Weekend getaways in Italy are easy. Spin the globe north, south, east or west, or roll the dice for mountains, hilltowns, beaches and cities, and you will find somewhere incredible. This time it’s the Veneto, Italy’s north east region best known for some of the most beautiful fetes of architecture from ancient arenas to Palladian villas and Renaissance palaces, history’s epic artists and amazing artwork, delicious wines and very distinct accents. Veneto towns inspired Shakespeare to create heartbreaking rivalries and belly-aching comedies. This time it’s Padova, the region’s sleeper of a city.
Just a half-hour train ride from Venice, (or 3 hours from Rome), Padova is a million times less crowded than La Serenissima because its magical architecture is off-the-beaten path. 40 minutes from Verona, and while there may not be a balcony, Padova has everything- historic academics, era-spanning architecture, incredible art and the oldest university botanical garden in the world. Most importantly, Padova is chill- a lovely pedestrian and bike-friendly town at a relaxing, feasible pace. Not too slow, and never too fast. Slip on a pair of comfortable pair of shoes, here are my picks for what to see and do for a 48 hours in Padova.
Chapels, Churches, Parks and Palaces
Padova has a lot going, and to me, it’s the kind of city where all you have to do is walk around aimlessly and you will find something beautiful, intriguing or unexpected. Hop the tram, take a walk, grad a bike, however you want to get around, Padova is very easy, but I like to have a few destinations to get me around:
First on the list always is the Scrovegni Chapel, an incredible jewel-box of a church frescoed by Giotto between 1303 and 1305. The lapis lazuli blue ceiling is worth the pain of maneuvering an online reservation. Are reservations really necessary or can you just show up? The Scrovegni underwent an incredible restoration and the chapel is now hermetically sealed, which means entries are all timed. While it’s true that I have just shown up and booked whatever was available, I suggest to play on the safe side and reserve a ticket for the 30-minute-long visit, which includes a 15-minute introduction video detailing the restoration. Don’t even think about overstaying in the chapel, unless you booked the evening 40-minute double feature Scrovegni Sotto Le Stelle. Note to self: take advantage of your ticket and visit the accompanying Musei Civici Eremitani. The complex includes painting gallery, archaeological museum and nearby modern and medieval museum.
Even though the cappuccino is nothing to write home about, the requisite caffe or aperitif stop must be Caffe Pedrocchi, a neo-classical temple to coffee culture in the very center of the city. Since its early 19th century founding, Pedrocchi has been Padova’s meeting spot, and for nearly a century it never closed, giving it the nickname “the caffe without doors”. Though the coffee itself is simply a decent cup, the architecture is delicious- the ground level rooms are themed and lavishly decorated, while the first floor has very particular themed salons.
On the first floor the Pedrocchi compound the Museo del Risorgimento, a museum which follows Padova and Italian history from the fall of Venetian Republic in 1797 through Austrian occupation, Kingdom of Italy, and two world wars to to the Italian Republic (1948). It’s one of those random little spots that shares a history most outside of Italy have no clue about.
No matter if you are meandering or searching a destination, you will inevitably end up Piazza dei Frutti, Padova’s wide-open square lined with boutiques, cafes, bars and restaurants. In the morning, Piazza dei Frutti is a busy open air market, by late afternoon, the market clears out and the piazza is the city’s social scene lasting through the evening. Walk around, I’ve come across some of the most beautiful vintage signs here as well as gorgeous, yesteryear boutiques.
Show stopper is Palazzo del Ragione, the city’s historic town hall – an enormous Venetian-style late Medieval/early Renaissance palazzo that takes up an entire side of the piazza. Crenellations, arches, and vaults, oh my! Step inside for a glimpse at the sala grande, a beautifully detailed and fresco’d great salon that at 82 by 27m is larger than Venice’s Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Doge’s Palace), Florence’s Sala del Cinquecento (Palazzo Vecchio). and anyone where else for that matter.
Walked the arcaded streets nearby to the Synagogue and Museum of Jewish Heritage, first and largest Ashkenazi Synagogue, dating from 1522 and active until May 1943 and the University of Padua, founded in 1222. In the mid-1400s, the Palazzo del Bo’ became the official home of the University. Open for to visitors, the Palazzo del Bo is another beautiful fete of architecture and includes a very particular detail- the anatomical theatre – an operating room and viewing area theatrically designed as arena with center stage— the oldest in the world.
