Things to do in Ferrara, Italy — on a short visit
It was a whirlwind of a day trip to Ferrara, Italy from our base in Verucchio. We started out early for our 2-hour drive to Ferrara, 90 miles to the north (about 30 miles from Bologna). We left the driving to our Italian blogger friend, Alessandra Catania, and so we were able to sit back and enjoy the passing towns and countryside through Emilia-Romagna. As we entered the city limits of Ferrara, we were caught up in quite a bit of traffic in this small busy city of 135,000 residents, quite a change from the small villages and towns we had been visiting since arriving in Emilia-Romagna several days earlier. But before long, the modern city scenes and wide streets changed to views of buildings from eras past with pedestrians and bicyclists making their ways through the narrow streets and piazzas of old town Ferrara, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Over a period of several hours, we took in as much as we could, but there is plenty more to do when we return. Come with us on this virtual tour of 5 interesting and fun things to do when visiting Ferrara.
Castello Estense, the bad and the beautiful
Ah, the stories of Medieval and Renaissance passion, treason, power, and torture that this castle holds. Built in 1385 as a fortress to protect the ruling Este family from uprisings of the people, Castello Estense later became the royal residence. Its architectural details span Medieval and Renaisance periods as enhancements were made through the centuries. The water-filled moat still surrounds the castle.
In the photo below, we’re looking across the moat into the old town center of Ferrara through a loophole in the castle wall . Except for a bit of construction scaffolding and vehicles in view, it was easy to imagine a Ferrara of times long gone by.
The interior of Castello Estense has many ornate halls and rooms in the noble living quarters on the first floor. It was the gorgeous ceilings that especially captured my attention in these chambers. Pictured below are just a few examples.
Parts of the castle suffered extensive damage during a major earthquake in May of 2012 so in some rooms the ceilings are speckled with tape used in the restoration process. Their beauty still shines through.
So what could be bad inside such a place of beauty? Beneath the opulent living quarters of the nobility, dungeons held high-profile prisoners in small cells with fascinating, yet terrifying history.
Imagine being held in captivity in the long, narrow cell in the photo below on the left. In yet other cells, we have the tragic story of the young lovers, Parisina and Ugo, Niccolo III’s second wife and son (Parisina’s step-son). After a period of confinement in the dungeons, they were decapitated at the castle in 1425. They were both 20 years old at the time. Ugo was held in the cell shown on the right below (a toilet was a special amenity in this cell). The ceiling shown in the top right photo shows the marks of prisoners’ writings made with candle smoke in that cell.
A larger area of confinement, but nonetheless daunting is the one shown below, where Don Giulio and Ferrante d’Este, brothers of Duke Alfonso I, were imprisoned in 1506. They were accused of plotting against the duke and another brother, Cardinal Ippolito. Both had their sentences commuted, but not until Ferrante had spent 43 years and Don Giulio 50 years. The release of the 81-year-old Don Giulio was a great surprise to the townspeople who reportedly watched him leave the castle and make his way down the street.
Beyond the castle
Old Jewish Ghetto
On first entering the former Jewish ghetto of Ferrara, we saw many people bustling in the street or sitting outside at restaurants for lunch. But turning down the side streets, things got much quieter.
The Jewish community here goes back centuries. Many of the Jews that had been driven out of their native countries were welcomed in Ferrara. Coming from Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1498, and Germany in 1530, they settled in the city building a strong community. The ghetto was established in 1627 by the papal government, ending the liberal policy of the Este family.
The bike culture in Ferrara is prevalent – residents and tourists alike pedal through the streets, squares and even around the 9k distance of the old city walls. It was a hot day (about 95 F), but I loved it. I enjoy biking, but weaving through the often crowded, narrow streets of a medieval city, partially along the old walls, was extra special. There are a number of bike rental locations in the city center.
National Archaeology Museum
I was amazed by the rich collections of the National Archaeological Museum (MANFE) in Ferrara, located on the first floor of the Palazzo Costabili (also called Palazzo di Ludovico il Moro). The museum’s artifacts include Greek Attic vases, bronzes, jewelry and other Etruscan objects for ordinary use that were discovered in archaeological excavations in Spina, Italy. The close cultural ties between the city of Spina and the Greeks is evidenced by the large number of items with Athenian origins.
