Most people have never heard of the Italian city of Ravenna. They're missing out on a real treat. Any visit to Italy deserves at least one day in Ravenna, and it's easy to do because this lovely port city lies between Florence and Venice.
A day trip to Ravenna from Venice or Florence is not only quite doable but really interesting, as we discovered first-hand. The city is best known for eight ancient sites that have mosaics so superb that they rival those in Istanbul. As a matter of fact, it has such exquisite Arian and Byzantine mosaics that it has earned the distinguished designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A bit of Ravenna history (who knew?)
Back in Roman times, Ravenna went by the name of Classe. It served as an imperial port for the empire's massive naval fleet and was even—for a brief time—the capital of eastern Rome.
Then, in the mid-500s A.D., the Byzantine emperor Justinian decided that Ravenna would be the westernmost pillar of the Holy Roman Empire. In a nutshell, this explains why there are so many churches and Istanbul-quality mosaics here.
One day in Ravenna, Italy
We had the luxury of docking at Ravenna as a part of our 2013 Adriatic cruise itinerary, but it's a rare stop. Depending on your interests, they offered guided tours to:
- Visit Ravenna to see its exquisite churches and mosaics
- Check out the postage-stamp-sized country of San Marino
- See the Ferrari Museum
- Visit Bologna
But there are a lot of good reasons why a group tour may not be the best option. Booking your own tour may be a better option. It costs the same or less, and your guide will work with your schedule and interests.
The tour company that we use, Get Your Guide, offers a variety of tours in and around Ravenna. Click here to see what's available.
ⓘ TIP: If you're traveling between Florence and Venice by train, we recommend scheduling a stop en route. Ravenna is only about a 90-minute detour away. On the other hand, if you're in either of those cities, the train takes 2-3 hours.
The 8 UNESCO sites in Ravenna
Eight early Christian churches/monuments in Ravenna qualify as UNESCO sites. They include:
- Baptistry of Neon (c. 430)
- Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (c. 430)
- Arian Baptistry (c. 500)
- Archiepiscopal Chapel (c. 500), also called the Archbishop's Chapel
- Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (c. 500)
- Mausoleum of Theodoric (520)
- Basilica of San Vitale (548)
- Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe (549)
We couldn't visit every one of the sites, because we were only in Ravenna for one day. But no matter. The mosaics we did manage to see were exquisite. Jaw-dropping, even.
Each was done with painstaking care and attention to detail. What looks like a lovely collection of tiny, bright tiles on close inspection will, when you step back, transform into a vivid image of a sea voyage, an image of Jesus, or a choir of angels.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
According to UNESCO, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect.”
I don't know how they could have chosen between them. Every one of the sites is just as artistically perfect, in my opinion.
Galla Placidia, daughter of Roman Emperor Theodosius I, was a well-known patron of the arts. Legend has it that she had this built as a mausoleum for her and her family. Three sarcophagi are housed there.
While no one is 100% certain, one sarcophagus is said to he hers, a second belongs to her husband, Emperor Constantius III, and the third holds the remains of either Galla's son, Emperor Valentinian III, (Galla's son) or of Emperor Honorius, her brother.
The mausoleum is illuminated by luminous alabaster window panels.
Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, erected the Arian Baptistery as a political move. Two influential groups in his empire, the Goths (Arians) and the Latins (Orthodox), had different views of Christ and only one of them had a baptistery.
To keep the peace, Theodoric built this baptistery “of the Arians” in order to distinguish it from the Baptistery of Neon (of the Orthodox) that had been built a century before.
The ceiling mosaic was remarkable. Love those gold tiles!
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
The same king who built the Arian Baptistry, Theodoric the Great, built this as his chapel and dedicated it to Christ the Redeemer in 504.
Fifty-some years later Justinian I changed its name to Saint Martin in Golden Heaven. He re-dedicated it to Saint Martin of Tours, a foe of Arianism.
The basilica earned its present name in the 800s, when some relics from Saint Appolinaris were transferred here. They say Pope Gregory the Great ordered that all the mosaics in the church be blackened. He felt that their “golden glory” distracted worshipers from their prayers.
Basilica of San Vitale
The Basilica of San Vitale is the best known and most popular of UNESCO's eight sites. Its Byzantine mosaics are the largest and best preserved outside of Constantinople, so if you don't want to go to Turkey, you need to be here.
We had no clue what we were getting into when we walked through its doors, but oh, I'm glad we did.
Oh. My. Gosh. Wherever we looked, we saw mosaics. They were everywhere, and I mean everywhere. They were on the floors, on the walls, on the arches, and on the ceilings!
And they were all so exquisite, it was almost overwhelming. I could have stared at them for hours.
Dan had a really hard time knowing where to focus his camera as well.
And not only mosaics, but fabulous paintings as well.
How to make those Ravenna mosaic tiles
If you're interested in how they created these incredible works of art, you'll enjoy this fascinating 3-minute video:
And there was piadina. And it was good.
Ah, piadina. Heaven on a plate. Our lunch was another highlight of our day in Ravenna and we discovered it through a tip from a local. Piadina is a thin, unleavened Italian flatbread that is typical of the region (Emilia-Romagna). It is usually made with white flour, olive oil, salt and water … but not all of them are so you have to ask. We had to make sure ours were vegetarian-friendly because some restaurants make it with lard. Ew.
Piadine are usually made on-the-spot and served immediately. The warm, crispy rounds are filled to order. Choose a variety of cheeses, meats and/or vegetables, or get it with sweet fillings such as jam or Nutella.
The tomb of Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri was a legendary Italian poet who is credited for having made the Tuscan dialect Italy's national language. He's also well known for having written the Divine Comedy, which details Dante’s journey from Hell (the Inferno), through Purgatory and finally to Paradise.
Dante was born and lived in Florence for most of his life, but he offended some highly influential nobles. As a result, he was exiled to Ravenna, where he eventually died and was buried.
If you visit Florence, you need to know that the tomb of Dante is really just a memorial. It's a long and interesting story, but Dante's remains are still in Ravenna, and you can visit his simple marble tomb while you're in town
Museo TAMO (Tutta l'Avventura del Mosaico)
TAMO Museum is all about the history of mosaics, from ancient to present-day. Housed inside the beautiful 14th-century Church of S. Nicolò, it offers a variety of interactive exhibits and videos that even older children would enjoy.
There is also a section of original mosaic floors that can be viewed closeup, from a metal boardwalk.
Must. Visit. Plan your day trip to Ravenna Italy
Dan tried, he really did, but photos just can't do justice to the mosaics in Ravenna. I am sure you'll agree if you get an opportunity to see them yourself.
- Ravenna's tourism website can be found HERE.
If you're still undecided, please go through our Ravenna photo gallery and let us know what you think. We have photos of the city itself, the mosaic museum, Dante's Tomb, some pretty churches, and of course, a whole lot more mosaics.
Oh, and food. There's always food.