Founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC, Verona sits on the river of Adige not far from Lake Garda. It’s one of the richest cities in terms of Roman remains in northern Italy and though the story may be fictitious, it’s arguably best known as the site of one of the world’s great love stories: Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to William Shakespeare, it became the symbol of eternal love, drawing couples from across the globe to stand beneath the balcony of Juliet’s house. Beyond the romance, this city has many faces with classical antiquity, the medieval and Renaissance eras, and modern times all existing harmoniously here. Verona is also renowned for its friendly hospitality and delicious cuisine with many restaurants and cafes that serve dishes that can only be sampled here, such as Baccala alla Vicentina, featuring stockfish (stoccafisso), anchovies, onions, milk, and a mature cheese like Parmesan.
Wandering through the historic center, or centro storico, is a must. This is where you’ll find many major sights, including countless churches, wide piazzas, and Juliet’s House. It’s made for wandering, getting lost among the charming side streets and squares, stopping for lunch in one of the outdoor cafes, and exploring important monuments and buildings. Piazza Delle Erbe sits at the heart of the historic center serving as one of the liveliest hubs of activity here. During Roman times, it would have served as the settlement’s main forum. It’s home to fountains, marble statues, cafes, and restaurants, along with several important buildings here, like Palazzo Maffeia and Torre Lamberti, the city’s tallest tower, soaring over 275 feet. It dates back to the 12th century and was expanded 300 years later. Topped with an octagonal dome with a series of marble arches, it includes a huge clock face on the wall that faces the piazza.
You probably know all about the Colosseum in Rome, but did you know that Verona has its own? In fact, this national landmark is just as magnificent and possibly a bit more well-preserved. It’s a triumph of Roman engineering adjacent to Piazza Bra and it’s still in use today. Constructed in 30 AD, it’s managed to stand the test of time, used today for a variety of performances, including concerts. You can still see all of the original seating and the exterior arches, with some 30,000 spectators attending various shows and games like the Roman Ludi which include circus games that were preceded by elaborate parades that included the competitors, mounted Roman youths of nobility, musicians, dancers, and images of the gods. In addition to watching performances if your timing is right, tours are available that will allow you to step inside the arena and admire the centuries-old architecture.
Verona’s largest piazza is located in the historical center but stands out on its own as one of the main tourist areas in the city. Some say it’s the largest piazza in all of Italy. The ‘Bra’ as it’s often referred to, comes from the German word breit which translates to broad. It was defined as a square around the mid-16th century when the Palace of Honours was built here followed by the Palace of the Grand Guard that defines its southern boundary. Paving was finished in 1782, which made it a favorite spot for a stroll. As far back as the mid-12th century the area was used for a livestock market with the traditional fair of Saint Lucy in December surviving as a remnant of the ancient custom of fairs held here. In addition to the historic buildings, there are many shops, eateries, and residential structures with beautifully decorated balconies and shutters.
For those who like to shop, head to the narrow street of Via Mazzini which runs through the heart of the historic center, leading from Piazza Bra to Piazza delle Erbe. The marble-paved street has been worn by centuries of foot traffic while some of the most elegant shops in the city are housed in buildings on both sides. It’s fun just to window shop with displays featuring the latest in international and Italian fashions, in a mix of local boutiques and trendy big-name retailers. But this isn’t just the most popular shopping street here, it’s the top spot to go for the traditional evening stroll known as passeggiata. It also offers a surprise for history enthusiasts. In fact, here, and throughout the city, there are glimpses of the past almost everywhere you look. The Benetto store has a glass ground floor so that you can see the 1st-century Roman Domus that’s being excavated below.
Castle Vecchio sits along the banks of the River Adige. Built in 1354, it was constructed to defend the city and was considered the Scaliger dynasty’s greatest engineering achievement. You’ll see the imposing gatehouse at the front along with two guard towers and a series of crenulated battlements. Step inside to explore the museum focused on the castle’s history with displays and artifacts. Attached to the main complex is the Castle Vecchio Bridge. Made from red brick, it was the longest of its kind in the world when it was constructed and decorated in the same style as the castle walls. By climbing the stairs, you can access the towers of the bridge and enjoy a spectacular view of the river and beyond from an elevated vantage point. You can also get some great photos by walking along the banks of the river, capturing the castle from the side.
One of the most important religious buildings in Verona, the Basilica of San Zeno is best known for its Romanesque architecture and as the fictional place of the marriage between Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet. It sits on the west side of the River Adige at the far end of Piazza San Zeno, adjacent to a Benedictine abbey which has a beautiful arched courtyard and cloister. The church’s upper façade has a rose window in the shape of a Wheel of Fortune that’s one of the earliest examples in Romanesque architecture that eventually became a feature of Gothic construction. When you walk in, your jaw might just drop at the incredible beauty with marble columns holding up the arches, a ceiling with magnificent decorative tile work, and a floor covered with grey and peach tiles. There’s also a bell tower that dates back to 1045, rising to a double-storied bell chamber.
Behind the 16th-century Palazzo Guisti, a Mannerist structure with an early 18th-century tower, are the Giusti Gardens, located along the eastern bank of the River Adige. Planned in 1570 by Agostino Guisti, a Venetian Republic knight, it was designed to take advantage of the terraces which were to reveal glimpses of the city a little at a time. It’s often ranked among the very best Renaissance gardens in Europe and offers a fabulous tranquil oasis that visitors will particularly appreciate during the hot and busy summer season. There are winding paths to stroll that are divided among the eight formal parterres, each of which has a different pattern of hedges along with statues and fountains. There’s also a small, wooded area to walk through while a path up the steep embankment leads to a less formal garden that has a grotto and offers picturesque views of the city, framed by grand old cypress trees.