Ferrara Cathedral (Basilica Cattedrale di San Giorgio)
Although we didn’t tour inside Ferrara Cathedral, we admired it from the piazzas on two sides of the stunning pink and white marble structure built in the 12th century.
Above the door in the center of the cathedral, there are carvings of St. George and scenes from the New Testament created by the sculptor Nicholaus in 1135. The lower part retains the cathedral’s original Romanesque style, while the upper part which was built later in Gothic style.
The imposing Renaissance bell tower is an unfinished work of Leon Battista Alberti on the side of the cathedral facing Piazza Trento e Trieste, once the main town market of Ferrara. To the left of the tower are two galleries and small columns. On the ground level is the Loggia of the Merchants which has been occupied by shops since Medieval times.
Before heading back to Verucchio for the night, we sat outside at a bar on the Piazza Trento e Trieste to enjoy the sights and aperitivos – a lovely way to end the day in Ferrara.
Quirky bonus highlight: International Manhole Cover Museum
We made an unusual stop on our bike ride at a non-descript building on a quiet tree-lined street. There seems to be a museum for just about anything these days, and I’m usually surprised and delighted by such collections. Did you know there was a manhole cover museum in Ferrara? The International Manhole Cover Museum is located in Ferrara curated by its owner, Stephano Bottoni who has acquired decorative cast iron manhole covers from all over the world showcasing their art and functionality. The museum is open to the public by request only.
What would I like to do the next time I visit Ferrara?
- Watch and learn bread-making, specifically Ferrara’s traditional “coppia ferrarese”, the twisted bread which was first created at a dinner for the Duke of Ferrara in 1536. This special bread has PGI (Protected Geographical Identification) status from the European Union.
- See more of the numerous landmarks that make the city such a rich cultural and historical place. I’d like to take a tour inside inside the cathedral and visit its museum. There are also many other museums and palazzos filled with art and artifacts to be explored as well as the and the synagogue and Jewish Museum in the old Jewish ghetto.
- And saving the best for last, I’d take a nice long bike ride around the city.
Thanks to Alessandra Catania and Ferrara Tourism for showing us around the city.
Oh Catherine, my friend, you continue to taunt with me your tours of Italy. You know how I long to visit this amazing country, but I am waiting (not so patiently) for the time when I can spend at least 3 months touring the country and learning to cook authentic Italian pasta, from scratch. Then, I’ll write a blog post, post photos of my pasta, and make you drool over the perfect bowl of pasta I created! 😉
Revenge!! I know that I deserve it. Hope you’ll get your chance to do that soon. I am also craving a return to Italy.
Any time there’s a moat around someone’s house/castle/palace/fort, you know there are some problems with the neighbors. Your photos here really do tell a story and you’ve just added another place for me to visit on a return visit to Italia.
Ha! So true. Yes, go to Ferrara. I’d love to go back and spend more than just several hours.
You visited all the museums that I would have and hopefully someday will. We toured the northern part of Italy and looking forward to returning again. You’ve made your trip so interesting and intriguing.
Thanks for that, Neva. There’s a lot of fabulous art in Ferrara that I’d like to see, too. Next time.
Ah Italy! There is something classic about that country. I love biking around a city, I think it’s one of the best ways to see a place. And this place looks like my type of European town!
“Ah Italy” — just about says it all. Love that country.
I am astounded at how much you saw in just 5 hours. It looks amazing! Your photos are stunning 🙂
Well, it was more like 7 hours (I’m only guessing because I didn’t pay attention at all to time while we were there!), but still a lot of pack in. It would be nice to spend a few days, but I’ll take what I can get. 🙂
You certainly did a lot and saw a lot in one day. Your photos are excellent!
Thanks, Marilyn. It was nice that we had locals (Alessandra and the tourism board) to show us around — that way the time was totally maximized.
