Emilia-Romagna, a region in the northeast of the Italian peninsula, is one of my favourite areas for a road trip in Italy. With its stunning medieval towns, amazing cultural heritage and incredible cuisine, Emilia-Romagna is a treasure trove that just begs to be explored. And there’s no better route to follow than the Via Emilia (or Via Aemilia), a road that has its origins in Roman times (construction began in 189 B.C.)! The road is, till this day, the major trunk route in Emilia-Romagna and runs the length of the region from Piacenza to Rimini. This is my guide to the best places to visit in Emilia-Romagna on a road trip along the Via Emilia.
The ultimate Emilia-Romagna road trip
Not many people are familiar with Emilia-Romagna as a destination but I’m sure many people have heard of Bologna and Parma, and automotive brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati, all of which hail from Emilia-Romagna. This region is also home to famous food products such as parmigiano-reggiano and balsamico. It has a variety of landscapes, with a broad plain in its middle bordered by the Po River in the north and the Apennine Mountains in the south. Vibrant Bologna is the epicentre of the region but venture out and you’ll discover medieval towns, forested hills, countless farms and vineyards, and mile after mile of sandy beaches. There’s quite literally something for every type of visitor: from its rich, cultural heritage to beautiful nature reserves and seemingly endless golden sands, and from centuries-old towns to its state-of-the-art automotive industry. Not to mention some of the best food in Italy!
This Emilia-Romagna guide contains links to three services I often use myself and can recommend: Booking.com (for hotel bookings), Rentalcars.com (for car hire) and GetYourGuide (for easy-to-book tours). If you make a booking via one of these services, I will receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). These commissions help me to maintain my blog and share more travel experiences with you.
Best places to visit in Emilia Romagna
I’ve visited Emilia-Romagna many times and explored the region quite extensively. Based on these trips, I’ve compiled this guide featuring the best places to visit in Emilia-Romagna on a road trip. You can do this in 1-2 weeks but I recommend taking your time to enjoy these places. If you’re on a Tuscany road trip, I recommend venturing next door to Emilia-Romagna, a short hop across the Appenines from Florence.
I’ve included a suggested 15-day ‘Best of Emilia-Romagna’ self-drive itinerary below. This suggested itinerary starts in Bologna, where you can pick up a rental car. Alternatively, if you’re coming from Milan, you can start the trip in the northwest and continue southeastwards.
Kick off your Italy road trip in Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna. With its international airport and well-connected train station, Bologna is easily accessible from major Italian cities by high-speed rail and most European airport hubs like London, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Barcelona.
Bologna is one of my favourite cities in Europe. Its amazing food and historic architecture are major highlights but stroll around under its almost 40kms of porticoes (covered arcades), browse around its bustling markets, climb one of its historic towers or explore its diverse food scene and you’ll discover a gem of a city that’s worth returning to again and again.
My top tips:
- Stroll under the historic porticoes (arcades) in the historic centre
- Climb the Asinelli Tower (Italy’s tallest leaning tower) for amazing views
- Visit the antique market at Piazza Santo Stefano every Sunday
- Browse around the deli’s and markets in the Quadrilatero district and join the locals for an aperitivo (happy hour) at Via Rizzoli
- Eat with the locals at the square just outside the Mercato della Erbe (Via Belvedere) in the summer (evenings)
- Join a pasta-making course at Le Sfogline (Via Belvedere)
- Get your gelato fix at one of the top-notch gelaterias
- Visit the Ducati Museum just outside the city
- My recommended restaurants include Osteria Vini D’Italia, Ristorante da Cesari and Trattoria Il Portico. Check out this Bologna food guide.
- Read about other things to do in Bologna.
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From Bologna, head northwest to Parma. Famous the world over for its ham and cheese, Parma shouldn’t be missed in any Emilia-Romagna itinerary. Its historic city centre, a joy for pedestrians, is packed with regal palaces, laid-back piazzas and Art Nouveau cafés. I recommend spending a few days here to explore the city. Spare some time for a mini Parma road trip to several beautiful towns and historic attractions in the Parma countryside.
