Visit Italy’s mesmerizing city of mosaics

Much of Ravenna seems perpetually soaked in the colors of autumn. Amid alleys crammed with gelato shops, cafés, and souvenir stores, fifth- and sixth-century churches, mausoleums, and baptisteries stand out with their ochre and fawn facades. But the real surprise lies inside their walls and domes, where millions of sparkling mosaic tiles reveal stories of Ravenna throughout history.

a large building with a green light: The Basilica of San Vitale is considered one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in Italy.

The Basilica of San Vitale is considered one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in Italy.

a narrow city street with buildings in the background: Explore Ravenna’s picturesque alleyways on foot or by bike.

Explore Ravenna’s picturesque alleyways on foot or by bike.

Located in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, just a 3.5-hour train ride from Rome, the city was the capital of the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, ruled by the Goths circa late fifth century, and under Byzantine Italy until the eighth. These rulers passionately nurtured mosaic art, the results of which are beautifully preserved within eight UNESCO World Heritage monuments in the pedestrian-only city center. Here’s how to make the most of a weekend in the city of mosaics.

Day 1: Tombs and tiles

9 a.m. Start your day at the modest chapel on Via Alighieri Dante, 9, which holds Dante’s tomb. Exiled from his hometown Florence in 1302, the Italian poet spent his last two or three years in Ravenna, where he finished his epic poem, The Divine Comedy. In 1519, nearly two centuries after his death, the Pope ordered his bones be transferred to Florence, but the monks of the nearby Franciscan monastery hid them. They were rediscovered in 1865, and to this day, the city of Florence sends olive oil to burn in the lamp hanging from the chapel’s vaulted ceiling.

A few streets away, at Piazza Duomo, 1, is the fifth-century Neonian Baptistery. Its marble and stucco work is masterful, but the real showpiece is the domed ceiling, featuring gold tiles arranged in a medallion to depict the baptism of Christ. Circling him, in ornate yellow robes, are the 12 Apostles set against a rich indigo background. Visitors can purchase combination tickets that include entrance to multiple attractions, including the baptistery.

A 10-minute walk away, at Via Di Roma, 52, is the gabled facade of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. One side comes to life with a vibrant mosaic displaying the procession of 22 virgins and the three magi dressed to the nines. On the other side, another procession of 26 martyrs is believed to be the oldest existing mosaic depicting the New Testament.

1 p.m. Treat your taste buds to the flavors of Naples with the tortilla-like piadina, this region’s specialty. The classic version has a thin flatbread stuffed with arugula, prosciutto, squacquerone (a softer version of mozzarella), and is pan roasted to perfection. Pop into the no-frills La Piadina del Melarancioin the city center and pick a piadina for a toasty meal on the go.

2 p.m. Walk five minutes over to Via San Vitale, 17, to the National Museum. Marvel at its mosaic floors and archaeological fragments from Roman and Byzantine monuments, stone tablets, ancient weapons, ivories, ceramics and Renaissance-era bronze statuettes. The museum’s most treasured exhibit is a series of remarkable 14th-century frescoes, retrieved from ancient churches around Ravenna.

Located in the same complex, the Basilica of San Vitaleis considered one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in Italy with its distinctive octagonal, exposed-brick structure. Alabaster windows let in ample sunlight, which illuminates the mosaic tiles in every imaginable color. Don’t miss the apse’s vault, where Christ, flanked by four angels, sits on the Earth as four rivers of paradise flow beneath his feet.

7 p.m. Take a break from the mosaics and treat yourself to an impeccable selection of wines and seafood at the Michelin-starred Osteria L’Acciuga. Their specialties include pickled anchovies with spaghetti, or served fresh as tartare. There’s more: octopus roasted with artichokes and Taggiasca olives, Adriatic prawns, and scallops and sea bass on mashed potatoes with juniper drops.

Day 2: Pastas and piazzas

9 a.m. Day two covers a lot of distance—do your feet a favor and rent a bicycle instead. Not only is it a practical way to explore the city, but you’ll also be riding alongside some of Ravenna’s best mosaic art. Rent one at the Cooperativa San Vitale at Piazza Farini, 1, located next to the train station.

Start your day at the open-air mosaic museum, Parco della Pace(Peace Park) at Via Marzabotto, 1, a 15-minute-ride outside the city. About a dozen mosaic sculptures sit among the park’s weeping willows, designed by local and international artists, to convey a message of universal peace and friendship. “The Wings of Peace” is a 13-foot-high mosaic sculpture of a dove’s wing, while another wall mural depicts the tree of life.

Next, cycle about a half mile to the Piazza Della Resistenza to see the mosaic on Ardea Purpurea fountain. Two large monoliths studded with gold, purple, and red tiles rise in spirals—like flames—making for a captivating sight. Ravenna’s master sculptor Marco Bravura designed the fountain, which is named after a phoenix to symbolize rebirth.

1 p.m. Score a table at restaurant Passatelli 1962at Via Ponte Marino, 19. Try their signature dish passatelli, in which thick, cylindrical pasta made with bread crumbs, eggs, parmesan, nutmeg and lemon zest is cooked in oodles of chicken broth. The restaurant serves a vegan version, too. You can also sign up for a pasta-making lesson.

3 p.m. The building that houses MAR, Ravenna’s art museum, was originally a 16th-century monastery. Walk around its ground floor for the modern twist Ravenna gives its mosaic heritage—from the zen-inducing “Enchanted Mountains” to more abstract artworks, MAR is a window into how contemporary artists in Ravenna use mosaic to highlight the city’s heritage.

If you have time to spare, head to Via Girolamo Rossi 21/A to check out local artist Barbara Liverani, who makes chic and contemporary mosaics, from life-size mirror frames to delicate jewelry. Koko Mosaicosells adorable photo frames with patchwork mosaic designs, including contemporary designs and ancient Byzantine patterns. Koko’s artists create the mosaics in their showroom, which doubles as a workshop.

Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has traveled on the Trans-Siberian rail, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia, and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia.

This story was adapted from National Geographic Traveller India.

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