Do Medieval cities, Renaissance castles, seaside resorts, and some of the best food in Italy sound like your idea of fun? Then you need to visit Emilia-Romagna. This central Italian region is one of the biggest in Italy and in fact used to be two separate regions. In its veins run Etruscan and Ancient Roman origins, and it is known as center for intellectual thought thanks to the well regarded universities of the region.
Emilia-Romagna is one of the wealthiest regions of Italy thanks to its strong manufacturing industry – in particular prestige cars such as Ferrari and Lamborghini who are headquartered there. The third smallest country in Europe, San Marino, is also nestled inside its borders.
Emilia Romagna offers incredible diversity – from the Appenine mountains, marshes, forests, caves, and springs to the gorgeous beaches on the Adriatic Coast, as well as charming Medieval and Renaissance cities and towns.
But, in a country where food is impossible to separate from culture, it says a lot when we say that Emilia-Romagna might be considered the food capital of Italy. Home to Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, and Mortadella di Bologna as well as to the classic ragu (bolognese sauce) and tortellini pasta, this is a region that foodies will adore.
Car enthusiasts have lots to see here too as the creators of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati, whilst opera lovers will enjoy plenty as the birthplace of the great Giuseppe Verdi and Toscanini. Keep reading to find out more in our Emilia-Romagna travel guide.
Where is Emilia-Romagna
Emilia-Romagna is a central region of Italy with the Adriatic Sea to the east, the Po River running through its center and the Ligurian and Tuscan Apennines to the west and south.
It is bordered by Veneto and Lombardy in the north, Piedmont and Liguria in the west, and Tuscany, Le Marche, and the Republic of San Marino to the south.
The capital Bologna is just 35 minutes away from Florence on the train, an hour from Milan, and 90 minutes from Venice. From Rome, the fast train will get you there in just over two hours.
Map of Emilia-Romagna
Main cities and towns in Emilia-Romagna
There are so many fantastic places to explore when visiting Emilia-Romagna that appeal to a broad range of interests. You often feel you’re truly in ‘authentic Italy’ in this region in the sense that you’ll find typical winding Medieval streets and towns to discover here, and the area remains relatively untouched by tourism compared with nearby Florence.
Here are some of our favorite towns to visit when we travel in Emilia Romagna.
- Bologna: The food loving capital of the region is also home to the world’s oldest university founded in the 11th century. Wander the maze-like Medieval center, climb the Asinelli Tower, and catch the Film Festival in Piazza Maggiore every evening in the summertime. Don’t miss visiting the local markets, learning to make pasta like the real sfogline and of course following your nose for incredible gastronomic experiences.
- Modena: Tiny but mighty Modena is a pretty town home to one of the best restaurants in the world Osteria Francescana and chef Massimo Bottura. Two of the most famous Italian products – Traditional Balsamic Vinegar and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are also made in this province. Walk through the elegant city center and discover Italian artisans, ancient food shops, and of course delicious food. Music lovers will enjoy visiting the birthplace of tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whilst car enthusiasts will have plenty of fun at the Enzo Ferrari House Museum, and the nearby Ferrari Museum.
- Parma: Yet another gastronomic adventure awaits you in Parma, the birthplace of the famous Prosciutto di Parma. The town is picture perfect thanks to its multi-colored buildings and flowers that line its Medieval streets. Be sure to visit the stunning Romanesque Cathedral, the wooden Teatro Farnese, and the Galleria Nazionale for a glimpse of Leonardo’s famous La Scapigliata oil painting.
- Ravenna: In the Romagna part of the region, you cannot miss a stop in Ravenna if only to view the most exquisite mosaics perhaps in all the world. The city is famous for its 8 UNESCO heritage listed sites housing centuries’ old Byzantine mosaics. Be sure to visit at least the Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placida to take in the wonders of this Ancient craft. Don’t miss the tomb of Dante Alighieri either.
