Verona is a small city in Northern Italy, famous for two things - the Roman Arena, where huge-scale operas are performed throughout the summer months, and Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare tragic love-story set in the city. Both of these attract hordes of tourists, but even without them the city is beautiful and there is plenty to see.
Verona is the second biggest city in the province of Veneto1 with a population of about 270,000 people. It lies just where the Po Plain meets the Alps. Everything north of Verona is mountainous while to the south is dead flat. The Adige River makes a sharp bend as it reaches the hills and the centre of the city is surrounded on three sides by a loop of the river.
The site has been occupied since about the 5th Century BC so Verona has plenty of history. You'll find the remains of Roman buildings, mediaeval castles and palaces, and more recent Austrian fortifications. In fact the whole centre of Verona is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The centre of the city is not quite pedestrianised - cars are allowed through for access, but in general you can walk anywhere on the streets, making it a lovely place to stroll around.
You will have to pay to see most of the sights listed here; museums are rarely free in Italy and even the churches charge a small admission fee to tourists. People wanting to use the church for prayer are allowed in for free but are often restricted to a small part of the church - if you want to be a tourist, pay the tourist admission fee. The VeronaCard is a combined tourist ticket giving you either free admission or a significant discount on the entry to just about everything in the city for a single price. If you're going to be seeing more than one or two things, it is probably worth buying one of these cards.
Wandering Around the Centre
The centre of Verona is quite small. All of the tourist sights are within 15 minutes' walk of the centre. There are two main squares, Piazza Erbe in the centre of the city and Piazza Bra beside the Roman Arena. Both of these are very lively spots with lots of restaurants and activities. Between them is the main pedestrian shopping street, Via Mazzini.
Piazza Erbe is the real centre of the city and the area around it has many mediaeval houses, palaces, statues etc. The piazza is long and narrow. At the northwest end you'll see a statue of the winged Lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice, because for many centuries Verona was the second city of the Venetian Republic. At the other end is a 14th-Century stone column with a sort of shrine on the top. Four saints look out from under a pointed roof. There are a few of these shrines in Verona.
Piazza Erbe is a busy market during the day with stalls covered with sunshades selling anything and everything. You can get fresh fruit and vegetables, clothes, or tacky souvenirs. In the centre of the piazza is a fountain, also from the 14th Century, with a Roman statue of a woman dating from 380 AD. This originally represented 'Commerce'.
Halfway along the northeast side of the piazza is an archway leading to Piazza dei Signori. Hanging from the arch is a giant rib bone of a whale. Legend has it that it will fall when a person who has never told a lie walks underneath. It has been hanging there for more than a thousand years. In another version of the legend, it will fall when an adult virgin walks underneath.
Piazza dei Signori (the Lords' Square) is smaller and there's not as much happening there. This was the centre of government, with lots of imposing buildings and another Lion of St Mark. Look out for the faces on the wall with a letter-box-style mouth. These were for making anonymous denunciations of criminals. There are two - one for reporting illegal moneylenders and the other for people who haven't paid tax on their silk business. Also look for the stone which marks the level of the river during a flood in 1882. The whole centre of the city was under water.
Piazza Bra is the biggest open space in Verona. The name appears to be a corruption of 'braida', a dialect word meaning 'broad'. The piazza has the Arena on one side and a line of restaurants on the second, the other sides being an exhibition centre/art gallery and the town hall. There are some pleasant gardens in the centre of the square with trees and a fountain. The piazza is always very lively, with various events such as bands playing, running races ending here, displays of vintage cars, line dancing and so on.
There are also loads of fashion shops - leather handbags seem to be a particular favourite, being available at prices ranging from €20 to a whopping €3,000.
Verona was laid out by the Romans, with a forum in the centre (Piazza Erbe), two major streets leading from this at right angles to each other (Via Capello and Corso Porta Borsari), and a grid of lesser streets aligned with them. You can still see the grid layout of the streets, in contrast to other European mediaeval towns which have a higgledy-piggledy arrangement. Unlike American cities, the grid was not aligned with the compass points; the main street went in a southeast/northwest direction.
