3 Days in Ravenna Italy
Once a Roman seaport, Ravenna is worth visiting today for its stunning Byzantine mosaics and historic churches.
Looking for a quiet yet historic city to visit while on vacation in Italy? Want to get away from some of the heavy tourist crowds, yet still have plenty to see and do?
Then consider spending a few nights in Ravenna. This ancient city—known in Roman times as Classe—was once an important seaport and even briefly the capital of eastern Rome during its fall. Today it has a strong and booming economy because of a large chemical industry...but that's not what makes it worth visiting.
It's the city and surrounding area's 1500 year old churches that are the main attraction. Some of the finest examples of Byzantine art and architecture outside of Istanbul can be found in Ravenna, in these houses of worship decorated with colorful, spectacular mosaics. These glittering mosaics will capture your imagination and are unlike anything else you will see in Italy.
I recently spent a two night/three day stopover in Ravenna, after first visiting Venice and then heading on to Verona. Let me share our itinerary along with a few recommendations as to where to stay, and what to eat!
Mosaic art in Ravenna. All photos on this page are property of the author, sockii.
Day One: Off to Ravenna!
Taking the train from Venice
I love traveling by train in Italy; it's so easy to get around to most of the major cities and attractions in comfort this way. The 10:30am train from Venice took a little under three hours—we were able to take the high speed Frecciarossa train to Bologna and then make a quick connection on a regional train from there. Ravenna was the last stop, at just about 1:30pm.
The hotel I chose for our stay was the Residence La Reunion. This very nice suites hotel is located right in the heart of Ravenna's historic center, making it perfect for exploring the major attractions which were mostly in walking distance. (It should be noted that the historic center of the city has limited car traffic allowed, however the hotel can give you a temporary permit if you are driving/have rented a car and wish to park it nearby.)
We had a very nice large suite complete with a kitchenette and generously sized bedroom, and found the staff very helpful throughout our stay.
Piazza del Popolo
After checking in it was time to get at least a light, late lunch. We walked over to Piazza del Popolo, the main and central square in the heart of the historic part of Ravenna. Lined with coffee shops and small cafes, it was a pleasant place to enjoy a first taste of Emilia-Romagna cuisine in a very medieval setting (Ravenna's architecture and feel in general felt very similar to that of nearby Bologna, which I had visited several years ago.)
We had two pasta dishes: tagliatelle with shrimp, zucchini and smoked paprika for one, and a stuffed pasta in a creamy radicchio sauce. Being radicchio season we would see it on a lot of menus during our stay here...which was great as I love it!
After a relaxing lunch, it was only a short walk to the first church we wanted to visit: the Basilica di San Vitale. Completed in the year 547, it is today considered one of the most important examples of Christian Byzantine art and architecture still surviving in Europe (and one of 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ravenna).
Basilica di San Vitale
The structure has both Roman and Byzantine elements but most important are its mosaics, considered the largest and best preserved outside of Constantinople.
San Vitale mosaics
What strikes the viewer about these mosaics, along with their bright color, is the profusion of natural elements: birds, flowers, animals, and stars. Stories from the Old Testament are illustrated along with images of Christ, the apostles, and the archangels. There is a great deal to try to absorb before even beginning to take in the other elements of the church, such as the mosaic labyrinth on the floor and the dome with its 18th century murals.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Right next to San Vitale is the also beautiful Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. Once the oratory of the Church of the Holy Cross, it now contains three sarcophagi, the largest believed to contain the remains of Galla Placidia, the daughter of Roman Emperor Theodosius I. The extremely colorful mosaics covering the interior tell of the victory of eternal life over death and again feature many birds and animals along with its religious themes.
More mosaics in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
After a quick break for a cafe, a little window shopping, and a stop in a local mosaic workshop, we headed back towards our hotel and to get in one last sight-seeing stop for the night: the Battistero Neoniano, or Baptistery of Neon. This 5th century structure is the oldest standing monument within the city and was built partially on the remnants of a Roman bath.
