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Last updated 24 February 2020
Things to do in Ferrara Italy
We’d never had much luck with catching trains from Bologna, in the heart of Italy’s food valley of Emilia Romagna. The history of my texts with a friend in Bologna exposes a litany of face-palm emojis.
It had become an in-joke between us now. The train system in Italy is excellent when it works. All too often, as we’ve gone to the train station to do a day trip from Bologna, it’s been a heaving throng of sweaty-faced people, pushing and shoving their way around the entry area.
Train workers love to strike in Italy, and when they do so, it creates maximum impact on train lines and timetables all over the country.
As we walked to the Bologna Centrale train station under the protection of the ancient porticoes, we lightheartedly joke about what kind of delay we might face.
We’ve decided to catch the train from Bologna to Ferrara, a simple 30-minute journey. Holding our breath, we arrive at the station and glance skywards to the departures board.
Hooray, instead of the board being lit up with that word that travellers hate, “delay”, it looks like it is all systems go for our day trip to Ferrara.
Exploring Emilia Romagna
In the Emilia Romagna region, visitors are spoilt for choice. There are so many wonderful cities and areas to explore, and many of them are well connected by the road and rail network.
Rail travel, notwithstanding the issues above, is efficient and inexpensive. Bologna, the capital, is the largest city in the region and the most popular, for good reason. We have spent several weeks there and I can honestly say that it wouldn’t be hard to return.
Where is Ferrara?
Located in the Emilia Romagna regiong of northern Italy, Ferrara sits approximately 50 kilometres north-north-east of Bologna. A medieval city that was once completely walled, it remains a bit of a hidden secret to visitors to Bologna and Italy. The lack of tourist rush adds to the appeal but I can’t help but think that this is one of Italy’s hidden secrets.
The top places to see in Ferrara
The inner-city streets are made from round stones and are not the easiest to walk on. They resemble the Roman roads of yesterday and without actually knowing their age, I imagine them to be quite old. There’s no denying we’ve arrived at the centre of the city.
Ahead of us, the gargantuan red-brick building rises before us and takes centre stage. The Estense Castello, once the home and palace of the Este family, is both incredible and bland at the same time.
Italy was once comprised of city-states. The large cities became the points of control, and the regional areas around them, part of the state. Important, noble families with names like Medici (Florence) and Sforza (Milan) came to rule many of these city-states.
The pope, who ruled the Catholic Church, also ruled the Rome city-state. Some were run by the city itself, via elected members. It created an environment for aggression but also for great economic and cultural improvements. Perhaps artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci may not have fared as well, were it not for the philanthropy of the Medicis.
In Ferrara, the Este family ruled from the 12th to the 15th century. Initially, they lived in a more modest-looking castle, but as discontent grew in the late 1300s as a result of tax increases by the family, the palace was fortified.
With four towers, a moat and drawbridge, it would have taken a significant attack to break through these walls. It remains fully intact, with the moat also still in place. Any moment I was expecting a knight, covered in shiny armour to come bursting over the drawbridge, armed with a joust.
The red brick of the castle can be found all over Ferrara. These bricks, developed by the Romans, were used extensively during the Middle Ages and spread throughout many parts of Europe. The walls of Ferrara city are also built from the same red bricks.
For the most accurate information of the castle’s opening times, ticket prices etc, it’s always best to check the official website.
The best way to see Ferra is by walking. Hire a local guide and have them explain the city’s history to you.
Ferrara City Hall and Piazza Trento
The main square in Ferrara, Piazza Trento, is not far from the castle and is the liveliest part of town. Flanked by the San Giorgio Cathedral and the Ferrara City Hall, it’s a place to catch up with friends at one of the many bars and cafes.
Like any major town square in Europe, prices are always going to be higher, and sometimes quality suffers, but it is a fantastic spot to stop and watch the world go by.
Leon d’Oro, a stalwart of 40 years on the Piazza Trento is as good a place as any to stop for a break. The city hall features the Este family, through statues of Niccolo III, the most notorious member of the family and his son.
Local tip: Located underneath the city hall, you can find many cakes, pastries and biscuits that are unique to Ferrara.
San Giorgio Cathedral
Taking pride of place on the piazza and directly across from the Ferrara City Hall is the San Giorgio Cathedral. The cathedral is known to be impressive from an architectural perspective, specifically due to its blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles.
Whilst the front of the church was finished in marble, the sides were left unfinished. The lower part of the church was completed in the 12th century, and the upper part in later times, hence the different styles. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a clear image of the front of the cathedral as it was under full scaffold when we visited.
