Verona probably isn’t the first town you’ll think of when planning your vacation to Italy, unless you’re a big fan of Shakespeare. While I haven’t made it further south than Rome, I can honestly say that Verona is my favorite city in the country.
Most people visit Verona for one reason – to see the statue, balcony and tomb of Juliet Capulet. I always thought it was purely a fictional story, but now I find that there might have been some validity behind the tale. Apparently, it was originally written about 500 years ago by an Italian soldier who could also write – a rare talent in those days. It was copied by several other Italian poets before getting translated into other languages. Shakespeare (which I believe is a pseudonym for another notable figure from that time) was several poets late on the chain. There’s even a claim that the house and balcony so prominently featured in the city actually belonged to Juliet’s family, contrary to what I’ve always said about the attraction.
But like I said, there’s so much more to Verona than Juliet. For starters, history and archeology. The first settlers date back to before the Roman Empire. But it was Romans who really built the city up. What started as a small village on the hillside spread to a large city within a large bend of River Adige. With the river on three sides of the city and a large wall – or rather three consecutive walls as the city expanded – to defend the city, it was an important and strategic settlement in the region.
It’s also where they built a giant amphitheater, the third largest in Italy. During ancient times, it could hold up to 30,000 people. Now it’s a little smaller for safety reasons, but with 15,000 seats, the Verona Arena is still the largest open-air opera theater in the world, and a prestigious location for other artists to perform. I had the absolute joy of listening to Elton John while I was in the city. While I didn’t have tickets to the show, I could hear the music clearly from the huge square nearby.
Over the years, spectacular churches, opulent villas and defensive castles were built on top of the Roman ruins. If I understood my tour correctly, the city went through three major architectural stages – medieval, Austrian and Venetian – after the Romans. I was surprised to hear that Renaissance wasn’t one of them, but it seems there’s only one building in the city built in that style. The rest of the Renaissance Revival was limited to cities further south.
There are four churches that really steal the show – the Cathedral, the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore, the Chiesa di Santa Anastasia and the Church of San Fermo Maggiore. They are all awe-inspiring in their own right. Among other things: the Church of Saint Anastasia has a masterpiece fresco, the Cathedral is simply massive and incredibly decorated, and the Church of Saint Fermo Maggiore has one of the largest unsupported wooden roofs in Europe.
The list of attractions just goes on and on. There are five more churches to explore north of the river in what is called Veronetta (Little Verona). This part of town once had a bend of the river that flowed through it. Here, you can take the funicular up to Castel San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Castle) for some great views of town, or ride the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour to the Santuario della Nostra Signora di Lourdes (a beautiful church on the hill) for an even better panorama. Then again, you can climb the Torre dei Lamberti (Lamberti Tower) right in the center of town for the best views.
I haven’t even touched upon the food yet, but that’s just a given. Not a century and a half ago, Italy was several separate regions each with its own dialect, customs and cuisine. Verona was one of them, and the food there is just exceptional. While you can still find fantastic pizzas, pasta and paninis, the city is famous for its meat platters and wines. Make sure to try an Amarone wine as soon as you can.
To fully explore Verona, make sure you get the Verona Card which will get you into all the attractions listed above and several more. Get the two-day option too, as you’ll never be able to fit everything into a single day. I’d say the summer is the best time to visit, but I really think there’s never a bad time to walk through the streets of Verona. I’ve been there in the rains and I enjoyed it just as much (or perhaps more so due to the smaller crowds). It’s just a perfect Italian town that you’re sure to fall in love with too.