What a gorgeous town. It would be difficult to know where to start. I do so love those ceilings in the castello. Bread making would be a lot of fun.
The ceilings were stunning — I’ve got a lot more pics that I’ll try to share, too.
Please, do! I would love to see more of the ceilings. Thanks for linking up to Travel Photo Thursday this week.
MY CITY!!! This is absolutely wonderful to read this story Catherine! You have no idea how much I would love to show you some spectacular stuff there, including beautiful Jewish Cemetery, the oldest enoteca and Palio! That would be awesome to stay in Ferrara together!
Here is a modest photo gallery from the cemetery. Ginko leafs in autumn make it a powerful view. http://nullnfull.com/2013/07/22/colors-of-memories/
I will hold you to that offer to show me around Ferrara, Agata — that would be wonderful. Thanks for the link to the Jewish Cemetery article. Definitely a place I should visit next time. It was so interesting (and surprising) to learn about the Jewish history of Ferrara.
That was a quick trip but you certainly saw a lot. It really does look like a fabulous town. It reminds me of Lucca…maybe it’s just the idea of riding in the town! I’d love to do the bread making as well!
Lucca sounds like a place I should visit based on your comment. On the list ….
What a beautiful post~!
I visited Ferrera for two days and loved it—-never got to the manhole museum. That’s on my list for next time:-)
I never expected a manhole cover museum — these pieces were really interesting and artistic.
What an amazing journey around the city! You got to see so many awesome buildings and places, and learn such rich history. And riding bikes around would be so much fun!
Yes, it was a wonderful diversity of activities. I’m learning that there is probably something in Ferrara for everyone.
I’d definitely like to do the bike ride and I find the history of the prisoners in the castle interesting but horrible at the same time. Those manhole covers are very interesting too.
And sign me up for the bread making class as well. i’d love to do that.
Sounds like Ferrara would fit you just fine, Leigh. I know what you mean about the prison stories — it’s hard to imagine that anyone could live (even survive for a short time) in those conditions. And to think that the nobles were living more than comfortably upstairs!
Ahaha! I wonder how we could see so much in one day, and I also think you should have stopped me from bringing you around:)) But it was fun, thanks for kep on posting about #romagnadiffusa:)
Where there’s a will, there’s a way — there was much to see and we wanted to see as much as possible. I’ve been wanting to do this post for a while now, but time has past so quickly.
Wow, there’s so much to do there! I’d love to visit, and wandering down side streets is one of my favorite pastimes. Hadn’t thought about bike riding around the city, but that sounds like fun.
Wandering around streets in old European cities is a favorite activity of mine, too. I like to just off in one direction and see where it leads.
You certainly managed to see and do a lot in just one day! Such a fantastic introduction to Ferrara – hopefully I will get to this region of Italy one day!!
Thanks, Lisa. And it really is just an introduction. I keep learning about new things to see and and o in Ferrara and the surrounding area.
Looks like such an amazing time! I’m sure the bike rides help work off all of the delicious food. 🙂
When it Italy, it is imperative to keep up the physical activity. Every day we indulged in the most wonderful dishes.
I really enjoy short trips. I love being in rush and seeing as many places as possible. I would definitely make it to Castello Estense — moat, courtyard and orange gardens. Is the entrance free? Apart from that, I would do a quick food tour :). I am a big fan of Italian cuisine!
A fan of Italian cuisine? You and me, both! Here is the link to the fee section of the castle’s website: http://www.castelloestense.it/en/information/opening-hours-and-prices
Beautiful city 🙂
Yes, it is. I’ll try to find some time to post more photos of the city on Facebook.
That was such a fun day! I’m so glad I could make it to meet up with you. And how could I forget riding bikes? Lesson learned: don’t bike in flip flops!
Fun to meet you, too! Flip flops might not be the best choice for bike riding, but they were very cute.
I’ve never heard of Ferrara but what a charming town with so many diverse and unique attractions. I like that it’s bike-friendly and you can explore this beautiful city that way. The Castello Estense and cathedral are stunning. But, I would also enjoy that International Manhole Cover Museum. How fun it would be to learn bread making in Italy.
