Padua, Padova in Italian, has many claims to fame. Its home to one of the earliest universities in the world, was the scholarly seat of celebrated scientist Galileo Galilei and, according to legend, Padua is the oldest city in Italy. So why do so many people overlook this northern jewel? Beats me! There is plenty to see and do – TripAdviser lists over 200 attractions – and its only 25 minutes by train from Venice, so let’s take a walk around and have a look at 14 of the top spots.
Padua fruit and vegetable market
My first stop is always the big fruit and veg market in Piazza dell’Erbe. Stall after stall is piled high with fresh, fragrant produce full of sunny goodness just begging to be eaten.
Add to that the covered market, under the grand Palazzo della Ragione (more of which in a moment!), that has been selling prosciutto, wine, every Italian cheese you can name and all manner of treats for over 800 years!
And if that doesn’t satisfy your shopping needs, the general market next door in Piazza dei Frutti has more food (yum!), accessories and household goods whilst Piazza dei Signori’s stalls spill over with shirts, dresses and trousers for the fashion-conscious bargain hunter.
The market runs every day except Sunday from 7.30am to 1.30pm with some stalls staying open into the afternoon. Its well worth a visit and a rummage!
Palazzo della Ragione
As you suck on a thirst-quenching slice of watermelon from the market its impossible to miss the imposing Palazzo della Ragione slap bang in the centre of the stalls.
Begun in 1172 this striking medieval municipal palace apparently has the largest unsupported roof in Europe. And climbing the short stone staircase to the first floor you are immediately struck by its the sheer scale. Even an enormous, larger than life wooden horse copied from Donatello’s bronze statue (see point 7 later) for a public tournament in 1466, is dwarfed in the space.
The internal wooden ceiling beams look like the upturned joists of a ship and span the frescoed first floor great hall, surrounded by an open loggia or veranda with countless columns and a subtly frescoed ceiling. Magnificent!
Inside, the vast hall walls are covered with a series of 12 astrological frescoes illustrating the zodiac sign, planet and typical activities of each month including agriculture, harvest and hunting. And see if you can work out what the pendulum slowly swinging in one corner is all about – its mind-blowing what science can prove!
This is certainly one of the most impressive town halls I’ve seen in Italy and well worth the €4 entry fee. More information is available here
Padua Duomo and Baptistery
From the palace it’s a short walk round the corner to the city’s Duomo and baptistery. A church has been here since 866 AD but a combination of fire, ransacking, earthquake and a public backlash against a rather gloomy gothic design means that there have been at least 6 different structures on the site.
Padua’s current Duomo, built to the legendary Michelangelo Buonarotti’s design, dates back to 1551 with the dome added in the 18th century. The interior is fairly simple with a few gems, but it’s the adjacent baptistery that everyone comes for.
In fact, the tiny 12th century baptistery is one of the most important works of art in Padua. Its walls are stunningly decorated with the life of Christ and St John the Baptist. But it’s the breath-taking dome, painted by Florentine artist Giusto de’Menabuoi, with concentric circles of saints and apostles surrounding Christ, that really draws the eye. Entry to this medieval marvel is just €3.
From the Duomo, take Via Soncin through the cobbled, porticoed streets of the old ghetto.
Padua has had a continuous Jewish presence since the 11th century and was originally a reasonably liberal place to live. Jews were admitted to the city as equals with other foreigners and free to trade, particularly as bankers. Padua was also the only European university to allow Jewish students to study medicine as early as the 1400s.
However, in 1602, after the Venetians took over Padua, they introduced new regulations forcing Jews to live in a cramped, gated ghetto mirroring the Venice ghetto. And it was only when Napoleon conquered Venice and the Veneto in 1797 that the 4 gates were finally taken down.
Today the ghetto is a great place for pretty cafes, boutiques, artisans and antique shops. But you might also want to look out for the brass plaques on the streets telling you who died during World War II and in what concentration camp – it’s a sombre reminder.
Sarcophagus of Antenor
Turning left onto Via VIII Febraio then right onto Via San Francesco you come to a little grass square in Piazza Antenore where 2 stone sarcophagi – or is it sarcophaguses? – well, whatever it is, it brings you to the tombs of two important figures in Padua’s history.
The largest one, protected by a stone canopy, is believed to be the last resting place of a Trojan prince named Antenor. Now it would be impressive enough to find a Trojan prince buried in Padua but legend has it that Antenor was the founder of the city in around 1183 BC after the fall of Troy, thus making Padua the oldest city in Northern Italy. Not bad!
There’s just one fly in the ointment. The large ancient stone coffin that you see today was exhumed in 1274 AD and promptly proclaimed by Padua city officials to contain Antenor as proof of the legend. Sadly scientists have since dated the body to the 3rd or 4th century BC so it’s more likely to be a descendant than Antenor himself!
