Last Updated on 18th February 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Located on the way to Turin, and once the capital of the Lombardy kingdom, highlights of Pavia include a Duomo dome Da Vinci had a hand in designing, plenty of cobbled lanes, and all the pizza you could ever ask for. Here’s a quick guide to the town and the best things to do in Pavia!
Why you must visit Pavia, the university city of Northern Italy
Pavia is an ancient university town in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, just thirty-five kilometres south of Milan. You’ve probably never heard of it, but you probably should have done! After all, Charlemagne was coronated here, Einstein spent time here, and the inventor of the battery worked at the town’s prestigious university…
Top things to do in Pavia
#1 Be amazed by the Duomo di Pavia
Towering above the old town, the Duomo di Pavia is high and mighty and can be seen from almost every corner of the old town. And for good reason! That you can see it from every corner of Pavia is probably much helped by the fact that the dome of the Duomo is the third largest in Italy (only the domes of Florence and Rome’s impressive cathedrals are bigger!)
Da Vinci and Donato Bramante had a hand in designing the iconic cathedral. Although it was once meant to be covered in marble, it retains its brick façade due to the fact that the money ran out before completion! While the project began in 1488, it wasn’t completed until the 20th Century! Located to the side of the Duomo, you’ll spot the remains of a medieval bell tower which tragically collapsed in 1989, killing several people in the process.
#2 Basilica di San Michele
One of the very best must-see Pavia attractions is not the Duomo but the nearby ancient church of San Michele. Constructed in the 11th century, the ecclesiastical building is a prime example of Romanesque Lombardy architecture at its finest. The church is actually a reconstruction of a 7th-century church which once occupied the site, but collapsed following an earthquake.
Wander in at any given moment (during opening hours!) and you can expect to find fine frescoes dating back centuries, and plenty of other ornate treasures dating back to the Renaissance period and beyond. Charlemagne and Barbarossa were even coronated here. If that’s not a reason to visit, then I don’t know what is!
#3 Castello Visconteo
Built in 1360, today just four towers remain of the town’s castle (Visconti Castle in English), which was built as a residence for a local wealthy family. Despite the demolition, this doesn’t mean that the castle, situated to the Northern part of the historic town centre, is now by any means small!
Instead, it is still huge and you could spend hours studying its beautiful façade and interiors. Housed inside the ancient castle walls, today you’ll find the Musei Civici, a museum detailing life in Pavia and beyond. There is also a small art museum that can be visited and enjoyed for a small fee.
#4 See the fresco of Pavia in San Teodoro Church
If you’re looking for what to do in Pavia if you only have a day, then still be sure to visit the city’s ancient church. Complete with a fresco of the town in the back right-hand corner, the ancient church of San Teodoro is built in brick (like most other churches in Pavia) and is in the Romanesque style that is so synonymous with the Lombardy region.
The church is dedicated to San Teodoro, who died in Pavia in 778, and is filled with beautiful frescoes and other church treasures. But, it has to be said that the main attraction of San Teodoro is a beautifully detailed fresco of Pavia dating back to 1525-26. On this painting, you can spot all of the medieval towers that the city is so famous for, just a handful of which survive to this day.
#5 Spot the Medieval Towers
In medieval times, Pavia was nicknamed ‘the city of 100 towers’ thanks to its abundance of towering buildings, dominating the town. It was commonplace for wealthy families to show off their power and riches by building the tallest tower possible and outdoing rival families in the process.
Today, just a handful of these medieval towers survive, and can sadly not be climbed! However, you can still admire them from below (and take a quick snap or two if you’d like!) Tip: Three of the best-preserved towers are clustered in the university quarter of the town at Piazza di Leonardo da Vinci. Head there if you want to get the best views of the towers! Nearby, you can also spot other medieval towers which have been incorporated into nearby buildings or lowered for safety purposes.
#6 Marvel at the University of Pavia, the 2nd oldest university in Italy
What started as a school in the 9th Century, was transformed into a university in the 14th. Although the population of Pavia hovers around 70,000, roughly 25,000 of that number are students studying at the University of Pavia, one of the oldest universities in Italy, and second oldest only to that of Bologna! Christopher Columbus attended and graduated the university, and is just one of many famous alumni.
