Ancient and artistic Verona offers a quiet alternative to Italy's crowded cities. Susie Maggie Thorne discovers the secrets of this picturesque, peaceful destination
Where? Northern Italy
Why? Underrated Italian culture hub
When? May/June for warm weather; Sept-Oct for fewer people
Nestled into the shadow of the Italian Alps, Verona is somewhat understated despite an interesting history and a cracking location. It's the less-talked-of filling in a tasty Italian sandwich between Milan and Venice and although it doesn't enjoy the same glory as its neighbours it certainly deserves to. On its left lies the grand Lake Garda and the famously beautiful Lake Region of northern Italy, to its right sits the charming city of Padua and, within an hour's drive, two national parks.
Verona's location has been an important factor in its somewhat tumultuous history. The city has changed hands many times, lying as it does on an intersection of important trade routes. During the 18th and 19th centuries it also passed as Austrian territory. This lengthy, riotous ancestry, however, has left the city home to incredible architecture, museums, culture and churches.
Verona's historic centre is surrounded by ancient walls, following a tight curve along the Adige River. The winding waterway is punctuated with pretty ponti (bridges), to connect the centre with the rest of the straddling city. Listed in 2000 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it's not surprising that city officials want to preserve the unusual and brilliantly preserved monuments from antiquity, medieval and Renaissance periods. UNESCO described it as: “an outstanding example of a town that has developed progressively and uninterruptedly over 2,000 years, incorporating artistic elements of the highest quality from each succeeding period.”
Shakespeare certainly appreciated its loveliness, although from afar as, alas, he never actually made the trip over to Italy. He set three of his legendary plays in this region – The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona and last, but by no means least, Romeo and Juliet. This theatrical history is just one reason people flock to Verona: but it's also an elegant, romantic city, overshadowed by Venice leaving it less crowded.
Verona is relatively small with a population of just over 250,000 (although the province holds a further 600,000) and much quieter that its famous neighbours: Venice and Milan. It's the perfect location for travellers who want culture, art and history that Italian cities have to offer but without the flocks found elsewhere. City-breakers can explore on foot or by bicycle with ease thanks to regulated traffic zones. For those looking for day trips, there are beautiful lakes and awe-inspiring Alps nearby, easily reachable by train, car or bus.
Who could ask for more?
When to go: For a warm, spring atmosphere choose May or June. Alternatively, for a quieter, cooler visit try September or October. Avoid July and August when Italy heats up and it's peak time for tourists.
Getting there: British Airways flies direct to Verona from a number of UK airports for around £80 return. There are airport shuttle buses to the city for €6, which run every 20 minutes and take 15 minutes. The train station (Porta Nuova) connects to all major European cities and is conveniently located close to the centre.
Getting around: Travel on foot. Home to just over a quarter of a million residents, Verona is compact. The street layout is unexpectedly straight forward for a historic centre so finding your way around is easy, even if you're trying to get lost. There are good bus and train connections in the province for those wishing to explore further afield.
Where to stay: Antica Dimora Abitare da Adele B&B (from £82pppn) is a family-run business 50 metres from the Arena in a former noble residence. For a night of luxury book into the grand Palazzo Victoria (from £240pn), with slick interiors, welcoming staff and belly-filling breakfasts.
Where to eat: This country is world-famous for its food so make the most of it and head to one of the city's two famed hubs for restaurants and bars: touristy Piazza Bra and laid-back Piazza delle Erbe. Take your pick of classic Italian cuisines with a glass (or two) of vino.
Top tip: Shoulders and legs should be covered when entering any of the city's churches. Dress accordingly or carry a shawl with you to cover offending body parts.
Top tip: There is a VeronaCard (€15 for two days, €20 for five; www.veronacard.it/), which allows entrance to churches, museums and most tourist attractions.
Travel back in time, take a hike, become a pilgrim
Visitors could spend an entire week simply walking through the back streets uncovering the city's hidden gems. For those who want to pack the Old Town's main sites into one day, here's where to start...
