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The history of Modena dates back to Ancient Roman times, and was again a wealthy regional center during much of the 16th-18th centuries. To this day it is one if the more affluent Italian towns.
Start your visit in the Piazza Grande, the square in the center of historical Modena onto which the cathedral faces, along with many other fine medieval buildings and palaces. The position of this square makes it ideal for getting your bearings and has most of the important highlights within easy reach.
This central square in Modena and its principal monuments are now listed as three UNESCO world heritage sites:
1) the Piazza Grande itself, virtually unchanged since its creation in the early medieval period, is an elegant paved area with the cathedral, the town hall and the Ghirlandina Tower providing a superb backdrop
2) the 12th century Duomo of San Geminiano is a renowned Romanesque cathedral, one of the best examples of the style to be found anywhere.
As well as the typical Roman style ornamentation such as round arches you can see some especially fine carvings both outside (such as those around the door of the main facade) and inside, while some more of the carvings from the cathedral are now held in the attached museum.
3) the Torre Ghirlandina, the impressive tower attached to the cathedral that slopes almost as much as the tower at Pisa. (Note: the tower is named 'ghirlandina' after the garland style balustrades around the top of the tower).
The 17th century Town Hall is also on this square, next to the cathedral and occupying two sides of the square. Notable on the outside for its central clocktower, some of the grand rooms inside are also open to the public (small admission charge).
After enjoying the Piazza Grande and its monuments, the most interesting part of the city to explore is in the surrounding streets, particularly to the north of the square.
The substantial baroque style building that also dominates the center of Modena is the 17th century Duke's Palace, now home to a Military Academy and Military Museum.
Around the town you will see a great deal of interest, from substantial small palaces and numerous churches to impressive arcaded streets (called porticos) and open squares such as Palazzo Comunale, and an excellent selection of cafes and shops to suit all possible budgets.
The unspoiled ancient streets lead you to the Palazzo dei Musei (also called Piazza S. Augustine) which now contains an impressive collection of museums and galleries.
The most interesting of these are the Museo Archeologico Ethnologico, which has many interesting archaeological artefacts; and the Galleria Estense which contains much of the Este family collection (the Este family ruled the town through its centuries of wealth) with works by renowned artists such as Tintoretto and Corregio.
Local traditions: music, vinegar and fast cars!
The town is also the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti, and the town where Ferrari and Maserati are based - sports car enthusiast can see some of the great Ferraris at their gallery, 15 km south of Modena.
Lastly, don't forget to buy a bottle of the local Modena food speciality, balsamic vinegar. The vintage, mature versions can cost rather a lot but are a taste experience not to be missed!
You can find more local travel ideas in the Emilia-Romagna guide.