My top tips:
- Visit the Parma Cathedral, one of the finest Romanesque Cathedrals in Italy, with its amazing frescoes
- Visit the Baptistry of Parma adjacent to the Cathedral
- Admire the stately buildings at the Piazza Garibaldi such as the Palazzo del Governatore
- Explore the Palazzo della Pilotta complex (don’t miss the beautiful Teatro Farnese)
- Visit the National Archeological Museum
- Tour the magnificent Teatro Regio, ‘home’ of the famous composer Verdi
- And you certainly have to eat! Check out this Parma food guide.
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Day trips from Parma
From Parma, two hilltop medieval villages that are absolutely worth a day trip to are Torrechiara and Castell’Arquato. If you have more time, head further into the hills to Bobbio. Another place of interest in the vicinity of Parma is the Ducal Palace of Colorno.
Torrechiara is located about a 40-minute drive from Parma. The drive there passes picturesque fields and green rolling hills. The village’s biggest draw is its splendidly preserved 15th century Castello di Torrechiara. The castle sits proudly atop a terraced hill and offers gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside.
About an hour’s drive from Parma, lies one of the prettiest towns in Emilia-Romagna: Castell’Arquato! This charming town is packed with beautifully-restored medieval and Renaissance buildings. The best thing to do is to simply stroll around its medieval streets, but don’t miss the gorgeous main square, Piazza Municipio (with its Palazzo del Podestà or Town Hall), the Palazzo del Duca and the tower of the Rocca Viscontea, which offers beautiful views of the town and the surrounding hills.
Approximately 1.5 hours from Parma, Bobbio lies on the banks of the Trebbia River in the Val Trebbia, a valley once proclaimed by Ernest Hemingway to be the most beautiful in the world. Famous for its 7th century abbey and the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), Bobbio is a true historic and cultural gem. Visit the Bobbio Abbey, the 15th century Saint Columbanus Basilica and the Malaspina-Dal Verme Castle atop the hill and don’t miss the photogenic Ponte Vecchio (also called the Hunchback Bridge or Devil’s Bridge) with its eleven irregular arches.
If you’ve come this far, why not stay a bit longer to enjoy the quaint town, its gorgeous natural surroundings and fabulous local cuisine? I recommend checking out some of the highly-rated agriturismos in Bobbio.
Ducal Palace of Colorno
The Ducal Palace of Colorno (Reggia di Colorno) was built by Francesco Farnese, the Duke of Parma, in the early-18th century. The Duke employed French architects to recreate the grandeur of Versailles, complete with ornamental gardens. In the 19th century, when the Duchy of Parma was annexed by the French Empire, the palace became a favoured residence of Marie Louise, the wife of Napoleon. The castle is situated about a 30-minute drive north of Parma. Visit the castle website.
From Parma, continue to the town of Reggio Emilia. This little town is home to various amazing cultural treasures, such as the 12th century Cathedral, the 10th century Basilica di San Prospero, the 16th century Basilica della Ghiara (in Baroque style) and the breathtaking Teatro Municipale (where Luciano Pavarotti made his stage debut).
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Head to Reggio Emilia’s outskirts and you’ll find Lambrusco country! Check out the Casali winery and have a meal at Osteria in the nearby village of Scandiano – read about my Reggio Emilia experience.
From Reggio Emilia, head to Modena, where I recommend spending a few days. Modena is the home of some of Italy’s most famous automotive brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati – a tour of the Motor Valley is a must! – but foodies will most likely associate Modena with balsamic vinegar or balsamico. This is the perfect opportunity to visit the producers of some of Emilia Romagna’s most famous food products like Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamico and prosciutto di Modena (Modena ham).