I know, I know, you had absolutely no idea how amazing Padova is. Well it gets better and greener with the Orto Botanico (Botanical Gardens) – a UNESCO world heritage site and the oldest university botanical gardens in the world. Padova loves breaking records, right? With 7000 species, five different biomes and three gardens – botanical, historic and biodiversity, the botanical garden is amazing. Just down the road is more green, but less garden. At 90,000 square meters, the elliptical square Prato della Valle ls the very biggest pedicured square in Italy. And its a beautiful spot for an afternoon break.
Say a little prayer for you
Did you ever wonder why you say a prayer to St. Anthony when you lose something? Apparently, St. Anthony lost something in Bologna and found it. Growing up, the expression annoyed me but I never wondered why Anthony and not anyone else because my family had a personal relationship with the source – St. Anthony, patron saint of Padova, and in particular, his name-sake basilica in Padova.
When my mom was a young woman, she accidentally left her father’s his brand new Cannon VT Deluxe on a railing in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio (Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua). It wasn’t until they were an hours’ drive away that they realised it. Prayers to St. Anthony overlapped shouts and sure enough, two hours later, my mom found the camera exactly where she left it – in front of St. Anthony.
Walking around Padova, you can’t miss the Basilica. St. Anthony souvenirs abound, and the piazza itself is a stage to the beautiful red brick, Gothic-esque church with three domes vaguely reminiscent of the Hagia Sofia. Apparently, the architecture is a celebration of many different eras. Inside, Sant’ Antonio is a different kind of celebration completely – elaborately decorated with ornate, lavish and jaw-dropping details, especially the Baroque Treasury Chapel where St. Anthony’s relics are held including his jaw bone. Step back outside and take a look at the Donatello’s equestrian statue flanking the church and then head into Oratorio of San Giorgio, a late 14th century oratory which hopes to be on the UNESCO World Heritage roll call.
Foodie Bites: Street to Sleek
This Foodie Bite come straight out of the mouth of Michelin-starred chef and Padova local Massimiliano Alajmo of Le Calandre.
La Folperia, a street food stand all about octopus. I know what you are thinking- Octopus and Padova. Isn’t it the inland empire?! It sure is, and the Veneti love their folpi. Every morning for nearly three decades, the Schiavon family heads to the fish market in Chioggia for fresh seafood and by afternoon, they’re cooking up folpetti bolliti (small octopus octopus boiled with red wine and laurel, garnished with olive oil, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and lemon) at their corner kiosk in Piazza dei Frutti. The stand-up/take away kiosk is cash only, and serves no drinks, so you want to grab a glass of white wine from Bar dei Osei next door. Words of wisdom: if Max offers you some masenete, say yes.
If Michelin is your thing, Le Calandre is only a 15 minute taxi from Padova centro. Brother Raffaele (Raf) is the business brain, and Max is the artist – together they make an incredible and artistic Le Calandre. The cuisine is creative, modern and very much inspired by their favorite recipes and flavors. What I love is their dedication and fidelity to Italy producers- from the ingredients to the hardware like glasses and tables, all made by local artisans working with the Alajmo brothers. Fun fact: Max was the youngest chef in history to have been awarded three Michelin stars- age 28. Reservations are a must, and well worth the advanced planning.
When You Go
Get There: Padova is the perfect getaway because it has the trifecta: great art, great food and a train station right out of the pages of rationalist architecture. Yes, you can drive to La Città dei Tre Senza from anywhere on the peninsula, but why? Located in the Veneto, Italy’s northeast region, Padova is junction for East-West travel making it very easy to reach from most major cities including Rome (3 hours, 15 minutes), Venice (25 minutes), Milan (2 hours), Bologna and Florence via Italo and Trenitalia, as well as Thello for connections to and from France.
Get Around: Padova is pretty much flat, in other words an open invitation to walk for miles, or bike if you prefer two wheels. The city’s tourism office lists bike rental companies and bike routes. If you brought the wrong shoes and don’t want to shop for a more comfortable pair, Padova is connected by public transport including a tram traverses the city from the train station to the Basilica di Sant’Antonio.
Sleep: Full disclosure, I don’t know much about Padova hotels. My last stay was at the cheap and cheerful Hotel Corso, a decent budget choice but not recommended if you are looking for style or romance. Following a quick search on Google with a geo-focus on historic center, I’ve bookmarked the following: the old school Hotel Majestic Toscanelli, and the reliable chains NH and AC Hotel (by Marriott). I’ll admit, I’m curious about Hotel Methis.