Loggia dei Merciai
Along Piazza Trento Trieste (the road that runs along one side of the cathedral), the ancient merchant’s shops are tucked beneath the terractorra tiled roofs. Today they are filled with modern stores but are a clear path back to the history of commercial trade in the Middle Ages.
A market also operates in this area although most of the wares are cheap looking and hardly at the standard of the wonderful markets in Florence for example.
There’s nothing I love more than a walled city and we’ve been fortunate enough to see some spectacular ones in our travels. I think Carcassonne in France and Tallinn in Estonia are hands-down my favourites.
The city walls of Ferrara are intact which is also quite unusual, given both the age and the constant procession of wars and disturbances in and around this city since its inception.
Thankfully, the city of Ferrara is now UNESCO protected, meaning these walls and everything else inside will continue to be around for generations to come. Unlike some of the smaller walled cities however, these walls are a little further out.
It’s easy enough to get to them, however, and Ferrara is built for riding bicycles, with over 85 kilometres of cycle paths, including a 9-kilometre track that circumnavigates the city walls.
The terrain is flat and the locals adopted this as a favoured form of transport a long time ago, with around 25% of them using bikes. It’s also one of the reasons why Ferrara does not have high numbers of vehicles. The Old Town of Ferrara is also a pedestrianised zone.
Museums in Ferrara
There are many museums in Ferrara but we are not museum people, preferring to spend our time exploring the streets and poking our noses into places that aren’t usually spots on anyone’s itinerary.
Still, if you are interested in museums, these are the main ones to visit in Ferrara.
- National Archaeological Museum of Ferrara
- Cathedral Musuem
- Jewish Museum in the Jewish Ghetto area
For a full list of museums in Ferrara, opening times and ticket prices click here.
Walk the streets
As a UNESCO heritage protected city, Ferrara continues to be a preserved example of medieval and Renaissance architecture. With a strong history of the Este family as rulers along with the religious connections of the Papal state, there is so much to learn about this city.
Walking the streets provides wonderful insight into how they lived all those years ago, showcasing the different architecture. Cobbled stones and laneways that lead you around like in a maze. Cloistered areas and squares, parks and palaces. The more you can get out of the central city area, the more local delights you will find.
Explore the streets of the Jewish Ghetto
Ferrara was a place of respite to many of the Jews who were forced from their homes, not just during the world wars but during much earlier times as well.
The main part of the Jewish Ghetto is Via Mazzini, where the Synagogue can be found at number 95. Via Vittoria and Via Vignatagliata are also important streets in this area.
Where to eat in Ferrara
There was never any doubt we were going to strike it rich in the food department in Ferrara. Like most Italian towns and regions, they have their own specialties.
They twist and turn traditional pasta recipes ever so slightly to create their own version that you won’t find anywhere else in Italy. Take the cappellacci for example. To the uninitiated, it will look like ravioli.
The thing about non-Italians is that we tend to group pasta into several main categories, never really looking for or caring about slight differences. Not so in Italy. It can actually be quite offensive to someone who has cooked the pasta to have it mistaken for something more mainstream.
Ferrara is also known for Pasticcio Ferrarese, which is a macaroni pie and Salama da sugo, a local pork sausage.
Wanting to find somewhere as authentic as possible, we walked down Via Giuseppe Mazzini, the main street that leads away from the Piazza Trento and the cathedral. Now a shopping street there’s plenty to keep you occupied along here, including bars and restaurants. The restaurants here are definitely amped up to secure the tourist trade with touts on point out the front of most of them, encouraging you to come in.
We got off the main strip and found ourselves in the Jewish quarter. The existence of Jews here goes back to around the 13th century, where they were encouraged by the Este family.
It seemed right then that we would happen upon the Osteria del Ghetto.
The front door and entrance doesn’t exactly make itself known. We struggled for a while to understand whether they were in fact open. We walk through a room that makes us feel as though we are sneaking into Nonna’s home, up a set of stairs to the upper level. Now it feels as though we are in the correct place.
There’s nothing fancy about this restaurant. Owned by a former teacher, she runs this place with a firm hand. Young staff members are permitted to take our order but it is she who must deliver the meal to the table.
We order the cappellacci, both traditional, with the ragu sauce and one with a butter and sage sauce which were both equally delicious. We wash it down with Lambrusco. It’s the perfect way to enjoy traditional local fare.
