Ferrara: Planning Your Trip

A Renaissance Gem in Northern Italy

The Castello Estense (Este Castle) in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna, Italy
Marco Brivio/Getty Images

Ferrara is in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy along the Po River, south of Venice and Padua. A small but beautiful city, visitors will find many historical landmarks that allude to the city's prominence during the Renaissance, such as the 16th-century palazzos and the city walls. The city is famous for attracting some of history's best artists and minds during the height of its prosperity and it was here where some of the humanist ideals to create a harmonious city were executed by the architect Biagio Rossetti. With all the city's attractions connected by its streets and walls, Ferrara is an extremely pleasant city to explore on foot or by bicycle.

You can go for a long stroll, winding your way between the city's churches and palazzos, or stop for an espresso or aperitivo on the piazza. You won't notice many cars in the city center, which makes it an especially peaceful place. When hunger strikes, Ferrara has iconic dishes to try as well as culinary specialties, such as the uniquely shaped sourdough bread and spice-packed salumi. These can be tried at a restaurant or pack yourself a picnic to enjoy under the shade of the tree-lined walls.

A Bit of History

The history of Ferrara dates back over a thousand years when it was first a Byzantine military castrum or fortified city. In 1115, Ferrara became a free commune, and soon after the Cathedral was built. From 1208 to 1598, the Este family ruled Ferrara, constructing many of the monuments you can see today. Under the Estes, Ferrara became a center of the arts and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Petrarch are some of the famous Renaissance artists who spent time under the family's patronage.

At this time, the architect Biagio Rossetti designed the town's expansion with what is called the "Erculean Addition," which turned out to be a leading example of Renaissance urban planning. The addition enlarged the city's borders to the north, doubling the size of Ferrara. This required razing some walls and filling in the moat around the castle. Although the walls of the city once stretched for 13 kilometers, only 9 kilometers are still standing today.

Ferrara's contributions to the Renaissance were great, but it did not continue to prosper after this era. Right before the turn of the 17th century, the Estes family line ended and the Pope claimed the city as a Papal State, which stunted its growth for three centuries. Today, Ferrara is still a university town and is largely known among travelers as a place where one can envision what life was like at the height of the Italian Renaissance.

Planning Your Visit

  • Best Time to Visit: Summers in Ferrara can be very hot and winters are cold and cloudy, so the best time to visit is during the spring or fall between May and June or September and October.
  • Language: Italian
  • Currency: Euro
  • Getting Around: Ferrara is a relatively small city and very walkable, but cycling is a popular and easy way to get around, especially if you're exploring the walls.
  • Travel Tip: In May, Ferrara typically holds their annual palio, which is a horse race and festival that is been taking place since the 13th century.

Things to Do

Ferrara's most iconic landmarks, such as its 12th-century cathedral and the marble façade of the Palazzo dei Diamanti Art Gallery are hard to miss during a stroll about town. However, if you're short on time, there are a few key things you must do when visiting Ferrara.

  • Visit Castello Estense: You can tour the whole castle, which includes the kitchens, dungeons, and towers while learning about the stories of its former occupants like Lucrezia Borgia, one of history's most famous femme fatales.
  • Walk the City Walls: Ferrara's walls stretch for 6 miles (9 kilometers) around the city. Because these walls were built during the Renaissance, they needed to be wide enough to withstand cannon fire. Today, that means they are wide enough to accommodate a modern park with paths for joggers and cyclists.
  • Cruise on the River Po: The longest river in Italy passes through Ferrara on its way to the Adriatic Sea. Consider taking a boat tour to see the city from a new angle.

What to Eat and Drink

Like any Italian city, Ferrara has a long culinary history and presents dishes to be proud of. One of the most famous recipes hailing from Ferrara is Pumpkin Cappellacci, which is a baked pasta wrapped around a pumpkin filling. For dessert, Ferrara also claims ownership of the Tenerina Cake, a decadent chocolate dessert that is crispy on the outside and fudgy on the inside.

Of course, being in the region of Emilia-Romagna, you can pick up some of Italy's most famous cheeses, like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, while in Ferrara. Just make sure to pair them with Salama da Sugo, Ferrara's signature sausage. This pork sausage has been exclusively produced in the city for centuries and is typically seasoned with garlic, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The flavor can be quite strong on its own, but you can try eating it with Coppia Ferrarese, a sourdough bread that is twisted into a cross shape. To wash it all down, be sure to sit down for a glass of wine at Al Brindisi, the world's oldest wine bar which first began serving customers in the year 1435.

Where to Stay

Ferrara is a relatively small city and visitors have the option of staying either in or outside of the walls. The historic center is everything inside of the walls and you can find hotels near major landmarks like the Borgoleoni 18, which is a modern hotel located in a renovated 16th-century building. If you prefer a more laid-back stay, considering venturing a few miles outside of Ferrara into the countryside and staying in an agriturismo like Corte Dei Gioghi. For convenience, you might consider staying at a hotel near the train station, such as the Alloggio I Grifoni, which is only a 20-minute walk from the center of the Old Town near the cathedral.

Getting There

Ferrara does not have a commercial airport, but you can fly to a nearby city like Venice, Bologna, or Verona and then travel to Ferrara by car, train, or bus. Bologna is the closest city to Ferrara with just 31 miles (50 kilometers) between them and Verona is 57 miles (93 kilometers) away. Venice is the furthest city from Ferrara with 70 miles (112 kilometers) to cover, but it has the largest airport in the area.

Ferrara is a popular stop on the train route between Bologna and Venice and service between cities is quite fast. The train from Bologna takes just 30 minutes while driving or taking the bus takes about an hour. From Venice, the train takes about 90 minutes, which is 30-minutes shorter than the typical two-hour drive. Although Verona seems close, it is not very well connected by train, so the fastest way to get to Ferrara from Verona is to drive, which takes about 90 minutes to go south on the SS434.

Money Saving Tips

  • Because Ferrara is so close to Bologna by train, it makes sense to visit for the day so you don't have to change accommodation.
  • Summer is the busiest time of year for tourism in Italy, so you can save money on a hotel by waiting to book your trip in the spring or fall when demand goes down.
  • With so many delicious cheeses, cured meats, and types of bread to try in Ferrara, there's no need to dine out for every meal. Just pack yourself a picnic and enjoy an afternoon up on the walls.
  • If you are traveling on a tight accommodation budget, there are two hostels in Ferrara where you can find a bed starting at $22 (€19) per night—Locanda Della Biscia and Student's Hostel Estense.