During the medieval and renaissance periods Ferrara attracted many of the leading artists and intellectuals of the period - in particular because of the influential and powerful Este family - and it was during this period that much of the heart of the town as we see it today was established.
The Este family were typical of the leading dynasties in Italy from the 13th to the 16th century, maintaining their position of power with force and brutality while also being great supporters of the leading artists and architects of the period and attracting them to create great works of art in the city.
Ferrara is now is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its very well preserved centre and important monuments and buildings, with several of them among exceptionally attractive.
But Ferrara is more than just a historical tourist stop, it is a thriving town with a popular university and a wide range of art galleries, museums, shops and cafes - so allow plenty of time to make the most of your visit.
Although we focus below on the principal monuments and artworks be sure to allow some time simply to explore the narrow cobbled streets, visit the shops and cafes of the medieval section of Ferrrara, to admire several other palaces that you will come across, to sit, relax and people watch in this attractive and interesting town, to take a long lunch in a shady square...
Explore Ferrara: tourism and highlights
Most of the most imposing monuments are found in a small area in the centre of Ferrara, with the castle, the cathedral and the three main squares in the city centre all very close together and the medieval centre to te south of the cathedral so exploring is very straightforward.
Inside the city walls, the heart of Ferrara is based around the impressive red-brick Castello Estense, dating largely from the 14th century. Surrounded by a moat the castle is without doubt the highlight of a visit to the town - and a good place to start your visit.
Over the centuries the need for a defensive castle with drawbridge and moats receded and the castle was gradually converted into an impressive residence, particularly during the the 16th century, renovations including the addition of the buildings on top of each tower.
The castle is beatifully proportioned with square towers in each corner joined by high walls that include the rooms of the castle, surrounded by the moat and drawbridges and set around a central courtyard.
Amble around the side of the cathedral to admire the attractive medieval arcades that run along one side.
The piazzas and streets around the castle are the hub of the town and the centre for your explorations after visiting the castle, and those who think a trip to an Italian town has to include shopping will also find much to distract them here...
Next to the castle be sure to also take a stroll around the courtyards of the 13th century Palazzo Muicipale. Now used as a council building this wa once the residence of the Este family.
Another particular highlight in the town centre is the 12th century Cathedral of Gaint George with an impressively decorated marble facade and entrance that includes very elaborate carvings relating biblical stories such as the last Judgement.
Looking at the facade of the cathedral you will notice that the lower part is in the simpler romanesque style (with round arches) while the higher levels are in the gothic style (with typical pointed arches). The lions guarding either side of the main entrance are more recent replicas - the originals are now inside the cathedral.
The interior of the cathedral the style is more recent, having being renewed in the baroque style early in the 18th century.
Take a look at the tiny shops built against the right side of the cathedral and the other monuments in the cathedral square (along with slightly more recent additions such as a McDonalds restaurant!) then head to nearby Piazza Municipio, which has a very pretty courtyard, and good views of the Palazzo Municipale
From here you can head south of the cathedral into the streets around Via San Romana and Via Giuseppe Manzini for many of the oldest houses in the city and a large selection of shops and restaurants.
Two more important palaces in Ferrara are the Palazzo Schifanoia (14th-15th century) and the Palazzo del Comune - each in their own way unmissable.
The Palazzo Schifanoia is especially noteworthy for its marble entrance (the rest of the facade is rather palain red brick) and the magnificent Renaissance era murals representing the months of the year in the Salone dei Mesi, and for the art museum it contains. The Palazzo del Comune is notable above all for the impressive bronzes with which it is adorned.
Of the other palaces in the heart of Ferrara, visit at least the Palazzo dei Diamanti (named for the diamond decoration on the facade) that is now home to a national art museum that has an extensive collection of 16th century works by local artists.
Time permitting we also recommend that you discover the Casa Romei, a renaissance style palace centred around an arcaded courtyard and containing some impressive frescoes and art works.
See also the more modest (but still vey luxurious by most peoples standards!) 16th century Palazzina Marfisa and the City Hall, in red brick and with extensive decorative crenellations.
The beautiful galleries of the Palazzo Costabili now house the National Archaeology Museum, with a wide selection of artefacts dating back as far as the etruscan period i.e. before the ancient Romans);
The Palazzo Massari, an impressive 15th century palace in its own right, is also home to several art museums including the Ferrara Museum of Modern Art. temporary exhibitions are also held here in the Contemporary Art Pavilion.
The museum associated with the cathedral contains some fine 11th century carvings in marble representing various activities through the months of the year.
There are also several other important churches to discover in Ferrara as you explore, many of them containing important art works.
Note in particular the baroque facade of the Church of Saint Carlo; the cloisters at the Church of Saint Giorgio; and the frescoes, paintings and cloisters at the Church of Saint Paolo.
The Church of Sant'Antonino in Polesine is also a very popular attraction because of the splendid frescoes from the early medieval period that it contains.
The historic town centre is still largely surrounded by several kilometres of defensive walls, dating from the 15th-16th centuries and built in brick.
Along the walls you can still see many of the gateways, towers and defensive structures that helped protect the town - follow a part of the path around the walls, which is about 9 kilometres long altogether, to see these at their best.
Where is Ferrara?
Ferrara is in the northeast of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, and north-east of Bologna.
Map of Ferrara sightseeing & popular sights
Selected places to visit near Ferrara, Italy
See the Emilia-Romagna guide for more travel ideas...