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Parma is a wealthy, bustling town in northern Italy with a long history: it was an Etruscan settlement first, then a Roman colony; then an important regional centre throughout the Middle Ages.
The international fame of the town rests perhaps on its two great food products - parmesan cheese and parma ham - that are both highly reputed around the world, but of course it is the city itself that is the main attraction for visitors and includes some of the finest buildings, artworks and monuments in northern Italy as well as a renowned opera house and numerous bars, restaurants and upmarket shops.
Explore Parma: tourism and travel guide
The heart of the city radiates north and south from Via Mazzini and the Piazza Garibaldi with most important sites close to here so this is a good place to start your visit to Parma. It is also in this area that you can explore the cobbled streets and small squares of the historic centre.
As you cross Piazza Garibaldi, remember that 2000 years ago this was the site of the Roman forum in Parma.
The three principal historical highlights of the town are all close together on Piazza Duomo and include the cathedral, the baptistry, and the San Giovanni Evangelista church:
Completed in 1106, the outside of the cathedral in Parma is an example of the Lombardy-Romanesque architectural style of the region, while the interior is Baroque style.
It is the artworks inside the cathedral that are the principal highlight - the interior is highly decorated with exceptional frescoes. Note in particular the frescoed ceilings including the astonishing painting of the 'Assumption of the Virgin' by Corregio in the cathedral dome painted in the 1520's.
It was other artists from Corregio's school that painted the ceiling of the nave, while other artistic highlights in the cathedral include the statue by Antelami called 'Descent from the Cross' and the frieze by Benedetto Antelami in the apse and called the 'Deposition' or the 'Descent from the Cross'. This frieze dates from 1178, hence substantially older than most of the cathedral frescoes.
The remarkable baptistry, also largely by Antelami, was built in pink marble over the course of the 13th century (from 1196-1307) and its ornate design and decoration make it an exceptional building, perpaps the most important medieval building in Italy, that combines elements of both gothic and romanesque styles of architecture.
The four-storey baptistry has many individual highlights such as a frieze that encircles the building and the three ornate entrances. You will notice that its external octagonal appearance becomes a 16 sided interior, with the walls and ceiling ornately frescoed. Fom the outside there is little clue to the magnificent domed ceiling inside the baptistry.
At the Museum Diocesano you can see some sculptures from the cathedral and baptistry as well as an extensive mosaic dating from the 5th century.
Church of San Giovanni Evangelista
This church (near the cathedral) was rebuilt on the site of a previous 10th century church in the early 16th century (from 1498-1510) and has a baroque style facade including several inset statues. Inside there is another dome painted by Corregio, called the Vision of Saint John at Patmos, as well as paintings by Parmigiano.
Attached to the church is the monastery, still operated by monks and where you can visit the traditional pharmacy.
Other Parma highlights and information
Yet more stunning frescoes can be seen in the Church of Santa Maria della Staccata behind the Governor's Palace on Piazza Garibaldi, this time by Parmigianino, and in the impressive Camera di San Paolo (part of a benedictine monastery) there is another exceptional work by Corregio, this time representing mythological characters.
The impressive Teatro Farnese, a wooden structured copy of Palladios theatre in Vicenza, is part of Parma's extensive Palazzo della Pilotta, in Piazza della Pace. The palazzo itself dates from the 16th century and has large gardens developed in the 18th century with a sprinkling of fountains. Much of the Palazzo was severely damaged during the Second World War but has been extensively renovated since.
As well as the Farnese Theatre there are two very interesting museums in the Palazzo Pilotta:
- the National Gallery, which includes works by El Greco, Corregio and Fra Angelico among others; and
- the National Museum of Archaeology, with a wide selection of Roman era artefacts collected in the region around Parma
In addition to all this splendour, find time to explore the narrow backstreets of Parma, before heading to some of the many fashionable boutiques and restaurants, which will tempt all remaining funds out of your credit cards. If you want to take some of the local specialities away with you there are also several very well stocked delicatessens.
As one of Italy's wealthiest towns, it is not always easy to find cheap restaurants and hotels in Parma so if you are travelling on a tight budget you might prefer to make a day-trip here rather than stay in the town itself.
After exploring the historic centre of Parma cross the river to vist the large gardens of the Duke's Palace along the western river banks. These are a pleasant place for a stroll, with the palace and gardens dating from the 16th and 18th century respectively.
Garden enthusiasts will also want to visit the Parma botanical gardens (on Viale Martiri della Libertà), an extensive park area established in the 18th century.
Parma and opera
If you are a music lover you will be interested to know that the famous conductor Toscanini was born at 'Casa Natale di Toscanini' (I'm gussing it wasn't called that when he was born!) at the southern corner of the park of the Duke's Palace. Verdi also lived in Parma and composed several works in the city, and the tomb of Paganini can be seen a short distance to the south at the Villetta Cemetery.
Music lovers won't want to miss the opera if there is a performance during your visit - the opera house is one of the finest in Italy.
Where is Parma?
You can find more local travel ideas in the Emilia-Romagna guide.