Ravenna is like no other place in Italy and the magnificence of the mosaics will leave you breathless – and with a stiff neck. Although the port of Ravenna was already important as the base of the Roman Adriatic fleet, it reached even greater heights when Emperor Honorius moved his court here from Milan in 402, making Ravenna the capital of the entire Western Roman Empire. Honorius and his sister, Galla Placidia, embarked on a building program and established the city as a center of mosaic art to embellish their new churches. It continued as the seat of sixth-century King Theodoric the Great, who was brought up in Constantinople, and later the seat of a Byzantine governor, so the artistic influences here were heavily Byzantine. Intricate mosaic work has reached some of its greatest heights here.
An amazing amount of beautiful mosaics survive, most of them in seven buildings that together with the tomb of Theodoric form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main danger is overwhelmed by the sheer size of mosaics, so that by the time you reach the last places, you simply cannot absorb anymore. For this reason, it is a good idea to plan your visit over two separate days. But however you see Ravenna, you will agree that it is unique among all the places to visit in Italy.
SwatiTravel is supported by readers and may earn a commission from purchases made through links in this article.
1 Neonisch Baptistery
A good place to start, both geographically and historically, is this early fifth-century brick baptistery in the heart of the city. The octagonal building is one of the oldest in Ravenna and is considered the finest and most complete example of the early Christian baptistery surviving today. Intricate mosaics line the entire dome, culminating in a large mosaic medallion at the top, representing the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.
Address: Piazza Duomo 1, Ravenna
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ravenna
Flights for everyone SwatiTravel– cheap flights
2 San Vitale
Don’t be fooled by San Vitale’s plain, slightly drab exterior; the interior more than makes up for this. Step into the octagonal church, built in the first half of the 6th century, to see one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Western Europe. Apart from a few baroque frescoes added to the dome, the whole decoration is in mosaic, but the height makes the tiny combination of tesserae join together (as the artist intended) to make them look like paintings. Only the bright colors and liberal use of gold betray their secret. The 6th-century mosaics in the chancel apse depict Justinian, his wife Theodora and their court; Christ is shown flanked by St. Vitalis (on the left) and St. Ecclesius.
Address: Via Argentario 22, Ravenna
3 Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Of the soaring, clear and almost overwhelming grandeur of San Vitalestep into the intimate afterworld of Galla Placidia, the sister of Emperor Honorius. It will take your eyes a minute or two to adjust to the dim light filtering through windows of carved translucent agate into the vaulted cruciform mausoleum. The low arches and domes are lined with fifth-century mosaics made from the smallest of tesserae, the figures contrasting against a deep blue background. Above the door, Christ appears as the Good Shepherd, surrounded by mosaic sheep. Look for the apostles and symbols of the four evangelists – the lion, eagle, ox and angel. The marble sarcophagi are believed to be those of Galla Placidia, her husband and son, all of whom died in the fifth century. The UNESCO citation calls this “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments,
Address: Via Argentario 22, Ravenna
4 Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
The walk through the town to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo not only gives you time to rest your eyes, but also to get to the 6th century, when Theodoric had this basilica built as his cathedral. The walls of the long single nave are decorated with mosaics depicting ships in the nearby Roman port of Classis on the left, and Ravenna on the right, with its churches and the palace of Theodoric. Take advantage of the seats along the wall to look up at the mosaics high on the walls above, which depict saints, prophets and New Testament scenes. Before you leave, head to the monastery to see the fascinating exhibits on mosaic making, where you can see the materials and techniques used, along with examples of the nearly infinite gradations of color the artists work with.
Address: Via di Roma 52, Ravenna
5 Basilica of San Francesco
About halfway between the Neonian Baptistry and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Franciscan Church of San Francesco is easily identified by its tall 10th-century Romanesque tower. It’s worth a stop for several reasons, not the least of which is the haunted flooded crypt. Also look out for the 16th-century stone columns carved by Tullio Lombardo and in the left aisle for frescoes by the early 14th-century painter Pietro da Rimini. In the cemetery it is hard to miss the great grave of Dante, the great Italian writer who was the first to promote the use of a single Italian language. Before Dante, who died here in 1321, residents of different regions of Italy could not understand each other and travelers had to request directions in different languages.
- Basiliek: Piazza San Francesco 1, Ravenna
- Dante Museum: Via Dante Alighieri 4, Ravenna
6 Museo Nazionale (National Museum)
adjoining San Vitale , the museum housed in the cloisters of the former Benedictine monastery has excellent collections of carved ivories, textiles from the Coptic to Renaissance periods, icons and ancient weapons. Particularly interesting is a cycle of 14th-century frescoes of Santa Chiara from the Monastery Church of the Poor Clares in Ravenna.
