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Padova steps out of the shadows

Created date

March 28th, 2014
Prato della Valle, Padova, Italy
Prato della Valle, Padova, Italy

Admittedly, Padova (or Padua as this northern Italian city is called on U.S. maps) is not on most people’s travel list of must-sees. But while it’s not Rome, Florence, or Venice, it has many charms, and because it’s so close to Venice, makes a wonderful base of operations for visiting the city of canals.

Venice is an amazing city and one definitely worth gaping at before it possibly sinks into the sea. But Venice is pricey, hard to get around, and very, very crowded. Pushing your way along the narrow streets, you pity the tourists making their way to or from the Venice train station struggling with their bags to get over the steps of the many bridges.  The vaporetto, water “buses,” are always packed and the water taxis cost a fortune. In fact, everything in this giant mall is expensive. Why call it a mall? Because it’s wall-to-wall shops including those of Disney, Foot Locker, and Timberland as well as Armani, Gucci, Prada, and Versace.

You can shop in Padova as well, but more importantly, you can take leisurely strolls down its streets, meandering from plaza to plaza, each offering different 12th and 13th century pallazzos housing incredible art works. The biggest plaza is the Prato della Valle, an elliptical square that is one of the largest in Europe. And because you’re not fighting hordes of tourists, not only is strolling more pleasurable but the restaurants are more reasonably priced, and finding a table isn’t the chore it can be in Venice. While it’s not known as an A-list tourist destination, Padova does offer two A-list sites.

Treasure troves of art

The Scrovegni Chapel requires that you purchase tickets long in advance. In part that’s because it’s a unique monument to one of the art world’s great treasures, but also because only small groups are allowed inside at one time to protect it’s walls which are covered with original frescoes by Giotto, the painter who changed the course of painting in the early 14th century. You’re only allowed 15 minutes in the chapel, which will fly by while taking your breath away. A modest building from the outside, it’s literally one giant masterpiece on the inside.  But if your 15 minutes leaves you craving more examples of great works of art, don’t worry because next door is a museum with a vast collection of paintings and sculpture that you could spend hours admiring.

The main cathedral in an Italian city is called the Duomo, but Padova’s Duomo doesn’t draw the crowds; instead, it’s the Cathedral of St. Anthony. As you approach this magnificent building, you’re actually leaving Italy as the cathedral and its grounds belong to the Vatican and so are technically not part of the country. It’s not only the beauty of the cathedral that draws visitors but the relics of St. Anthony. Even though Italians haven’t been going to church in the numbers they once did, every mass at St. Anthony’s is packed.

Seat of learning

Padova has one of the oldest universities, which first opened in 1222. Among those who taught at the University of Padova were Copernicus and Galileo, and in 1678, it was the first university in the world to graduate a woman. In 1545, the university opened the world’s first botanical gardens where you can still visit to this day. Because it’s a university town, Padova is filled with lively young people and the establishments where they like to gater, meaning affordable and welcoming. 

On the outskirts of Padova are numerous villas of remarkable architecture that make a drive into the hilly countryside worth your while. Some are still in private hands and can only be seen from the outside, but many offer tours.

From the train station in Padova, which is easily accessible via the many city bus lines, you can get to Venice in half an hour. Considering all that Padova has to offer on its own along with its proximity to one of the world’s most visited cities, Padova deserves serious consideration as a stopping place on your next trip to Italy.