As a result, the university buildings themselves are varied, interesting and full of history. Many of their façades are decorated ornately and some even have small Italian courtyards (read Italians do courtyards best!) where you can sit, stop and watch the world go by for a little while. Also worth a look is the Orto Botanico (the Botanical Gardens) and various University Museums dotted around the city.
#7 Walk across the Ponte Coperto (Covered Bridge)
Sadly, the original Ponte Coperto (covered bridge in English) was actually destroyed during WWII. Today, what you see is a perfect reconstruction (though it’s debated that the cement used is of inferior quality to the building materials of the original 14th-century bridge).
The details of the original bridge have been copied with great care, all the way down to the little chapel in the bridge’s centre, which was sadly shut when we meandered our way across the bridge. However, the ornate place of worship can still be spied through the metal grill door…
#8 Eat some local food!
Eataly (ha!) is known around the world for its incredible food and drink; pizza, pasta, limoncello, and wine to name but a few. As a result, you can’t travel anywhere in Italy and not sample a little of its cuisine! Pavia is full of bars, restaurants and other eateries and while the pizza isn’t quite as good as that found in the likes of Naples, it’s still certainly better than anywhere else in Europe!
Traditional Lombard cuisine includes plenty of rice dishes (“Ris e Ran” rice and frog meat!), and Torta del Paradiso (a sweet cake that is totally worth a try). Of course, there are other Italian foods you must try when in the Southern European country. Here’s your complete guide to food in Italy.
#9 Wander the old town & see some famous statues
The best way to get to know Pavia is by strolling around on foot and allowing the city to reveal itself to you. Much of the old town is pedestrianised, meaning that you can walk the cobbled lanes to your heart’s content, never having to worry about passing vehicles (with the exception of a few buses and service vehicles). After all, one of the very best things to do in Pavia is to wander around and see where your feet lead you…
Of all the best things to do in Pavia, now designated a UNESCO world heritage site, there is no shortage of quirky, unique and unusual things to see in Pavia’s historic centre, which is conveniently located right in the heart of the town! See the statues that have become iconic symbols for the city (a statue of Minerva and horse in the Piazza del Duomo to name just two).
#10 Take yourself on a self-guided tour of Pavia
If you truly want to get to know the city on a more local level, then I highly recommend taking yourself on this free and self-guided walking tour of Pavia. Focused around the historic heart of the city centre, this guided route will show you the hidden gems of Pavia, as well as its more famous monuments.
Day trips from Pavia, Italy
#11 Visit the Certosa di Pavia, the most beautiful monastery in Lombardy
The Certosa has quite a deceptive name as it isn’t actually in Pavia proper at all! In fact, the Certosa di Pavia is actually located around 8km north of the town, in the very midst of the rice fields that Lombardy is (not so well) known for.
First founded as a Carthusian Monastery in the 14th century (hence the name), today the monastery is inhabited by an order of Cistercian monks who maintain a vow of silence. A visit to the complex is free, though you have to wait to be beckoned behind the iron gates of the church if you want to see the monastery’s two cloisters and other sites of interest!
#12 Take a day trip to Milan from Pavia
For those wishing to experience the bright lights of the Lombardy capital of Milano in one day, Pavia is a great place in which to base yourself. Thanks to its lack of tourists and relatively off-the-beaten-path status, Pavia has much more budget friendly accommodation than its more famous neighbours!
Tips for visiting Pavia, Italy
Whether you’re looking to visit Italy for the first or thousandth time, here are some Italy travel quotes to inspire your wanderlust. If you’re visiting Italy from the USA, UK, Canda, and a plethora of other countries, then you should know that you’ll need to bring along a travel adaptor.
For those wishing to save money, then purchase this all-in-one travel adaptor that will allow you to use your electronics in over 150 countries! Another tool worth purchasing is a basic Italian phrasebook. While many people in Pavia speak English, it’s always worth having an Italian word guide to hand!
When making a trip, Pavia couldn’t be easier to reach from the larger cities of Genova or Milano. And though the city is certainly less busy than other Northern Italian towns, be sure to book your stay well in advance in order to secure the best rates. Check the best accommodation prices here.