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Things to do in Ferrara: Exploring one of Italy’s most beautiful cities

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Ferrara is a medieval town in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. It is blessed with incredible architecture, thriving town squares that are typical in Europe, and a strong cultural and artistic presence. Given its proximity to Bologna, Milan and even Venice, it makes for an easy day trip from Bologna and access from the other cities is easy as well. Like any Italian regional city, this is a foodie’s paradise and you’ll find many local specialities here that you won’t find elsewhere in Italy.

This is a guide for first-time visitors to Ferrara and is ideal for those who are looking to plan activities and sightseeing for their one day in Ferrara.

back streets of 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.  

Ultimate guide to spending a week in Bologna Italy

From Bologna, however, the more well-known cities to visit are Venice and Milan in the north, San Marino to the east, and Florence to the south.  All are within easy reach of Bologna. 

Where is Ferrara?

Located in the Emilia Romagna region 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

Estense Castello

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. 

stone streets

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.  

Estenso Castle

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 a 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 shining armour to come bursting over the drawbridge, ready for a joust.

castle with moat

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 in Leon d’Oro. 

Ferrara city hall

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.

san giorgio cathedral
San Giorgio Cathedral

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 terracotta 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.

side of san giorgio cathedral
The side of the cathedral

City Walls

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 a high number 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
  • Museo del Risorgimento e della Resistenza

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. Some of the more interesting streets to check out are Volte St for its small offering of original medieval buildings and Corso Ecole l d’Este.

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 at work out the front of most of them, encouraging you to come in.  

via mazzini

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.

jewish quarter

It seemed right then that we would happen upon the Osteria del Ghetto

ferrara restaurant

The front door and entrance don’t exactly make themselves 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.

Ferrara with restaurant owner
With the owner of Osteria del Ghetto

Where: Osteria del Ghetto Via Vittoria, 26 Ferrara

pasta in ferrara
The less traditional way of serving cappellacci – filled with pumpkin served in butter and sage sauce.

Gelato

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.

Read more>>  Our visit to the Gelato Museum and how to know you are eating authentic Italian gelato.

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 Ferrara

gelato at la romana

Where to stay in Ferrara

Hotel Torre Della Vittoria 1928

  • 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

Check availability and book online

Hotel Annunziata

  • Four-star hotel located close to Estense Castle
  • Free wifi and bike rental
  • Private parking
  • Modern hotel with great service

Check availability and book online

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

Walking

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.

By bus

Local buses numbers 1 ,2, 3C, 4C ,9 ,21 operate from the terminal next to the train station.  

By bicycle

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.

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 to keep you going for quite some time.

It is also one of the most underrated 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.

Ferrara tours

In Ferrara: Ferrara Bike Tour

  • 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

Check availability and book online

From Bologna: Private tour to Ferrara

  • Don’t like group tour? 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

Check availability and book online

Italy travel guides

Our favourite guide books for Bologna, Emilia Romagna and Italy.  Click on the images for more information.

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.

Interested in Italian Food?

Read about our local food experiences.

ferrara italy

8 thoughts on “Things to do in Ferrara: Exploring one of Italy’s most beautiful cities”

  1. Paula, Dublin Ireland

    Great write up in Ferrara, thanks Kerri ? I’m considering staying in this beautiful part of Italy next summer for a month or so! Passed through a couple of years ago but didn’t get to flavour enough of it at time, your write up has encouraged me to go back, love Italy, Italian people & their great love of food & living, your an inspiration!!

  2. Hi Paula, thanks so much, I truly appreciate your words. Yes we loved Ferrara and I was so surprised that we hadn’t been there sooner, especially since we had been to Bologna several times and it is so very close. I could have easily spent more time here but alas wasn’t able to, but was very happy with what we did see. Enjoy your travels, wherever you may find yourself.

  3. Hi there!
    I just recently found out that my family from the 1700’s is from Ferrera ! Our surname is Cavalieri. I’m trying to find some relatives there and possibly visit.. been to Italy many times and never heard of Ferrera. I’m so thrilled and on a mission to find my family… can you possibly give me some helpful names or places where I can to ? Grazie!

  4. I was a bit confused by the gelato recommendation of La Romana considering you travel a lot. La Romana is a chain across the whole of Italy that yes is great quality but I would of expected more of a local find from a travel blog.

  5. That is a fair expectation Joe. Whilst we would normally not favour chains, this one was still very good even though it is a chain. What we look for is genuine, artisanal gelato, as opposed to artificially manufactured gelato. All gelato is made onsite here at La Romana and it is indeed true artisinal so in our book, it’s ok. We also went here as we heard that they were making gelato with ruby chocolate, quite a rare inclusion/ingredient. None of the gelato we had was a disappointment. Appreciate your thoughts and for taking the time to write.

  6. Dominique Buono

    Planning a trip to Italy as soon as it is possible. Will like to rent a house near or in Ferrara.

    Could you send me information. Please. Thank you.

    Was going to Italy in May but had to change plans because of the virus.

    thank you ,

    Dominique Buono

  7. HI Dominique, so nice to hear that you are still dreaming of and planning for travel. We actually stayed in Bologna as it’s a favourite of ours so haven’t stayed closer to Ferrara. The Bologna region is not far from Ferrara. However, we’d suggest giving Jo at Bookings for You, a call/email to see if there is anything that she might have available for you. https://bookingsforyou.com/. Stay safe and healthy during this time.

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