Address: Via San Vitale 17, Ravenna
7 Arcivescovado (Archbishop’s Palace)
Near the Cathedral and the Neonian Baptistry is the Archbishop’s Palace, within which is the Archbishop’s Chapel, one of the eight attractions of Ravenna listed by UNESCO. The private rhetoric of the bishops, built at the turn of the sixth century, is in the shape of a Greek cross. The lower walls are covered with marble, above which are mosaics. Also in the palace, a small museum holds a sixth-century Egyptian throne with carved ivory reliefs.
Address: Piazza Arcivescovado 1, Ravenna
8 Tomb of Theodoric
When your eyes and neck are tired of mosaics, take a rest by walking to Ravenna’s only Unesco-listed attraction without a single tessera. On the north side of Via Roma is the early 6th-century Tomb of Theodoric planned for himself, a two-story monumental rotunda. Built of marble, this remarkable piece of late Roman architecture features a single stone more than 10 meters in diameter and weighing approximately 3,000 tons. The walk is about 800 meters, but you can also take bus number 5, 18 or 90 from the train station.
Address: Via delle Industrie 14, Ravenna
9 Arian Baptistery
The small octagonal brick baptistery that Theodoric built next to his cathedral later became a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, called Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Although part of the UNESCO site, the remaining sixth-century mosaics in the dome depicting the baptism of Christ have been greatly restored over the centuries. Surrounding the baptismal scene are mosaic images of the Twelve Apostles and a throne with a cross.
Address: Piazzetta degli Ariani, Ravenna
10 Sant’ Apollinare in Classe
About six kilometers south of the center of Ravenna on the road to Rimini, the imposing circular campanile of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe stands high above the flat countryside. Built in the mid-sixth century just outside the ancient Roman port of Classis in Ravenna, the church is decorated with the last examples of mosaics from the city, commissioned from 673 to 679. These add to the earlier mosaics completed when it was built. If you think you’ve seen the panel in the apse previously showing the commissioning Bishop Reparatus with the Emperor Constantine IV, you have: it is clearly an example of that of the Emperor Justinian at San Vitale. In the aisles, marble sarcophagi of archbishops show the changes in styles between the fifth and eighth centuries. Note the bronze window grid in the crypt. For a historical treasure hunt, look for the ancient pagan tombstones that were reused in the construction of the church.
Address: Via Romea Sud 224, Ravenna
11 Saint John the Evangelist
St. John the Evangelist
Northeast of Sant’ Apollinare, near the station, which suffered heavy damage during World War II, the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista was founded in 424 by Galla Placidia. Unfortunately, bombs aimed at the train station destroyed much of the church, but it was rebuilt in its original form after the war. It still retains many original features, including most of the columns and their carved Byzantine capitals.
Many of the early mosaics were lost to renovations in the 16th century, but many of those completed in 1213 still survive. The walls are decorated with mosaics depicting mythical animals, medieval stories and historical scenes. Look in the left section for a chapel with fragments of 14th-century frescoes on the vault, which have been attributed to Giotto but are more likely by a Rimini artist of the same era.
Address: Via Carducci 10, Ravenna
Where to stay in Ravenna for sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels in Ravenna with easy access to the city’s beautiful churches and museums:
- Palazzo Bezzi: mid-range pricing, stylish white décor, floor-to-ceiling windows, fitness center.
- NH Ravenna: 4-star hotel, a short walk from the center, free breakfast buffet.
- M club Deluxe B&B: affordable bed and breakfast, family-run, great hosts, quaint decor.
- B&B Hotel Ravenna: budget hotel, suburb of the city, bright and contemporary, multilingual staff.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Ravenna
- Tours of Ravenna’s Mosaics: The 3-hour private walking tour of Ravenna is a great introduction to the highlights of this fascinating city, led by a professional guide who can customize the itinerary to suit your own interests. The tour includes the three main mosaic sites: the Church of S. Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Neonian Baptistery, along with Dante’s Tomb, the Basilica of San Francisco, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and other points of interest. For a more in-depth look, also with a private guide, try the Ravenna and its enchanting mosaics day tour. This tour provides a more relaxed feel and more historical background to the same attractions, plus a visit to the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista.
More destinations to see near Ravenna
About an hour’s drive from Bologna and the same distance from Ferrara, Ravenna is also within easy reach of the principality of San Marino, Rimini, and some of the best beaches in Italy along the Adriatic Sea. To the west, just beyond Bologna, is Modena and further north of Ferrara, you will find Padua and Venice. South of Bologna is Florence, in beautiful Tuscany.