I like to do a lot of research before I travel somewhere. Even if I don’t get to everything, I like to have a list of the coolest restaurants, the best parks, and the places with the most “local” vibes. That being said, some trips I spend half a day sitting in a cafe and people-watching, and on others I do all the traditionally tourist-y things (because they’re popular for a reason, right?).
The nearby city of Padova is the subject for my latest tour – and all in a day! This mini metropolis is always busy, with a high student population and rivers that you could theoretically use to kayak all the way to Venice. Here are the things you can’t miss (again, regardless of the season!).
To Do: Start the day off by parking near the Prato della Valle (if you’re taking the train or bus to Padova, do this entire tour in reverse!). There are multiple parking lots, as street parking is extremely limited. The Prato della Valle is the largest square in Europe, and you’ll see that it’s not actually a square at all, but a large oval. On Sundays there are often tents set up around the entire greenspace for flea markets or other festivals.
To Eat: Spin off the square heading toward Via Umberto I for our first stop at Gelateria Portogallo. Like all the best gelato places, you won’t see pretty stacks of colored ice cream here (the stacks mean there are preservatives to keep it from melting). This hole-in-the-wall is usually easily spotted because of the line out the door. The “artisanal” flavors are all natural, homemade, and incredibly rich (if you get pistachio, expect it to taste like a mouthful of crushed pistachio cream) and there are usually vegan options!
To Do: Next, we’ll walk to the Basilica of St. Anthony (no, it’s not that giant church you already saw from Prato della Valle – this one is bigger!). Once you arrive at the Basilica, you’ll be staring at two bell towers and eight domes. The construction began in the middle ages (roughly 1231) and was “finished” in 1310, but there were so many additions to the place where Saint Anthony wanted to be buried (he wanted to die in Padova but didn’t survive the trip back) that you can see five distinct architectural styles in the church. Be sure to go inside to find bronze works by Donatello and other well-known artists.
A short walk away is the Orto botanico di Padova. It is the world’s oldest academic botanical garden (pretty much…). Check the opening times before you go; tickets range from free to 10 euro. Even in the winter, the indoor sections are impressive.
This is where you can decide to walk toward Palazzo Bo or drive. Parking will be difficult on the weekends, but this tour takes us farther and farther from the original location so if you anticipate being tired later, hop back in the car now! That being said, Padova is totally walkable.
If you are walking, be sure to pass by the Tomba di Antenore. Legend says that this raised tomb belongs to the founder of Padova (Antenor, of Greek mythology), and they placed it on this pedestal after finding in the 13th century. Who else could it be, I guess?
To Eat: Next stop is Caffe Pedrocchi, which at first glance looks a bit too bougie to just wander into. However! This cafe, built in 1722, has multiple entrances and every section aside from the center dining room is fair game. Sit down for an aperitivo (the free snacks that come with their alcoholic drinks are yummy and generous!) or their famous Pedrocchi coffee, which is topped with cold mint cream (if Italians had Shamrock Shakes…). If you walk up to the cafe counter rather than waiting for table service (this counter connects with the larger outdoor patio) you can select a sweet treat from the glass displays. Yes, things are pricier here but it’s worth a quick stop!
To Do: The entire area around the cafe offers modern and upscale shopping. Walk toward the Piazza dei Signori and you’ll see a large blue clock at one end. Made in 1344, this is one of the oldest, still functioning clocks in the world. You’ll see that it is a 24-hour astronomical clock. The original was destroyed at the end of the 1300s, and rebuilt in 1423. Look closely to find that the symbol for Libra is missing; some say that it is because the Libra symbolizes justice, and the clock repairer was not paid a fair amount to rebuild the clock!
Separating P.d. Signori from Piazza delle Erbe is the Palazzo della Ragione, or the town hall. If you go inside, look for quirky original artifacts like the Stone of Shame. Either square offers many places to sit in the sun to take a break, and both are lined with various non-traditional restaurants and a few traditional bakeries. Padova is unique in that every day is market day, except for Sundays, so if you arrive to these plazas before lunchtime, you’ll be sure to see people selling everything from winter coats to glass cleaner.
To Eat: La Folperia is a seafood stand with a red awning, usually open 5-8pm Tuesday through Sunday (although there are no rules governing when places are open in this country). Locals and tourists alike say the food here is amazing, and worth sitting on the curb to eat. Other nearby favorites include Dalla Zita (closed Sundays), Pizzeria Al Duomo (dinner only), and Shanghai (if you’re tired of Italian food).
If you’re looking for a really casual spot to have a cocktail before your dinner reservation (it’s very common to make reservations, the hostess will always ask you if you’ve made one, and look disappointed if you haven’t), La Yarda is a fun hangout for many of the university students. They have something like 100 types of Spritz, so you don’t have to keep choking down Aperol if you, like myself, think it takes like Orange Windex.
To Do: If your day is ending with a walk back to your car, try to take little side streets. Padova isn’t known for beautiful colors like Venice, or quaint terraces like Bassano Del Grappa, but it should be! If you are walking back toward the train station, stop at the bridge crossing the river. There is a nice grassy spot to sit, and the monument there is actually Memoria e Luce, dedicated to the victims of the 9/11 attack in the U.S. If you’re walking over the bridge on the side of the memorial and look back, you’ll see Porte Contarine. This used to be an impressive hydraulic complex and mill – serving as a literal door for boats coming and going from Venice. Today it’s a lovely little waterfall.
Other noteworthy places to check out if you have more time:
Scrovegni Chapel – a must-see for art lovers
Fresco a Padova (dinner only, you’ll need a car) – long-fermented dough makes this relatively massive restaurant a favorite pizza place for locals. Make a reservation if you can. There is also a kids activity room!
A Banda Del Buso – regional cuisine, local wines, and cichetti
Ciokkolatte il Gelato che Meriti – Gelato that has more visual appeal for young kids
Summer River Festival – Starting in early April and going throughout the summer, there are pop-up stands along the river near the University of Padova, mostly serving snacks and spritz, with constructed platforms overlooking the river, along with chairs and tables. A lovely walk from the train/bus station.