Verona is Italy’s definitive ‘48 hours’ destination. The vast majority of the city’s visitors stay for just two nights, and tend to roll in at the weekend. They are usually romantics, of course, lured here by Verona’s most famous couple – a certain Romeo Montague and his beloved Juliet Capulet. Ill-starred (and underage) Shakespeare’s pair may have been, but their passionate tale has proven irresistible to many generations of Veronese visitors – many of whom have left their own lovers’ marks on the city. One of Verona’s most memorable sights is not the balcony-adorned ‘Juliet’s house’, but the passageway through which you reach it, where thousands of modern-day lovers have scrawled a dense, tangled palimpsest of enamoured graffiti. ‘Gianni e Paola’, ‘Silvia y Jose’, ‘Lucy-n-Dave togetha 4 eva’, ‘Nancy ich liebe dich.’ The words seethe over each other, layer upon lovesick layer. Clearly, Verona is a world pilgrimage site for the besotted.
Touching too are the inscribed padlocks hanging like bunches of iron grapes from the city’s most decorative bridge, the Ponte Pietra. These are not unique to Verona, of course, and can be seen elsewhere in Italy. The idea is that you write your names together on a padlock, clamp it to a bridge or similarly immovable object, and throw the key into the water or over the cliff-edge or whatever. The message is clear: our love is here to stay, and can’t be undone. Initially regarded as vandalism by city officials and hacked off with iron cutters, the padlocks have now become something of an attraction in themselves. A sort of urban art-installation, reminding passersby that love conquers all.
But of course there’s more to Verona than love. There’s even more to Verona than loveliness. The walled city centre may be a delight, but move much beyond the centro storico and you’ll discover that Verona sprawls in a functional rather than attractive fashion – its modern expansion making it the largest city in the Veneto after Venice. Forty-eight hours perfectly allows you to see the best, and ignore the rest. Come midweek if you want the pick of hotels, or book well ahead and join the happy weekending throng. Note that Verona never feels too swamped with visitors, even on a summer weekend. There’s always ample space to stroll hand-in-hand, and to stop and smooch on street corners.
The best way to explore central Verona is on foot. Flat and largely car-free, it’s a pleasure to wander. Like Venice a few miles away, much of Verona’s appeal lies in its back alleys and side streets, in incidental buildings and interesting architectural features noticed along the way. Exotic elements often pepper the scene. You might come across a strawberry-red townhouse sporting floridly Arabic window-frames filled with filigree shutters. Or an Alpine-looking home with a rustic painted frieze parading under its dark wooden eaves. Perhaps it’s just because the celebrated scene from Romeo and Juliet has planted it in your mind, but Verona does seem to have an exceptional number of beautiful balconies – festooned with flowers, fashioned from curlicued wrought iron or delicately carved from stone. They catch your attention time and again, and inevitably set you mumbling “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?”
As well as its charming domestic buildings, central Verona abounds with decorative towers, rooftop statues, swallowtail crenellations and other municipal eye-pleasers. The city’s many monuments and churches are spaced at regular intervals too, so it’s easy to plot a point-by-point route round Verona, taking in lots of minor lanes and side streets along the way. Thanks to the Romans, the city streets are mostly grid-planned, so it’s easy to point yourself in one general direction and eventually get where you’re going – without some winding medieval lane tricking you off on a careering tangent. Most visitor sites are open until 7:30pm every day, so you can stroll at a leisurely pace too, without having to race round trying to catch everything before it closes. Pick up a free tourist map from one of the three well-run Tourist Information Offices and get roaming.
The natural starting point for any Veronese stroll, and the obvious heart of town, is Piazza Bra’ – perhaps the loveliest place in all Verona, with a permanent holiday atmosphere. On one side of the square, a sweep of pavement cafés and restaurants hugs a tiny central park complete with audibly splashing fountain. On another side, a giant pair of aqueduct-style arches boldly straddles a modest flow of traffic. A third side is presided over by the serene, column-fronted Palazzo Municipale, while a fourth is consumed by Verona’s chief marvel: a majestic, 2,000-year old Roman amphitheatre – the third largest ever built. Crowds of up to 30,000 used to gather here to watch gladiators fight for their lives. Today the venue is best known for its less bloody but no less passionate opera festival, which spectacularly fills this venerable ring with singing every summer.
From Piazza Bra’, you should meander slowly towards the bustling Piazza delle Erbe – hemmed in by its striking buildings – and then into the strange, celestial calm of the Piazza dei Signori next door. While the former piazza is all shopping stalls and street life, the latter is all proud palazzos and statuary. From here, weave a happy path towards Verona’s duomo – a jaunty pile of mad stripes and haughty pinnacles. Inside, you’ll find a lofty Gothic space with enough art and architectural embellishments to fill half an hour or so with wonderment. Then, dazed by the daylight, stroll out onto the pretty Ponte Pietra for a breather and a long gaze at the Adige river, whose water has tumbled all the way here from a strange German-speaking corner of Italy high in the Alps.
