Today on Italian Adventures we’re visiting Verona! A jewel of Northern Italy, Verona is roughly seventy-five miles west of Venice. This ancient city is located at the base of The Lessini Mountains (also known as the Italian Pre-Alps) and has a population of 250,000 people.
Chances are when you hear the word ‘Verona’ you are transported back to your high school Shakespeare class when you acted out Romeo and Juliet or Two Gentlemen from Verona.
You might be drawn to the city to find Romeo and Juliet, but you’ll stay for Verona’s amazing history, gorgeous architecture, delicious food and lively cultural scene.
Verona is a city you can easily fall in love with, with winding ancient streets and a history that is far more lively than any Shakespearan drama.
Let’s start with a bit of Shakespeare:
Verona has embraced it’s fame as the city of love – Romeo and Juliet’s hometown. Today, thousands of tourists flock to Verona to gaze upon Juliet’s balcony and leave her letters (remember the movie Letters to Juliet).
While this picturesque (and crowded) tourism spot is romantic and charming, in truth it has nothing to do with a real-life Romeo and Juliet. Juliet did not live here, but the 14th-century building with charm and character feels like a scene from Shakespeare.
So what is the history behind Verona’s darkest tragedy?
- Medieval and Renaissance Italy could get intense – warring family feuds, quests for power – kind of like Game of Thrones. So while Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a work of fiction it has a bit of real history to it as well..
- Shakespeare was inspired to write Romeo and Juliet from the Arthur Brooke poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. And Brooke, was inspired by Italian writers including Luigi de Porto and Matteo Bandello who told the story of Romeo and Giuletta and a deadly feud between real life Veronese families the Montecchi and Capelleti (sound familar?)
- Dante even mentioned the families names in his Purgatory, published in the mid-1300s. Of course his poem has nothing to do about Star-Crossed Lovers – but it seems there was deadly feud between these Veronese factions.
So while Juliet’s Balcony is a bit kitsch – it is the sort of touristy thing that could be fun for a lit lover (like me), although only after you’ve seen other highlights like The Roman Ruins or Basilica of Zeno
Visting Verona: The History
- Verona is over 2000 years old and was settled by numerous people before the Romans took control of the city in 89 BCE.
- The Romans found Verona advantageous given its moderate climate, nearby (75 miles) access to The Adriatic and it is near the base of The Alps
- Verona is known for it’s extensive Roman ruins including The Verona Arena.
- After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, Ostrogoth king Theodoric took over in 489 AD. He built a castle on the site of present day Castel San Pietro. Learn more about Theodoric here.
- In 569, Verona was conquested again – this time by the Lombard Kingdom, under the rule of Alboin, King of the Lombards
- It was in 774, when Charlemagne (King of the Franks) became King of the Lombards after he took over Verona. Charlemagne is one of the greatest rulers in European history and became the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD.
- Verona had an era of self-rule for several centuries including violent and corrupt government. The emergence of The Scala famile in the 14th-century brought wealth and stability to the area.
- Alas, Verona eventually was conquested again – this time by its neighbor to the east – Venice. Verona remained under Venetian Rule until Napoleon took over in 1797.
- Napoleon then turned over Veneto (Venice and Verona…) to Austria.
- Verona became part of Italy when it was unified.
- Keep in mind Italy – as ancient as it is, is really a new country made up of common ties, but very unique cultures. As my tour guide (an Italian) said: “We made Italy, now we must make the Italians.”
Visiting Verona: Famous artists
- City produced two great Renaissance architects, Fra Giocondo and Michel Sanmicheli
- Famed artist Veronese was born in Verona but spent most of his career in Venice. His famed Martyrdom of St. George remains in San Giorgio in Braida in Verona
- Andrea Mantegna – Renaissance master was from Verona
Visting Verona: Must See Stops
You can easily spend a week or more in Verona, but if you only have a day you can still see a lot of the sights.
If you are limited on time, it helps to find a tour guide who knows the area and can fill you in on the history.
There is also a Verona Pass that will get you into multiple attractions for one flat fee. It is worth the investment if you plan to visit several sights.
- The Verona Arena showcases the ingenius engineering abilities of The Roman Empire. It is one of the largest and best preserved Roman amphitheaters in Europe.
- At 499 x 403 feet, The Verona Arena is the third largest in Italy after The Roman Colosseum and Capuan Area.
- Built in 30 AD it housed 30,000 spectators for events like the brutal gladiator battles, the circus, concerts and more.
- The awesome thing? The Verona Arena is still used for concerts over 2000 years later: Each summer over 500,000 people come to the arena to hear The Opera.
- Plan your visit here.
Piazza delle Erbe (Market Square)
Founded over 2000 years ago as a Roman Forum and Market, Piazza delle Erbe continues to be a hearbeat of Verona today serving as a popular gathering space and city market.
The Piazza is the ideal spot for a photo-opt when visiting Verona…the gorgeous sixteenth century frescoes that adorn the exteriors of the square’s buildings
with the purely Italian architecture in pink brick Romanesque and Gothic styles. The pastel colored buildings have given Verona the nickname “The painted city.”
Meander by the nearly 2000 year old fountain that has bubbled up since Roman times. When the Roman statue lost its head and arms a sculptor added a new head and arms and the statue become Verona’s Madonna (and a symbol of the city)
The Venetian Lion can be seen overlooking the square atop a column. This was put in place by The Venetian Republic to remind Verona who was in charge.
While in the area grab the popular Veronese drink of choice – a Grappa, which tastes like a brandy. It is made with wine skin, pulp and seeds left over from the winemaking process.
Basilica di San Zeno
This glorious minor basilica is a must see when visiting Verona. Named after St. Zeno, an African saint who came to Verona and converted many to Christianity (circa 362). Learn more about this scholarly African-Italian saint here.
While there were earlier churches in or near the site, the present day Basilica was constructed between 967 and 1398 AD. It is known for its exquisite Romanesque architecture, but more importantly…
This church was in Romeo and Juliet – the starcrossed lovers were married in the church’s crypt.
Basilica of Saint Anastasia:
This has been a church since the Lombard period dedicated to the fourth-century martyr Anastasia…The current building dates to the 13th-century and was built with the support of The Della Scala family who ruled Verona from the 13th-14th centuries. It is the largest church in Verona.
It is a gem of Gothic architecture and the interior is a beautiful and reverent space worth visiting. The church includes 12 red marble pillars and artwork by Veronese master painter Pisanello
Plan your visit here.
The largest square/piazza in Verona – this is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. Grab lunch and meander around the Piazza and neighboring streets. You won’t be disappointed.
Ponte Pietra (Stone Bridge)
One of the oldest bridges in Italy and still functioning today, The Ponte Pietra is a Roman arch bridge that crosses the Adige River. It was completed in 100 BC! At one time the Via Postumia from Genoa to Aquileia passed over it.
“Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say good night till it be morrow.” -Romeo and juliet
Unfortunately our time in Verona is coming to an end, but there is so much more to see! Check out the following links for additional sites in Verona…I’m sure we’ll return soon.
Other things to do:
- Lapidario Maffeiano Museum: includes Greek and Roman antiquities
- Tombs of the Scaligeri Family: exotic 14th-century Gothic tombs with evoke the era of this once powerful ruling family
- Piazza dei Signori: The Lord’s Square is Verona’s “sitting room” – look for the ‘whale’s rib’ – which hangs from one of the arches (probably a souvenir from a trip to the orient). You’ll also notice Dante’s statue as well
- Museo Di Castelvecchio – amazing art museum and architectural history
Looking to plan your trip to Verona? I recommend Rick Steves guidebook.