The Roman town was surrounded by the river, and at the northeast end of the loop there was a bridge; sometimes called the Roman Bridge, this is officially Ponte Pietra, the Stone Bridge. Part of the original Roman stone structure still exists but it has been repaired and rebuilt many times using brick and is now a strange mixture of brick and stone.
Just to the north of the bridge is the Roman Theatre which is a semi-circular open-air theatre. Although some of the original seating is still in place, the staging area is no longer there and it is not suitable for putting on performances.
By far the most important remnant of Roman times is the Arena, a huge elliptical amphitheatre with a central staging area surrounded by tiered seating on all sides. From the outside this is held up by two levels of arches. The Arena was originally just outside the walls of the Roman town. It is the third biggest Roman arena in the world, after the Colosseum in Rome and an arena in Naples. In contrast to the Colosseum where the seats and floor are missing making it unusable, the Arena in Verona still has most of the original seating and can hold about 20,000 people for modern events. Originally it was even larger, with a third level of arches holding up many more seats - it could probably have seated the entire population of the city - but the outermost, highest rows of seats collapsed long ago. There's still one section of the outermost wall standing to give you an idea of what it would have been like.
Nowadays, instead of gladiatorial combat, it is used for putting on giant operas on summer evenings, ones that benefit from an enormous stage. Verdi's Aida is a favourite, as there's plenty of room for the huge statuary that the Egyptian pharaohs favoured while still leaving room for an audience of thousands. These are not the cutting edge of opera but the old favourites.
The other conspicuous Roman remains in Verona are two city gates and a ceremonial arch:
Porta Leoni is just off Via Leoni at the southeast end of the main Roman street. It is a single white arch and is now positioned against a building so you can no longer walk through it. It was originally the gate to the city from the southeast.
Porta Borsari is at the southwest end of Corso Porta Borsari and is a white double arch with an elaborate wall above it with arched openings. It was the gate to the city from the southwest.
Arco dei Gavi is a ceremonial arch. It was originally positioned on the road leading up to Porta Borsari (now the Corso Cavour) but it was blocking the traffic so it was moved to a small square just off the street beside the Castelvecchio (Old Castle).
William Shakespeare wrote a few plays which mentioned Verona, for example Two Gentlemen of Verona, but by far the most important was Romeo and Juliet which was set in the city. Verona has taken it to its heart, often being described as the 'most romantic city in Italy' because of this connection.
In 1300 Italy was not a single country but a collection of small city-states. To the south of Verona were the parts of Italy controlled by the Pope. To the north was the Holy Roman Empire, famously described as 'neither holy nor Roman', being run by German-speaking nobles and taking in most of what is now Germany and Austria. In between were lots of wealthy cities including Verona which were undecided as to whether they should ally with the Pope or the Empire. Shakespeare's play describes two young lovers who come from two different families, one supporting the Pope and the other supporting the Empire, and as a result are enemies of each other.
Romeo and Juliet were fictional characters, but the city of Verona has glossed over this detail. You can visit Juliet's House (Casa di Giulietta) where she lived and where the famous balcony scene occurred; in another part of the city you can see Juliet's Tomb. Thousands of people flock to Juliet's house every day - admission is free into the courtyard during opening hours. They stand under the balcony imagining the balcony scene. They write love messages on the walls (until recently sticking paper messages to the walls with chewing gum). They fondle the breast of the brass statue of Juliet to bring them good luck in love.
Many pay admission into the house and look at the contents. Not all of them know that the balcony was only installed in the 1950s, or that this house had nothing to do with either the Montagues or Capulets. Nevertheless, if you choose to pay and see the house, you will find a realistic modern interpretation of what a Renaissance house would have been like in the time of Romeo and Juliet, although it is a bit sparse on furnishings.