Across the river, the Veronetta district is certainly worth a little detour. There’s a Roman theatre and a great little archaeological museum. In several places, steps climb up to wonderful views of the city – framed by tall, silently swaying cypress trees. Coming down is a lot easier than going up, but by the time you reach the bottom you’ll probably fancy a nice little rest somewhere. Stroll along to the nearby Giusti Garden, a serene bit of Renaissance greenery with all the restorative calm you could wish for. Meditate awhile amidst the formal shrubbery and the soft sounds of burbling fountains, then head back across the river into central Verona.
If you stick to the riverside and head due south, you’ll eventually come to the sharp red spire of San Fermo Maggiore – an entertaining hodgepodge of a church with a pretty, Florentine-looking front and a glowering, Transylvanian-looking rear. White sandstone, red brick, Romanesque, Gothic – this place just can’t make up its mind. Historically, it’s two churches sandwiched together. Admire it awhile then make a sharp right turn onto Via Leoni.
Here you can marvel at an exposed stretch of original Roman street lying beneath its modern counterpart, complete with the low, broken walls of ancient shops and houses. Embedded into a nearby building, there’s a white Roman archway – once one of the gates to the city. Neatly carved letters march across it, faithfully spelling out their message for more than two thousand years. The geographical position of Verona presented an irresistible prospect to the Romans who colonized it back in 89 BC. Sited at the foot of a major Alpine pass and snaked round by an easily navigable river, this was clearly a site where trade could prosper. Roman Verona was a thriving city, as is attested by the sheer size of its amphitheatre. And apparently the place had a holiday feel even then. Julius Caesar was wont to enjoy an occasional leisure break here.
Further along from its excavated bit of Roman street, Via Leoni obligingly becomes Via Cappello, and here all quiet contemplations on ecclesiastical architecture and all scholarly ruminations on ancient history come to an abrupt end. For here stands La Casa di Giulietta, ‘Juliet’s House’, and no visitor to Verona can – or should – resist being sucked into its carnivalesque nonsense. Of course Shakespeare’s heroine never lived here and of course the balcony is a twentieth-century addition, but you’ve simply got to visit anyway. It’s such a happy, hopeful spot – full of love’s idealism and all its heedlessness of fact.
Shakespeare clearly had a bit of a thing for Verona, despite never having visited. He set two of his plays here – Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Modern-day Verona returns the compliment every summer by holding a Shakespeare festival, with the Bard’s plays performed in Italian at the old Roman theatre and various Shakespeare-themed fantasias taking place on the city streets.
Having visited Juliet’s house, you’ve admitted that you’re a tourist among tourists – and relished the role. You’ve swapped travellers’ tips with the others there and you’ve taken turns snapping each other’s pictures. Now it’s time to re-join the Veronesi. And there’s one obvious place to head as evening starts to fall – the very heart of this roughly heart-shaped city, Piazza Bra’.
As the passeggiata gets underway and the restaurant tables start to fill, Piazza Bra’ grows ever lovelier. In the summer, the air is warm and deliciously soft with Veneto humidity. In the colder months it’s gentle and atmospherically misty. Starlings reel madly screaming round the twilit sky. If it’s an opera night, you can sit and watch the glittering crowds queuing and listen out for a stray familiar aria drifting over the lip of the amphitheatre. And on any other night, at any time of year, you can just sit and watch the happy couples strolling round, moonily in love.
The third largest amphitheatre the Romans ever built, Verona’s magnificent arena dominates the city’s central Piazza Bra’. Think Rome’s Colosseum, but slightly smaller, better-preserved, and pink. Its ancient gladiatorial contests have now given way to opera and rock concerts. Go inside and climb to the top tiers for a fantastic view of the city.
You’re almost obliged by the rules of tourism to see this. Juliet Capulet probably never lived here (she probably never existed), and the current balcony was almost certainly installed post-Shakespeare, but the site is still highly atmospheric and fun. Touch the bronze statue’s breast for luck, and make a love-wish underneath the balcony.
The tallest structure in Verona, this beautiful old clock-tower with its boldly striped bottom and pretty octagonal top gives spectacular views of central Verona. Up here, the city appears as a maze of terra cotta roofs backed by gentle hills. Take the lift, or climb the infinite stairs.
One of the finest Renaissance gardens in Italy, this tranquil green oasis lies a pleasant 15-minute walk from Verona’s centre. Orderly cypress trees and statuary gaze down on flowers, fountains and a hedge maze. Deeper in there are woodland paths, romantic grottoes, and a spiral staircase up to a belvedere with stunning views.
This mighty 14th-century fortress is an arresting sight, its pretty dovetail crenellations punctuated by stout, glowering bastions. Inside lies the city’s museum, with a great collection of paintings, sculpture, jewellery, weaponry and so on. The labyrinthine interior is interesting in itself, the rooms connected by atmospheric courtyards and passageways.