The second sarcophagus houses a Padovan judge and poet – Lovato dei Lovati – who asked to be buried beside Antenor.
Its up to you whether you believe the legend or not, but even if not at least you can admire the pretty 15th century Palazzo Sala and Palazzo Romanin Jacur where Dante once hid to escape arrest, although for what I don’t know, sorry!
Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Piazza del Santo
From Antenor’s coffin head left down Riviera Tito Livia, Riviera Ruzante and Riviera Businello till you hit Via Beato Luca Belludi and, turning left, spot an enormous church, the Basilica di Sant’Antonio or St Anthony’s. You cannot miss it!
Simply known as Il Santo, the saint, the 13th century church houses the bones of St Anthony in a fabulously ornate white marble side chapel. Pilgrims and the faithful come here to pray placing a hand on his green marble coffin to be closer to the man.
Even for the non-religious the high vaulted church’s artwork is breathtaking. Entrance is free and more information is available here
Donatello’s statue of a horse
Outside the Basilica di Sant’Antonio you’ll see a large bronze statue of a horse and rider by Donatello – the most important early Renaissance sculptor from Florence, not the ninja-turtle!
Cast in 1453 the statue was the first life-size equestrian sculpture since ancient times and inspired by the ancient Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius now on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
But have a good look. Does it remind you of anything? Apart from a horse, I mean! Yes? Well it turns out that not only did the ancients inspire Donatello but his 15th century statue also inspired the wooden horse now in the Palazzo della Ragione! Great eh?
Padua Botanical Gardens, the Orto Botanico
From Il Santo take a short hop over the river to the oldest academic botanical gardens, still in its original location, in the world. Founded in 1545 under the Venetians and linked with the city’s university the gardens are devoted to medicinal plants from around the world, particularly those countries that traded with Venice.
Padua had a leading role in the study of exotic plants and contributed hugely to the development of natural remedies and medicines. As a consequence the gardens often faced thefts of plants, despite the severe penalties of prison or even exile, hence the high circular wall surrounding the main planting enclosure.
Today the gardens contribute to vital research to preserve rare plants and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it “represents the birth of science, of scientific exchanges, and understanding of the relationship between nature and culture.”
Take a walk around the plant plots to see how many of the medicinal, therapeutic or poisonous plants you recognise. With each labeled with its name and medicinal application you might be surprised to learn a few new remedies – just don’t touch!
Entrance is €12 and more information is available here
Prato della Valle
Hop back over the river, turn left onto Via Beato Luca Belludi again and get ready to be amazed by the monumental Prato della Valle, the largest square (that isn’t actually square!) in Italy and the second largest in Europe after Moscow’s Red Square.
This glorious oval plaza has variously been a Roman theatre, a circus for horseraces, a gladiatorial arena where Christians including St Daniel and St Giustina were martyred, a cattle market and a neglected swamp. In 1636 a group of nobles financed a temporary theatre for jousting and other horseback games. And later, in 1775, Mayor Andrea Memmo, resident of Palazzo Angeli, decided to redesign the entire area as the public space you see today.
Surrounded by a road and tramlines, the plaza has a perfect elliptical form with 5 concentric ovals of lawns, a canal and two rings of sculptures. A total of 78 statues depicting local figures including Antenore, Galilei, sculptor Canova and 4 popes line the canal around a central island, l’Isola Memmia, named after Andrea Memmo. And finally four bridges bring you to the central fountain.
It’s a great public space to sunbathe, skate or stroll. If you’re around in August or over New Year’s check out the music festival and fireworks. Or just browse the regular Saturday markets. Take your pick!
Basilica e Abbazia di Santa Giustina
At the southern end of the Prato you’ll spot another huge church, the basilica and abbey of St Justine who died in the 5th century, aged just 16. This church is a little more understated than St Anthony’s but nevertheless its worth a visit as for the tombs of Justine, St. Prosdocimus, St. Maximus, St. Urius, St. Felicita, St. Julianus, as well as relics of the apostle St. Matthias and the evangelist St. Luke (all apart from his head which is apparently in Prague and a rib in Thebes, Egypt).
Much of the artwork was removed when Napoleon conquered the area but make sure to check out the beautiful frescoes beneath the altar. Entry is free and more information, in Italian only, is available via their website.
Palazzo del Bo, Padua University
The university, the second oldest in Italy, was founded around 1222 when a group of students and professors left Bologna university in search of academic freedom. The first subjects taught were law and religion with lectures taking place in local meeting rooms. The university later settled in Palazzo del Bo, the 13th century Ox Hotel, using the dining hall as the main Aula Magna or great hall.
