There may be no better place for lovers of mosaics to visit than Ravenna. It’s a sight that refuses to get boring. The town’s ancient baptistries and basilicas feature some of the most startling mosaic work focused on early Christianity.
Back then, in the 5th and 6th centuries, Ravenna was at its height as the capital of the Byzantine empire. North and south along the nearby Adriatic Coast, towns were succumbing to Barbarian annexation. Yet Ravenna plotted a successful course towards high art and culture.
Today, the bulk of these impeccable creations stand before us. Be ready to crane your neck up to prismatic domes and down to sprawling, chromatic floors. But a visit to town squares shows travelers that as strong as the local traditions and cultures are, there are far more things to do in Ravenna than meets the eye.
Map of Ravenna
17. Mausoleum of Teodorico
You’ll find the Mausoleum of Teodorico surrounded by beautiful green space, devoid of the compact Old Town. Within the Parco di Teodorico, likes the remains of Theodoric the Great, a king whose rule led to several prominent landmarks in Ravenna.
The tomb alongside the park was commissioned by the man himself, seemingly comfortable with where his legacy would land him come his passing. The Mausoleum quickly captures the eye thanks to its gaudy use of Istrian stone.
After admiring the tomb (visitors can’t go inside), take some time to explore the park’s beautiful meadows and landscaped gardens. Perhaps you can even bring along a stock picnic basket.
16. Basilica di San Giovanni Evangelista
The original Basilica di Sam Giovanni Evangelista was built in the 5th century. It was older than most religious sites in Ravenna. However, in the Second World War, the local train station was the site of a strategic bombing, most of which missed and destroyed much of this church.
It was faithfully restored in the years since, with several original parts, such as the interior columns, placed back where they belong. Incredibly, there are still some mosaics, which date back to the early 13th century, that you can stare at in utter wonderment.
The several mosaics explore medieval tales, historical stories, and even mythical animals. Complementing these are frescoes from the 1300s.
15. Museo Nazionale di Ravenna
Visiting each of the memorable cultural and historical monuments in Ravenna is key to truly appreciating this amazing town. However, the Museo Nazionale di Ravenna helps tie it all together in a nice package.
The national museum is found within a former Benedictine monastery. Before you even dive into the stories of other monuments, you’ll first want to check out the museum’s collection of ancient Byzantine and Christian relics.
Afterwards, learn more about the many highlights in our guide, from San Vitale to San Francesco. It’s incredibly informative and easy on the wallet. It may even be a great idea to head here first to get a thorough overview.
14. Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe
Around six kilometers (3.7 miles) south of Ravenna, the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe is well worth the journey out of the Old Town. Built in the 6th century, the timeline of this basilica is in line with many of Ravenna’s prominent attractions.
But from that era, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, has some of the newest mosaics. Across the apse, these impeccable mosaic designs showcase Emperor Constantine IV standing alongside bishop Reparatus. It is, in fact, inspired by the one within the Basilica di San Vitale.
The major highlight, however, is the various sarcophagi of bishops across the centuries. It’s incredibly fascinating how the styles have change over the last 1,500 years.
13. Piazza del Popolo
There is spectacular architecture, ancient history, and dazzling mosaics here in Ravenna. But to truly know her modern history and culture, you’ll need to spend your time enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of Piazza del Popolo.
This is the cultural epicenter of Ravenna. Where her citizens come to gather, celebrate, rally for political change. You won’t be surprised to hear that the square’s name translates to the People’s Square.
Piazza del Popolo has been a part of local life since the late 1400s. At a time when much of Ravenna was redesigned with the help of Venetian architects. From your cafe patio, sip espresso and admire the Comune di Ravenna and the statue of Saint Vitalis.
12. Safari Ravenna
Not far from the Mirabilandia theme park (listed below) the Safari Ravenna trades thrilling rollercoasters for an up-close animal experience.
Although nothing can replace the thrills of an African savannah, the excitement remains as you venture by wildlife and where the unexpected should be, well, expected. You can do a self-drive tour, a guided drive or jump onboard the Safari Train.
The sprawling open range section is complemented by a traditional bringing the Safari Ravenna’s total wildlife numbers to over 450 animals spanning 40 species.
Travelers should be aware that the Safari Ravenna runs limited hours during the low season.
Ravenna isn’t all history and religious relics. There are opportunities to let your hair down and indulge in some family-friendly fun. The best example is the Mirabilandia. This is a thrilling theme park southeast of the Old Town.
Ticket in hand, you’ll wander through the lofty gates and be surrounded by manicured gardens and soaring green trees. Interrupting the nature are heart-stopping rollercoasters like the Divertical and Katun. The former bursting you forward over 100 kilometers per hour (70 miles p/h).