It would have been great to make the special Ferrara bread, but gives me one of many reasons to looks forward to a return trip. I am fortunate that I was able to do some pasta-making when I was Italy. That’s a lot of fun.
You sure packed in a lot of sights! I travel that way as well! Love the bike riding. Your photos are stunning.We were in Florence in October, Italy is out of this world, isn’t it? Thank you for a beautiful post!
I can’t get enough of Italy — longing to go back. Would be nice to visit Florence next time. Ah, so many places in Italy I have to see.
Ferrara is on my list. And when I get there, I’ll be sure find a bike and cycle around the city. Did that in Lucca and it was one of the best days ever!
I’ve been hearing more about Lucca lately — I better put it on my already extensive list of Italian cities to visit.
I can’t get enough of Italy and love the look of Ferrara – it’s not somewhere that gets a lot of publicity but looks like a gem.
I agree with you totally — can’t get enough of Italy!
Wow! Beautiful photos! Ferrara, Italy has been added to my places to see list when I travel to Europe next year. So glad I stopped by your post and I look forward to sifting through your archives…
Sift through the archives all you like! Lots about wonderful places in Europe. You’ll fall in love with Italy.
Ferrara has been on my list for a while, and now I see there’s even more to this town than I knew. Good one!
Glad to add to your reasons to visit Ferrara, Sophie. And there’s more!
I’ve only been to the more popular places of Italy. Having read your post, it certainly seems like Ferrara would be worthwhile 🙂
Looks like such a great destination, with so much to see and do. It would be a great place to spend a few days — as long as it’s not in those dungeons!
Gosh, you certainly did a lot, Cathy. I agree with Andrew, it’d be great to see and definitely spend some time. Thankfully, we’re not in danger of being imprisoned in the dungeons.
I would be happy to spend my time in the Jewish Ghetto – looks like my kind of place – and biking around would be how I would like to explore. Looks like great fun.
I’m ready for a bike ride around Ferrara, Cathy!
We stopped on our Italian train trip just long enough to take a photo of the sign of this fun looking Italian town, now I wish we had had the time to explore it a bit more as well. Fun post!
I think my kids would be begging for a visit to the International Manhole Cover Museum. That’s so quirky. I liked the Castello Estense with its delightful ceilings until you told me about the prisons beneath it. That’s a strange dichotomy to me but perhaps not so unusual for the time period it was constructed.
Biking is really good specially if you want to tour a place.
The castle tour looks interesting – especially the dungeons. And it would be lovely to bike about the town (a nice way to take it all in!). Ferrara looks quite delightful :-).
Loving all things Italian I have just done a post on the wonderful Ferrara myself. What a fantastic place to visit. 🙂
How stunning. Italy has so many lovely villages and Ferrara is no exception. Really enjoyed this post.
Ferrara has always interested me. The Este family was important and powerful during the Renaissance. Their art collection was renowned at the time. Interesting family. Nice article Cathy!
Sounds odd, even to my ears, but I love Don Giulio’s cell in Castello Estense
Lovely pictures of Castello Estense and good to know that it is on its renovation stage. I toured Italy two years ago and it was really a memorable trip of five days, but didn’t get time to explore Castello Estense, the saddest part. Hopefully, it can be done by the next year.
So hard to see everything in a city that is so rich with history and culture. I did get to peek into the Jewish Museum:
Hi Cathy, Ferrara is my kind of town – quaint, charming, and bike friendly! For a small town, there’s so many things to do. You definitely covered a lot in so short a time. The history of Castello Estense is quite interesting, something for a movie. I have not heard about PGI status before — truly interesting. I’d like to learn how to make that bread, too! I love you shots of the narrow, charming streets. Thank you for taking us on the lovely tour.
Italy! One of the places that I wanted to visit soon. Great photos you have here and awesome post! 🙂
I’m so tempted to book tickets to Italy right now- can never have enough of that country!
Ferrara sounds amazing! The Castello looks beautiful, and the history with it is intriguing. Crazy how there’s even a man hole cover museum!
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