Sweeping north from the Apennines to the fertile Po valley, Emilia-Romagna boasts some of Italy’s most hospitable people, some of its most productive land, some of its fastest vehicles (Ferrari, Ducati, Maserati and Lamborghini call Emilia-Romagna home) and most soul-satisfying food. Since antiquity, the verdant Po lowlands have sown enough agricultural riches to feed a nation and finance an unending production line of lavish products: luxury cars, regal palazzi (mansions), Romanesque churches, prosperous towns and a gigantic operatic legacy (Verdi and Pavarotti, no less).
You can eat like a Roman emperor here, in the birthplace of tagliatelle al ragù, pumpkin-filled cappellacci pasta, prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar and parmigiano reggiano (Parmesan). And then there's Emilia-Romagna's treasure trove of oft-neglected destinations: vibrant Bologna with its photogenic porticoes, Ravenna with its dazzling mosaics, posh Parma and Rimini, the Roman frontier town turned beach resort. Wherever you go, you'll be welcomed with the trademark warmth of Emilia-Romagna's people.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Emilia-Romagna.
Overshadowing even the cathedral, the octagonal pink-marble baptistery on the south side of the piazza is one of the most important such structures in Italy. Its architecture is a hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic, and its construction started in 1196 on the cusp of the two great architectural eras. The interior is particularly stunning, with its interplay of pencil-thin marble columns and richly coloured 13th-century frescoes in the Byzantine style, interspersed at irregular intervals with statues and bas-reliefs.
Sometimes, after weeks of strolling around dark Italian churches, you can lose your sense of wonder. Not here! The lucid mosaics that adorn the altar of this ancient church consecrated in 547 by Archbishop Massimiano invoke a sharp intake of breath in most visitors. Gaze in wonder at the rich greens, brilliant golds and deep blues bathed in shafts of soft yellow sunlight.
An old legend states that Pope Gregory the Great once ordered the Apollinare's mosaics to be blackened as they were distracting worshippers from prayer. A millennium and a half later, the dazzling Christian handiwork is still having the same effect. It's almost impossible to take your eyes off the 26 white-robed martyrs heading towards Christ with his apostles on the right (south) wall. On the opposite side, an equally expressive procession of virgins bears similar offerings for the Madonna.
Hidden behind a colourful patchwork of warped homes, this low-slung, wood-beamed, delightfully uneven medieval walkway dates to 1290. It's unique in Italy because it began life as a defensive wall that was later incorporated into the town's commercial space (as an elevated pathway for donkeys carrying gypsum from nearby quarries). Today, former donkey stables now hide private homes (and one dental office) that sit atmospherically along 100m of picturesque, non-uniform arches, flanked by at least one surviving guard tower.
In the same complex as Basilica di San Vitale, the small but equally incandescent Mausoleo di Galla Placidia was constructed for Galla Placidia, the half-sister of Emperor Honorius, who initiated construction of many of Ravenna's grandest buildings. The mosaics here are the oldest in Ravenna, probably dating from around AD 430.
If peeking at the assembly lines at Ferrari and Lamborghini is like glimpsing inside a well-oiled machine, a day behind the scenes at Pagani is like peering into an artisan's workshop. Argentine-Italian Horacio Pagani produces a measly 40 or so unique, made-to-order hypercars per year (base price: €1.3 to €2.5 million!), which are assembled by hand, including hundreds of pieces cast from composite materials baked in giant autoclaves, at this astonishing factory 13km east of Modena.
Complete with moat and drawbridge, Ferrara's towering castle was commissioned by Nicolò II d'Este in 1385. Initially it was intended to protect him and his family from the town's irate citizenry, who were up in arms over tax increases, but in the late 15th century it became the family's permanent residence. Although sections are now used as government offices, a few rooms, including the royal suites, are open for viewing.
Bologna's most unique religious site is this atmospheric labyrinth of interlocking ecclesiastical structures, whose architecture spans centuries of Bolognese history and incorporates Romanesque, Lombard and even ancient Roman elements. Originally there were seven churches – hence the basilica's nickname Sette Chiese – but only four remain intact today: Chiesa del Crocefisso, Chiesa della Trinità, Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro and Santi Vitale e Agricola.
Bologna's hulking Gothic basilica is Europe's sixth-largest church, measuring 132m by 66m by 47m. Work began on it in 1390, but it was never finished, and still today its main facade remains incomplete. Inside, look for the huge sundial that stretches 67.7m down the eastern aisle. Designed in 1656 by Gian Cassini and Domenico Guglielmi, this was instrumental in discovering the anomalies of the Julian calendar and led to the creation of the leap year.