How to spend three perfect days in Italy’s most delicious region
We love Emilia-Romagna. A treasure trove of elegant mediaeval cities and incredible history, meticulous craftsmanship and cool cars (this is the land of Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini), the region is one of our favourites to explore. The fact it boasts some of the tastiest food in Italy – hello Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, Prosciutto di Parma – is an added plus of course, and makes every trip there utterly delicious (it’s no wonder we launched our FichISSIMO Monopoly in one of its crown cities last year: Modena).
To dive deeper into Emilia-Romagna, we joined forces with travel photographer, creative and blogger Madeline Lu in early September and asked her to share her ideal three-day itinerary to this tantalising destination.
Combine it with some of our very own Monopoly recs for the region (you have to get the game first!), and you’ll be an Emilia expert in no time.
With a name that means ‘pleasant place’ (Placentia, from the Romans) and a strategic location (I flew into Milan and drove just over one hour to get there), Piacenza is the perfect point of entry to Emilia-Romagna. It’s mellow and quiet, almost reserved, and not over-crowded with tourists, which I loved.
Don’t be fooled by its timid appearance though: this picturesque town is actually home to interesting museums and over 100 churches, some still dedicated to worship, others deconsecrated and transformed into cool antique dealers’ shops.
My personal favourite – and the one you must visit – is Piacenza Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral built between 1122 and 1233, and one of the most valuable examples of a Romanesque cathedral in northern Italy. It’s a sight to behold, not to mention testimony to the city’s long and storied history. Look up, and marvel at the octagonal dome decorated by 17th century frescoes by Guercino, then turn your attention to the tiles bearing the symbols of the Mediaeval guilds that participated economically in the building of this church.
On the northern side of the centro storico, the Musei Civici di Palazzo Farnese – a stately palace started in 1558 but never fully completed – host a crop of interesting collections, from the Pinacoteca (art gallery), to an exhibit of carriages (one of the largest in Italy!), to make you feel like you’ve just stepped onto the set of a period drama. Stop by, then keep strolling Piacenza’s alleys to soak in its Gothic vibes.
Done walking? Don’t leave without having tried Piacenza’s most famous product: salame! Or shall I say salami: Coppa Piacentina DOP “La Regina”; pancetta Piacentina DOP “La Castellana”; and salame Piacentino DOP “Il Principe.” Only in Italy can a tiny town make three amazing cold cuts worth a DOP appellation (‘protected designation of origin,’ aka the certification that ensures that products are locally grown and packaged in Italy).
STAY: In a castle! I checked in at the Hotel Torre di San Martino, part of Castello di Rivalta, a historic stone property 20 minutes away from Piacenza that’s been in the same family for over 800 years. It’s as idyllic as it gets, and a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of the big cities. The castle itself can be visited, and I’d recommend you do – the whole place is incredibly charming.
I loved Parma. I loved its array of family-run shops and indie boutiques,chic ladies and gents riding bikes, incredible food and beautiful, even regal architecture. This is the Italy I like the most: no chain stores or cookie-cutter streets, but real character, craftsmanship, and pride in doing things the old-fashioned way. Whatever you do in Emilia-Romagna, make sure to spend some time here.
Morning should be spent visiting the landmarks and sights – I did so with Sara Dallacasagrande, a super knowledgeable guide from Food Valley Travel. I don’t usually use private guides when I travel, but I am so glad I did this time, as I got to really delve into the history of Parma.
Go to the Baptistery, an octagonal pink-marble marvel that’s a hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic, with a stunning interior featuring marble columns and coloured 13th-century frescoes in the Byzantine style. Next to it is the Duomo, another masterpiece that looks quite sombre from the outside but it’s highly ornate inside, with a dome painted with Antonio da Correggio’s Assunzione della Vergine(Assumption of the Virgin) and a gilded pulpit that’s the definition of Baroque.
Stop for coffee at the beautiful Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati, a restored palazzo that serves also as a hotel right in Piazza del Duomo, then sit down for lunch at La Filoma, a classic trattoria that’s been around since the 1920s (it used to be a beloved post-Opera dining spot back then). Before the next leg of your Parma experience, send a postcard home from Parma’s majestic central Post Office, housed in what used to be a theatre and a former Borbone dwelling.
Emilia-Romagna, of course, isn’t just history – which is why you should dedicate your afternoon to the other, major, draw of this region: its food (and wine).
