The fourth most visited city in Italy, Verona is a hidden treasure. It doesn’t have the flair of Venice or the beautiful beaches of Cinque Terre, but what draws people to Verona is a love story. The story of Romeo and Juliet, to be specific. Verona is supposedly the city where this famous tale took place. You can visit the House of Juliet, where the “real-life” Cappello (Capulet) family once lived, and read the letters of lovers and dreamers written on the walls. For luck in love throngs of tourists line up to rub the breast on the bronze statue of Juliet. Not too far away is the less famous home of the Montecchi (Montague) family, where Romeo lived.
I have to admit I knew nothing about Verona being the city of love when I first went in 2007. If no one told me, I would have said that Verona is the city of shopping and food! The small winding streets that lead to and from Piazza Brà are choke-full of high-end shops such as Gucci and Fendi, as well as mid and low-end stores. What’s better–the prices are more manageable than you’ll find at the same stores in Milan.
But I wasn’t in Verona to shop. I was more interested in exploring the city and taking in the amazing architecture from the Roman era, Medieval and Renaissance times. Luckily the friend’s home where I stayed both times I visited, in an area called Golosine, is only 20 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes away from downtown Verona.
Downtown Verona (pictured above) is basically everything located within the still-existing Roman walls. Within those walls are Piazza Brà, and the first thing you’ll see is the stunning Arena, which still retains most of its original stone and is the third largest Roman amphitheater in Italy. Here they host shows, concerts, operas, and more. I saw the opera Carmen there in 2009 with friends and it was amazing, although the stone seats are uncomfortable. Those poor people from centuries ago must of had bruised and calloused asses. Luckily my friend Max knew someone that worked there and we were able to move closer to the stage where there are cushioned seats and free campaign!
All of downtown Verona is very walkable and you can stroll the streets day and night. IMHO there’s no need to spend extra money on the hop on – hop off bus in this city. Starting from Piazza Brà, you’ll find the best shopping on Via Mazzini, which connects Piazza Brà and Piazza delle Erbe. This is where the shopping magic happens–stores line the road and each window offers a new treat, from all the major Italian fashion brands to all the latest fashion in clothes, shoes and accessories.
Via Mazzini will lead to Casa di Giulletta and Sant’Anastasia (a large Gothic church) on one side and Piazza delle Erbe on the other. Piazza della Erbe is where you’ll find the street markets, and many historic sites, including an ancient monument–a fountain called Madonna Verona, which is a Roman sculpture dating to 380 AD. You’ll see what looks like a huge bone hanging from an archway–and it is a bone–a 500-year-old whale’s rib. It was a souvenir brought home from the Orient by spice traders. Piazza della Erbe is great for people watching–the locals hang out here in the evening for an aperitivo. Trendy bars line the square and the super rich own homes in the area. Also the BEST hat shop, called Borsalino, is located here and it’s where I bought my favorite hat. This place has been around since 1857!
Continuing past Piazza della Erbe, and over Ponte Pietra, you’ll find the Roman Theatre. Here they still put on plays, mostly Shakespeare and ballet, as they did centuries ago. If you continue past the theatre up a set of stairs you’ll get to Castel San Pietro on top of the hill that overlooks all of Verona. The view is spectacular.
Outside of the main downtown area there are a few must see sights. The first is the Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore. Saint Zeno was a black saint! I was fascinated with the place because of that fact alone. But the church is beautiful and it’s also known for being the place where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were married. St. Zeno died in 380 and his body rests in a crypt within the church. There was a small fee to get in but it wasn’t much.
The other must see is Castelvecchio museum, one of the most prominent examples of Gothic architecture of the age. The red brick building features imposing M-shaped merlons running along the castle and bridge walls. It has seven towers and four main buildings inside. It’s surrounded by a ditch, now dry, which was once filled with waters from the nearby Adige. Ponte Scaligero spans the Adige to connect Castelvecchio. This bridge was built in the 1st century AD, but destroyed during World War II. It was rebuilt from parts of the original structure.
So I’ve talked about the history, and I’ve talked about the shopping–now it’s time to talk about the food! My friend Max is from Verona and he pointed out that Italians do most of their eating at home (amazing home-cooked meals!) And his mother cooked all kinds of wonderful dishes, including his favorite seafood soup. When Italians go out to eat they mostly go out for pizza and drinking (aperitivo). And there were some great pizza places we dined at, including Pizzeria La Grotta Azzurra. The pizza here was amazing! We had sausage pizza with fresh buffalo mozzarella, which is made from the milk of the water buffalo.
I also fell in love with an Italian pastry called Panzerotti, which is fried dough with a tomato and mozzarella filling served warm. One bite fills your mouth with heavenly pizza gooeyness. The BEST panzerotti place I went to is called Pasticceria Povia, located right behind the arena.
Another Italian treasure for your mouth–gelato. The best place for this is Oasi Gelateria Artigianale. Max says it’s the best place in all of Italy. Located in Golosine, the guy who works there makes the gelato fresh. Max shared this story, “The guy who works there once made Dates gelato. He pealed and pitted I don’t know how many pounds of dates. I bought 1k and ate the tray on the spot. He thought I was taking it home and he did not believe that I was going to eat all that. I said, ‘Dude, I am serious.’ He came around the counter with the spatula and topped even more on! They are sweethearts. I was lucky to experience that.”
Some other restaurants worth a visit:
- Ristorante Greppia– This old school place is more formal but the food is perfection.
- Maharajah– Another formal place with amazing Indian food, if you get tired of Italian cuisine (if that’s possible…)
- Trattoria Dal Gal– Known for its Degustazione di Primi Piatti tasting course, five types of pasta with different sauces–all five are amazing!
- Trattoria ai Salvi– A very trendy place known I think for its steak.
- Trattoria Cappuccini– One word – Paella! It’s the best.
- Trattoria Dal Ropeton– Very down to earth place with down to earth prices. The specialty here is Penne del Ropeton, a rich home-made pasta with bell pepper, chorizo, and curry in a light creamy sauce.
I’m saving the best for last! About 15 miles southwest of Verona is Borghetto, a hamlet of Valeggio sul Mincio located on the shores of the Mincio river. This small village is full of restored buildings from the Middle Ages, including several water-powered mills. You can enjoy horseback riding here or simply stroll the village as we did. You can climb the nearby hill to get a panoramic view of the village and the river as well as visit the castle. We visited in October and we had the place mostly to ourselves, although I’ve read that it gets overrun with tourists in the summer months. There are hotels in the area and many restaurants in the village. Here I had one of the most magical experiences of my culinary life–I tasted handmade pumpkin ravioli for the first time at a restaurant called Gatto Moro. It changed me!! I tracked down an Italian manufacturer of the food when I got back home and now I order direct!
So to wrap up, whether it is love, history, food, or shopping that you’re in search of, you can find it in Verona. The city, a UNESCO Heritage site since the year 2000, is definitely worth a visit.