiling. (I have only ever been able to find one arrow.)
Bologna is known as La Rossa, the Red, a reference to its communist leanings. It is also because of the color of the bricks used to build most of the city’s houses. The city center looks much the same as it has for centuries. I absolutely love the jumble of houses, business establishments, and churches crammed into the city. If I had to imagine what an Italian city should look like, I would picture Bologna.
The city is also known as La Grassa, the fat. Bologna is a food capital. Spaghetti Bolognese hails from here. And the fresh food markets in Via Drapperie and Via Pescheria are my favorites in all of Italy.
I often stay at the Albergo Drapperie (Albergodrapperie.com) and ask for a room with a window above the market. My last room here was ensuite and elegantly decorated. It cost me €75 ($90). I wake up early, stick my head out the window, and watch the people from the fish market set up for the day. Shiny rows of sardines lie in boxes beside still wriggling scampi and octopus. Before long the first customers appear and start selecting their ingredients for lunch.
An excellent way for first-time visitors to Bologna to get a feel for the city is to take the walking tour offered by the Bologna Tourism Office (Bolognawelcome.com/en,). It begins every day in the center of town, in Piazza Maggiore. A well-informed local will guide you through the heart of the city and share insider knowledge.
My guide pointed out the oldest café in the city, the best place to buy prosciutto—the deli in Via Pescheria, closest to Piazza Maggiore—and took me to the anatomy room in the university, where a couple of centuries ago it became fashionable for residents to watch the dissection of bodies. The anatomy room is made from wood, with a marble-topped table in the center that was used for dissections. There are wooden sculptures around the room, including the first plastic surgeon holding a nose and a model of a man with his skin removed.
My pick for the best deli is Bruno & Franco (La-salumeria.it,) in Via Oberdan. Its fresh pasta selection is excellent and it’s fun to watch your purchase be carefully wrapped and tied up with string. Caffè Terzi (Caffeterzibologna.com), also in Via Oberdan, is reported to have the best coffee in town. I would have to agree, but I also like to sit at the outside tables at Caffè Zanarini (on Facebook at Facebook.com/CaffeZanarini), in Piazza Galvani, for some serious people watching and delicious pastries. If you want to pretend to be a local, stand at the bar for your morning cappuccino or espresso.
Coffee is €1.20 ($1.43) if you stand at the bar and about four times that price if you sit down and get table service.
It’s hard to go past Tamburini (Tamburini.com) in Via Drapperie for lunch. It does an excellent buffet for a very reasonable price, and you get to sit with locals. Here you pay for your food by weight. You can order pasta, grilled meats, and side dishes of vegetables. My lunch usually costs around €15 ($18), including a glass of wine, and water.
Bologna has several good museums and galleries and you’ll find music playing somewhere every night, often at no cost.
I avoid high summer (July and August), when the city can get very hot. The best times to go are spring (April and May) and autumn (September and October).
Traditional Meets Modern in Arezzo
Arezzo, 50 miles south of Florence, is a city I think should attract many more tourists than it does. The city has everything you need: good shopping, excellent restaurants, lots of historical sites, and a beautiful park at the top of the town.
On my last visit I stayed in the delightfully named La Corte del Re—The Court of the King (Lacortedelre.eu,). The small hotel is on the edge of the Piazza Grande, the heart of Arezzo. My room was a mini-apartment with a tiny kitchen. It cost €95 ($114) for the double room and included breakfast. This sloping city square is surrounded by magnificent buildings, including the apse of the church of Santa Maria della Pieve and the Palazzo del Tribunale, with its beautiful semicircular staircase.
In addition to this, the Renaissance masterpiece Palazzo della Fraternità has a bell gable and clock dated 1522. The wonderful clock, made by Felice da Fissato, is still the original timepiece and marks not only the hours, but also the days, the phases of the moon, and movements of the sun…and it still works.
At a right angle to this is the Palazzo delle Logge del Vasari, finished in 1595. Under the loggia, (a covered gallery supported by elegant columns) you will find excellent cafés and restaurants, the perfect place to watch the world go by in the piazza below.
At dinner there one evening, we were entertained by a troupe of sbandieratori—flag throwers—who marched into the piazza and performed their spectacle for the delighted diners. These surprise performances are something I love about Italy. I ate at La Lancia d’Oro. Its specialty is homemade fettuccini with ragú. The tagliata (rare sliced beef) was excellent.
The bill came to €45 ($54)—not cheap, but the setting is gorgeous and the service great.
You can’t visit Arezzo without seeing the beautiful frescoes by Piero della Francesca (1418 to 1492), an Italian painter of the early Renaissance.
His most famous work, The Legend of the True Cross, is housed in the Basilica of San Francesco.
The entrance fee is €8 ($9.60), but you’ll be one of the few people in the church as you crane your neck to take in the amazing paintings.
Santa Maria della Pieve dates from 1008. It was rebuilt in the 12th century and additions were made to the interior in the 13th century. The bell tower was built in 1330. The church has interesting art and a wonderful crypt. It also has a practical side: An excellent deli at street level sells a good selection of local produce.
The entire street is lined with great shops selling everything from high fashion to antiques.
Arezzo blends the ancient with the modern very well. My favorite place for coffee is Caffè dei Costanti (Caffedeicostanti.it), in Piazza San Francesco. It has been there since 1809 and has the best pastries in town. My favorite is a cream-filled cornetto for €1.50 ($1.80). The bar was packed with locals each time I visited, and it felt wonderful to be part of the crowd.
Try to be in Arezzo the first weekend of the month, when one of the best antique fairs in Tuscany is held.
On my recent visit, the market had wonderful old terracotta pots, kitchen utensils, lovely wooden tables, and old toys. I really wanted some wooden, frog-shaped chairs. The prices range from a few euros for old glassware to hundreds for huge terracotta pots.
There are over 500 vendors selling all kinds of treasures. Don’t be afraid to bargain; you never know what you might take home.