The university quickly made a name with its research in astronomy, medical science and natural medicines in conjunction with the botanical gardens. It was the true birthplace of human anatomy, specialising in autopsies and holding many human dissections in the banked, wooden anatomy theatre – the oldest in the world and still visible today. These intricate studies challenged ancient thinking, enabling the identification of many diseases and the discovery of Fallopian tubes named after the 16th century Italian anatomist Gabriele Fallopio, valves in veins and that blood, not air circulated the lungs.
Legendary astronomer Galileo Galilei also lectured in the Aula Magna and his lecture podium can still be seen on the guided tour of the university.
But my favourite alumnus of the university has to be Sanctorius Sanctorius, who spent 30 years researching the human metabolism by weighing himself, everything he ate and drank plus his urine and faeces on a daily basis. He discovered that for every 8 pounds of food and drink he only excreted 3 pounds of waste. And although he didn’t quite work out that the rest of the food had been used up to keep us moving, he, and his weighing chair, founded modern physiology.
Add to that that Padua was the first university in the world to ever award a woman a Doctor of Philosophy degree when Venetian noblewoman Elena Lucrezi Cornaro Piscopia graduated on 25th June 1678 and you begin to realise why Padua university is one of the most prestigious in Italy and continues to produce many renowned scientists and mathmaticians.
Guided tours are available on a limited basis but cannot be booked online or in advance. Check the tour schedule via the website and then make sure to arrive at least 30 or more minutes before it starts so you can queue – the first 50 people in the queue get in, with the rest having to wait till the next tour or losing out altogether.
In spite of the ticket lottery, I highly recommend the visit for anyone even remotely interested in science, medicine or pure history as tickets are only €3.50. If only these walls could talk! Guided tour info here
Padua’s Caffé Pedrocchi
After all that walking and sightseeing I think we deserve a coffee, don’t you, so lets stop off at the elegant Caffè Pedrocchi. Founded in 1772 in central Padua, almost next to the university, the café is important for a few reasons.
It was one of the first coffee houses to spring up in the 18th century and would grew to be one of, if not the largest in Europe. Pedrocchi’s also played a part in the 1848 riots against the Austrian or Hapsburg monarchy. And has served numerous artists and literary figures over the years including Lord Byron, French writer Stendhal and Italian actor-writer-director Dario Fo, recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature.
If it’s a cold day, why not take shelter in one of their highly decorated rooms to order their signature drink – a Café Pedrocchi – a piping hot espresso topped with cool mint cream. Or have a refreshing cold drink under its portico in summer. Absolutely delicious!
Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto’s Chapel
Now I bet you’re wondering why I’ve not mentioned the Scrovegni Chapel, otherwise known as Giotto’s masterpiece, yet? Its not because I don’t rate it, quite the contrary, it’s a stupendous little gem so I’ve left the best till last!
Famous for its lapis lazuli blue star-studded ceiling, the Scrovegni chapel was commissioned by the wealthy local banker Enrico degli Scrovegni as a private family chapel. And I think we can safely say he must have been loaded as the chapel houses an extraordinary set of frescoes by the exceptional Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone, otherwise known just as Giotto.
The artwork showing the life of Mary, is widely accepted as one of the most important in the world and for all you romantics out there its also one of the earliest depictions of a kiss in art! But sadly you can’t take photos!
Tickets can be booked online, by phone or in person, with tours from 9am to 7pm at 15 minute intervals throughout the day. The calendar books up weeks in advance so if you are tied to a specific date book early as places are limited to 25 people per timeslot. On entry you are taken into a climate controlled room to watch a 15 minute video to allow the environment between the outside and inside of the chapel to equalise to protect the fragile chapel from damaging fluctuations in humidity, temperature or pollutants.
Eventually, the glass doors slide open and a guide who is available for questions takes you through to the chapel. You then have approximately 10-15 minutes to gaze, awestruck at the beauty that is Giotto’s masterpiece in all its wonderful glory. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!
Tickets are €13 each and definitely worth the price, even though this is the most you will spend all day. Tours are suspended in July and August but resume in September. More information is available here.
- Mille Miglia classic car rally
And finally, if you’re in the Padua area in May, look out for the classic car rally that often speeds through the city centre! The Mille Miglia is a spectacular display of sports cars from 1927 to 1957 and a must for all serious petrolheads! Its an added bonus! Check out dates and more information on the official Mille Miglia website.
And so we come to the end of this tour. Hopefully I’ve given you lots of inspiration and ideas for a trip to the picturesque Padua. We’ve not even touched on the fact that Padua is the setting for Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Or that it’s surrounded by 11km of city walls. Or that it has a castle. But I’ll leave that for another time! Leave me a comment with your greatest memories of porticoed Padua or if you have any questions about places to visit. And in the meantime I think its time for another refreshments stop – gelato anyone?!
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For further tourist information on sights, accommodation and where to eat I recommend –
Note : This is NOT a sponsored post and I have not been paid to write it, nor am I in any way a connected with Padua tourism. All opinions are my own.
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