Last Updated on December 9, 2023
Italy is home to a number of hugely popular tourist destinations—Venice, Rome, and Florence, to name just a few. There are also Italian cities and towns that tourists tend to overlook; Parma is one of them.
Parma is a city in Emilia-Romagna, a region in the north of Italy renowned for its contributions to Italian food culture. Both Parmesan cheese and Parma ham (prosciutto di Parma, if you want to call it by its Italian name) are made in this beautiful city. Its numerous other culinary delights mean it should be high on the travel bucket list of any foodie.
It’s not just a food lover’s paradise.
In 2020, Parma Italy was also named Italy’s Capital of Culture. This was unsurprising, really, as it has a rich and interesting history. It was one of the social and political hubs of the Italian peninsula from as early as the Etruscan and Roman periods, and this continued through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance era. Beautiful Romanesque architecture can be found throughout the Centro Storico and beyond, and the University of Parma, established in 1601, is one of the oldest in the world.
All this means that there’s plenty to keep tourists and visitors busy during their stay. If you’re planning a trip to Parma, here are 10 things you simply cannot afford to miss.
- 1. Marvel at the Dome of Parma Cathedral
- 2. Visit the Baptistery
- 3. Explore the Palazzo della Pilotta
- 4. View Masterpieces at the National Gallery of Parma
- 5. Immerse Yourself in the Teatro Farnese
- 6. Parma Italy’s Ducal Park
- 7. Enjoy Aperitivo in Piazza Garibaldi
- 8. Feast on Local Delicacies
- 9. Get Lost in the World’s Largest Maze
- 10. Go to the Opera
1. Marvel at the Dome of Parma Cathedral
The Duomo di Parma, or Parma Cathedral, is an impressive structure characteristic of the Romanesque architectural style. Romanesque architecture, the precursor to the better-known Gothic style, is typified by its use of semi-circular arches, which can be seen all over both the exterior and interior of this vast church.
Construction of this building began in 1059. After its completion, around 50-years later, it was damaged by an earthquake, and much of it had to be restored.
Take a stroll around the perimeter of the building to fully appreciate the size of it, and make sure you get a good look at the façade, which dates back to 1178. When you’ve had your fill of the external view, head inside to appreciate the marvelous interior.
Make sure you don’t miss the spectacular fresco on the cupola (the dome’s interior) up at the front. It was painted in the 1500s by Antonio da Correggio and shows the assumption of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by a whole host of angels and cherubs. It’s quite dizzying.
2. Visit the Baptistery
When you leave the cathedral, head next door to take in Parma’s pink-marbled baptistery. This is an important structure that blends the Romanesque style with early Gothic elements; it’s a highly unusual building.
It has an octagonal structure covered with rounded and squared arches, four tiers of loggias, and incredibly ornate engravings and statuary dotted around the exterior doors. The first thing you’ll notice about this building will be its color. The baptistery is completely covered in a pale pink marble, which hails from nearby Verona.
Construction of the baptistery took over 100-years to complete, but it was worth the effort. Head inside to see an imposing marble baptismal basin, a painstakingly frescoed cupola, and a truly exceptional gallery.
3. Explore the Palazzo della Pilotta
This considerable palace is a symbol of the enduring potency of the area’s former ducal power, the Farnese family. Members of the Farnese family were dukes of both Parma and Piacenza during the Renaissance, and one of their line even became pope in the 1530s. Pope Paul III, to be precise.
The palace complex of Palazzo della Pilotta was built by Ottavio Farnese in the 1580s, and while much of it has since been destroyed, it still makes for a remarkable visit.
Explore the grounds and feast your eyes on the treasures of the Palatine Library and the building’s monumental staircase, all while learning more about the fascinating history of this powerful dynastic family. A visit to this palace will help you to fully appreciate the extent of Parma’s former power.
4. View Masterpieces at the National Gallery of Parma
Climb the monumental staircase inside the Palazzo della Pilotta, and you’ll arrive at Parma’s National Gallery. Here, you can see a wide array of spectacular art by some of the Italian masters of painting: Tintoretto, Correggio, da Vinci, and Parmigianino (named for his local heritage, this artist’s name literally means “the little Parmesan”).
The gallery specializes in paintings from the regions of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and Veneto. Particular highlights include Correggio’s Martyrdom of Four Saints, van Dyck’s Madonna and Child, and a portrait of Alessandro Farnese by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli. It’s well worth a visit.
5. Immerse Yourself in the Teatro Farnese
Also found within the Palazzo della Pilotta is the Farnese Theater. This is another sight that’s not to be missed during your trip to Parma.