- Rimini: A beach resort town on the Adriatic, Rimini is hugely popular with Italian and European tourists. There are over 15km of beaches, but the vibe here is more about partying rather than relaxation, with the Marina Centro and Lungomare Augustore at its very heart. Cinema buffs will have fun here as it was once home to the famous Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini.
- Ferrara: A gorgeous Italian Renaissance city, don’t miss Ferrara’s 14th century Estense Castle, riding along the Medieval walls, trying the famous pumpkin filled cappellacci pasta, and enjoying a drink at the oldest bar in the world Al Brindisi.
- Reggio Emilia: The birthplace of the Italian flag, art and gastronomic lovers will adore Reggio Emilia. Visit the Sala del Tricolore to see the very first flag, the Teatro Valli, Romanesque Cathedral, and Ancient monastery – Chiostri di San Pietro.
- San Marino: One of the world’s smallest countries, San Marino is nestled within the borders of the Emilia Romagna region, so why not head here for a day trip? Enjoy fairytale castles, wander cobblestoned streets in the old town, and climb the three towers for incredible views.
Top things to do in Emilia-Romagna
Foodies and culture lovers will find so many wonderful things to do when traveling in Emilia-Romagna. Some of our favorite activities include:
Visit a Parmigiano Reggiano dairy
Perhaps the best known cheese in Italy and even the world, Parmigiano Reggiano can only be produced in certain areas of Emilia-Romagna. Visit a dairy to understand the importance of this cheese, the strict rules and regulations that must be followed in order to label it as such, and of course to work out if you prefer 24 months old or 36 months old parmesan.
Try Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP
You’ve never had balsamic vinegar until you have tried this artisanal product from Modena. The traditional version is aged for at least twelve years, whilst the ‘extra old’ variety has a minimum of 25 years aging. Be sure to visit the Museum of Balsamic Vinegar in Modena to understand more about this luxury product and of course for some tasting.
Eat Prosciutto di Parma
There are so many delicious cured meats to try in the region, but the dry cured ham from Parma is something extra special. Try it at any one of the fabulous delicatessans in Parma.
See the UNESCO Heritage listed Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna
There are eight different UNESCO heritage sites full of Byzantine art, and gold-plated mosaics in Ravenna. Spend the day there to see them all including the Basilica of San Vitale, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Arian Baptistery, Neonian Baptistery, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Archiepiscopal Chapel, and Mausoleum of Theodoric.
Drive a Ferrari Race Car
If you like fast, luxury sports cars then you can’t miss an incredible car experience in the region! Visit the Enzo Ferrari in Modena, the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, or go all out and enjoy 15 exhilarating minutes of race car driving a Ferrari!
Walk along Bologna’s porticoes to the sanctuary of San Luca
Bologna has the longest stretch of porticoes in all of Italy. Enjoy walking under the 66 colonnades all the way up and out of town to the Sanctuary of San Luca. There is an incredible view over the city and to the Apennines waiting for you.
Visit the Castello di Torrechiara
This magnificent fortress dates back to the 15th century. Nestled amongst the vineyards, you’ll enjoy a fairytale like atmosphere here. Admire the beautiful frescoes and stunning countryside views from the best preserved fortress in the region.
What to eat and drink in Emilia-Romagna
- Tortellini in Brodo: Inspired by the shape of a woman’s bellybutton, tortellini are filled pasta made with a mixture of Mortadella, beef, Parmigiano Reggiano, and nutmeg. In the cooler months, try them in a bowl of steaming hot brodo or broth or with a simple sauce of butter and sage leaves in the summertime.
- Ragù bolognese: The most famous pasta sauce of all but if you ask for Bolognese sauce in Italy, you will be met with blank stares. Here, the locals call this meaty sugo ‘ragu’. It’s made with a mixture of ground pork and beef and slow cooked to perfection. Try it with tagliatelle pasta.
