Pavia Travel Guide: A Lombardy Gem

Pavia is More Than a Milano Bedroom Community!

Why visit the tourist-ignored city of Pavia? It's a quick train ride from Milan, it contains one of Europe's oldest universities where you can visit a plethora of museums and a botanical garden. There's plenty of Romanesque around, plus a castle AND an Abbey. That should hold you spellbound for a day or two at least.

Because hardly anybody visits, hotels tend to cost a bit less than those of Milan--but there's way fewer of them. If Milan seems to grab you hard by the pocketbook, you may want to think about staying in Pavia and making the Lombardy capital a day trip.

Stef Smulders, who runs a bed and breakfast in Lombardy documented in his book "Living in Italy, the Real Deal" describes the fabric of Pavia to the potential visitor:

All of Pavia can be visited on foot and along the way there are lots of quiet little squares with benches in the shadow of trees. Pavia is quiet during the lunch hour(s), but becomes lively at aperitivo time : go to the Strada Nuova and Piazza Vittoria to see the citizens meet, chat and show off, or try the Lounge Bar Minerva. The city (capital of Lombard Italy once, and the place where Frederic Barbarossa was crowned king) is a hidden gem in it’s own, as the Pavese are not very active in promoting their treasures, such as the San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro , San Michele and in particular the Certosa di Pavia abbey, a few km north of the city. -- Pavia – A historical city worth discovering

The Wonders of Little Pavia

pavia romanesque duomo

The Romanesque in Pavia

Pavia has some striking examples of Romanesque architecture and carvings. Above is a detail from the facade of the Basilica of San Michele Maggiore, built between the 11th and 12 centuries in a Lombard-Romanesque style.

pavia medieval towers

A City of Towers

Pavia is said to have had more than 150 towers in the Medieval period, but now a dozen remain. They date back to the 11th-12th centuries. Like San Gimignano, they were symbols of powerful and paranoid families.

pavia street

Pavia the Walking City

Walking through Pavia is a joy, especially in the off-season. The narrow lanes are quite inviting, becoming more so when it's time for a bite to eat and a tipple at happy hour.

Other Notable Attractions of Pavia

Pavia's Duomo, or cathedral, has the third largest dome in Italy, but it was only completed in the nineteenth century. Both da Vinci and Donato Bramante contributed to the church's design.

San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro is one of the major sites in Pavia, named for the gold leaf mosaics that decorate the ceiling of the apse.

In the center of Pavia you'll find the Church of San Teodoro. It was built between 1185 and 1220. Walk around out back and you'll find a fresco representing Pavia in the 16th century, when it sported over 100 towers and the original covered bridge.

Speaking of that bridge, which was bombed in WWII, there's a modified reconstruction of that medieval bridge on the Ticino river today, shown in the picture below. It was built between the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 50s.

pavia covered bridge

The Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, shown below, is a beautiful example of Lombard Gothic architecture with a typical rose window. The bell tower is the highest in Pavia. The space which it occupies is one side of the Piazza del Carmine, a very pleasant public square.

church of san teodoro

The Castello Visconti, built in 1360 by Galeazzo Il Visconti, is found at the northern end of the medieval center and was originally used as a residence. The castle park once extended 8km to the Certosa di Pavia. Although only two of its four massive towers remain it is still a very impressive castle, as you can see in the picture below. The Civic Museums of Pavia, including the Pinacoteca Malaspina, Museo Archeologico and Museo del Risorgimento are housed inside the castle, shown below.

castello visconti pavia

The Università degli Studi di Pavia is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe. Alexandro Volta worked here. The university complex includes a maze of courtyards along the Strada Nuove. There are several museums, Stef Smuthers mentions the University History Museum as the most interesting.

Pavia Tourist Office

The tourist information office is at via F Filzi, 2. From the train station it's about 500 meters, take a left on via Trieste and right on via F Filzi.

You may find some local tours at the tourist office. If you'd like a day trip from Milan or some specialty tours, check out Viator's 10 Best Tours of Pavia.

Getting To Pavia

If you have a car you can take the A7 Autostrada [Autostrada Map] from Milan towards Genoa, getting off at Bereguardo. If you take the smaller, slower provincial road SS35, you'll pass the Certosa you can visit before you get to Pavia center.

Pavia has a train station, with frequent service to Milan, a 42 minute trip that costs less than 5 euro for a local train.

Food Specialties of Pavia

One of Pavia's most famous foods is the Zuppa Pavese. While it's fading now, the dish was found on nearly every restaurant in Italy when I traveled in the 1970s and 1980s. When good ingredients was used, it was Italy's best value, because it was always the cheapest thing on the menu. Zuppa Pavese is a simple soup, born from the cucina povera tradition with a regal history according to the blog Memorie de Angelina:

Legend has it that French king Francis I, fleeing from defeat in a nearby battle, found himself in a peasant farmhouse where the lady of the house improvised a meal for her royal guest from what she had on hand: bread fried in butter, topped with an egg and some grated cheese, over which she poured boiling broth. -- Zuppa pavese (Pavia Style Soup)

If you are very lucky, another tradition in Pavia is to serve the frogs that frolic in the rice paddies that surround the city, either in Risotto (Risotto alla Certosina – lake fish and frog risotto ) or deep fried (ya can't beat deep fried!).

Where to Eat

I had a great meal at La Torre degli Aquila Osteria con cucina. There is a bonus as well, the restaurant being inside to tower of the eagle. Yes, while you can't visit inside these crumbling relics, this osteria will let you get that special feeling of eating inside one.

Where to Stay

If you have a car and drive a little ways north of Pavia you'll come across the Certosa di Pavia, the charterhouse. It was built between 1396 and 1495 on the border of a large hunting park belonging to the Visconti clan. It is one of the largest monasteries in Italy, and you can visit it (there is a museum on site). Here are the opening times, which tell you:

A special feature of the monument is its charm that adapts to the passage of time and the seasons. If you visit the Carthusian Monastery at different times of the year, you will find that it always blends with the atmosphere that surrounds it, It can be sad and graceful with the Po Valley fogs, warm and fiery with the August suns, sly and sleepy at the autumn mist, icy and crystal clear during January, and clear, fresh, limpid in the spring months. Choose the period that best suits your mood, because it will be just as you feel it that the Charterhouse of Pavia will present itself to you

What has this to do with lodging in Pavia? Well, if you like treehouses, I have to tell you of a big one you can stay at near the Certosa. It's La Casa sull'albero Oasi Certosa di Pavia, and it gets very good reviews.

The lodging map below will point you toward other lodging options in Pavia.

Enjoy planning a trip or day trip to Pavia!

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