Any trip to Italy is a treat—with its incredible food, scenery, history, art, and people, it’s easy to see why it’s such a popular travel destination. Sometimes, though, the major destinations can feel a little too popular, so it’s nice to get a little off the beaten track. That’s not to say that Verona is unknown to tourists, but most who visit this beautiful city only stop by for a few hours or a single day to see a couple of major sites on their way from one major city to another. Staying a little longer—for two or three days—offers the chance to experience a wonderful, small city, explore its less-visited attractions and museums, and enjoy some excellent meals.
The Romeo & Juliet Effect
Verona may be best-known as the setting of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Although the play’s characters are fictional, there are ties to real Veronese families of the 14th century—notably the rival Dal Cappello and Montecchi families (which are said to be represented in the play as the Capulet and Montague families). Various sites around the city of Verona have, naturally, capitalized on the famous play.
One of the most popular sites in the city is Casa di Giulietta (Juliette’s House). A complex of buildings in the historic city center, the building was once the seat of the Dal Cappello family and is now a museum dedicated to the myth of the star-crossed lovers. It seemed that most visitors weren’t interested in touring the museum itself, but preferred to take pictures with the Juliet statue in the courtyard, pose on the Juliet balcony (which was added in a building restoration in 1938), and leave love notes and graffiti in the entrance corridor to the courtyard. The museum has a mixed display of period furniture and art as well as Romeo and Juliet movie paraphernalia, but it is not very extensive and we likely wouldn’t have visited if it were not included on the Verona Card.
Verona also boasts “Romeo’s House,” a privately-owned home which once belonged to the Montecchi family as well as “Juliet’s Tomb,” on view at the San Francesco al Corso, a monastery turned museum. The monastery has been identified as the location of the final events of the play, and “Juliet’s Tomb” and has been a pilgrimage site for centuries.
If you’re looking for Romeo and Juliet history in the city, you can certainly find it (or at least some loose ties)—there are themed souvenirs, Shakespeare walking tours, and a bakery selling pastries like baci di Giulietta (Juliet’s kisses) and sospiri di Romeo (Romeo’s sighs). We were pleasantly surprised, however, to see that there is so much more to the city than this one story. Away from Casa di Giulietta, in particular, the fictional characters fade away and you can enjoy Verona for all of the other things that make it great destination.
What to See
The Verona Card is a fantastic initiative that makes visiting the city easier and cheaper for tourists. Available for 24 or 48 hours (timed from your first use of the card), it includes entry to over 20 different museums, monuments, and churches, including popular sites like the Arena, Juliet’s House, Lamberti Tower, and the Archeological Museum. You can buy the Verona Card at any participating attraction and once you have it, you won’t have to wait in any more ticket lines. As a bonus, it’s also valid for free travel on all of the local city buses. At just 22 euros for the 48 hour ticket (summer 2017 price), the card saved us a lot of money and brought us to some sites we might not have otherwise visited.
The city of Verona is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features well-preserved monuments from the full range of its 2,000-year history. The city was an important hub of activity for the Romans and again rose to prominence under the Scaligeri family’s rule in the Middle Ages. Verona was later occupied by France and Austria before joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. As a visitor to Verona today, you can find everything from Roman ruins and medieval castles to grand churches and the old city walls.
Arena di Verona: Verona’s arena was built by the Romans in the first century and originally held 30,000 people. Unlike the Colosseum in Rome, Verona’s arena is missing its outer façade after it crumbled in most places (and was not rebuilt) following a 1117 earthquake. The arena is still used for performances today during the Verona Opera Festival. Entrance is included with the Verona Card—there’s not a great deal to see inside the actual structure (and set-up for the opera can detract from the history of the place) but as a main landmark in Verona it is worth a visit.
