Italy has more world heritage sites than any other country so you don’t have to go far to find one. While we were traveling around northern Italy we knew one city we had to get to was Ravenna. Ravenna was the short lived capital of the Holy Roman Empire for part of the 5th century and most of the architecture from that era still remains in pretty near perfect condition today. The Byzantine mosaics are said to be some of the finest examples of their kind. While driving into the city, we couldn’t see much in the city skyline to hint at what was to come. These aren’t you’re towering cathedrals found in other European cities. Byzantine structures were much lower to the ground with most of the workmanship and effort put into the artwork in the interiors. We followed a series of brown signs that eventually led us to the main parking lot next to Basilica di San Vitale.
Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ravenna
When you arrive by car you’re most likely to park at the Basilica and it makes for a good place to start exploring Ravenna. The peaceful grounds, and simple architecture of the church are calming and pleasant to stroll around. However, when you walk through the dark portal and let your eyes adjust to the dimmer light you’ll be astounded by the sights around you. The walls and ceilings are covered in colorful, elaborate mosaics and stucco relief sculptures depicting various biblical scenes. Even the marble that isn’t carved shows a rich swirling pattern that I’ve not seen before.
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So much decoration and artwork cover the surfaces that I’m sure there are so many things I never even noticed while I was there. In fact, I was amazed to find scenes and pictures that I never saw until days later when I was looking at the photographs. The artistry and skill that went into these detailed mosaics is just unimaginable until you see it for yourself.
Next Stop – Mausoleum of Galla Placida
The second stop on the itinerary is right on the grounds of the Basilica at the Mausoleum of Galla Placida. Galla Placida was the sister of the Roman Emperor Honorius. When she died in 452 AD he had this mausoleum built to honor her memory. Little did he know that the structure and the mosaics within would remain mostly intact for centuries. Once inside this brick structure you’ll find colorful mosaics depicting the heavens in deep vermillion and glimmering gold.
Third Stop – Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
I have to admit, when I rounded the corner on our way to this stop on the route I was impressed by the nine story tall tower that greeted us. I’ve never seen anything so tall and slender that has survived so well. In fact this newer Basilica is much more ornate and decorative on the outside then the earlier construction of San Vitale. Again, the mosaics in the interior halls and rooms shone in shimmering gold. This was my favorite stop in all of Ravenna. I really loved the procession of Saints, Martyrs, and Apostles that line the hall.
Our Last Stop!
We debated on whether or not to continue on to the last of the three complexes in Ravenna. In the end, I’m glad we did. The mosaic in the cupola of this massive octaganol baptistry has no equal in the world. Built around the same time as the earlier Basilica di San Vitale, this plain, angular building again hides the beauty within. Here we found the entire domed ceiling covered with a scene of the John baptizing Jesus. The details in this piece, like the transparent water, are incredible. Again, this was definitely worth the walk.
Practical Information for a trip to Ravenna
- The sites in Ravenna are spread around the town in three main locations
- It is possible to drive to each of the sites, but there is limited parking, so it’s best to walk
- Plan for at least 3 hours to visit all three sites, 4 hours is better with lunch or a snack added between sites.
- The ticket to enter all of the sites was 9.50 euro when we visited
- Tickets are valid for seven days, so you could spend more time in the town and spread out your explorations
- Parking at the main lot at Basilica di San Vitale was easy to find, cheap, and secure (as usual, never leave belongings in plain sight)
- Visit the Official website for more detailed information