Again, the interior of the octagonal-shaped building is covered in delightful, colorful mosaics. The ceiling mosaic shows John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. We again see the twelve apostles and many wonderful patterns and geometric designs.
Mosaics on the ceiling of the baptistery
Travel Tip: Discount Tourist Cards
If you're planning on seeing quite a few sites in Ravenna, or maybe throughout the Emilia-Romagna region, then you could save money buying a combined ticket or travel card to suit your needs.
A combined ticket admitting you to five of Ravenna's top mosaic sites is available at the ticket office at each included location (Archiepiscopal Museum, Neonian Baptistery, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Basilica of San Vitale, and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.) See The Mosaics of Ravenna website for more information.
Otherwise, the Romagna Visit Card might be your best option for discounts and free admissions to attractions in Ravenna, Rimini, Faenza, and other area locations.
By now it was closing time for the city's monuments, and we were ready to think about dinner. However we spied a farmer's market set up in a piazza near our hotel and browsed through for a bit, sampling some local products such as fresh-made foccaccia, honeys, and chestnuts. We bought some unique farro-grain pastas to take home and then headed back to our hotel for a brief rest before dinner.
I wanted to find somewhere serving some really authentic cuisine of the region, and reviews on-line pointed me toward the nearby Osteria dei Battibecchi.
This cozy, rustic restaurant ended up fitting the bill perfectly. We were able to sample some delicious local meats to start, served with warm and soft piadina flatbread. I saw rabbit stew on the menu and had to order it; rabbit is one of my favorite meats and so rare to find on menus in the states. Sweetie got the lasagna with meat ragu (Bolognese) which was just how it should be: dense and hearty, a little crispy on the top, and all together satisfying.
After dinner we practically were ready to roll into bed, and save further adventures for the next day.
Day 2: From Classe to the Marina
Exploring several sites outside of the city center
The basilica was consecrated in 549 AD by the Bishop Maximian and dedicated to Saint Apollinaris, who had been the first bishop of both Ravenna and Classe. Thus it is contemporary with San Vitale in Ravenna, and interesting to see immediately after having visited there the day before.
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe - Interior
The Greek marble columns are impressive, and the ancient altar in the nave supposedly marks the the place of the saint's martyrdom. But most impressive are the mosaics in the apse and triumphal arch, all that remains of the mosaics which surely, at one time, covered all of the lateral walls.
In the apse we see represented Saint Apollinaris, praying to God for his his faithful which are symbolized by the lambs around him. There is also a starry sky with a gemmed cross, the "Hand of God" coming through the clouds, and more symbolism representing the four Evangelists.
Much more symbolism is contained in the imagery here, which is helpfully explained by informational panels and audio terminals within the church.
On our way back to Ravenna, we stopped to see the Mausoleo di Teodorico (Mausoleum of Theoderic) which is just outside of the city. Built in 520 AD by Theoderic the Great, it was meant to be his future tomb and is now another one of Ravenna's UNESCO sites.
The two story structure features a roof made from a single 230 tonne Istrian stone, 10 meters in diameter. The porphyry sarcophagus of Theodoric can be found in the upper floor, though his remains were removed during the Byzantine rule when the mausoleum was used as a Christian oratory.
By the 19th century the mausoleum had become partially submerged due to silting from a nearby rivulet. It was drained and excavated, and is notable today as the only surviving tomb of a king of this time period.
No one said you COULDN'T climb in the sarcophagus...
After the morning's explorations it was time for lunch! We headed back to our hotel to drop off a few goodies picked up while sight-seeing, then decided to try the restaurant directly across the street, Ca' de Vèn. This large establishment, within a 15th century palace, offered a wonderful menu of seasonal and local specialties. The house-made piadina was addictive and perfect to enjoy with a warm cheese budino (pudding) appetizer, and salad of raddichio and crispy bacon. I had to get the venison stew (another favorite of mine I can usually only enjoy at home, never in restaurants). The radicchio and sausage risotto was absolutely outstanding as well.
Risotto with ...
Venison stew ...
