In the July heatwave we found ourselves flying out to Veneto for a week to drink aperol spritz, admire the country views and attend our friend’s beautiful wedding. We stayed in one of our favourite ever airbnbs, visited local towns like Cittadella and Venice, and spent the day walking around beautiful Padua (or Padova as the Italians say).
How to get there
We rented a car from Marco Polo airport for our holiday so that we could drive around from our airbnb. This made it super easy to visit Padua as you can park in the city centre car park just north of the Canale Piovego for only €1.20 an hour. Then it’s just a matter of crossing the Ponte Milani and you’re in the centre. Our route took us through the university buildings, past the cathedral, down to Prato della Valle, then to the Botanical Gardens and back up.
Cappella degli Scrovegni
First up and an absolute must-see is the Scrovegni Chapel, a tiny church that holds a fresco cycle by Giotto. This important masterpiece of Western art was painted in 1305 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021. The 14th century frescos marked the beginning of a revolution in mural painting and influenced fresco technique, style, and content for a whole century.
The chapel is an 8 minute walk from the car park, inside the complex of the Museo Civico on Piazza Eremitani. The lobby of the museum is where you pick up your tickets – the chapel is environment controlled to preserve the frescos, so you need to book a time slot in advance through their website. Make sure you remember to bring a mask!
Inside, every surface of the chapel is covered with Giotto frescoes, including the walls and the ceiling. The largest frescos tell the story of the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin Mary, whilst the wall at the back of the church shows a large Last Judgement fresco with glorious gold painted angels at the top and some pretty graphic depictions of hell at the bottom. Around the bottom of the walls there are also panels painted to look like statues, showing the holy virtues on one side and vices on the other.
Before you go into the chapel you’ll be held in a temperature-controlled waiting room for 15 minutes. Here you’ll watch a little video all about the preservation of the chapel and how the pollution of the city had been damaging the frescos – hence the need for the extra layer of protection.
Coffee: Caffe Pedrocchi
Next on the tour is Pedrocchi Cafe, founded in the 18th century and designed by architect Giuseppe Jappelli. It has a fascinating history. Because of its central location right near the seat of government, the café quickly became a meeting place for students, artists, writers and patriots. Big names like Lord Byron, the French novelist Stendhal, the Italian writer Dario Fo, and the futurist Marinetti made this their haunt. It had not only one but six newspapers named after it, and in 1848 it was the scene of the student uprisings against the Habsburg monarchy.
Until 1916 the cafe was open 24 hours a day, earning it the nickname “coffee without doors”. The prices were unusually reasonable for such a luxurious city, so anyone could eat there no matter how much money they had. People were allowed to sit at tables without ordering and stay to read books and newspapers, and the cafe loaned out umbrellas when it rained. Today the cafe is managed by the Fede Group, who channel the profits into the restoration of the building itself.
You cannot visit Caffe Pedrocchi without trying their signature drink – mint coffee. Stay with me on this one. Pedrocchi coffee is 100% Arabica espresso, fresh cream and mint syrup, with a dusting of cocoa. The key to this one is to drink immediately as it is served. Do not stir under any circumstances. The cream on top is cold, the coffee underneath is hot, and together they make a surprisingly refreshing and extremely enjoyable mid-morning pick-me-up. Matt refused to try it and I implore you to not make the same mistake.
Palazzo della Ragione
Just west of the cafe you’ll find the Ragione Palace, a Medieval, fresco-filled civic building with a ground floor food market flanked by two town squares also bustling with markets. It’s known by locals as “il Salone” (the big Hall) because of the great hall covered in frescos on the upper floor. The market on the ground floor is 800 years old – probably the oldest in the European Union!
Università degli Studi di Padova
Before stopping for lunch we wondered somewhat aimlessly through the streets around the University of Padua. Founded in 1222 when a large group of students and professors left the University of Bologna in search of more academic freedom (‘Libertas scholastica‘), it’s the second-oldest university in Italy and the fifth-oldest surviving university in the world. It’s consistently ranked among the best universities in Italy to this day, and in 2021 it was among the best 200 universities in the world according to ARWU.