Some of the most popular churches for travellers are Sant Anastasia (Piazza S. Anastasia), San Zeno Maggiore (Piazza San Zeno; the setting for Romeo and Juliet's wedding) and Duomo (Piazza Duomo) but because of Italy's Catholic background, dozens of secret beauties are nestled in nooks and crannies.
Art galleries and museums are in plentiful supply in Verona. One of the most famous is Museo di Castelvecchio (entry €6), home to traditional sculptures, paintings and ornaments. For a gruesome glimpse into the city's history, there's an exhibition of weapons from the 14th-18th centuries. Alternatively, for art-lovers, an array of Veronese paintings from the medieval epoch are on display or, for the architecturally intrigued, there is a collection of works from Carlo Scarpa, a prominent 19th century architect.
To experience the modern city's art scene, track down galleries such as Fama Gallery (entry free) or Galleria dello Scudo (entry free), which have great contemporary exhibitions. Expect anything from photography to abstract painting and metal-work to installation pieces, as the shows change periodically.
The touristy hotspot Casa di Giulietta (Juliet's mansion) is worth a visit for Shakespeare fans; although it's quite cheesy, it's also a bit of fun. The building's gates are filled with padlocks symbolising the enduring love of lovers on the same route.
Summer visitors can spend an evening at the Opera Festival (prices range from €10- €219) from June through to early September in the Arena.
Leave the historic centre and head further afield. Cycle tours (from €35; April-October) promise to take you to “the most curious and unknown places of the city”. Lasting up to three hours, you'll get insider tips on the urban area's highlights. When the tour returns at midday, grab picnic goodies before the shops shut around 1pm for siestas.
Head to the grand Ponte Scaligero and cross over on foot. Walk for around a mile, following the pretty river, until you get to Teatro Romano (€1), an ancient wonder dating back to 1st century BC. The site is home to countless artefacts and relics for an interesting stop on your walk. Climb the never-ending steps up to Piazzale Castel San Pietro and soak up the unbelievable panoramic views of the city while you catch your breath. With your photos taken, pop back down and find Giardino Giusti. This serene garden is the perfect picnic location with impeccably-kept lawns and spectacular views.
Cross the river over the Ponte Nuovo to find Caffe Tubino (Corso Porta Borsari, 15). Although it looks like an unusual, pokey hole in the wall, the intoxicating smell of warm coffee is a tempting welcome. Even if the kitsch interior isn't your cuppa, it's worth it for the coffee. Located just off Piazza della Erbe, which itself has a great atmosphere for an apéritif or sit-down meal.
Once you've had your fill of city life, head west to Lake Garda. There are ample opportunities for sailing and water-sports, while the sleepy towns dotted around its banks are popular for a lazy lake-side retreats.
Jump on a bus and be at the northernmost point of Lake Garda in less than two hours or, alternatively, the east coast towns are less than an hour away. There are trains too but your best option is to rent a car or invest in a day pass with ATV, Verona's public transport service. Costing €13, it allows you to ride any ATV bus in the whole province of Verona (that's pretty huge) including a shuttle bus between Verona airport and Verona Porta Nuova train station.
On your explorations of the area, stop by the Madonna della Corona, a church sanctuary literally embedded into the side of a mountain. The unusual site is a popular choice for local pilgrims, who take an hour-and-a-half walk every Saturday ascending from the town of Brentino up to the shrine for mass then back down again. If you can't face the steep walk, there's a shuttle bus from nearby Spiazzi.
After winding through Verona's cosmopolitan streets, the open space will be a welcome surprise for travellers wanting to enjoy walks and hikes in the countryside. Ringed by vineyards, olive groves and mountains, it's not surprising the ethereal area has been a source of inspiration for writers such as Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence and poets Shelley and Byron.Susie Maggie Thorne blogs at amapforhappiness.wordpress.com and tweets @SusieZoo.