- Cured meats: Mortadella, Cultatello, and Prosciutto di Parma: There are endless cured meats to try in this region and each is better than the last! In Bologna, you must try the famous cured pork meat, Mortadella, that dates back to 1661. Culatello is another must-try that comes from the richest/fattest part of the pig. Whilst Prosciutto di Parma is a 100% natural, dry-cured ham
- Lambrusco: The typical wine from Emilia-Romagna is the sparkling red Lambrusco. Whilst it had a bad reputation in the past, the top quality version is meant to be drunk young and pairs perfectly with the salty cured meats of the region.
- Gnocco fritto: The perfect accompaniment to the salty cured meats of Emilia-Romagna are crescent-shaped, small fried puffy dough balls called Gnocco Fritto. They are best eaten piping hot.
- Tigelle/ Crescentine: A delicious Emilia-Romagna snack. Almost like savoury English muffins, they are cooked on a terracotta plate and are traditionally filled with a pork lard spread or with prosciutto, mortadella, culatello, and cheese.
Where to stay in Emilia-Romagna
The best home base when visiting Emilia Romagna is the capital Bologna. It’s well-connected to all main Italian cities through the high-speed train system, as well as the International Airport, and also offers regional trains that can get you to other smaller towns in the area. Luxury accommodation in Bologna is somewhat limited but the NH Bologna de la Gare or Albergo Rossini are always reliable. There are plenty of serviced apartments or bed and breakfast options to choose from in town- we recommend staying in the city center for easy walking access to all the sights.READ: our full guide on Where to stay Bologna
For those traveling in Emilia-Romagna with access to a car, staying in the countryside near Modena is a wonderful idea. There are plenty of beautiful country estates to choose from including the gorgeous family-run Acetaia Sereni who produce their very own Balsamic Vinegar di Modena.
For those looking for luxury or unique accommodation, it is also possible to stay in Relais or converted castles in the region. Try the gorgeous Antico Borgo di Tabiano Castello, Relais Fontevivo – a converted Abbey, or Castello Di Compiano.
When to go to Emilia-Romagna
The shoulder seasons are always excellent times to visit Emilia-Romagna to make the most of good weather, and incredible sagre or food festivals. In the Springtime, enjoy the cherry blossom season in Vignola which is famous for their Moretta cherries. Whilst, the Fall is full of interesting festivals like the Tortellini Festival in Castelfranco Emilia.
The summertime in Emilia-Romagna is very hot and humid, however, cinema lovers will want to see the incredible free Cinema Festival held in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna at least one evening.
Winters in this region are very cold but it’s also perfect for feasting upon the rich cuisine. Christmas is always a beautiful time to visit as the towns are all lit up and feature beautiful preseppe or nativity scenes and Christmas markets. There’s even a snail festival in Bobbio.
How to get to Emilia-Romagna
Bologna is an excellent train and transport hub and is easy to reach from all major cities in the country via the Trenitalia and Italo high speed train services. there’s a train pretty much every hour connecting the north to the south of Italy that passes through Bologna.
When flying from within Europe you can arrive at the Bologna Guglielmo Marconi International Airport just a short distance from the town. The airport offers connections to other main Italian cities.
If you’re driving when you travel to Emilia Romagna, you can reach Bologna in around 90 minutes from Florence, two and a half hours from Milan, and four hours from Rome along the A1. From Venice, the trip is just under two hours via the A13.
How to get around Emilia-Romagna
Traveling between the major cities is easy using the regional train services. You can reach Modena from Bologna in under 30 minutes, Parma in under an hour and Ferrara, Rimini and Ravenna in just over 60 minutes. But, to really explore the off-the-beaten-track places, it’s worth renting a car. The best place to rent your car is from Bologna airport.
Let’s go to Emilia-Romagna!
Inspired to visit Emilia-Romagna? If you liked this Emilia-Romagna travel guide and are looking for more ideas about traveling there, have a listen to our podcasts on discovering the region and food culture in Bologna.
Want to discover Emilia with us? For a deeper local connection, why not join one of our Bologna and Beyond small group tours. We’ll be tasting all the region has to offer and going deep into the countryside to meet the makers of some of the world’s most iconic produce.