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My top tips:
- Explore the historic city centre
- Visit the Casa Enzo Ferrari and the Ferrari Museum
- Visit a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese factory
- Tour a farmhouse where balsamico di Modena is produced
- Wander around the Mercato Albinelli, a fantastic food market
- Read about things to do in Modena
Modena is home to Osteria Francescana, a restaurant that consistently ranks as one of the top-3 in the world! If you can’t get in, check out Hosteria Giusti, L’Erba del Re, Franceschetta58, Ristorante Da Enzo or Osteria da Ermes. Read about my Modena food tour.
From Modena, follow the Via Emilia back to Bologna before turning off towards Ferrara. A UNESCO World Heritage listed town, Ferrara is known for its unique 15th century Renaissance urban planning and architecture. I suggest spending 1-2 nights here to truly appreciate the town’s wonderful atmosphere and architecture. Visit the 14th century Castello Estense (its elaborate frescoes are amazing), the stunning Cathedral and Town Hall, the Palazzo dei Diamanti (the National Gallery), and explore the southern district, with its maze of narrow alleys that date back to the Early Middle Ages. Read about my visit to Ferrara.
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About 50km from Ferrara lies the ‘Little Venice’ of Emilia-Romagna: Comacchio. Built on 13 islands on the edge of a lagoon, dissected by canals and connected by bridges, Comacchio lacks the grandeur of Venice but certainly makes up for it with its charm. This fishing village can trace its roots back 2,000 years and is filled with rows of brightly-coloured houses interspersed with stately buildings such as the Palazzo Bellini. The best thing to do in Comacchio is to wander around its historic centre and enjoy its colourful houses, their reflections in the serene waters of the canals and the beautiful bridges.
Comacchio is also known for its seven beaches on the Adriatic coast, stretching from Lido di Volano to Lido di Spina. There’s a variety of hotels and camping grounds as well as beach clubs and restaurants.
For nature lovers, just outside Comacchio lies the Po Delta Nature Park, with its lagoons and salt ponds. There’s a resident flamingo population here as well as a multitude of bird species.
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Continue further south and you’ll arrive at one of my favourite towns in Emilia Romagna: Ravenna. This ancient town is home to no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites! The main attractions are its churches, mausoleums and basilicas with their breathtaking mosaics but soak up the atmosphere by simply strolling around this gorgeous town. I recommend spending at least a night here to truly appreciate the town’s historic sights and wonderful atmosphere. Read about things to do in Ravenna.
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On the coastal part of Ravenna, you’ll find another stretch of beaches. Beach clubs to look out for include Singita Miracle Beach and Charlie Beach.
From Ravenna, continue down the Adriatic coast to another historic town: Cesenatico. This ancient port town has canals which were designed by Leonardo da Vinci! Cesenatico is home to a fascinating Maritime Museum as well as colourful sailboats in the harbour.
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Just north of Cesenatico is arguably the Adriatic’s trendiest beach town: Milano Marittima. The young and beautiful come here for its beach clubs, discos and bars, the most famous of which is Papeete Beach, whose happy hour is pretty legendary.
A popular seaside town on the Emilia Romagna coast, Rimini has a plethora of hotels, restaurants and a broad 15km-long beach! You can choose to have some beach time here, explore Rimini’s Old Town with its ancient monuments or head for the nearby hills where you’ll find the oldest republic and one of the smallest countries in the world! If you opt for some beach time in Rimini, drop by the Habana beach restaurant. Nothing better than a fettucine vongole at the beach with a crisp Pinot Grigio or Friulano, and a gentle sea breeze to go with it!
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Another popular beach town is Riccione, about 15 minutes south of Rimini. Famous for its soft, golden sands, Riccione has a good variety of luxury hotels and spas. Head to the Viale Ceccarini, the pedestrianised main street, for some shopping or a drink.
In Rimini’s Old Town, visit the Corso d’Augusto (the Arch of Augustus) which was built in 27 B.C., the Tempio Malatestiano (a 9th century temple), the Piazza Cavour (often a venue for open-air markets) and the Ponte di Tiberio (a 2000-year-old bridge across the canal). If you’re interested in archaeology, visit the Archeological Museum, which houses an impressive array of Roman mosaics, ancient coins and other artefacts.
