One Day in Ravenna Italy: Mosaics and More

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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.

Golden mosaic of Jesus holding a saint on His lap.
Ravenna mosaic of Christ

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.

Ravenna mosaic of naked man wielding a cape behind his back and a rod in his left hand

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.

Peaceful garden in a Ravenna courtyard

The 8 UNESCO sites in Ravenna

Eight early Christian churches/monuments in Ravenna qualify as UNESCO sites. They include:

  1. Baptistry of Neon (c. 430)
  2. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (c. 430)
  3. Arian Baptistry (c. 500)
  4. Archiepiscopal Chapel (c. 500), also called the Archbishop's Chapel
  5. Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (c. 500)
  6. Mausoleum of Theodoric (520)
  7. Basilica of San Vitale (548)
  8. 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.

Detail of a Ravenna mosaic
I couldn't help but wonder how much time each of these mosaics must have taken to create. What talent they had!
Mosaic of man with horse.
This is the full view of the closeup in the previous photo.

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.

Jesus seated as an emperor with lambs nearby
The “Good Shepherd Mosaic”

The mausoleum is illuminated by luminous alabaster window panels.

Alabaster window panel with two men in togas, two doves, and a golden portal in the center.
Ceiling showing how the alabaster window panels were placed.

Arian Baptistery

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!

Domed ceiling with mosaics of Jesus being baptized at the center, as well as the 12 apostles around the central image.
The central image in the overhead dome mosaic depicts a dove (the symbol of the Holy Spirit) hovering above a naked and androgynous Jesus as he is being baptized by John the Baptist. (The white-haired, old man in a green cloak is apparently the personification of the Jordan River.)
Detail of Saints Peter and Paul, leading the procession of apostles
Circling them all is a procession of the apostles, led by Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

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.

Exterior of Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, showing the leaning tower.
I think this basilica could easily be nicknamed for its most memorable feature: The Leaning Tower of Ravenna.
Interior wall of the Basilica, completely covered in mosaics of the apostles

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.

Octagonal exterior of the Basilica of San Vitale

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.

Mosaics on the arch in the Basilica of San Vitale
Arched niche completely covered in mosaics

Dan had a really hard time knowing where to focus his camera as well.

Mosaics cover the walls and ceilings in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna
Mosaic of Jesus and angels, Basilica of San Vitale

And not only mosaics, but fabulous paintings as well.

Painted dome in Basilica of San Vitale
Dome, Basilica of San Vitale

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.

Piadina menu from a shop in Ravenna. Price is 4 euros each. Title, translates to Piadina "bread typical of Romagna" (of our production).
Ravenna has a local bread called piadina, and they can get very creative with what they put on it.
Piadina sandwich stuffed with rocket and tomatoes. Accompanied by a carafe of wine
Despite a wheat sensitivity, I couldn't resist sampling this fragrant local bread. Mmmm…crisp outside, yet soft inside. Worth it? Yes.

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

Front of Dante's tomb in Ravenna

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.

Insertingi my face into a cutout of a mosaic person.

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.

P.S. For even more travel ideas, follow us on Pinterest and Instagram.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages has inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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10 thoughts on “One Day in Ravenna Italy: Mosaics and More”

  1. One of my favourite places in Italy… I love the Byzantines about a much as i love the Etruscans and this is one of the great sights of Italy- especially if you’re into mosaics!

    Thanks for posting!

    Reply
  2. You are right, Linda, Ravenna is not a well known place. I didn’t know about it either, but it seems really worth a visit. You have so beautiful pictures of these mosaics. Very instructive video of how these mosaics are made.

    Reply
    • Italy seems to have a gazillion UNESCO sites that I’ve never heard of. Had it not been for its being on our cruise itinerary I don’t know if we’d ever have visited. I’m really glad we did, though.

      I thought that video was interesting too. Glad you liked it.

      Reply
  3. So enjoyed your photographs of Ravenna architecture. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia impresses me most, for its relatively small size and, as you have mentioned, artistic detail. Did you know . . . Galla Placidia may have been the first cruciform building? Looked for and found your very nice shot of the mausoleum’s central domed ceiling; decorated with rings of gold stars circling a cross in a midnight blue sky, it may be my favorite Ravenna mosaic of all.

    Reply

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