SAN ZENO MAGGIORE
This beautiful 12th-century basilica stands just on the edge of the old town, enjoying an isolated position that allows you to fully appreciate its exterior. Inside, there are delights aplenty: a rose window laid out as the Wheel of Fortune, sculptures, reliefs, frescos, bronze panels, and a wonderful Mantegna painting over the high altar.
Housed in an old convent whose uppermost chapel affords magnificent views of Verona across the river, this well-maintained little museum in the Veronetta district has some fascinating Greek, Roman and Etruscan finds. It’s also sited right next to Verona’s 1st-century Roman theatre – still used for summer performances.
Via Adua, 8
+39 045 590 566
One of Verona’s finest hotels, this elegant four-star occupies three 13th-century buildings merged into a single structure. The handsome and spacious rooms are very richly furnished, and offer every convenience. The marble bathrooms are especially attractive. Historical details such as old frescos and mosaics crop up throughout the building. Breakfasts are lavish.
HOTEL ANTICA PORTA LEONA
Corticella Leoni, 3
+39 045 595 499
This three-star hotel enjoys an excellent location in the heart of Verona, less than a minute from Juliet’s House and the bustling Piazza delle Erbe. The stately old exterior gives way to bright rooms laid out with comfortable modern furniture. Staff are very friendly and ready to help.
Piazzetta XIV Novembre, 2
+39 045 594 717
Offering some great views over Piazza delle Erbe, this lovely little two-star hotel offers small but very pleasant rooms decorated in simple style. Double-glazed windows keep out any noise from the lively piazza below. There’s a wonderful terrace for enjoying evening drinks. Breakfasts are large and very good.
Via Valeria Catullo, 1
+39 045 800 2786
Run by the affable Pollini family for 25 years, this homey, pensione-like one-star is the cheapest hotel in central Verona. The simple rooms are large, comfortable and quiet – often with nice decorative details. There are single, double, and triple rooms, with or without bathrooms. There’s a hotel bar, but no breakfast service.
EUROMOTEL CROCE BIANCA
Via Bresciana, 2
+39 045 890 3890
If all of central Verona’s hotels are full, this thoroughly likeable place just 3km out of town is a very good option. Frequent buses into the centre stop just across the road. The three Panato siblings who run the hotel are exceptionally pleasant and helpful. There’s free internet downstairs, and a small leafy garden out front.
TRE MARCHETTI DA BARCA
Vicolo Tre Marchetti, 19b
+39 045 803 0463
Closed Sundays (and some Mondays)
One minute’s walk from the Arena, this classy little nook is a big hit with opera-goers and performers. Diners have included Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. In summer, the place stays open till 4am – useful when your opera drags on till long after midnight! The high-quality fare is traditionally Veronese. Crowded, cosy and picturesque.
Meal for two about €65
TRATTORIA ALLA COLONNE
Largo Pescheria Vecchia, 4
+39 045 596 718
Hugely popular both with locals and tourists, this reasonably-priced restaurant is relaxing at lunchtime and fantastically lively at night (when you should book ahead). Local dishes dominate the menu: gigantic veal cutlets, polenta with mushrooms and gorgonzola, donkey meat, great tiramisu. The characterful owner usually wears a jacket covered in badges. Give him a new one and he’ll love you.
Meal for two about €40
LA BOTTEGA DEI VINI
Vicolo Scudo di Francia 3a
+39 045 800 4535
This venerable institution – more than 100 years old – is arguably Verona’s best restaurant. With 80,000 bottles, it unarguably has the city’s largest wine cellar. Tables are large and comfortable, the walls lined with wine labels and old maps. The food is superb. Meltingly tender chateaubriand, perfectly indulgent risotto, stunning pasta with duck ragout. Settle down and make a long night of it.
Meal for two about €70
ANTICA TRATTORIA ALLA PIGNA
Via Pigna, 4
+39 045 800 4080
Closed Sundays and Monday lunchtimes
This old osteria offers deeply traditional Veronese fare prepared to the highest quality. It’s an elegant, distinctive sort of place, with very good service – and reasonable prices. The interesting menu takes in variously prepared polenta, pasta, risotto, fish, seafood, meat and salads. There’s a very good wine selection too. Nicely situated between the duomo and Piazza delle Erbe.
Meal for two about €45
Corte Farina, 4
+39 045 800 0440
Closed Mondays in winter
For a stimulating dose of youthful chic, try this lively and well-attended eatery. Dine indoors amidst bright modern decor, or outside at close-set tables buzzing with conversation and the occasional passing Vespa. Pizza is sold by the metre, sizzling Argentinian beef is a house speciality, and the gigantic salads are packed with goodies. Friendly staff, and an inclusive atmosphere.
Meal for two about €35