Elsewhere stunt shows captivate the imaginations of the adoring crowd. While for something more relaxing, jump onboard the Eurowheel that is the second tallest in Europe.
10. Basilica di San Francesco
Where other landmarks in Ravenna keep their euphoric secrets hidden, the Basilica di San Francesco stands out from afar. It’s soaring Romanesque tower, built in the 10th century, immediately commands your attention.
As you walk closer, you’ll catch a glimpse of the famed Dante’s Tomb (listed below). But that doesn’t mean all is given away before you make your way inside. Within you’ll have the chance to admire the sprawling frescoes painted by Pietro da Rimini in the 1300s.
Running alongside the elegant frescoes are giant stone columns carved by the hands of Tullio Lombardo in the 16th century bringing the Basilica di San Francesco’s inner beauty in line with the rest of Ravenna.
9. Archiepiscopal Chapel
There is a total of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ravenna. The smallest? The Archiepiscopal Chapel, located within the Archbishop’s Palace.
Constructed in the 6th century, the Archiepiscopal Chapel houses the Bishop’s personal oratory. The small space mimics the shape of a Grecan cross. The upper half of the surrounding walls are lathered in glimmering mosaics which date all the way back to the chapel’s beginning. Below the mosaics, visitors will find walls completely covered in marble. It’s easy to see why this would be a memorable spot for a bishop’s private place of prayer.
Outside of the oratory, visitors can gaze upon an Egyptian throne from the 500s complete with carved ivory reliefs.
8. Arian Baptistery
Like many of the top religious sites in Ravenna, the Arian Baptistery won’t immediately wow you. A simple exterior awaits. But within, the trend continues as you trade a brown facade for a heavenly collection of dazzling mosaics.
Like the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery was created under the reign of king Theodoric. This was a time Arianism was the official religion.
From inside, you’ll have to crane your neck up and hold it still to take in each of the sophisticated details. You’ll discover another depiction of Jesus Christ being baptized by John, in addition to a process of the twelve apostles.
Around a century after its construction, the Arian Baptistery was dedicated to Sant’Andrea. This was when he came from Constantinople, with his relics remaining onsite to this day.
7. Explore the Old Town
Starting in Piazza del Popolo, you’ll find yourself in an excellent position to explore Ravenna’s Old Town, and thus, most of the top attractions in our guide. But as you venture from one basilica to another, be sure to dig deeper into life here in the Old Town.
There are several ornate squares where espresso flows and the smells of margaritas ascend out the windows. These include Piazza XX Settembre and the Piazza JF Kennedy. Afterwards, wander down the fabulous Umbrella Street, otherwise known as Via Mentana.
Narrow streets covered with cobblestone take you by colorful old-time homes and flowering patios. The kind that would never make a “to-do” list, but will form a major part in your newfound love for Ravenna.
6. Dante’s tomb
Close to the Basilica di San Francesco, Dante’s Tomb stands on the spot where his funeral took place in the 1320s. The Florence-born poet and author spent the majority of his life in Ravenna. But despite this, there were no guarantees he would peacefully rest along the street that now bears his name.
Upon his death, Pope Leo X demanded his remains be transported back to his city of birth. Locals, who beloved the Dante took issue with this decision. But rather than go toe-to-toe with the pope, they stole his remains and hid them somewhere in Ravenna.
They went undiscovered for over 500 years until a chance encounter in 1865. Dante was at last moved to his tomb where he has rest peacefully ever since.
5. Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra
Canvassing mosaics and more mosaics, that is the life of a traveler in Ravenna. But contrasting to some of the other prominent historic destinations around town, the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra has placed its mosaics on the floor.
Crane your neck down from looking up at the heavens to enjoy the stunning tiled floors in a former Roman home. The marble tesserae is spread across the dramatic floor in geometric patterns, that have been tremendously well-preserved since their 5th century creation.
Such is the time that has passed between then and now, it’s no surprise they weren’t discovered until the 1990s, three meters (10 feet) below the ground. There are numerous intricately detailed scenes, each with their own interpretive descriptions.
4. Neonian Baptistery
As a part of your time exploring the Basilica di San Vitale, you can pay a visit to the important and equally historic Neonian Baptistry. The ancient complex hails back to the early centuries AD and was a former Roman bathhouse.
Like the neighboring basilica, the Neonian Baptistery features an octagonal design and a similarly simple facade. But wander inside and you’ll, yet again, be astounded by the work of mosaic art that will leave you staring at the same spot.
The mosaics tell several stories. The most important is the various religious scenes that show Jesus being baptized by John, another is the procession of the 12 apostles.
