A small city in Emilia Romagna near the Adriatic coast, Ravenna glitters like a jewel.
It’s richness isn’t jewels, however, but the glass and gold-plated stones used to create most of the city’s magnificent 5th-century mosaics.
Once the capital of the Western Roman Empire and then of Byzantine Italy until the 8th century, today that period is visible in one of the most impressive collections of early-Christian and Byzantine mosaic artwork in the world. And it’s all found in one city.
While the rest of Italy was busy fighting Barbarians and Europe was dealing with the dark ages, Ravenna was a glimmering oasis of culture. The city was awash in wealth and blossomed under Galla Placidia, the sister of the Emperor and de facto ruler of Ravenna, who cultivated the city’s religious and cultural heritage. Skilled craftworkers and artisans flocked to the capital and covered the homes of noblemen and the ceilings of the basilicas with exquisitely beautiful mosaics.
A bit removed from other tourist destinations, it might seem like a long haul to tour some churches. But there’s more to Ravenna than just its mosaics.
The city is elegant and charming. Near enough to the sea to sense the salt air but far enough that it’s not considered a seaside town. The food is delicious and the people are friendly and it’s not so far that you can’t include it into an off-the-beaten-path Italy road trip (see below for suggestions.)
Let’s Start With The Mosaics
You may not consider mosaics as a prime interest in your daily life, but in a country filled to the brim with beautiful things, these are certainly unique. Here you get away from massive arched monuments and Renaissance art. Instead, you step back into the 5th and 6th centuries to view some of the best preserved mosaics in the world. Eight of Ravenna’s churches and monuments have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites to safeguard these early-Christian monuments and all but one are primarily included for their mosaic artwork.
Those with mosaics are the:
- Baptistry of Neon
- Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
- Arian Baptistry
- Archiepiscopal Chapel
- Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
- Basilica of San Vitale
- Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe
All but the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe are located in the city center. The basilica is about two miles away and reachable by car or bus.
The simplest place to start would be with a ticket from the Religious Works of the Diocese of Ravenna (Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna) available at multiple locations throughout the city. With one 9.50 euro ticket you can tour five different mosaic locations.
Beyond these diocese-run sites and the UNESCO sites listed above, you can visit TAMO, a museum dedicated to the history of mosaics located in a 14th-century monastery, or the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra, or House of Stone Carpets, located under the Church of Sant’Eufemia. A relatively recent archeological site, you’ll see the elegant geometric mosaic patterns of a 5th century Byzantine home.
Read my full guide to Ravenna’s Mosaics here (link to come)
Ravenna: Beyond The Mosaics
It’s true, Ravenna’s biggest draw is its mosaics, but its charm doesn’t stop there. The city is pleasant and perfectly suited for strolling. Beyond spending an afternoon at a local osteria watching the smart-dressed passersby, there are some options for those feeling some mosaic-fatigue.
Museo dell’Arte Ravenna
The city’s permanent modern art collection houses contemporary mosaics, medieval and modern art and regular temporary exhibits in a converted 15th-century monastery. Yes there are still mosaics, but at least one was based off of work by Marc Chagall, so you’re definitely getting closer to the 21st century.
The two-story mausoleum was built in 520 for the Gothic King Teodorico (Theodoric). Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique architectural work – it was constructed out of huge blocks of Istrian stone – and as the only surviving example of a barbarian kings tomb from this period, it’s also the only UNESCO site in Ravenna that doesn’t contain mosaics.
Museum and Tomb of Dante Alighieri
Dedicated to the poet Dante, the museum highlights “the role played in Dante’s life by the city of Ravenna, where the exiled poet spent his last days.” Inexpensive, multi-medial and just a few steps from the poets tomb. Though born in Florence, the poet was exiled from the city and moved to Ravenna. Today you can view his tomb adjacent to the San Francesco Basilica, where his funeral ceremony was held in 1321. The city has resisted for centuries against demands by Florence to return its famous exile, so here he lies.
San Francesco Basilica
A Basilica dedicated to the famously minimalist saint, the church’s façade is simple brick and the inside is stripped bare. Evidence of mosaics from the original church (this one was rebuilt in the 10th–11th centuries over another originally dedicated to the Apostles and later to St. Peter) is visible on the floor and above the nave.
But you hardly come to see the church. Of all the non-mosaic sites in Ravenna, this one struck me the most. Head toward the nave of this skeletal church and descend the stairs to view the crypt – the entire thing is under water. Mosaics decorate the flooded floor (proof of its origins as another church) and goldfish swim above them. Though you just have time to glance in (we found a line of people and one euro gets you a minute or so of light into the crypt) it’s enough to fill you with wonder. How many strange things there are in the world!
The Brancaleone Fortress was built when Venetians ruled the city in 1457 as a part of the city walls. Today it is a vast public park with a playground, a skating rink, benches and fountains, a bar and public toilets. According to the Ravenna tourism website, “an educational trail describes the historical, architectural and functional features of the Brancaleone fortress, as well as informing visitors on the various tree types growing in the park.”
Every year from May to July, the entire city becomes a stage for two month with a dense program of symphonic and chamber music, opera, drama, dance, ballet, musical theatre, jazz, and ethnic music. One of Italy’s most important classical music gatherings, you can view operas in the beautiful Alighieri Theater and concerts with jaw-dropping mosaics of San Vitale Basilica as the backdrop.
In 2012 they extended the festival to include an “Autumn Trilogy” of opera in late November/early December. For one weekend they hold an opera marathon looking at three pieces of one composers suite. This year they examine Verdi’s Nabucco, Otello, and Rigoletto.
Plan Your Trip to Ravenna
Ravenna wasn’t a part of Italy’s major roads in ancient Roman times and it’s not connected to Italy’s major highways today either. Though quite full in the summer, the small city is otherwise peaceful, authentic and well-preserved. The entire city center is a pedestrian zone and quite compact. You can get just about anywhere on foot or by bike.
Depending on how you include Ravenna into your Italy trip, you can train in from Bologna which is about an hour and a half each way (all of Italy’s high-speed trains make stops in Bologna).
Otherwise, considering adding it on to an Italy road-trip. Start in Venice and then stop in Padua, Ferrara, Bologna and on to Ravenna.
Or, do an Emilia Romagna region trip with stops in Ferrara, Bologna, the city-state of San Marino and Ravenna. Add on nearby Rimini if you want a day at the sea. Or, make your way down the Adriatic coast. The most northern point of interest (besides Venice) is Ravenna.
If you’re not interested in the surrounding towns, consider buying a Ravenna day trip. Most tours will take you from a major city in a private car and a private guide will tell you everything you need to know during your day in the city.
You can definitely see most or all of Ravenna in one day (maybe not in the shorter-opening hours of wintertime), but as usual, if you’re able to stay at least one night I’d suggest it. We stayed overnight but only had one full day to tour and unfortunately didn’t make it to every site on the list. I’d definitely be interested in digging a little deeper into the beautiful sites and unique history of Ravenna.