Museo Archeologico al Teatro Romano: The archaeological museum is located in a former monastery set on the hill directly above the Roman Theater (entry to the museum is actually through the theater). The museum underwent a recent renovation, and showcases a comprehensive collection of artifacts from the around the region with a focus on Verona’s Roman history. You can also explore the theater on your visit to the museum, but as with the arena, they use the theater for performances and modern seating detracts from the history of the place. We found some of the best views over the Adige River and the historic city center from the terraces at the top of the museum.
Museo di Castelvecchio: Castelvecchio was built by the Scaligeri family in 1355 as a palace and military stronghold (complete with a fortified bridge for escape if necessary). After a series of occupations (and modifications) by a variety of invaders, the building was converted to a museum in the 20th century. The museum today houses an impressive collection of religious and early Renaissance art, and touring the museum also allows you to see more of the structure including the clock tower. The Ponte di Castelvecchio (the fortified bridge) can be accessed without entering the museum.
Verona has a wealth of beautiful churches with an impressive array of art and architecture. Those churches that charge a small admission fee are included on the Verona Card, while others are free. In four of the most popular churches (the first four listed below), a helpful audio guide is included for visitors.
We visited ten churches in Verona and found each one to be a little different from the others. Our favorites included:
Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore: This was our favorite church in Verona and the most unusual as well. Located outside the historic city center (reachable by bus or a longer walk from downtown) it can be a site that’s easy to overlook. Named for the city’s patron saint, the church features a split-level design with the crypt in a lower church and stairs up to the central church. The railing cordoning off the lofted central church is lined with statues, and there are amazing frescos and a colonnaded cloister as well.
Chiesa di San Fermo Maggiore: The Gothic San Fermo is worth visiting for the ceiling alone. The church features an ornate vaulted wooden ceiling (known as a “ship’s hull” ceiling) that includes rows of painted saints peeking out from arches along the length of the nave. There is also a lower church that has frescos dating back to the 11th century. San Fermo houses one of the most impressive pieces of art that we saw—the mausoleum of Nicolò Brenzoni which is a mixed-media creation of sculpture and fresco painting vaulting out of the church wall. Originally it was covered with custom metalwork as well which would have made it all the more impressive!
Chiesa Sant’Anastasia: This is the largest church in Verona and also very popular with visitors due to its central location in the city. Given the church’s size there is an extensive corresponding audio guide detailing all of the art and providing descriptions of the six individual chapels within the church. Immediately next to the entrance to Chiesa Sant’Anastasia is the deconsecrated 14th century Chiesa di San Giorgetto, also worth a look. Confiscated by Napoleon’s soldiers during their occupation of the region in the early 19th century, the church and its frescos have been badly damaged through the years. After being closed for decades during the 20th century (leaving the building subject to humidity and other sources of damage), the church and the remaining frescos underwent restoration between 2004 and 2009.
Cattedrale Santa Maria Matricolare: This church serves as the seat of the Diocese of Verona and dates back to the 12th century. Entry to the complex allows you to view the cathedral itself, plus the smaller Chiesa di Sant’Elena and the baptistery of San Giovanni. Remains of an earlier church are evident under Chiesa di Sant’Elena (and can be viewed through strategic holes in the church floor) and the larger cathedral features a wealth of art, including a well-known Titian painting. The baptistry is a highlight with its octagonal font carved from a single piece or marble which shows chronological scenes from the life of Jesus.
Chiesa Rettoriale Santa Maria Antica: This was the private family church for the Scaligeri family, and is best known not for the church itself but the tombs outside. The exterior courtyard features five ornate 14th century tombs, considered some of the best examples of Gothic art in Italy. Entry to the church is free, and entry to the courtyard containing the tombs is included on the Verona Card.
Torre dei Lamberti: This 84-meter tower was built in 1172 and is the largest tower in Verona today. You can climb the 300+ stairs to the top or take the elevator most of the way for panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains.
Castel San Pietro: Located on the hill above the Museo Archeologico, the castel is easily reached by a short funicular or a longer winding path. We actually preferred the views from the archaeology museum (there were less trees blocking the view), but the castel is a good alternative if you don’t go to the museum. (The castel itself is not open to visitors.)
