Modena, Italy Guide: Planning Your Trip

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Modena, located in the heart of northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region—an area famous for its rich cuisine—is best known for its barrel-aged balsamic vinegar and fine cheese. Foodies flock to this medieval city to sample flavors that simply can't be replicated in other parts of the world. But, it's not just the food that draws them here. The city's center is one of the most fascinating places in Italy, complete with a 12th-century duomo (cathedral), Torre della Ghirlandina, the cathedral's gothic bell tower, and Piazza Grande, the main square that makes up a UNESCO World Heritage site. Modena is also the hometown of the late opera tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, and legendary carmaker Enzo Ferrari, making it a favorite destination for opera lovers and sports car fanatics.

With so much to see and do in Modena, and a plethora of world-class restaurants to eat at, carefully planning your visit will assure you won't miss out on the best this city has to offer. A few tips and city highlights will get you started in this region steeped deep in art, food, and automobiles.

Planning Your Trip

Before jetting off on a trip to Modena, it's best to know what to expect, as certain times of the year are more conducive to travel, and getting around may require hopping on a bus, in a taxi, or pedaling on two wheels. Also, if you're planning your trip around the world-famous restaurant, Osteria Francescana, you'll need to make reservations well before your departure date.

  • Best Time to Visit: An average July high temperature of 85° Fahrenheit (29° Celsius) and an average low of 64° Fahrenheit (18° Celsius) makes Modena's summer months inviting to tourists. It's warm enough to feel like you're soaking up the typical Mediterranean climate, yet cool enough at night to warrant a light jacket at dinner. However, summer is also the time of year when Modena sees dense crowds and high lodging prices. Opt for a trip to this city in September, instead, when the weather cools off to a bearable 77° Fahrenheit (25° Celsius) for a high, with lows around 57° Fahrenheit (14° Celsius). During this month, you can also participate in the city's Festival Filosofia, a cultural philosophy festival that features public readings, concerts, shows, and workshops.
  • Language: The primary language spoken in Modena is Italian and many of the city's natives are not fluent in English, aside from those who regularly interact with tourists. It is helpful to know a few key Italian phrases before you visit to make communication more enjoyable.
  • Currency: Italy is a European Union country with an official currency known as the Euro. You can certainly travel with U.S. dollars and exchange them for Euros once you get there. However, ATMs are really available throughout Italy and accept Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus, and Maestro.
  • Getting Around: The local bus lines, operated by SETA, run between the train station and Modena's city center every 10 to 15 minutes. You can also hire a taxi to take you to major destinations. There are also approximately 190 bike routes in and around the city of Modena for those who prefer a more active way to travel.
  • Travel Tips: If you plan to dine at Osteria Francescana, named the best restaurant in the world in both 2016 and 2018 by The World's 50 Best Restaurants, make reservations at least four months to one year ahead of time. And, don't miss Modena's bustling food market, Mercato Albinelli—the perfect spot to pick up the area's specialties while grazing your way through the aisles.

Things To Do

While food is the region's highlight, centuries-old architecture and cultural museums provide the icing on the cake for travelers. Waltz around the Piazza Grande in Modena's city center to view the duomo and Ducal Palace, and then take a short walk to the Enzo Ferrari Museum or a 20-minute bus or car ride to the Lamborghini Museum (a must-do jaunt for car enthusiasts).

  • Modena's main city square, Piazza Grande, houses several monuments, including a cathedral, town hall, a picturesque fifteenth-century clock tower, and medieval relics, like a marble slab that was used as a speaker's platform and "the stolen bucket" (featured in a famous Italian poem) from a battle against Bologna in 1325.
  • The 12th-century Duomo of Modena is a perfect example of a typical Romanesque church. Its exterior is heavily adorned with sculptures of Biblical characters and stories. The artwork inside includes two terracotta nativity scenes (dated 15th- and 16th-century, respectively), a 13th-century marble parapet portraying the Passion of the Christ, a 14th-century wooden crucifix, and mosaics.
  • The duomo's Gothic bell tower, Torre della Ghirlandina, dates back to 1167 and is the city's main symbol. Five stories tall, with an octagonal section, balconies, and arches added later during renovation in 1319, the tower is a prime example of Gothic architecture.
  • Ducal Palace was the seat of the Este court from the 17th to 19th centuries. Its baroque exterior is stunning. Now, however, the palace is part of the military academy, and visitors are only allowed on special tours held during some weekends.
  • The Estense Art Gallery and Library contains works of art from the 14th to 18th centuries, primarily the collections of the Dukes of Este, who ruled over Modena for centuries.
  • A short walk from Modena's historic city center, the Enzo Ferrari Museum houses a display of Ferraris and other exotic cars. The on-site childhood home of Enzo Ferrari contains a series of videos about the history of the cars, photos, and memorabilia. There's also a cafe and a store in the museum.
  • 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 in opera.
  • Racecar aficionados shouldn't pass up the Lamborghini Museum, located about 20 kilometers from Modena. Ticket options include a factory tour, where you can see the sleek autos on the assembly line.
  • The Acetaia Giusti Museum gives you a look into the past of the famous balsamic vinegar. Check out the tools used for manufacturing this delectable treat throughout the centuries, original advertising brochures, and precious relics. Then, pick up a bottle to bring home.