My favourite neighbourhood in Rimini is undoubtedly Borgo San Giuliano, just across the Ponte di Tiberio. This picturesque neighbourhood is packed with quaint alleys, colourful houses and beautiful street art (inspired by Fellini’s movies). It’s also home to some of the best restaurants in Rimini such as La Marianna and La Esse Romagnola.
This tiny country is one of the smallest in the world! Located less than an hour’s drive from Rimini, most visitors come here for a day trip but I recommend spending a night or two here to experience its quiet, medieval streets when all the day-trippers have left. Have your passport ready to collect a special stamp! Read about my trip to San Marino.
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Day trip from Rimini or San Marino
If you have time, it’s definitely worth driving further southwest of Rimini or San Marino to the town of San Leo. Take the SP258 road, which loosely follows the Marecchia river, and turn off onto the SP22 to San Leo. The route along hilly, verdant landscapes, is absolutely beautiful. As you approach San Leo, you’ll soon spot the Fortress of San Leo, an imposing castle sitting atop the mountain. The castle played an important role in the region’s history and is now a museum. The adjacent town is great for a stroll and a leisurely meal.
From San Marino, make your way back towards Bologna along the Via Emilia. Make sure to stop at the medieval village of Brisighella. This charming hillside village, surrounded by forests and vineyards, boasts an imposing fortress and quaint streets lined by colourful houses. If you’re looking for a quiet retreat at the end of this road trip, I highly recommend spending a few days here. Relax amidst simply enchanting scenery and enjoy terrific local food and wines, not to mention some of the world’s best olive oil. For something more active, you can also go on a hike around the hills and vineyards. Read more about things to do in Brisighella.
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Closer to Bologna, you’ll find the village of Dozza. This hilltop medieval village is best known for its annual Wine Festival and its Biennial Exhibition of the Painted Wall (Muro Dipinto) in September, when artists from Italy and around the world are invited to decorate the village’s walls with colourful murals, in effect transforming the village into an open-air museum. It truly is an enchanting experience to stroll around to admire the murals. Dozza’s castle (Rocca Sforzesca) is also home to the regional wine store (enoteca) of the Emilia-Romagna region.
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How to get to Emilia Romagna
Bologna has an international airport with frequent daily flights to major cities in Europe, Dubai and Istanbul. There are also seasonal flights from the USA. Bologna is also one of the most important rail hubs in Italy, with high-speed connections to Milan, Florence, Venice and Rome. Though you can easily visit most of the towns described above by public transport, I recommend hiring a car to explore this beautiful region.
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15-day ‘Best of Emilia-Romagna’ self-drive itinerary
This 14 night/15 day self-drive itinerary takes you past the best places in Emilia-Romagna as described above. If you’re flying into Bologna, I recommend picking up a rental car after spending a few days in Bologna. You can start the road trip along the Via Emilia towards Parma and follow the entire itinerary through to the coast and back to Bologna, or concentrate on 2-3 areas, depending on your interests or the length of your stay. I’ve included a suggested length of stay per place/area. Check out this road trip packing list to prepare for your road trip. The itinerary is as follows:
3 nights: Bologna. Explore the historic city centre, join a fun cooking course or visit the Ducati museum.
3 nights: Parma. From Bologna, drive along the Via Emilia to Parma. Visit the historic landmarks and spend a day visiting the nearby medieval villages such as Castell’Arquato.
2 nights: Modena. From Parma, make your way to Modena, stopping in Reggio Emilia along the way. I recommend spending 2 nights in Modena, especially if you’d like to visit the automotive museums.
4 nights: Adriatic coast. You can choose to spend a night in Ferrara or Ravenna before continuing to the coast or make your base for the next four nights at the coast, from which you can visit Ferrara, Ravenna, Comacchio, Cesenatico and Rimini.
2 nights: San Marino or Brisighella. Spend two nights in a different country or in a charming hillside village before making your way back to Bologna.
See my photo essay on reasons I love Italy
More information on Emilia-Romagna
Visit the website of Emilia-Romagna Tourism for more information.