What to do and where to stay in Ravenna
As an art history major, I’ve wanted to visit Ravenna since college. It’s a little off the beaten path, so it took me a while. But it was worth the wait.
Ravenna has a fascinating history. At one time or other, it’s been under Roman, Papal, and Venetian rule. But what really put Ravenna on the map was the Byzantine conquest in 540AD. The most beautiful mosaics in the world were produced here during that era. And they’re remarkably well preserved today. Many of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Much of Ravenna is a pedestrian zone, so you can walk to most of the sights, except for Sant’Apollinaire in Classe, which is about four miles from town. In ancient times, this was the port. Now, it’s inland. You can get there by city bus — they run often and drop you a 2-minute walk from the church. Buy your tickets at the tobacco store. And buy a combination ticket that includes admission to many of the churches.
Consecrated in 549, the church isn’t much to look at from the outside. But inside’s another story. Walk down the wide nave through the marble columns to the semi-circular apse. The 58 windows on the outer aisles flood the church with light. The arch and half dome over the high altar are covered with exquisite mosaics that glitter with gold. In the center, Sant’Apollinaire, the first bishop of Ravenna, is flanked by 12 lambs, symbolizing the Apostles. Birds, plants, and animals populate the paradise in the background. Christ is represented by the gold cross on a blue background covered with stars. Sant’Apollinaire is dazzling, incredible, amazing. Don’t miss it.
Back in town, the Basilica of San Vitale was consecrated in 548. The octagonal church is crowned with a dome, but the best mosaics are in the choir and the apse. Translucent panels bring in natural light which makes the mosaics sparkle. Christ is depicted surrounded by saints and angels. Plants and animals are at his feet. The emperor Justinian appears on the left of the apse. His wife, Theodora, is on the right. Look for the dolphins with crossed tails.
The third must-see in Ravenna is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. It’s on the grounds of San Vitale. The daughter of Emperor Theodosius I, Galla Placidia was the de facto ruler of the Roman Empire for 12 years, and though she‘s not buried here, it‘s a fitting tribute. The mausoleum is at least 100 years older than San Vitale. The mosaics here are some of the most brilliantly colored in the world. Once inside, you’re surrounded by shimmering blue, green, and gold. The Good Shepherd appears at the entrance, and then eight of the Apostles appear in pairs on each of the walls beneath the dome. The other four appear on their own in the transepts.
In a palace that was originally built in the 14th century, Albergo Cappello has just seven lovely rooms. It’s a short stroll from San Vitale and the mausoleum, and the Piazza del Popolo. With 15th century frescoes, Murano glass chandeliers, beamed ceilings, and tile floors, this is the most atmospheric hotel in Ravenna. It was completely renovated in 1998, and today they have LCD TVs, mini fridges, WiFi access, and in-room safes. There’s a restaurant and wine bar.
A member of the Best Western chain, Hotel Bisanzio is also very near San Vitale. In fact, you can see it from some of the upper-floor rooms. Like Ravenna’s churches, it doesn’t look like much from the outside. The lobby is all marble and leather club chairs, and there’s a private garden where you can relax with a glass of wine. The 38 modern rooms have mini bars and safes. And non-smoking rooms are available.
Just off Ravenna’s pedestrian concourse, the NH Ravenna Hotel is near Ravenna’s other significant churches — Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo and San Giovanni Evangelista. With 84 rooms, it’s one of the biggest hotels in town, and it’s the first choice of business travelers. Rooms are attractive with wood paneling and modern bathrooms. There’s a restaurant and bar, and you can rent a bike for exploring the city.
In a villa built in 1407 and refurbished in 2004, Villa Santa Maria in Foris has the most spacious rooms in town. They’re available in a variety of configurations from simple single rooms to elaborate suites. And they have wood floors and marble baths, some with whirlpools. The public areas, which include a library, breakfast room, and courtyard, are a big part of the appeal here. Although there’s no restaurant, a lavish breakfast buffet is served. When the weather’s nice, you can have it in the garden.
1) Basilica San Vitale
2) Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
3) Albergo Cappello
4) Hotel Basanzio
5) NH Hotel Ravenna
6) Villa Santa Maria in Foris