Elsewhere in the city, in Piazza Bra, you can see a small bust of Shakespeare just in front of the city wall, with a quotation from the play:
There is no world without2 Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death.
Before Verona was ruled by Venice, it was an independent city-state and for 125 years from 1262 to 1387 it was ruled by a family called the Scaligeri (or Scaligers in English). Their crest was a ladder (scala3) between two dogs. By conquering nearby cities, they expanded Verona's control until they ruled most of the modern Veneto region as well as sizeable areas around Parma and Lucca.
One of the greatest of the Scaligers was Cangrande I (literally Big Dog the First), who was not only a warrior but also a patron of the Arts, supporting artists such as Giotto and poets such as Petrarch and Dante. Cangrande is normally depicted in armour on a scary horse with a skull-like head. This is actually a horse wearing a helmet. Both horse and rider have a crest of a dog with wings. In fact this image of Cangrande was devised after he had died by his nephew Mastino in order to make his uncle appear more impressive. You can see this statue above the tomb of Cangrande, although this is a copy - the original is in the museum in the Scaliger castle.
The Scaliger Castle is called the Castelvecchio (Old Castle). It is made from red brick and has distinctive M-shaped castellations. The castle is built on the bank of the river and there is a similar red-brick, castellated Scaliger Bridge. This is positioned so that the road to the bridge goes through the castle, making it almost impossible for an invading army to use the bridge unopposed. Sadly, the bridge was bombed during the Second World War, along with all the other bridges of Verona, but it has been rebuilt using the original materials which were recovered from the bed of the river.
The castle now holds a museum which has been fitted very sensitively into the shell of the castle. It features mainly religious art of the late Mediaeval and early Renaissance periods. In particular look out for the Wheel of Fortune in stone, the mediaeval 'Trenta Storie della Bibbia' (Thirty Stories from the Bible), and the crucifixion scene by the Master of Sant'Anastasia.
The castle is still worth visiting even if you are not particularly interested in the art. You can climb right up to the battlements and see how the building was designed for defence.
The tombs of the Scaligers (Arche Scaligere) are in the grounds of the tiny Santa Maria Antica church just off Piazza Erbe. In the summer you can pay admission to see these at close range, but they are almost perfectly visible from the street at any time. There are three impressive tombs with raised sarcophaguses and elaborate statuary as well as a number of plain tombs. Cangrande I is directly over the door to the church.
Like all Italian cities, Verona is full of churches.
The Basilica of San Zeno
This is the most important church in the city, being the church of the patron saint of Verona. It is slightly out from the centre being about 15 minutes' walk. The church was built in 967 AD but extensive restoration was done in the 12th to 14th Centuries. It is Romanesque in style which means that it is plain with circular arches and arched windows.
Saint Zeno was a 4th-Century African who was appointed 8th Bishop of Verona and it was during his time that everybody in the city converted to Christianity. Quite a lot seems to be known about him; over ninety of his sermons were written down and are still available, for example. The body of the saint lies in state in a glass-sided coffin in the basement of the church. There's also a lovely statue of him at the small altar to the left of the main altar - he's a dark-skinned man with a cheery smile.
The main doors of the church have bronze scenes from the Bible and from the life of Saint Zeno on them. These can now be seen only from inside the church as there are outer plain wooden doors to protect them from the weather. The bronze scenes are stylistically divided into two and thought to be the work of two different craftsmen, one of the German School at the end of the 11th Century and the other a local Italian from the second half of the 12th Century. It's fun to test your Bible knowledge by trying to identify the scenes - you should be able to recognise Noah's Ark and the Last Supper easily enough.
The inside of the church has many 12th–14th-Century frescoes (paintings made directly onto the fresh plaster while it was still wet) but much of the interior is unadorned. The walls are made from alternating cream-coloured tufa stone and pink bricks, giving a very warm colour. The roof is an amazing wooden construction known as a 'ship's keel' because of its resemblance to an upturned body of a ship.