Ca' da Ven
After lunch it was time to get in a few more of the churches and other destinations on our must-see list. The Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo was next. This 6th century basilica was erected by Theodoric as his palace chapel and then reconsecrated in 561 AD under Byzantine rule.
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Inside the walls sparkled with more glittering gold and brightly colored mosaics, the most noteworthy being those of the three wise men and one illustrating Theodoric's palace.
We had one more site to visit on our combined ticket for the major mosaic attractions of Ravenna: the Archiepiscopal Museum, where one can visit the Chapel of Sant'Andrea. The museum contains important relics of early Christiandom in the region including a bishop's seat carved from ivory.
The private chapel is covered in mosaics and while small is no less impressive than the other mosaic-covered houses of worship in the city.
The museum is close to the Basilica de San Francesco, which was our next stop.
Mosaic in the museum collection
A church was first built here in the year 450 AD, but then demolished in the 9th-10th century to build a newer one. Dante's funeral was held here in the year 1321.
Changes were made to the interior in later centuries, but the most notable feature of the church today is actually its flooded crypt, below the main altar. A foot or more of water continually fills the crypt, such that you will now find goldfish swimming there! It is certainly one of the more curious sights I've ever seen in a church, in Italy or actually anywhere.
The flooded crypt of the Basilica de San Francesco
We made a quick stop at Dante's tomb before making plans for dinner. The famous poet and philosopher found refuge in Ravenna after his exile in Florence, and his remains have been kept here ever since. Because of the late hour we weren't able to visit the neighboring Dante Museum—perhaps on a future visit.
We decided to head to the Marina di Ravenna for dinner that night for something a little different. This attractive, small resort area has numerous restaurants, bars and beach clubs, though not everything was open as we were there rather out of season.
We ended up at the rather curiously named Trattoria Cubana Irma e Pino, a large and very elegantly-decorated establishment right on the canal opening up to the sea. We dined on a delicious menu of seafood specialties including octopus salad, seafood ravioli and mixed shellfish over pasta.
Everything was truly outstanding and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this restaurant to other travelers—plus it was nice to dine on some seafood after several days of heartier meat dishes.
Octopus salad over potatoes
Linguini with mixed shellfish
Day 3: More art and mosaics before traveling onward
Enjoying a final half-day in Ravenna
An art installation outside the city museum
Our train to Verona didn't leave until the early afternoon, so we had the morning to get in a little final sightseeing. We walked over to the Museo d'Arte della città di Ravenna—the municipal museum of the city.
Established in a former monastery, the museum hosts a number of different permanent collections as well as temporary exhibits which make for an interesting exploration through the region's art history. The permanent collection features classical works spanning the 14th through 19th century, where one can see how the influence of artists from other regions of Italy influenced those of Ravenna. The collection then spans into the modern era, including artists such as Gustav Klimt (who was inspired by the glittering, colorful mosaics of the city.) There is a section devoted to modern mosaic art, showing how the ancient tradition has been applied to modern three-dimensional and abstract works.
Also running while we were there was a curious temporary exhibit, "? War is over", exploring imagery related to war and conflict from ancient to modern times. The museum was certainly a fine way to spend a few of our last hours in Ravenna, reflecting on the city's artistic history and how it continues through today.
From there, it was a quick hop back to our hotel to retrieve our luggage and then head to the train station and say goodbye to Ravenna...for now.
Painting by Giorgio Vasari
A mosaic piadina sandwich!
At the train station, I had to get one of the "real thing" piadina sandwiches before leaving!
All in all we greatly enjoyed our time in Ravenna. Our two night stay was just enough time to see most of the city's major attractions without rushing, though I would certainly go back again to spend more time there and explore the surrounding area which we only touched upon. Ravenna is a great destination for those looking to get away from the tourist crowds of other major Italian destinations, like Venice or Rome, and to get a taste of early Christian history and art perhaps nowhere else this well preserved. It's also quite an affordable city to visit as well! So why not consider a visit there yourself in the future?
Other travel guides you might enjoy...
Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.