Like many others, I chanced upon Padua because of Venice. I opted to stay in Padua – Padova in Italian – because all the hotels in Venice were booked out. In doing so I stumbled upon one of the best cities to visit in Italy.
I was amazed at how many things to do in Padua there are, and returned there soon afterwards. It’s a city immensely rich in history, and several Padua attractions boast astonishing art treasures.
Padua attracts visitors on day trips from Venice, but has always been in Venice’s shadow, somewhat. As a result, it’s one of the most underrated cities in Europe. We’ll give you the lowdown on the best Padua things to do, including one of the best churches in Europe and possibly the most impressive piece of art you will see in your lifetime. It’s also home to one of the oldest universities in the world.
Beyond the Padua sightseeing, this is a young city with a large student population which keeps it fresh and interesting. Read on for our full Padua guide.
Where Is Padua?
Padua is in the Veneto region of north-east Italy. It’s 40 km (25 miles) inland from its more famous neighbour, Venice. Padua is on one of the main rail routes across northern Italy, so the cities of Vicenza and Verona are within an hour’s journey.
Padua History – A Little Background
Claims have been made that Padua is the oldest city in Italy, dating back to 1183 BC. It was supposedly founded by Antenor, a prince from Troy. What is certain is that it’s very old, possibly dating back to around 1000 BC.
It later became a prominent, powerful city under the Romans. It then fell to the Huns, Goths, Lombards, Franks and Magyars all captured and ransacked it over the next 500 years. A fire in 1174 didn’t exactly help matters either.
It enjoyed its greatest period of prosperity in the 13th century. The University was founded in 1222, becoming one of the leading universities in Europe. Anthony of Padua, the Portuguese-born saint, spent his final few years in the city, and a Basilica was built to house his relics.
Padua later fell under the rule of the Venetians until the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. Thereafter it became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before being absorbed into Italy in 1866.
The Padova Card is a smart card valid for either 48 hours (€17.00) or 72 hours (€22.00). You can either buy it in Padova or online. The online ticket includes entrance to the Cappella degli Scrovegni. The full benefits include bus travel within the city and out to the Euganean Hills, and entrance to some of the main attractions in the city.
the best things to do in Padua
The Best Things To Do In Padua – The Basilica del Santo
It’s known as the Basilica of the Saint, as if he doesn’t need to be named. In Padua, he doesn’t. From a distance, the Basilica looks like the skyline of a medieval city, a cluster of domes, towers and turrets. It was built to inspire awe, and still does 800 years later.
The Saint is St Anthony of Padua, a Portuguese-born ascetic and itinerant Franciscan preacher who spent his last years in Padua. He attracted a fervent following, partly because he chose a life of poverty over possible wealth. After his death, reports of miracles abounded, and he was canonised within three years of his death.
Once Anthony was dead, the asceticism went out of the window rather quickly. A suitable church had to be built to house the shrine of St Anthony. The interior is nothing short of staggering.
One of the first things you reach is the vast marble shrine, which contains most of his relics. It’s an extraordinary sight, constantly thronged with worshippers praying for miracles of their own. Prayer candles are lit, and a wall of photographs records miracles attributed to him. St Anthony is traditionally the patron saint of lost things, but if this is anything to go by he has also intervened in some shocking car crashes. One vehicle was wrapped around a tree on an Alpine mountain road, with the message ‘Grazie Antonio’ underneath. It’s an incredibly intense experience.
I nominated Il Santo as top of my list of things to do in Padova because there is no let-up in this fascinating place. I made my way to the Treasury Chapel where several precious ornate reliquaries are held. The array of relics is mind-boggling. One reliquary contains Anthony’s lower jaw. Another holds the Incorrupt Tongue of St Anthony. Yet another contains his vocal cords. Please forgive the pun, but this left me utterly speechless.
The Basilica also houses many more art masterpieces. The Chapel of St James is decorated with a fine fresco cycle by Altichiero da Zevio. This is easy to find. It’s a lot more difficult to see the Donatello statues and reliefs depicting the life of St Anthony. I happened to see a verger showing an Italian couple, and managed to join them for a very privileged couple of minutes. If you want to see them, you’ll need to ask.
Donatello’s Gattamelata Statue
Gattamelata (meaning ‘honeyed cat’) was a condottiero, or military leader active during the Renaissance period. He is buried inside the Basilica, but of far greater interest is Donatello’s bronze equestrian statue of him outside the church. The Donatello Gattamelata is an incredibly influential sculpture, the forerunner of most equestrian sculptures in the west.
If you visit San Zanipolo in Venice, you’ll see another magnificent example, Andrea del Verrocchio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, next to the church.
Cappella degli Scrovegni
Nothing can quite prepare you for the Scrovegni Chapel. It’s top of most people’s list of what to do in Padova, and rightly so. It’s one of the greatest artistic achievements of the medieval world.
This small chapel was built as the private chapel and last resting place of Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy Padua banker. He commissioned Giotto di Bondone to paint ambitious fresco cycles depicting the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin Mary. It took Giotto two years to complete this commission.
It’s an incredible sight, and the paintings are remarkably vibrant. The lifelike style of depiction of his subjects is very unlike any contemporary art, foreshadowing Renaissance painting styles by well over a century.
You need to book your Scrovegni Chapel tickets online at least 24 hours in advance.
This 18th century café has the credentials to go with the coffee: both Lord Byron and French author Stendhal frequented it during the 19th century.