Some attractions may be currently closed to public tours. Check with each individual location for the most up-to-date information.

What To Eat and Drink

Of course, travelers will encounter plenty of delicious food when visiting this part of Italy. Zampone (stuffed pig's foot) and Cotechino di Modena (pork sausage) are the region's traditional dishes, often served with lentils. You may also find bollito misto on menus, a typical Emilia-Romagna stew consisting of long-simmered meats, like beef and veal, cotechino, or a whole hen or capon, in an aromatic vegetable broth.

Stuffed pasta, like ravioli and tortellini, is plentiful in Modena and is served with numerous sauces, from simple broths to red marinara. Local prosciutto, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar make up other traditional staples. Sparkling red Lambrusco is the local wine.

  • Modena's most famous restaurant, Osteria Francescana, is a fine-dining temple with only 12 tables. The restaurant prides itself on telling the region's story through its food, as an emotional experience of the passionate Italian culture. If you wish to dine at this three-star Michelin Guide restaurant, be prepared to part with a lot of your vacation money. 
  • If you'd rather steer clear of the high-end, the humble trattoria Franceschetta58 provides an informal atmosphere with dishes comprised of only the best Italian ingredients. The restaurant offers fairly-priced dishes, like rabbit and deer, on an a la carte menu, and select cured meats and cheeses on their tasting menu.
  • The wine bar Enoteca Compagnia del Tagliova offers more than 600 Italian and foreign wines, as well as reasonably priced authentic Modenese cuisine. It's open every day for lunch, dinner, and happy hour.

Where To Stay

If you've come for the architecture and city nightlife, staying in downtown Modena near the Piazza is the best option for you. Lovers of the rural landscape should stay just outside of town where you can take in the country setting right outside your door.

  • The chic Hotel Cervetta 5 is located in the heart of old town and near all of the major attractions. They offer last-minute and early-booking rates and have a romantic hotel bar.
  • If a traditional house or villa is more your style, just out of town sits Locanda Del Feudo, a rustic boutique-style inn with a world-class restaurant. This lodging option is great for those who love to walk, as there are many trails situated nearby.
  • Cycling enthusiasts can also book trips that take you from hotel to hotel along paved and rural bike paths.

Getting There

To get to Modena, most travelers fly into Bologna or one of three major airports in Milan. There are a few shuttle bus services from the Bologna airport that go straight to the city of Modena and take about an hour and a half. Or, hop a train to the Stazione di Modena for a faster 30-minute journey. From here, it's a short walk to the historic center or the Enzo Ferrari Museum. Traditional bus routes from Bologna, like Line 944 or Line 576, can take up to two hours or more with stops. If you're driving or taking a taxi, Modena is easily accessible via the A1 Autostrada. It's about 60 kilometers northwest of Bologna and 60 kilometers southeast of Parma, resulting in about a 30 to 40-minute drive from either location.

Money-Saving Tips

  • Off-season airfare rates to Italy can be extremely cheap. Consider visiting in the early spring (April or May) or late fall (October and November) and you may luck out with unseasonably mild temperatures. Lodging will also be less expensive during these times and last-minute airline and lodging deals can always be found if you can book on the fly.
  • Use the internet to research airfare across many different travel sites or book your trip through an escorted tour service for the best deals.
  • Always use public transportation to get around (in lieu of taxis) for the most economical experience. Adventure seekers can tour by bike and spend virtually no money on transportation. Just plan your routes ahead of time.
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