10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Ravenna
Ravenna is like no other place in Italy, and the magnificence of its mosaics will leave you breathless - and with a stiff neck. Because Ravenna was the seat of sixth-century king Theodoric the Great, who had been brought up in Constantinople, and later, the seat of a Byzantine governor, the artistic influences here were heavily Byzantine. Ravenna became a center for intricate mosaic work, which achieved some of its greatest heights here. An astonishing amount of exquisite mosaics survive, most of them in seven buildings that form, along with the Tomb of Theodoric, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The greatest danger is becoming overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of mosaics, so that by the time you reach the last places, you simply cannot absorb any more. For this reason, it's a good idea to plan your visit over two separate days. But however you see Ravenna, you'll agree that it is unique among Italy's tourist attractions.
1 Neonian Baptistery
A good place to begin, both geographically and historically is this early fifth-century brick baptistery in the heart of the city. The octagonal building is one of the oldest in Ravenna, and considered to be the finest and most complete example of early Christian baptistery surviving today. Intricate mosaics line its entire dome, culminating in a large mosaic medallion at the top picturing the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.
Address: Piazza Duomo 1, Ravenna
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ravenna
2 San Vitale
Don't be misled by the plain, somewhat drab exterior of San Vitale; the interior more than makes up for it. Step into the octagonal church, built in the first half of the 6th century, and behold one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Western Europe. Apart from a few Baroque frescoes added to the dome, the entire decoration is in mosaic, but the height makes its tiny tesserae blend together (as the artist intended) so they look like paintings. Only the luminous colors and liberal use of gold betray their secret. The 6th-century mosaics in the choir apse portray Justinian, his wife Theodora and their court; Christ is shown flanked by St. Vitalis (on the left) and St. Ecclesius. These mosaics are the largest and best preserved display outside of Constantinople itself.
Address: Via Argentario 22, Ravenna
3 Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
From the soaring, bright, and almost overwhelming grandeur of San Vitale, step into the intimate afterworld of Galla Placidia, sister of the Emperor Honorius. It will take your eyes a minute or two to adjust to the dim light filtering through windows of sliced translucent agate into the vaulted cross-shaped mausoleum. The low arches and domes are lined with fifth-century mosaics made of the tiniest of tesserae, the figures in contrast against a deep blue background. Over the door, Christ appears as the Good Shepherd, surrounded by mosaic sheep. Look for the apostles and for symbols of the four evangelists - the lion, eagle, ox, and angel. The marble sarcophagi are thought to be those of Galla Placidia, her husband and son, all of whom died in the fifth century. The UNESCO citation calls this "the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect."
Address: Via Argentario 22, Ravenna
4 Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
The walk across town to Sant'Apollinare Nuovo not only gives you time to rest your eyes, but to skip to the 6th century, when Theodoric had this basilica built as his cathedral. The walls of the long single nave are decorated with mosaics showing ships in the nearby Roman port of Classis on the left, and on the right Ravenna, with its churches and Theodoric's palace. Take advantage of the chairs along the wall to look up at the mosaics high on the walls above, showing saints, prophets, and New Testament scenes. Before leaving, step into the cloister to see the fascinating exhibits on the creation of mosaics, where you can see the materials and techniques, along with samples of the almost infinite gradations of color the artists work with.
Address: Via di Roma 52, Ravenna
5 Basilica di San Francesco
About halfway between the Neonian Baptistery and Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, the Franciscan church of San Francesco is easy to spot for its tall 10th-century Romanesque tower. It's worth a stop for several reasons, not the least of which is the spooky flooded crypt. Look also for the 16th-century stone columns carved by Tullio Lombardo and in the left aisle for frescoes by the early 14th-century painter Pietro da Rimini. In the churchyard, it's hard to miss the large tomb of Dante, the great Italian writer who was the first to promote the use of a single Italian language. Prior to Dante, who died here in 1321, residents of different regions in Italy couldn't understand each other and travelers needed to ask directions in several different languages. Today's tourists should at least stop to say thank you, and maybe visit the little Museo Dantesco Address:
- Basilica: Piazza San Francesco 1, Ravenna
- Dante Museum: Via Dante Alighieri 4, Ravenna
6 Museo Nazionale (National Museum)
Adjoining San Vitale, the museum housed in the cloisters of the former Benedictine Monastery has excellent collections of carved ivories, textiles from the Coptic to Renaissance periods, icons, and ancient weapons. Particularly interesting is a cycle of 14th-century frescoes of Santa Chiara from the convent church of the Poor Clares in Ravenna.