It’s also a marvellous mish-mash of architectural styles. These include Ancient Greek and Venetian Gothic. If you love the cafes of Vienna, Budapest or Trieste, this place is a must-see. I happened to be in Padua for my 30th birthday, and this is where I had dinner to celebrate.
They also have their own unique house drink, named after the café, with mint flavoured cream and a dash of cocoa powder.
The cafe now occupies the ground floor of the building. The first floor rooms – the piano nobile – are sumptuously decorated, and are now occupied by the Pedrocchi Café Museum and, next door, the Museo del Risorgimento.
Palazzo del Bo
The Palace of the Ox is the ancient headquarters of Padua University, the second oldest in Italy after Bologna. It’s a fascinating place to visit for an hour, as intriguing as its counterpart in Bologna.
The only way to see Palazzo Bo is on a guided Padua University tour. There are usually four tours a day in English, and four in Italian. It’s worth visiting just to see the wooden anatomical theatre, which dates from 1595. You also get to see the Aula Magna, or Great Hall, where Galileo Galilei (the chair of mathematics, no less) sometimes lectured.
Palazzo della Ragione
This magnificent medieval palace sits between two lovely squares, Piazza della Frutta and Piazza delle Erbe. These two medieval market squares still host a great fruit and vegetable market every morning except Sundays, and after this café tables take over.
The Palazzo – called Il Salone by locals – is a fine august building from the city’s golden era in the 13th and 14th century. It was the city’s Palace of Justice until 1798. The ground floor arches are home to cafes, delis and other food shops, and there’s also a covered market inside.
The first floor loggia gives great views over the Piazza delle Erbe, but the highlight is the fresco cycle on the walls of the Great Hall. This depicts the signs of the zodiac, and was completed by Minolo Miretto and Stafano da Ferrara between 1425 and 1440.
In most cities in Europe the Cathedral is the largest, most prominent church. Not so in Padua because of Il Santo, of course. The body of the current Padua Duomo was built between 1551 and 1754, so an older exterior conceals a largely white Baroque interior.
The Baptistery is next door, and contains one of the most impressive fresco cycles in Italy by Giusto de’ Menabuoi. I think it gets overlooked somewhat because visitors only have time to visit the Scrovegni Chapel. If you visit Padua, I’d say that seeing this is as essential as the Scrovegni. Andrew Graham-Dixon takes Giorgio Locatelli to see it in their wonderful Italy Unpacked series – this clip includes their visit to Padua, from 16:45 onwards. It’s a truly spellbinding work.
The Baptistery is included in the Padova Card, otherwise admission is €3.00. It’s open 10.00 am to 6.00 pm daily.
Orto Botanico Padova
The Botanical Garden Padua is a wonderful surprise. I chanced upon it during my first visit to the city, and was amazed by its story. It’s the oldest botanical garden in the world, founded in 1545. It’s the prototype for all others that have followed. Because of this it was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. The original layout is still preserved.
It started out with the intention of cultivating plants for medicinal purposes, and is linked with the University of Padua. Surrounding walls had to be built to prevent theft, and the collection gradually grew to include plants from all over the world. The oldest tree in the garden dates back to 1550, and is known as the Goethe palm, after the German author who ponce wrote about it.
A new section has been added recently which includes four greenhouses. In these four different climates have ben recreated, including tropical rainforest, temperate Mediterranean and arid desert.
Prato della Valle
The Prato della Valle Padua claims to be the largest city square in Europe. I can testify that it’s truly vast. Many photos of Padua in brochures and online show the Prato. A canal surrounds an island in the middle of the square, and the waterway is flanked by a row of statues either side.
The Prato della Valle (‘meadow of the valley’) is just to the south of Padua city centre, and it plays host to a huge Saturday market (0800-1900), selling everything from household goods to clothes to flowers. On weekdays there’s also a fruit and vegetable market on the square.
Basilica of Santa Giustina, Padova
At the edge of the Prato stands Santa Giustina Basilica. This Basilica has an incredible roll-call of relics, including those of St Justina of Padua, St Luke the Evangelist and St Julian.
It’s not as impressive as Il Santo, but it is immense, one of the ten biggest churches in Christendom. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style in the 17th century.
Day Trips from Padua
Padua tends to get visitors on a day trip from Venice, but there’s no reason you can’t do it the other way around. A day trip to Venice isn’t the ideal way to see the city, but if you stay in Padua, you can make several day trips there. The Venice to Padua train takes as little as half an hour, so getting back and forth is easy. Padova train station is at the northern end of the city centre, a ten-minute walk from the Cappella degli Scrovegni.
Padua is also close to the Colli Euganei, or Euganean Hills. I haven’t had the chance to visit this area yet, despite intending to for a very long time. It has several small historic towns including Arquà Petrarca, which was indeed home to the 14th century poet Petrarch. The spa town of Àbano Terme is also close by.
Many Padua hotels are in the mid-range bracket, with a wide range of 4-star and 3-star options around the city.
The Hotel Europa is one of the best 4-star Padova hotels, in an ideal location too. It’s across the street from the Cappella degli Scrovegni and ten minutes from the station. Doubles are around €130 a night.
Albergo Verdi is one of my old Padua haunts, and they’ve upped their game since my first stay. They’re now a chic small boutique hotel, very close to the Piazza dei Signori, Palazzo della Ragione and the Duomo. You can often find doubles for €100-120.
The best Padova hotel if you’re on a budget is Casa del Pellegrino, right opposite the Basilica del Santo. It’s beautifully clean and one of the best bargains you’ll find in this part of Italy. The location is excellent as well. Doubles are €50-60 per night.