Pavia is most visited because of the exceptional Charterhouse of Pavia just outside the town and one of the finest examples of renaissance architecture in Italy, but Pavia itself also has a rich artistic heritage. It is a challenge to see all the interesting buldings in a short visit but by careful planning you have the chance to visit the best art and architecture of the city.
In medieval times Pavia was known as the 'city of a hundred towers'. Although not many of these towers now remain there is still a great deal to enjoy as you explore the narrow streets of the historic centre, including numerous churches and pretty small piazas, the castle and the cathedral.
Explore Pavia: tourism and travel guide
Start your visit in the south of the town at Borgo Ticino, which is a good introduction to historic Pavia. Here you will immediately notice the 12th century Church of Santa Maria di Betlem, a typical example of Pavia Romanesque style.
Next cross the Ticino River using the 'Covered Bridge' (this bridge was entirely reconstructed after bombing in World War II) and enter into the heart of Pavia city and along Strada Nuova.
On the right you can see the 12th century Church of San Michele, in a wonderful Romanesque style and also historically important because it was here that the coronations of the Kings of Italy once took place. The facade is exceptional, with a central portal richly carved and dating from around 1120.
Inside the church there are several frescoes including The four Evangelists by Pier Francesco Sacchi, as well as some paintings by Guglielmo Caccia (known as Moncalvo).
Returning to Strada Nuova and continuing along Via Cardano you can see the Church of San Teodoro, an example of Romanesque architecture made of mixed brickwork and masonry. The interior is divided in three naves and with a beautiful 14th century fresco showing Pavia in 1300. In this church there are also many paintings attributed to Carlo Sacchi.
Leaving the Church of San Teodoro, go back along Via Cardano to Strada Nuova. Continue as far as the crossroads between Corso Cavour and Corso Mazzini - whichever direction you take from here there are some fine examples of art in Pavia. Head along Corso Mazzini and straight on to Piazza della Vittoria and then turn left to find the Cathedral and the 'Broletto'.
Pavia Cathedral was started in 1488 by Christopher Rocchi, and its construction continued by other great artists, including Bramante, Francesco di Giorgio, Giovanni Antonio Amadeo and Gian Giacomo Dolcebuono. The cathedral was only completed in the early 20th century. The inner space of the cathedral is grandiose and imposing, accentuated by Latin archs and high pillars.
Until its collapse in 1989, which killed several people, one of the most impressive medieval towers in Pavia stood next to the cathedral.
Opposite the cathedral entrance is an equestrian statue of Marco Aurelio (or Septimius Severus) while next to the Duomo there is the 13th century Palace of the Broletto - impressive outside, and with a very spacious interior enhanced by the presence of Roman archs.
Turning back towards Corso Mazzini, continue once again along Strada Nuova to find the University of Pavia and the Renaissance courtyards with a long succession of loggias, colonnades, statues and inscriptions.
Leaving the University, continue along Via Roma and passed 'Via 20th September' to find the 14th century Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, with a magnificent façade of brickwork with a great central rose window and the pilaster strips which come unlaced as they rise the high pinnacles.
Return towards Strada Nuova and towards the Via XI February. On your right-hand rises the Castle of the Visconti [Castello Visconteo] and on your left is the Church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro.
Pavia Castle was erected between 1360 and 1365 by Galeazzo II Visconti with the help of Venetian architects, Bernard from Venice and Jacobello Dalle Masegne. The architectural aspect of the castle is extraordinarily rich in artistic forms, and dominated by galleries with mullioned windows and perforated rose-windows.
Unfortunately only a few of the castle frescoes have survived but these include fine works by Bonifacio Bembo and Vincenzo Foppa. It is an extraordinary castle for its architectural form, and the courtyards are also magnificent, surrounded by arcades in the Venetian style.
The castle has had a very illustrious past with visitors including Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci.
Today the castle at Pavia is also home to the Civic Museum, which brings together artefacts from the oldest discoveries in Pavia. You can also see more artworks in the Pinacoteca Civica which includes priceless works of art by Antonello da Messina; Correggio (a "Holy Family"); Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli (the 'Adoration of the Magi), as well as many others.
Pavia Charterhouse (Certosa di Pavia)
No visit to Pavia would be complete without a visit to the the famous Carthusian Monastery known as the Certosa di Pavia in the countryside a few kilometres from the city and the most impressive example of renaissance architecture in the region. Founded as a monastery in 1396 most of the building dates from the 15th century.
First among the highlights is the façade, executed between the 15th and 16th century and which represents a high point of Renaissance art. The facade incorporates many decorative elements, in particular carvings of the apostles, prophets, saints and Roman emperors as well as the pilasters and friezes that are typical of the renaissance style.
Within the opulent interior Charterhouse there is also a great deal to see - really most unlike the rather sombre churches that are usually found in monasteries! As well as the main church itself, highlights include two cloisters (the small cloister leads to the large cloister), the beautifully frescoed sacristy, and ornately decorated altarpieces by leading renaissance artists as well as other statues, carvings and frescoes.
Towards the rear of the church the carved wooden stalls date from the 15th century and have remarkable marquetry work. As well as the impressive buildings it is perhaps the profusion of paintings and sculptures of the Certosa di Pavia that comes as the greatest surprise to a visitor and there are numerous artistic highlights.
The best known works are the remaining panel of the altarpiece by Perugino showing 'God the Father' and the frescoes by Bergognone.
See more information and visiting hours at Certosa di Pavia.
The gastronomic art in Pavia and region
With your visit to the Certosa you have moved into the countryside around Pavia - and what better excuse to savour the local cuisine! Local first courses include Risotto alla Certosina (Carthusian risotto)* and the hors d'oeuvre called 'salame di Varzi'.
* Risotto alla Certosina is named after the Carthusian Monastery. This ancient recipe comes from the same Carthusian monks and the ingredients are rice, oil, prawn, frogs, fillets of perch, butter, leeks, celery, carrots, white wine.
Among the second courses, try the Peverada or the 'goose with Savoy cabbage'. Before finishing your visit to Pavia be sure to also taste the famous goats cheese, perhaps accompanied by white wines (e.g. the Reisling Italico and Renano), or the Grey Pinot, or if you prefer red wine, a good Barbera.
Related article: discover some off the historical events that have played a role in the town at history of Pavia.
Where is Pavia?
Pavia is in the southern part of the Lombardy region of northern Italy, deep in the heart of Italian rice-growing territory and about 30 kilometres south of Milan.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Lombardy guide.