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Castello Estense, Ferrara

The Cathedral at Farrara

Old walls of Ferrara

Commachio near Ferrara

Welcome to Ferrara
From Jesse's Journeys in  Italy

Population: 131,907 (2004)
Official website:

Located on a branch of the legendary Po River in Emilia Romagna, Ferrara is an important industrial center of modern Italy (agricultural products, food-processing, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and machinery). 

But Ferrara is also a city with a long, multi-layered history that makes it exceedingly interesting, artistically,  architecturally and culturally. Indeed, in 1999, Unesco declared the city and some parts of the surrounding Po delta area, a World Heritage Site, citing in particular Farrara's almost perfectly preserved Renaissance streets and quarters.

Enter the centro storico - the historical center - where automobiles are banned (except for those with a special permit) and one of the first things you will notice is the incredible number of bicycles.  Indeed, in Ferrara, there are more bicycles than people.

The area, mostly marshy before  reclamation work, was settled by Gaulish tribes people, came under Roman domination, was subjected to the usual depredations of invading barbarians, and then came under Longobard control.  The Longobards were conquered by the Byzantines, who, between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, turned it into a fortified city - or castrum.

Ferrara became an independent comune in 1155 AD but, like other Italian city states of the time, over time came to be ruled by a powerful family, the Este, whose rule lasted for over 300 years (1208-1598).  During this period of time, the old walls were demolished and a new 9 kilometer long ring of walls were built, along with many of the most majestic and important of the buildings which constitute the old city today.

Like other Italian courts of medieval Italy, the Este court, perhaps second only to the Medici court of Florence, patronized many of the leading writers, musicians and artists of the day, including Pisanello, Leon Battista Alberti, Piero della Francesca, Titian, Torquato Tasso, Gerolamo Frescobaldi and others.  During medieval times it was known especially for its musical arts and for the musicians who studied, taught and played in Ferrara.

After Este rule came to an end, Ferrara was absorbed into the Papal States, and went into serious decline until the beginning of the 20th century, when its architectural, artistic and cultural history began to be re-discovered and newly appreciated. 

Ferrara's old city is bisected by two broad avenues, dividing it into quarters.  The dominant buildings within the centro historico are the Duomo di San Giorgio - the cathedral - and the Castello Estense, center of power of the Este rulers.

The cathedral, a blend of Romanesque (lower and side facades) and Gothic (upper front facade) styles, was started in 1115 AD, when the city became a free comune, and was consecrated in 1135 AD.  A diocesan museum, with many more art works and artifacts, sits across the street.

The moated Castello Estense, which was started in 1385 AD, is in the very center of the city.  It has four towers, whose tops were originally square.  The castle was renovated in 1554 AD, at which time, pavilions were added to the tower tops.

Before moving into their castle, the Estes originally held court in the building that is now known as the Palazzo Municipale, which was built in the 13th century.  The exterior characterized by pointed arches, is Gothic, but the interior, remodelled in 1712 is Baroque.  The adjacent bell tower - the campanile - was built in the Renaissance style between 1411 and 1493).  An additional story was added toward the end of the 16th century.

There are a number of interesting, sometimes beautiful palazzos, some big, some small in Ferrara. Those  built during the Renaissance period are especially noteworthy because they retain much of the terracotta decoration that has disappeared or been badly damaged in other cities and towns.  Look particularly in the northern quarter of the centro historico, especially at the north east corner of the main intersection.

The most striking palazzo is the Palazzo dei Diamanti, so named because the stone blocks of its facade are cut in diamond shapes.  The Palazzo houses the National Picture Gallery whose works include masterpieces and lesser works of the so-called School of Ferrara.

One can find important artifacts (coins, choir books, miniatures)and frescoes (life of Borso of Este, zodiacal signs, allegories etc) in the Palazzo Schifanoia (1385).  The Gothic style Palazzo della Ragione (1315-1326) is also worth taking a look at.

Ferrara does not lack for churches and other religious buildings, including many synagogues (and a Jewish museum).  We have noted the Duomo, but among the important churches are those dedicated to San Francesco, San Domenico, San Benedetto, Paolo, San Cristoferor and Santa Maria.

Other buildings worth a peek include the Hospital of Santa Anna and the University of Ferrara.

As pleasant as it is, you don't want to spend all of your time wondering the streets and visiting ancient buildings.   Ferrarese cuisine is wonderful (see side bar) add there are a number of great restaurants and cafes.  Also, if you have the energy for dancing, the nightlife sparkles.

By Vian Andrews, August 31, 2006


4450′N 1137′E


Bologna - 52 km;
Padova - 177 km;
Modena - 90 km;
Vicenza - 119 km;
Venice - 122 km;
Ravenna - 126 km;
Parma - 147 km;
Florence - 155 km;
Milan - 265 km




Ferrara's Coat of Arms


Statue of Savonarola, Ferrara

Girolamo Savonarola died in Ferrara in 1498


Tell us about your trip to Ferrara. What were your favorite places to visit, stay, and dine.  Contribute


Lest one think that architecture, art and religion are the only things on the minds of Ferrarese, it's not.  The local cuisine is not to be missed.  Using ingredients grown or produced on the very fertile Po River valley, travelers can tuck into a wonderful meal selected from a long menu of local dishes.  For a main course, try salama da sugo (pork with spices, herbs and simmered in wine), or  passatelli (thin noodles, cooked in chicken broth), or pasticcio alla ferrarese (sweet bread stuffed with meat sauce and pasta).  The local waters - fresh and saltwater - also disgorge a variety of fish, clam, and scallops which feature largely in the cuisine of the city.

If you have room for dessert you can't go wrong (even if you add a few pounds) with a gorgeous chocolate cake with almonds and candied fruit, called panpepato, or with mandurlin dal point featuring biscuits made from eggs, almonds and sugar.