You could tour Prosciuttificio Galloni, a family-run manufacturing company that’s been making top-quality Parma ham for generations (it’s a 40-minute drive from Parma centre), where the friendly staff will happily guide you through the craft and dedication that go into the perfect slice of ham. Traditional methods rule here, and you’ll be amazed to see the quality control and strict standards of the entire process.
Or you could head to the wine estate Venturini Baldini, which produces the typical Lambrusco wine (I stayed at their pretty boutique Relais Roncolo 1888, set in a restored 1500s villa). Vineyards surrounded by cypresses will remind you of Tuscany, but the red wine – long a symbol of the region and its proclivity for socialisation – will take you right to the soul of Emilia.
Venturini Baldini does aceto balsamico too (under the name Acetaia di Canossa) which you can find on ISSIMO.
ColtISSIMO: Labirinto del Masone
Near Parma, don’t miss the Labirinto Della Masone (Mason Labyrinth), a cultural park and arts complex built by late publisher and editor Franco Maria Ricci in 2005. Make sure to stop by its BelliSSIMO on-site boutique!
ColtISSIMO: Palazzo della Pilotta
Like a local Louvre, this former palace houses museums devoted to art and archaeology.
BuonISSIMO: Antica Corte Pallavicina
A rustic-chic restaurant with an excellent wine cellar, set in a 14th century castle.
Modena & Bologna
A new day, a new gastronomic adventure. The last day of your Emilia-Romagna jaunt should be all about tasting as many traditional ingredients, recipes and treats as this region has to offer – starting with Modena’s famous balsamic vinegar at Acetaia Giusti. The story of this producer is short of incredible: the Giusti family has been in business since 1605 – that’s right! –passing down the same guarded recipe for generations. Doing a tasting here is akin to doing a wine tasting at a historical winery, and an experience you shouldn’t miss.
Fun fact: whenever a new Giusti baby is born, the family makes a balsamic vinegar bottle just for him or her, which they’ll be given once they reach adulthood. Sweet, right?
If you’ve ever wondered how tortellini (Emilia-Romagna’s most classic pasta) are made, Tortellante is the place to sate your curiosity. A project founded by Chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore in 2016, it’s a lab where autistic teenagers and adults learn to make fresh pasta by hand with the help of local nonne, fostering autonomy and involving the whole community. Many of the best-looking tortellini are then used at Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana (another ISSIMO Monopoly stop), which I think makes Tortellante even more special.
Visit – and if you’re looking for a place to hunker down in style, do consider Gilmore’s gorgeous Casa Maria Luigia, not far from here – then book lunch at Cavallino.
Serving gourmet fare in stylish, memorabilia-filled surroundings, the restaurant was opened by automaker Enzo Ferrari in 1950, and today is a cool trattoria run by, you guessed it, Bottura. A must.
A quick stop at the Parmigiano-Reggiano factory of Castelnovese will leave you with newfound respect for the delicious cheese, but before you decide to just keep eating parmesan for the rest of the day, get back in the car (more on this later!) and head to Bologna.
Known as “La Dotta” – it hosts the oldest university in the Western world – “La Grassa,” because of its renowned cuisine, and “la Rossa” for its stunning red clay rooftops and left-leaning politics, Bologna is an underrated gem whose centro storico begs to be discovered. I wish I had more time here: from its portici (a series of arched arcades that unravel under historic buildings), to its iconic Torre degli Asinelli, (the tallest leaning mediaeval tower in the world) there’s a lot to see and eat, and that’s what I’ll focus on during my next trip.
STAY: The Grand Hotel Majestic, Bologna’s only five-star hotel and a favourite of touring celebrities and business travellers alike. As the name suggests, it’s over-the-top, delightfully so.
WORD TO THE WISE: Stay longer than three days! The people of Emilia-Romagna are among Italy’s most hospitable, meaning you’ll always, always end up staying in any place longer than you had originally planned. Forget the idea of a tight schedule, and just take your time. Slow is the word of the day here.
BEST WAY TO GET AROUND: A car, no doubt. I rented a sporty Yellow Fiat 500 Abarth from Canossa Events and had a ball driving around.
BellISSIMO: Capperi di Casa
In Modena, stop by Capperi di Casa, a superb 20th century furniture and home accessories store.
ColtISSIMO: Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita
Pop by this late-Baroque style Roman Catholic church in central Bologna, to admire the outstanding pietà by Nicola dell’Arca, “Sorrow over Dead Christ.”
In business since 1932, this deli and wine bar is a Bologna institution.