Ravenna is a small, historic town in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Located close to the Adriatic Sea, the town can trace its history back more than 2,000 years. Ravenna enjoyed a prosperous period during Roman rule in the 1st century A.D. before being occupied by a succession of other powers including the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines. Each ruler left his mark in the town, much of which can still be seen till this day – that explains the fact that despite its small size, Ravenna boasts no less than eight(!) UNESCO World Heritage sites. Despite these significant attractions, Ravenna is far from over-run by tourists, allowing visitors to enjoy its historic wonders at a leisurely pace. In addition, a large part of Ravenna’s centre is a pedestrian zone – the only thing you’ll have to look out for when you’re strolling around are bicycles! Here are some of the major things to see in Ravenna, especially the famous Ravenna mosaics, along with some culinary delights!
Things to see in Ravenna
I was attracted to Ravenna after reading up about its UNESCO sites and stunning mosaics but during my stay there, I discovered other great reasons that warrant a stay of at least a few days. The Ravenna mosaics can be covered in a day or two as most of them are within walking distance of one another. The ticket office near the Basilica di San Vitale sells single tickets that cover entrance to five of the eight sites. I started my walk at the 1st century Basilica di San Vitale, one of the most treasured examples of early Christian and Byzantine art in Western Europe, and a must-see in Ravenna. The basilica, with its towering columns and rich, vividly-coloured mosaics, is absolutely awe-inspiring.
Right next to the basilica is another UNESCO site, the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. This mausoleum contains three sarcophagi, amongst which a sarcophagus that contains the remains of Galla Placidia, the daughter of a Roman Emperor. UNESCO describes this mausoleum as one of the best-preserved mosaic monuments, and rightfully so. The intricate mosaics, stunning depictions and striking colours are jaw-dropping beautiful. Cole Porter reputedly composed his famous song, ‘Night & Day’ after a visit here in the 1920’s. I can imagine why. As you enter, you’re greeted by a rich blue ceiling with glittering gold stars. It’s incredible, once you think about it, how much effort was made to create these masterpieces using miniscule, coloured tiles!
The other UNESCO sites I visited included the impressive Battistero Neoniano, the little but no less impressive Capella di San Andrea (both of which are adjacent to Ravenna’s Duomo), and the cavernous Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.
Ravenna itself is a lovely town with charming streets filled with boutiques, cafés, shops selling regional produce, restaurants and gelaterias! The town’s central point and another Ravenna highlight is the picturesque Piazza del Popolo. From here, pedestrian-only streets fan out in different directions.
The Via Cavour, Via IV Novembre and Via Corrado Ricci were my favourite streets. Via Cavour is the main shopping street and extends from the historic Porta Adriana gate to the heart of the city at Via IV Novembre and Piazza del Popolo, where you can find a plethora of restaurants and cafés. In the maze of streets and lanes in this area, you’ll probably stumble upon Fresca, a lively wine bar that’s popular with the locals. One thing to look out for is Dante’s face, a street art piece by Brazilian artist, Kobra.
I also discovered two fabulous restaurants in Via IV Novembre called Bella Venezia (reservations recommended) and Capello.
After a gorgeous dinner at Bella Venezia one evening, I made another awesome discovery: Papilla, one of the best gelaterias in Ravenna (very close to Bella Venezia). There’s a chocolate tap near the entrance which made my mouth water the second I saw it! I chose two flavours (chocolate and mango) and had the cone filled up with more chocolate. The result: an experience I won’t easily forget!
A walk along Via Corrado Ricci will bring you past other Ravenna attractions such as the Biblioteca Oriani at the Piazza Sant Francesco and Dante Alighieri‘s Tomb (prior to visiting Ravenna, I had no idea this famous poet was buried here).
In the evenings, you’ll find people crowding around Ca de Ven (Via Corrado Ricci, 24), a bar/restaurant which truly is an institution in Ravenna. The atmosphere is terrific, and if the restaurant is full, simply have a drink at the bar during Aperitivo (Italian Happy Hour) and dig into the Aperitivo buffet (the food is included in the price of the drink).
Another wonderful road to explore is Via di Roma. Starting at the Porta Nuova (gate), you’ll pass the City Art Gallery (Museo Arte della Citta), with its beautiful contemporary mosaics, a collection of ancient artworks, paintings and sculptures from 14th to 19th century, including the outstanding statue of Guidarello Guidarelli by Tullio Lombardi (1525).
Next to the Art Gallery is the majestic Parocchia S. Maria in Porto. Further down the road, you’ll arrive at the Basilica S. Appolinare Nuovo (see above).
Down the road from Porta Nuova, you’ll find Ristorante Alexander (Via Bassa del Pignataro, 8), a cosy restaurant housed in an old cinema. The chef serves superb Italian cuisine blended with contemporary influences.
Other restaurants in Ravenna I can recommend include Osteria dei Battibecchi (local food in a cosy, homely ambiance; Via della Tesoreria Vecchia, 16) and Antica Trattoria Al Gallo 1909 (terrific food in stylish, classical surroundings; Via Maggiore, 89).
I absolutely enjoyed my visit and wished I could’ve stayed longer – two days was a tad too short as there are many things to see in Ravenna. I loved the laid-back vibe of the town whilst the UNESCO sites were truly awe-inspiring. Ravenna is easily accessible by train from Bologna and Rimini, about an hour from both. If you’re travelling through Italy and visiting Emilia-Romagna, don’t miss Ravenna!
Ravenna is also a recommended destination in the Ultimate Euro Food Trip.