Address: Via San Vitale 17, Ravenna
7 Arcivescovado (Archbishop's Palace)
Near the cathedral and Neonian Baptistery is the Archbishop's Palace, inside which is the Archiepiscopal Chapel, one of the eight Ravenna attractions cited by UNESCO. The bishops' private oratory, built around the turn of the sixth century, is in the shape of a Greek cross. The lower walls are covered in marble, above which are mosaics. Also in the palace, a small museum holds a sixth-century Egyptian throne with reliefs of carved ivory.
Address: Piazza Arcivescovado 1, Ravenna
8 Tomb of Theodoric
When your eyes and neck weary of mosaics, give them a rest by walking to Ravenna's only UNESCO-cited attraction without a single tessera. At the north end of Via Roma stands the early 6th-century tomb Theodoric planned for himself, a monumental two-story rotunda. This remarkable piece of late Roman architecture is built of marble and capped by a single stone more than 10 meters in diameter, weighing around 3,000 tons. The walk is about 800 meters, but you can also take bus number 5, 18, or 90 from the railway station.
Address: Via delle Industrie 14, Ravenna
9 Arian Baptistery
The small octagonal brick baptistery that Theodoric built next to his cathedral later became an oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary called Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Although part of the UNESCO site, the remaining sixth-century mosaics in the dome depicting the Baptism of Christ have been greatly restored over the centuries. Surrounding the baptismal scene are mosaic images of the Twelve Apostles and a throne with a cross.
Address: Piazzetta degli Ariani, Ravenna
10 Sant' Apollinare in Classe
About six kilometers south of Ravenna's center on the road to Rimini, the imposing round campanile of Sant' Apollinare in Classe stands high above the flat landscape. Built in the mid-sixth century, just outside Ravenna's ancient Roman port of Classis, the church is decorated by the last examples of the city's mosaics, commissioned between 673 and 679. These add to the earlier mosaics completed when it was built. If you think you've seen the panel in the apse showing the commissioning bishop Reparatus with Emperor Constantine IV before, you have: it is clearly imitating the one of Emperor Justinian in San Vitale. In the aisles, marble sarcophagi of archbishops show the changes in styles between the fifth and eighth centuries. Notice the bronze window-grating in the crypt. For a historical treasure hunt, look for the ancient pagan tombstones that were reused in the church's construction.
Address: Via Romea Sud 224, Ravenna
Other Places of Interest
San Giovanni Evangelista
Northeast of Sant' Apollinare, near the station, which suffered heavy damage during the Second World War, the church of San Giovanni Evangelista was founded by Galla Placidia in 424 and rebuilt in its original form after severe war damage. It has a particularly fine campanile.
Address: Via Carducci 10, Ravenna
Ravenna's history, art, and tourist attractions are inseparably entwined. Even before it became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, Ravenna's port of Classis was important as the base of the Roman Adriatic fleet under Emperor Augustus. But it reached even greater heights when Emperor Honorius moved his court here from Milan in 402, making Ravenna the capital of the entire Western Roman Empire. Honorius and his sister, Galla Placidia, embarked on a building program and established the city as a center of mosaic art to embellish them. At the end of the fifth century, king of the Ostrogoths Theodoric the Great, who had grown up in Constantinople, made Ravenna his capital and built several more churches and a royal palace. Ravenna was later the seat of the Byzantine governor, then ruled in turn by the Lombards, regional princes, Venice, and the pope, but its architectural and artistic treasures survived almost intact.