Where: Osteria del Ghetto Via Vittoria, 26
Italy is also known for gelato and it’s never too hard to find someone willing to serve up this ice-cold treat. It’s important to only buy good quality, artisanal gelato though.
For our recommended place to buy gelato, you need to walk out of the city centre a little and onto the opposite side of the castle. Here you will find La Romana Ferrara, home to some of the best gelato in Ferrara. I got to try my first ruby chocolate concoction here. All gelato is made on-site and if you are lucky you can see them hard at their craft through the windows in the front of the store.
Where: La Romana Ferrara via Palestro, 33
Where to stay in Ferrara
- Close to many of the major attractions in Ferrara including the cathedral and castle
- Overlooks the Trento Trieste area
- Approximately 1km from the Ferrara train station
- Small, three-star, recently renovated
- Rooftop terrace
- Four-star hotel located close to Estense Castle
- Free wifi and bike rental
- Private parking
- Modern hotel with great service
How to get to Ferrara
Ferrara by train
Ferrara is easily reached by train, with the train station approximately 1.5 kilometres or 20 minutes walk from the centre of town. Alternatively, you can use taxis.
The train takes approximately 30 minutes from Bologna and 1.5 hours from Venice. The trains leave at regular intervals from all major locations to Ferrara and tickets are inexpensive.
Trains also stop here from main cities such as Ravenna, Rimini, Rome, Venice, Florence and Napoli.
Tip: Remember to always validate your train tickets before getting on the train if you have a paper ticket.
For accurate train timetables click here.
Local buses also operate from the Ferrara train station. The terminal is attached to the train station by a pedestrian subway.
Ferrara by car
Ferrara is well connected with the Italian network of roads and highways.
- Driving from Bologna: Take the A13 Autostrada Bologna-Padova and take the Ferrara south or north exits. This takes approximately 45 minutes.
- Driving from Ravenna: Take the SS16 into the eastern parts of Ferrarra. Thie drive is approximately 79 kilometres and will take around 1 hour 20 minutes.
- Driving from Padua: Take the A13 south for a 78 kilometre drive, taking approximately one hour.
The A13 is also connected through to the A1 which connects all major roads in northern Italy, making Ferrara extremely well connected to all major cities in Italy.
Ferrara by bus
A bus shuttle runs from the Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport. The www.ferrarabusandfly.com transports passengers every day every 90 minutes.
For €15 one way, you will be dropped off right in the centre of the city.
How to get around Ferrara
It’s a 20-minute walk from the Ferrara train station to the centre of town. The walk is easy enough. Following the road directly across the road from the station (Viale Cavour), passing the main football stadium as you go.
Once in the centre of the city, walking around all the major attractions is both easy and recommended.
Local buses numbers 1 ,2, 3C, 4C ,9 ,21 operate from the terminal next to the train station.
Ferrara is a great place to ride a bike and the first thing you will notice in the city area is that there are heaps of them ridden by locals.
For bike hire, check out these businesses listed by the Ferrara Tourism site.
Ferrara – one of the best cities to visit in Italy
There is so much more to see and do in Ferrara but these are the best places to spend your time if you only have a short time in the city. Ferrara is full of beautiful churches and plenty of museums, something we avoid but you may not.
It is also one of the most under-rated cities to visit in Italy but because of that it means there aren’t busloads of tourists turning up at once, flooding the streets. It also means you can get some amazing photos without having to wait for ages for someone to finish their selfie.
- Too scared to ride a bike on your own? Tour around with a local instead.
- Visit the River Po as you ride around the city
- See the major attractions of Estense Castle and the cathedral
- Don’t like group tours, this one is perfect with your own private guide and tour
- See the major attractions of Estense Castle and the cathedral
- Walking tour of the city
- Private transfer to and from Bologna
Italy travel guides
Our favourite guide books for Bologna, Emilia Romagna and Italy. Click on the images for more information.
- Northern Italy: Emilia-Romagna: including Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, Parma, Ravenna and the Republic of San Marino (Bradt Travel Guide)
- Insight Guides Pocket Bologna (Travel Guide with free eBook) (Insight Pocket Guides)
- Rick Steves Italy 2020 (Rick Steves Travel Guide)
More Italy reading
If you are planning on spending more time in Italy, you might find these articles of ours interesting to read. They give more ideas on what to see and do in the Emilia Romagna region.
- Truffle hunting and truffle eating in Italy
- Cesenatico: Exploring one of the most popular seaside towns in Italy
- The best food tours in Bologna: Experienced food and travel writers reveal their favourite food tours
- Scooter rental Bologna: How to experience Bologna like a local