Where to Eat
Every meal we had in Verona was delicious—fresh homemade pastas, in-season summer vegetables, local meats and seafood (for Andrew) and perfect desserts. Our travel in June provided ideal weather for al fresco dining, and we found that dinner reservations were a must at the more popular restaurants.
Here are the places we sampled:
Ristorante Greppia: Tucked down an alley near Casa di Giulietta, this restaurant had some of the nicest outdoor seating shaded by umbrellas and flowering plants. It seemed nicely off the tourist-track even though it was only steps away from the bustling Via Giuseppe Mazzini.
Osteria Ponte Pietra Ristorante: Osteria Ponte Pietra is nestled next to the Ponte Pietra bridge with a classic dining room indoors and small tables on balconies overlooking the river in the back. We made reservations to make sure we got outdoor seating and had perfect golden-hour views over the Adige to the archaeological museum and Castel San Pietro. Recognized in the most recent Michelin Guide, we found the food and service were excellent and the views couldn’t be beat.
Ristorante Antica Torretta: Close to Ponte Pietra on a quiet piazza, we had a late lunch of fluffy gnocchi with shaved truffle and maccheroni with Cacio e Pepe with rabbit—both of which we would order again!
Ristorante & Enoteca Cangrande: On a side street off of Piazza Bra, we indulged in a multicourse dinner complete with complimentary starters of parmigiano cheese with balsamic vinegar, pasta primi for us both, an octopus secondo for Andrew and tiramisu for dessert. Rick Steves has noted that this is his favorite restaurant in Verona and, accordingly, it seems quite popular—we made reservations in advance for an outside table and saw that they were turning diners away throughout the evening.
Caffè Dante Bistrot: Caffè Dante has been in Piazza dei Signori since 1865 and was once the intellectual gathering place in Verona. We had a great meal of fresh pasta al fresco with a side of people watching—those passing through the piazza and posting for pictures with the Dante statue.
There’s no shortage of gelato shops in the historic city center, but we found two that stood out from the rest. Gelateria Savoia is one of the oldest gelaterias in the city, founded in 1939 and still run by the same family. Located near Piazza Bra and the arena, we found it a very authentic gelateria with an especially delicious pistachio flavor. Come una Volta Gelateria Artigianale Biologica is a much more modern gelateria which we also loved, close to Piazza delle Erbe. All of their flavors are organic and we thought it was some of the creamiest gelato we’ve ever had.
For a mid-morning coffee and pastry, we liked Pasticceria Cordioli, a historic pastry shop a stone’s throw from Casa di Giulietta (but not filled with tourists, offering a nice respite after the mob in Juliet’s courtyard).
Where to Stay
We wanted a budget-friendly hotel in a location where we could walk to everything, and we found both with Hotel Giulietta e Romeo, tucked on a quiet side street just 50 meters from the arena. They offered a comprehensive buffet breakfast, modest and clean rooms, and even had bikes available for hotel guests to take around the city. We found that being just north of the arena allowed us to walk to almost every location we wanted to visit in under 15 minutes, and we were still close enough to several bus stops if we wanted to venture further.
Getting There & Away
Its easy northern Italian location makes getting to Verona simple. Direct flights are available from many European cities to Verona Villafranca Airport, just 10 kilometers outside of the city. Outside the small, efficient terminal, the Aerobus leaves for the Verona Porta Nuova train station every 20 minutes. Tickets are valid for a total of 75 minutes and include the local city buses too, meaning you can get from the airport to any part of the city on the same ticket.
The train is also a convenient way to reach Verona. High-speed trains connect Verona Porta Nuova with nearly every major Italian city: with direct trains, Bologna is under an hour away, Venice and Milan are both just over an hour, Florence is an hour and a half, and you can reach Rome in under three hours. International trains travel direct to Innsbruck (3.5 hours) and Munich (5.5 hours) too.