As it is clearly a functioning university, you can’t just go in and look around. To properly visit the historical buildings of the university, including the Palazzo Bo and the anatomical theatre, you’ll need to book a ticket for one of their guided tours.
Just near Padua Cathedral you’ll find Baruffino, a cicchetteria and seafood bistro. Cicchetti are Venetian bar snacks, traditionally eaten for lunch or as an afternoon snack with a white wine. They’re like little open sandwiches, usually featuring fish, seafood or ham of some kind and cheese, tomatoes and olives. They’re similar to Spanish tapas or Italian aperitivo. Our waitress categorically would not let us eat lunch without trying some.
When in Rome! We started our meal with cicchetti, letting the waitress choose the toppings for us, followed by seafood pasta which was delicious. Our table was outside on the pavement, and the restaurant was clearly popular with locals which is always a good sign.
This was such a welcome break, and we thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the shade with a light breeze, cooling down with a coke and tucking into fresh pasta with rich homemade sauce.
The city of Padua is nothing short of picturesque, with a dense network of arcaded streets opening into large communal piazze, and bridge after bridge crossing the various branches of the Bacchiglione river.
As it was so hot on the day of our visit, we couldn’t do all the things we would have liked to do. There are dozens of 17th century villas, and historic churches that date back as far as the year 520. The main things we cut from our itinerary on the day were the cathedral and the Castello Carrarese, a twin-towered fortress built over a 13th-century castle, formerly used as a prison and observatory.
After our lunch at Baruffino, we took a moment to strategise and decided to make our way straight to Prato della Valle.
Prato della Valle
This 90,000-square-meter elliptical square is the largest in Italy, and one of the largest in Europe. The massive space at first glance seems to be mainly concrete, with a green island at the centre – l’Isola Memmia – surrounded by a small canal bordered by statues.
Previously just a swampy bog south of the old city walls of Padua, in 1636 a group of Venetian and Veneto notables bankrolled the construction of a lavish theatre as a venue for mock battles on horseback. The space has been used for lots of different things over the centuries since, and fell into disrepair more than a few times.
This square really reminded me of the place de la concorde in Paris, and it seems to be similarly popular among the local skating and roller blading crowds, even hosting competitions.
I would’ve stopped to take more photos, but I cannot overemphasise how unbearably hot it was on that day. We hurried across the sun-baked road, the heat bouncing back at us from all directions, and into the shaded safety of the Basilica di Santa Giustina. This 10th Century Benedictine abbey is packed with art and marble altars – a nice calm place to hide from the heat.
Orto Botanico di Padova
Next we made our way through some pretty residential streets towards the entrance to the botanical gardens. The Orto Botanico were founded in 1545 and are the oldest academic botanical gardens in the world. Despite housing six thousand types of plant, the gardens only cover 22000 sq metres, so don’t be intimidated. Inside you can see a ginkgo tree from the 18th century, a plane tree from 1680, and a palm tree that was planted in 1585!
Basilica Pontificia di Sant’Antonio di Padova
Right next to the botanical gardens is the Pontifical Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua. Known locally as il Santo, the basilica is officially recognised by the Vatican as an international shrine, visited as a place of pilgrimage by people from all over the world. It was built in the 13th century, in Byzantine and Romanesque styles with Gothic features.
I didn’t take any photos inside the Basilica, as I wanted to just take it all in. The interior is truly stunning, with beautiful mosaics, frescos and reliefs. There’s a whole chapel housing holy relics, including St Anthony’s body. His tongue and chin specifically are displayed in a gold reliquary which is …an interesting choice.
On our way back to the car we stopped off for a gelato at Venchi – this is an ice cream chain that exists in the UK, but it it just hits different when you’re eating it in the Italian summer sun.
I’m so glad we braved the heat to visit this beautiful city! Caffe Pedrocchi in particular was a highlight for me, but more generally Padua was just a lovely place to explore and spend a day.