8 Top Tourist Attractions in Modena & Easy Day Trips
The Celtic settlement lying astride the important ancient Via Emilia became a Roman colony in 183 BC, and in 1288 came into the hands of the great house of Este. When that ruling family was forced to leave Ferrara in 1598, they moved their capital here. Modena's town center of wide arcaded streets and large squares, as well as its palatial buildings and gardens are largely due to the Estes, as are many of the city's considerable art treasures. The beautiful ensemble of the cathedral, Piazza Grande, and the Ghirlandina Tower are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, perhaps Modena is best known to sports car fans as the birthplace of auto manufacturer Enzo Ferrari and to food-lovers as the source of the finest balsamic vinegar, aged for decades in wooden barrels.
See also: Where to Stay in Modena
Just off Via Emilia, named for the old Roman road it follows, stands the imposing cathedral, a Romanesque basilica begun in 1099 and completed in the 13th century. The work of architect Lanfranco and master sculptor Wiligelmo, it is one of the finest masterpieces of European Romanesque, with both its exterior and interior decorated by beautiful stone carving. A magnificent 13th-century rose window highlights the facade, marble lions support the porticus, and reliefs beside the main door and above the side doors are among the earliest Romanesque sculptures in Italy. Inside are 13th-century sculptures of the Passion on the choir screen and the pulpit, a pair of deeply carved lecterns, and especially fine medieval stone carving in capitals and deep-relief panels. The crypt, whose roof is supported by 30 slender columns, has a realistic group, Adoration of the Infant Christ, sculpted by Guido Mazzoni sometime after 1480.
Address: Piazza Grande, Modena
2 Torre Ghirlandina
On the north side of the cathedral, Torre Ghirlandina rises 88 meters above Piazza del Torre. The tower is slightly off the perpendicular, but it's one of the finest campaniles in northern Italy, originally built for defensive purposes, and only four stories high. These older levels are decorated with bas-reliefs of knights, ladies, monsters, sirens, and other themes. Upper levels were added in the 13th and 14th centuries. This distinctive city landmark is part of the UNESCO citation.
Address: Piazza del Torre, Modena
Although its façade is not especially memorable, the interior of the 13th-century church of Sant'Agostino was completely transformed into the Baroque style in 1663, at the behest of a duchess. She commissioned it as a memorial to her husband and as a future pantheon for the Este family, and saw that it was richly decorated with stuccos, statues, busts, and bas-reliefs glorifying - or at least referring to -- the house of Este. Highlights are the painted and coffered ceiling, the carved and gilded 17th-century wooden altar in the right transept, and a fresco from the old church, Madonna of Consolation with Child, attributed to Tommaso da Modena underneath the right side of the choir. To the right of the entrance is Lamentation, an early work by Antonio Begarelli, the major Renaissance sculptor in the Emilia region.
Address: Via Emilia, Modena
4 Palazzo dei Musei
One large palace houses several municipal museums around a courtyard where the province's best collection of Roman lapidary finds, including sarcophagi, are displayed. The range of these collections is outstanding, covering Modena history, fine and decorative arts, and local culture. Among these are musical instruments, embellished leathers, glass, decorated maps, weapons, paintings, and sculptures. Particularly outstanding are the collections of porcelains from the 15th to the 18th centuries, historic scientific instruments, and more than 2,000 examples of early textiles, including fabrics, lace, embroidery, and other techniques. Works by Modena artists from the Middle Ages to modern include those by Tommaso da Modena. There are extensive Bronze Age finds and artifacts from Etruscan, Celtic, and Roman settlements.
Address: Viale Vittorio Veneto 5, Modena
5 Museo Enzo Ferrari
The house where Enzo Ferrari was born, and the adjoining contemporary exhibit hall, tell about his life and work through multimedia exhibits, an art gallery, and an extensive collection of the racing cars themselves. If you are especially interested in Ferrari cars and their history, take advantage of the shuttle bus directly to another Ferrari-related tourist attraction: the Museo Ferrari in Maranello, 19 kilometers from Modena.
Address: Via Paolo Ferrari 85, Modena
6 Villa San Donnino
Balsamic is made from fresh grapes, which are cooked almost to a syrup and aged in wooden barrels to mellow and improve in flavor for two decades or more. The balsamic made at Villa San Donnino is not mass-produced, but a fine aged product to use on fresh fruits or to sprinkle onto freshly cut Parmesan. You can visit this small family producer for tours and tastings of some of the best, protected by a DOP designation. There are larger producers in Modena, but a tour here is particularly enjoyable.
Address: Strada Medicina 25, Modena
7 Giardini Pubblici
Today, the former ducal gardens of the Este palace are a public park. A highlight is the botanic garden, begun in 1758 and filled with rare and exotic plants. A villa, built in 1634 by the architect Gaspare Vigarini for the dukes of Este, was originally a greenhouse and winter garden. Renovated in the 1700s, it is now used by the Galleria Civica for exhibitions of contemporary art.
8 San Francesco
This church, dedicated to St. Francis, was begun by the Franciscan friars in 1244 and took more than two centuries to complete. Soon after, in 1535, it and the adjoining monastery were completely restructured. Along with a fine Deposition of Christ, the highlight of the interior art is a group of 13 terracotta statues created about 1523 by Begarelli. In the adjoining courtyard is a fountain with a mid-20th-century bronze of St. Francis preaching to the fish.
Address: Rua Frati Minori 19 (corner of Corso Canalchiaro), Modena
Where to Stay in Modena for Sightseeing
We recommend these delightful hotels and guesthouses in Modena with easy access to the top attractions:
- Best Western Premier Milano Palace Hotel: 4.5-star hotel, near Ferrari museum, contemporary style, chromotherapy tubs, spa with hot tub and sauna.
- Hotel Cervetta 5: 3-star hotel, heart of the old town, friendly staff, comfortable rooms, free healthy breakfast.
- Salotto delle Arti: mid-range bed-and-breakfast, fantastic location, welcoming owner, charming decor, period furniture.
- B&B Ai Prati: budget bed-and-breakfast, short drive to town, country setting, friendly owners, delicious breakfast.
Day Trips from Modena
North of Modena, Carpi spreads around the large Piazza dei Martiri, where you'll find the new cathedral (begun 1514), the loggia, 15th-century colonnades (52 arches), and the old Castello of the Pio family, who ruled here from 1327 to 1525. This sprawling complex of towers, turrets, and fortresses was built from 1312 through the 17th century. Museums housed inside include Renaissance art shown in the period ducal apartments. These include the Sala dei Mori and Cappella dei Pio, with early 16th-century frescoes. Behind the Castello is La Sagra, the old cathedral founded in 751, whose Romanesque interior features a 12th-century pulpit, remains of 12th-century nave frescoes, and 15th-century frescoes. The adjoining campanile was built in 1221.
Abbazia di Nonantola
Founded at the small town of Nonantola in the eighth century and dedicated to St. Sylvester, Abbazia di Nonantola was destroyed several times by fire and rebuilt. The latest building, completed in Romanesque style in the 12th century, was restored in the 20th century. The south aisle of the abbey church is decorated with 15th-century wall paintings by a master of Modena. The church treasury includes manuscripts with miniatures and gold work; be sure to notice the relief on the doorway with scenes from the Gospels and episodes from the history of the abbey. The vault of the crypt is supported by 64 small columns with decorated capitals.