Ravenna, located in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, has a rich history that spans over 2,000 years. Once the capital city of the Western Roman Empire, Ravenna is renowned for its well-preserved Byzantine and early Christian mosaics. These extraordinary artistic treasures have earned the city UNESCO World Heritage status and a must-see destination if you are in central Italy.
In this guide, you will find a brief history of Ravenna, some sites you must see, and a few restaurants you will want to try.
A Bit of History
Nestled in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, the city of Ravenna stands as a testament to the rich and diverse history that has unfolded within its borders. From its days as the capital of the Western Roman Empire to its role in the Byzantine era and beyond, Ravenna is a treasure trove of historical significance and artistic brilliance.
The Roman Era
Ravenna's history dates back over 2,000 years, with its origins as a Roman settlement. In the late Roman Republic, it served as a vital port city, maintaining a strategic position on the Adriatic Sea. Ravenna's importance grew when it became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 AD, under the reign of Emperor Honorius. This shift marked a turning point for the city, as it flourished as a political and cultural center.
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Ravenna's destiny took a new turn as it became the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom under King Theodoric the Great. However, it was during the Byzantine era that Ravenna truly flourished artistically. As the seat of Byzantine power in Italy, the city witnessed the construction of magnificent religious buildings adorned with intricate mosaics. These mosaics, characterized by their vibrant colors and meticulous craftsmanship, have survived the test of time and remain one of Ravenna's most prized treasures.
The Mosaics of Ravenna
Ravenna is synonymous with its awe-inspiring mosaics, which have earned the city UNESCO World Heritage status. These intricate artworks, primarily found in Ravenna's early Christian and Byzantine churches, depict religious scenes, portraits of emperors, and biblical narratives. The Basilica of San Vitale, with its mesmerizing mosaics portraying Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, stands as a prime example of Ravenna's mosaic artistry. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, renowned for its celestial blue and gold mosaics, is another must-see masterpiece.
Ravenna's historical significance extends beyond its architectural wonders. It was within the city's walls that Dante Alighieri, one of Italy's greatest literary figures, found refuge during his exile. Dante spent his final years in Ravenna, leaving behind a profound impact on Italian literature. Today, visitors can pay respects to the poet by visiting his tomb in the Basilica di San Francesco, a site that attracts literature enthusiasts from around the world.
As you wander through Ravenna's pedestrian-friendly streets and marvel at its mosaics, let yourself be transported to an era of emperors, kings, and poets, and embrace the magic of a city where history comes alive at every turn.
Basilica of San Vitale
Admire the stunning Byzantine mosaics that adorn the interior of this 6th-century church. The mosaics depict biblical scenes and portraits of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Explore the small yet remarkable mausoleum, known for its beautiful mosaics. The blue and gold starry sky ceiling is particularly impressive.
Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Visit this early Christian basilica, famous for its vibrant mosaics depicting scenes from the New Testament. Don't miss the procession of martyrs on the north wall.
Pay homage to the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who spent his final years in Ravenna. His tomb is located in the stunning 14th-century Basilica di San Francesco.
Immerse yourself in the life and works of Dante Alighieri at this museum dedicated to the famous poet. Explore exhibits showcasing his manuscripts and learn about his impact on literature.
Piazza del Popolo
Take a leisurely stroll in this lively square, surrounded by charming cafes and historic buildings. Enjoy the vibrant atmosphere and grab a gelato while you people-watch.
Visit the octagonal Neonian Baptistery, a small but significant religious site. Unlike other baptisteries of the 4th and 5th centuries, both in the Western and Eastern ancient world, this building is the best preserved one, both from the architectural and the ornamental point of view.
Classis Ravenna Archaeological Park
Discover the ruins of the ancient Roman port of Ravenna. Explore the archaeological park, which includes remains of warehouses, a marketplace, and a Roman shipyard. (10-minute taxi or 35-minute walk from Ravenna City Center)
Pineta di Classe
Escape the city and wander through the serene Pineta di Classe, a pine forest located near the ancient port. Enjoy a peaceful walk or a bike ride through the beautiful natural surroundings. (10-minute taxi or 35-minute walk from Ravenna City Center)
Ravenna's proximity to the Adriatic Sea also makes it an excellent destination for beach lovers.
Restaurants in Ravenna
Remember to try the local cuisine, characterized by fresh seafood, piadina (a traditional flatbread), and Sangiovese wine.
Osteria dalla Zabariona
via Giuliano Argentario, 19, Ravenna, 48121, Italy
Fresh pasta and fish caught straight from the Adriatico sea await you at this fairly new but very popular restaurant. Easy on the pocketbook, open for lunch and dinner, and close to the main sites, this place checks all my boxes as a perfect spot.
Antica Trattoria al Gallo 1909
via Maggiore 87, Ravenna, 48121, Italy
Popular among the locals, this cozy restaurant has been operated by the same family for over a century. Known for its simple, reasonably priced regional cuisine, with a choice of meat and fish dishes on the menu.
Osteria dei Battibecchi
via della Tesoreria Vecchia, 16, Ravenna, 48100, Italy
Blink and you might miss this tiny place near Dante's tomb. Owned by local, Nicoletta, who shares her family recipes in the "feels like home" not-so-fancy restaurant.
Osteria del Tempo Perso
via Gamba 12, Ravenna, 48121, Italy
Open for dinner service only, this restaurant is a stone’s throw from the Basilica di San Vitale in the town center. The menu is seafood-focused but offers traditional locally inspired dishes and an extensive Wine list.
I hope this small guide helps you enjoy your experience in Ravenna, a city where history and art come alive through magnificent mosaics and architectural wonders.
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