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12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Modena

Written by Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Nov 17, 2020

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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. Visiting the Ferrari museum and balsamic vinegar tastings are two of the most popular things to do in Modena, but you can find plenty more places to visit with this handy list of the top attractions in Modena.

See also: Where to Stay in Modena

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Cathedral

Modena Cathedral on Piazza Grande
Modena Cathedral on Piazza Grande

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. Museo Enzo Ferrari

Museo Enzo Ferrari
Museo Enzo Ferrari | Jay Sobel / photo modified

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.

Semi-professional simulators give visitors a taste of what it's like to drive a Prancing Horse F1 single-seater, with a choice of some of the world's most famous tracks, including Monza, Silverstone, and Barcelona.

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

Official site: http://museomodena.ferrari.com

3. Piazza Grande UNESCO World Heritage Site

Piazza Grande
Piazza Grande

Overlooked by the cathedral and the Ghirlandina Tower, both also included in the UNESCO World Heritage designation, Piazza Grande is a huge public space at the heart of Modena. Even before the great cathedral was built, this was the center of civil and ecclesiastic power: the funeral for the city's patron Saint Geminiano was held here in 397.

The richly carved portal and columns of the cathedral form one side; the municipal building another, with its deep 17th-century portico that shelters café and restaurant tables. The ceiling is painted with constellations. The brick Palazzo dell'Arcivescovado forms another side, where you can see memorials to members of the Resistance who were executed in the square in 1944.

4. Villa San Donnino

Balsamic vinegar barrels
Balsamic vinegar barrels

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

Official site: http://www.villasandonnino.com/

5. Torre Ghirlandina

Torre Ghirlandina
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. You can climb the tower for views of the city; note that there are small windows in the wire mesh that you can open to take pictures.

Address: Piazza del Torre, Modena

6. Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti

Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti
Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti

You don't need to be an opera fan to enjoy a look inside the home of the famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti. The villa is furnished as his home, but filled with mementos and artifacts of his public and private life. You'll see costumes from his various operatic roles, awards, photographs, and family snapshots, as you browse through the rooms.

Pavarotti was also an artist, and his paintings are displayed throughout the villa. His voice, singing some of his best-known arias and songs, fills the house with music, and there are videos that are not shown elsewhere.

Address: Stradello Nava 6, 41126, Modena

Official site: http://www.casamuseolucianopavarotti.it/

7. Galleria Estense and Palazzo dei Musei

Palazzo dei Musei
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 and weapons, paintings, and sculptures.

Paintings and sculptures in the Galleria Estense include works by Velázquez, El Greco, Correggio, Bassano, Tintoretto, and Bernini, as well as Flemish and German artists. 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. Ask for the English brochure when you enter the Palazzo dei Musei.

Address: Largo Porta Sant'Agostino 337, Modena

8. Mercato Albinelli

Colorful heirloom squash at the Mercato Albinelli
Colorful heirloom squash at the Mercato Albinelli

Modena's covered market is not Italy's biggest, but it is one of the most colorful, and represents well Modena's reputation as a center for the finest food products. Here, you'll find local specialties that include the region's famous balsamic vinegars and cured meats, as well as Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses and tortellini. Colorful, fresh produce from local farms reflects the seasons.

There are places to eat inside (the market is open from early morning until 2:30pm), and ready-to-eat foods suggest picnics in the Giardini Pubblici.

In addition to the shops inside, the market itself is worth seeing, built in the 1920s in the Art Nouveau style, with intricate wrought-iron gates and decorative details. Opening in 1931, it replaced the open-air marketplace in the Piazza Grande.

Address: Via Albinelli and via Mondatora, Modena

9. Sant'Agostino

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

10. Abbazia di Nonantola

Abbazia di Nonantola
Abbazia di Nonantola

About 10 kilometers from the center of Modena in the small town of Nonantola, Abbazia di Nonantola was founded in the eighth century and dedicated to St. Sylvester. The abbey was destroyed several times by fire and rebuilt. The latest building, completed in Romanesque style in the 12th century, was restored in the early 20th century. In 1212, the abbey was badly damaged by an earthquake, and restorations continued until 2018.

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 and exquisite reliquary boxes in silver and ivory; 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 ninth-century capitals.

11. Giardini Pubblici

Giardini Pubblici
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, its interior was painted in the 19th century by Ferdinando Manzini. It is now used for exhibitions by the Galleria Civica, one of Italy's premier centers for contemporary art.

12. San Francesco

San Francesco
San Francesco

This church, dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, 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 terra-cotta statues created about 1523 by sculptor Antonio 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 highly rated hotels and guesthouses with easy access to the top tourist attractions and things to do in Modena:

  • Luxury Hotels: Near Modena's popular Ferrari museum, the 4.5-star Best Western Premier Milano Palace Hotel has contemporary-style rooms, and a spa with a hot tub and sauna. The hotel is about a 10-minute walk from the main attractions.

    Only five minutes from Piazza Grande and the UNESCO attractions and three from Galleria Albanese, the boutique hotel VittorioVeneto25 is in a quiet central neighborhood with free public parking. There is no elevator, but two of the rooms are at entry level, so request these if stairs are a problem.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: The elegantly appointed PHI Hotel Canalgrande is the only 4-star hotel in the historic center, a six-minute walk from the cathedral and Piazza Grande. Guest rooms feature coffee makers and blackout curtains; breakfast is included in the rate. Although the hotel is in a pedestrian zone, parking permits are available to guests arriving by car.

    The 3-star Hotel Cervetta 5 is also in the heart of the old town, two minutes from the cathedral. Most of the simply furnished modern rooms are spacious, some with small balconies; the included breakfast is buffet-style and includes healthy options. There is no elevator.
  • Budget Hotels: Highly rated hotels are hard to find in the city center, and most are in the higher price ranges. But the hospitable Room & Breakfast Canalino 21 is a two-minute walk from Piazza Grande, with guest rooms in a nicely modernized older building. A full kitchen is available to guests all day, but rooms share a bathroom.

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imagePlaces to Go near Modena: You'll find plenty of places to visit near Modena, which sits on a major Autostrada about halfway between Bologna, with its historic and gastronomic attractions, and Parma, home of the great Renaissance artist Correggio and of composer Giuseppe Verde.

imageWhere to Go from Modena: After visiting the highlights of the Reggio-Emilia region, head north to Verona, where you'll find a well-preserved Roman arena and traces of the Venetian Empire. To kick back in the relaxed holiday atmosphere of lakeside villages, continue on to nearby Lake Garda.

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