Verona is famous for its association with William Shakespeare and Juliet’s House, Casa di Giulietta, which is one of the city’s most iconic symbols, attracting thousands of visitors every day. Located near Piazza delle Erbe at Via Cappello 23, it’s the definition of a touristy trap, but it can make for an entertaining visit. Most enjoy the opportunity to see the fabled balcony from the famous scene in Shakespeare’s play where Romeo calls for Juliet, despite the fact that it was built in the 20th century. If you can suspend belief for a moment, it’s still a magical place to reflect on the wonder of young love. Restored in 1920, the home includes a gorgeous internal façade with three-lobed windows, a gothic-style portal, and a balustrade connecting various parts of the house from the outside and the famous balcony. There’s a museum inside where you can learn more about the play and the building itself.
Consecrated in 1187, Santa Maria Matricolare, most often referred to as the Verona Cathedra, is particularly impressive. Located in the northernmost part of the city center, south of the River Adige, it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while it was constructed in a style similar to the Basilica of San Zeno, it’s larger and even more magnificent with a finely decorated portal at the front featuring griffons and stained-glass windows. The entrance is at the back where you’ll see a picturesque baptistery with an ornate front and a small chapel that includes openings that provide a glimpse of the foundations of an even earlier church. The opulent interior includes a stunning fresco at the main altar, and you’ll see other Renaissance frescoes in the main chapels. Highlights include the two gilded organs and the massive, pillared semicircle of the marble choir screen.
Located on the left bank of the River Adige, in the area the French renamed Veronetta (little Verona), Castel San Pietro is not to be missed if only because it offers one of the best panoramic views of the city from its square. It’s actually an Austrian barracks, built in the mid-19th century similar to a castle in order to achieve harmony with the existing Scaliger walls. It enjoys an elevated perch atop a hill that’s long been fortified, built on the site of another sacred, fortified building during Roman times to guard the passage of the Via Postumia. Four stories high with two side towers and nearly 90 rooms, it once accommodated as many as 460 soldiers. Unfortunately, it is no longer open to the public, but the grounds can be explored, allowing visitors to admire the incredible architecture and soak up the views that stretch to Verona’s historical center.
Located next to Piazza dei Signori, the Scaliger Tombs commemorate the influential Della Scala family who ruled the city and wield a significant amount of power during the 13th and 14th centuries. They’re a series of five gothic-style funerary monuments that sit outside Santa Maria Antica Church dating to the 14th century. Attached to the exterior wall of the church, the first tomb belongs to Cangrande I, the most famous of the dynasty and the protector of Dante, the poet. A statue of his likeness on the back of a horse with harnessed dogs fronts the tomb. Another simple tomb memorializes Alberto II while the tomb standing in memory of Giovanni is also built into the church wall. Other tombs are in memory of Mastino II and Cansignorio, the latter of which is the most ornate with its sculptures of warrior saints. They can be visited independently and are often included on Verona walking tours.
The Arco dei Gavi looks similar to Rome’s Arch of Constantine. Built entirely of white Veronese stone in the 1st century AD by the gens Gavia, a noble Roman family, it’s one of the rare surviving examples of Roman architecture in the region. It was originally part of the city’s defenses, becoming a major gate into what is now Verona’s historic center during medieval times. The entire base of the arch is beneath the level of the roadway, other than a corner that is visible from the Castelvecchio moat. The original inscription on the arch pediment read “Lucius Vitruvius Libertus.” In 1805, French Military Engineers called for its demolition and its stones lie piled up for over a century until the arch was finally rebuilt using the original pieces in 1932. While it was moved, it’s not far from its original location, sitting alongside Castelvecchio facing the river, and especially glorious when illuminated at night.
Piazza dei Signori is another not-to-be-missed square that is accessed via an archway from Piazza delle Erbe in the heart of the historic center. A monument dedicated to Dante was erected here in 1865 and stands in the middle. It’s surrounded by palaces, including the Town Hall, Palazzo della Ragione which sits on the south side and dates back to the late 12th century. Its façade was built in Renaissance style and dates to 1524, while the entrance to the Torre dei Lamberti and a grand gothic staircase date from around the mid-15th century. Palazzo dei Tribuali also sits on the square, transformed from a Scaliger palace around 1530 featuring a Renaissance doorway. Originally another Scaliger palace, Palazzo del Governor is located on the east side of the square while the Loggia del Consiglio, one of the finest early Renaissance buildings in the country, is on the north side.
Sant’Anastasia towers above a tiny piazza in the heart of the city and is considered its finest example of gothic architecture. While it’s neither the church nor the cathedral of the patron saint, it’s Verona’s largest religious building. Dating back to the late 13th century, the all-brick church includes scenes from the life of St. Peter carved in stone that sits over the portal. Above that, you’ll see a 15th-century fresco. The slender 236-foot-tall bell tower is known for its nine bells that are wrung in the traditional Veronese bellringing style, which comes thanks to the academy of bellringers based at Scuola Campanaria Verona. Inside, you’ll see the fresco by Pisanello of St. George and the Princess along with a pair of grotesques carved from marble that hold holy water fonts. The one to the left was created by the father of the artist Paolo Veronese, Gabriele Caliari.v
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