Modena Travel Guide

The Italian city known for race cars, gastronomy and artistic treasures

fiumalbo, modena
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Modena is a medium-sized city in the heart of northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. Its medieval city center is among the most lovely in Italy, and its 12th-century duomo, or cathedral, is one of Italy's best Romanesque churches. The cathedral, its Gothic bell tower called Torre della Ghirlandina, and Piazza Grande, the main square where these monuments are found make up a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Modena is the hometown of the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti and legendary carmaker Enzo Ferrari. The area is also known around the world for its balsamic vinegar and cheese production. Its rich history, gastronomic traditions and links to sports cars and opera music mean there is something for nearly everyone in this charming city in the Po River Valley. In fact, the tourist office of Modena uses as its slogan, Art, Food and Cars.

Top Things to See

Piazza Grande: Around the main square are several monuments including the cathedral, town hall, the picturesque 15h century clock tower, and medieval relics including a marble slab that was used as a speaker's platform and the stolen bucket from a battle against Bologna in 1325. It inspired a famous Italian poem called, fittingly, "The Stolen Bucket."

Duomo: The 12th-century cathedral is a perfect example of a Romanesque church. Its exterior is heavily adorned with sculptures representing Biblical characters and stories. Artworks inside include two terra cotta nativity scenes (15th and 16th century), a 13th-century marble parapet portraying the Passion of the Christ, a 14th-century wooden crucifix, and mosaics. 

Torre della Ghirlandina: The cathedral's Gothic bell tower, which dates back to 1167, towers above the city. Originally five stories tall, the octagonal section and other decoration were added to the top during renovation in 1319. The interior is adorned with frescoes.

Ducal Palace was the seat of the Este court from the 17th to 19th centuries. Its Baroque exterior is stunning, but today the palace is part of the military academy and visitors are only allowed on special tours held some weekends.

Museum Building: Inside the Museum Palace are several museums including the Estense Art Gallery and Library, the Archeological Ethnographic Civic Museum and the Civic Art Museum. The Estense Gallery contains works of art from the 14th to 18th centuries, primarily the collections of the Dukes of Este, who ruled over Modena for centuries.

The Enzo Ferrari Museum is a short walk from the historic center and houses a display of Ferraris and other exotic cars. Inside the childhood home of Enzo Ferrari are a series of videos about the history of the cars, photos, and memorabilia. There's also a cafe and a store.

The Luciano Pavarotti Museum  is located about 20 minutes from central Modena, on the estate where the famous tenor lived and built an equestrian center. The museum contains personal effects and memorabilia from Pavarotti's illustrious career.

Race car aficionados won't want to miss the Lamborghini Museum, located about 20 km from Modena. Ticket options include a factory tour, where you can see the sleek autos on the assembly line.

Places to Eat

Travelers will find plenty of delicious food when visiting this part of Italy. Zampone, a stuffed pig's foot, or Cotechino Modena (pork sausage), both often served with lentils, are traditional dishes. They're also served as part of a bollito misto, a typical Emilia Romagna dish of boiled meats.

If you're less inclined to pork, stuffed pasta such as ravioli and tortellini are plentiful and come in numerous preparations, from simple broth to red sauces. Local prosciutto, sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar, which originated in Modena, are other staples. Sparkling red Lambrusco is the local wine.

Modena's most famous restaurant is Osteria Francescana, a fine-dining temple that in 2016 was named the best restaurant on the planet by the World's 50 Best Restaurants (it's currently #2). Reserve very, very far in advance if you wish to dine at this 3-star Michelin restaurant, and be prepared to part with a lot of your vacation money. 

If you don't want to go high-end, there are countless humble trattoria, wine bars and restaurants where you can find reasonably priced authentic Modenese cuisine. Ask your hotel concierge or better yet, a local shopkeeper or resident for recommendations.

How to Get Around Modena

On the rail line between Parma and Bologna, Modena is easy to reach by train, and it's a short walk to the historic center or the Enzo Ferrari Museum from the station. If you're driving, Modena is easily accessible via the A1 Autostrada. It's about 60 kilometers northwest of Bologna, which is the closest airport, and 60 kilometers southeast of Parma.

Updated by Elizabeth Heath

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