The church of Sant'Anastasia is probably the most ornate church in Verona, as well being the largest. It is built in a style called Italian Gothic which is much fancier than the Gothic of Northern Europe. Construction began in 1290 but was not completed until the early years of the 16th Century.
As you enter the church, you encounter two holy water fonts held up by figures of hunchbacks. These unfortunate individuals were considered lucky in Renaissance Italy and it was good luck to touch their hump. The one on the left is by Gabriele Caliari (1495) while the other is by Paolo Orefice (1591).
The church is full of artworks. Probably most significant is the fresco in the small chapel just to the right of the main altar. It is by Pisanello and is entitled 'St George and the Princess'.
The Duomo, officially known as the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, is the Cathedral of Verona, that is, the church of the Bishop. It is somewhat disappointing being rather plain inside. The walls are adorned with frescoes in a very classical style showing huge grey stone buildings in the background, but the ceiling is plain, giving the church an unfinished look. Once again, there are many artworks on display around the church.
At the back left of the church is a doorway into other parts of the cathedral complex and here you will find the beautiful St Giovanni in Fonte Baptistery, with a huge baptismal font for total immersion, carved with scenes from the Bible. You'll also find some archaeological excavations as the whole complex was built on top of an old Roman baths.
In front of the Duomo is a small piazza and there is a beautiful modern bronze statue of an angel.
The Giardino Giusti
After the hustle and bustle of the streets, it is nice to take a peaceful break in a beautiful garden. The Giardino Giusti is across the river at the base of the hill that overlooks Verona. The gardens were first laid out in the 15th Century but their present form dates from 1570 under the ownership of Agostino Giusti, an important aristocrat.
The gardens are very formal, with lots of low hedges, tall, straight cypress trees and classical statues. There are no flowers at all, except for a few acanthuses, the plant that the ancient Greeks used to decorate their Corinthian columns.
At the back of the gardens, the ground rises and there are less formal winding paths and eventually a cliff face. Set high in the cliff is a giant stone head with gaping mouth. In olden times, a fire would be lit inside so that the head could breathe flames. Beside the head is an enclosed spiral staircase which brings you up to a small part of the garden at the top of the cliff. There are good views over Verona from here.
Getting Above it All
Italian cities look good from above - the buildings are all roofed in red tiles and there are many towers, both on churches and on the palaces of the more wealthy inhabitants of old. So it is always worth climbing up to see the city from above. We finish our guide to Verona by telling you how to look down on it:
The Torre dei Lamberti (Lamberti Tower) is a huge bell-tower on the biggest palace in the centre of the city, just off the Piazza Erbe. When it was first built in 1172, it was considered a status symbol to have a huge tower on your house. Only a few of these still remain. The Venetians extended the tower upwards in the 16th Century, so that the present 84-metre construction is much taller than it would have been in the time of the Lamberti family. You can climb the hundreds of steps to the top of the tower. The best views are from the bell chamber about two thirds of the way up, rather than from the top. Be warned: the bells chime very loudly every half hour. Be ready to put your fingers in your ears. There's also a lift, but even if you take the lift you will still have to climb quite a few steps to reach the bell chamber. Note that the entrance fee to the tower is included in the VeronaCard but you will have to pay an extra €1 if you want to use the lift.
Crossing the Ponte Pietra (Stone Bridge) at the northeast end of the centre, there is a steep hill called Castel San Pietro (St Peter's Castle). There was a temple here in Roman times, and later Theoderic the Goth, king of Northern Italy, had a castle built and stayed here when he visited the city. Nowadays it's a great place to get a view out over the whole city. After crossing the bridge, turn left and take the first street to the right (Via Santo Stefano). Here you'll find the Funicular Railway, opened in 2017, which for a small fee will take you to the top of the hill. Alternatively, there's a series of steps that bring you from the end of the bridge all the way to the top. Try and get here at sunset (making sure to check the closing time of the funicular) for a memorable view over the 'most romantic city in Italy'.