This theater is a stunning venue that instantly conjures up an image of wealthy Parmesans enjoying a night on the town during the 1600s. It was built in 1618 from wood and plaster before being painted to make the structure resemble marble—much more impressive. The area in front of the stage was even flooded on special occasions so that dramatic naval battle scenes could be performed.
It’s thought to be the first proscenium theater that was built to be permanent. However, the structure you see today was actually built in 1962, as the original was unfortunately destroyed during World War II. This doesn’t make the theater any less interesting or grand, though, so make sure to stop by as you explore the palace’s grounds.
6. Parma Italy’s Ducal Park
Once you’ve had your fill of the main sights of Parma and the Palazzo, head toward the train station and hire a bicycle to see Parma the way the Parmesans do. Bikes are found everywhere in Parma, and it can be great fun to cycle through the city’s narrow streets and alleyways.
If you’re looking for a bit of fresh air and greenery, ride to the Parco Ducale. This large green space is situated within the Oltretorrente neighborhood (Oltretorrente literally means “over the river”—it’s the area across the River Parma from the city center).
It’s a great place to ride bikes, explore the ornamental gardens, or just sit and relax. Take a load off.
7. Enjoy Aperitivo in Piazza Garibaldi
Piazza Garibaldi is a large, open square in the city’s center, with the town hall and a governor’s palace as the main focal points. It’s a great place to sit and watch the world go by, but it’s even better as an aperitivo spot.
Aperitivo is an Italian tradition. Come six o’clock, people all over the country will have left work and be finding a space at a bar for a drink and a snack. The specifics vary from region to region and even town to town. Venice, for example, is known as the home of the Aperol spritz. In Parma, you’re more likely to be served a glass of local Lambrusco (a sparkling red wine) and either some chips and olives or a selection of local cured meats and cheeses.
Join the locals in this large square and enjoy a pre-dinner drink and snack. It’s all part of la vita bella.
8. Feast on Local Delicacies
Once you’ve finished your aperitivo, you’ll want to eat something more substantial, and you’ll be spoiled for choice. Parma is home to a whole host of local specialties and eating out in this city is something you’re not likely to forget.
Find a restaurant that serves up local food and get to work. Some of the most famous local foods are Parmesan cheese (usually served in a large block on a plate as an appetizer) and Parma ham, a cured meat that has become wildly popular all over the world.
Other local delights include Culatello di Zibello, Spalla Cotta di San Secondo, and classic Salame Felino—all cold cuts—as well as porcini mushrooms, black and white truffles, and gorgeous fresh pasta. Horsemeat is also popular in Parma, and you’ll find it served in stews, in burgers, and even as a tartare (i.e., raw).
Tartare di cavallo is not for the fainthearted. Still, if you’re brave enough to try it, you’ll be rewarded with succulent and incredibly flavorsome meat. Give it a go.
9. Get Lost in the World’s Largest Maze
Not many people know this, but Parma Italy is actually home to the largest maze in the world—and it’s open to tourists. It’s a little out of the city center, but it’s easy enough to reach it either by car (around 20-minutes) or bus (roughly an hour).
If you want an idea of the sheer enormity of this labyrinth, it sprawls out over around 8-hectares of land—roughly equivalent to 16 American football fields. The paths within the maze are around 3-km (about 1.86-miles) long. It really is huge.
Pack up a picnic and get lost in this gigantic space. At the center, you’ll find a large open square that’s often used for concerts and shows. Elsewhere in the maze is a highly unusual pyramid-shaped chapel.
The ticket price to the Masone Labyrinth also includes access to the rest of the complex; there’s a library and a vast collection of art, so if it starts raining, you’ll still have something fun to do.
10. Go to the Opera
Parma is respected by opera buffs all around the world as one of the musical style’s leading lights. The great Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi was born around 18-miles away from the city and was almost “adopted” by the Parmesans as one of their own. His contributions to the art form have been enduring and going to the opera in Parma is essential for cultural thrill-seekers.
Before you arrive in Parma, book tickets to a performance at the Teatro Regio, one of Italy’s three most famous opera houses. They put on an annual Verdi festival, but performances of various works take place throughout the year.
The opera house seats 1,400 and has a magnificent interior—even if you’re not into classical music, it’s worth taking a guided tour of the building to get a glimpse inside. Tours run in English or Italian every hour from Tuesday to Saturday, or you can pay a little more to enjoy an extra-special tour with a focus on the antique organ; this tour ends with a short performance of a few songs on the organ, so it’s a good option if you want to hear some live music but don’t have time to see a full opera.
Special to Book Cottages from Chloe Lay