Travelers should note that visits to the baptistery sell out. So be sure to select a time slot several days in advance.
3. Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
Under the command of Gothic king Theodoric, the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was completed in 526. After thirty years of construction, the church began life as a place for Arian worship.
One of the reasons the basilica took several decades to complete is because of the radiant and vivid mosaic designs. All together, it’s believed that the complete mosaic cycle is the largest currently known.
The mosaics are split into three major sections. The top band showcases the life of Christ. The Saints and prophets are displayed in the central band while the lower band is a historic reference to the Theodoric Palace.
The Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is captivating. The walking the central nave brings you on a journey not just through religious history but art and local culture.
2. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
You’ll spend plenty of time admiring the complex beauty of the Basilica di San Vitale. But after doing so, make the brief journey to the neighboring Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Emperor Honorius’ sister.
From the colorful frescoes covering the basilica’s every crevice, the mausoleum provides ample contrast. Little light makes its way through the slim windows. However, it’s enough to capture a glimpse of tesserae mosaics backed by deep blue. These are tiny artistic imagery that dates back to the 5th century and are some of the best-preserved mosaics of its kind on earth.
Some of these images will be clear to the untrained eye, with Jesus surrounded by sheep. Then there are apostles and the evangelists along with marble coffins believed to house Galla and her immediate family.
1. Basilica di San Vitale
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and our favorite destination in Ravenna, one cannot pass up the chance to explore the Basilica di San Vitale. The octagonal-shaped church boasts a startling central dome and, despite its simple facade, features an incredible interior.
Spread across the walls and ceilings are beautiful Christian Byzantine art, intricate mosaics and frescoes that tell age-old stories. There’s no gap between each piece as they mix and flow along the church like a kaleidoscope.
Aside from the visual euphoria, the church’s excellent acoustics makes it a popular music venue along with being the centerpiece for June’s Ravenna Festival. In addition, your entrance ticket includes access to the Mausoleum and the Neonian Baptistery.
In a nation of memorable religious sites, Basilica di San Vitale belongs among the best.
Where to Stay in Ravenna
The highlights of Ravenna are strongly concentrated in the Old Town. This makes it easy to figure out where to stay. Accommodation in this part of Ravenna leaves you with an easy stroll to ancient basilicas, bustling town squares and fascinating mausoleums.
For travelers looking to stay beyond the old town, there is another option to consider. At the Marina di Ravenna, explorers will find themselves a short and efficient bus ride to central Ravenna. All the while, they’ll be within walking distance of the local beaches with beautiful views out to the Adriatic Sea.
The Palazzo Bezzi Hotel is a wonderful, mid-range hotel, within the Old Town. This four-star hotel boasts a sun terrace, and gym, while each room comes with Wi-Fi and a large TV, some may even have great views across the rooftops.
Budget travelers seeking to enjoy the full Ravenna experience should check out the Hotel Centrale Byron. Also in the historic center, guests will have free Wi-Fi, a buffet breakfast, and a short stroll to all the local attractions in Ravenna.
How to get to Ravenna
The closest major city to Ravenna is Bologna. Receiving flights from all over the world, it’s a simple arrival point, leaving you with a one-hour train or car ride to reach central Ravenna.
Another major city, relatively close to Ravenna, is Florence. This is around a two-hour drive away with train journeys taking between two-and-a-half and three hours to complete.
Approximate travel times:
- Bologna – 1 hour by car, 1 hour by train
- Florence – 2 hours by car, 2 hours by train
- Rimini – 45 minutes by car, 30 minutes by train
- San Marino – 1 hour by car, 1 hour by train and bus
- Venice – 2.5 hours by car, 2 hours by train
- Verona – 2.5 hours by car, 2 hours by train
- Milan – 3 hours by car, 2.5 hours by train
- Pisa – 3 hours by car, 3 hours by train
Best Time to Visit Ravenna
As Ravenna remains somewhat off-the-beaten-track, you can still experience its historical center in summer without the massive crowds that plague many other Italian cities.
Its weather can be unbearably hot however with temperatures regularly reaching the 30s (90s in Fahrenheit) in July and August. All the top-class concerts, operas and plays held at the Ravenna Festival do make it worth visiting then, as do all the pristine beaches nearby.
Outside of these months, April to June and September to October remain warm and sunny with many preferring this period. This is because you can explore the center without melting in the sun. The water is still just about warm enough if you want to swim in September.
As these seasons are still popular, hotel prices only drop though towards the beginning and end of the year when most tourists are put off by the colder temperatures. If you can deal with around 1°C to 9°C (33 – 48°F), then you can see its basilicas mausoleums and mosaics with barely anyone else around.