In my early 20s I had the extreme good fortune of living in Reggio Emilia, one of Italy’s most prosperous and beautiful small towns (I say small because, despite having almost 200k inhabitants, it always seemed small to my native New Yorker sensibilities!). I still think of Reggio fondly and would love very much to go back one day, if even for a short visit.
Reggio Emilia is famous for three things: its cuisine, its creation of the tricolore and for the world-renowned teaching approach it gave birth to during the post-WWII years. If you’ve eaten tortelli in brodo or enjoyed a little parmigiano reggiano, you can thank Reggio Emilia! And here’s another fun fact: did you know that the Italian flag was created in Reggio Emilia, and not Rome or Milan as some would think? There is an entire museum there dedicated to Italian history and its illustrious flag created in 1797.
One of the best things about living in Reggio Emilia was actually living like an Italian—that is to say, living in a real live neighborhood with real people going to work and being among real families milling about. Even today in Reggio you would be hard pressed to find tourists, and that’s exactly the way I liked it. There is something to be said for completely immersing yourself in a local culture and letting yourself learn things by doing. I will never forget trying my first tortello di zucca (squash): it tasted completely new and somewhat confusing to my Sicilian palette, but I came to love the local fare and crave it wherever I went.
Another reason I always recommend people to stay in Reggio is the fact that it’s centrally located. An ideal location from which to springboard your Italian vacation, Reggio is within manageable train distance from Florence, Milan and Bologna, not to mention towns relatively off the beaten path such as Modena, Mantova, Parma, Ravenna and Ferrara. Below is a list of things to do on your vacation to Reggio Emilia:
1. Visit the Museo del Tricolore, the above-mentioned museum dedicated to Italian history. See their website by clicking here.
2. Walk along the Via Emilia, Reggio’s ancient and most beautiful main thoroughfare. Hundreds of beautiful shops dots the street which cuts through the city from East to West and even runs into Modena and Bologna.
3. Get a piadina and eat it while people watching in Piazza Prampolini. A piadina is a local specialty made of pita-like bread stuffed with cold cuts, cheeses and various other accoutrements. I love them with prosciutto di Parma and peppery arugula!
4. Eat some erbazzone and people watch in Piazza San Prospero. Piazza San Prospero is a beautiful gathering place where locals come to hang out, and erbazzone is a lovely little spinach pie-like pocket you can eat on the go. What’s not to love?
5. Go to the market in Piazza San Prospero on Monday and Friday mornings.
6. Visit the mercato del contadino, a traditional market selling fruits, veggies and other local foods at Piazza Fontanesi on Mondays and Fridays.
7. Watch a basketball game at Pallacanestro Reggiana. In Reggio, basketball is huge--it’s even where Kobe Bryant himself started playing the game! Reggio’s team is consistently high ranked and it’s always a treat to see.
8. Fashion lovers will enjoy a trip to the Collezione Maramotti, the private contemporary art collection located in the historical headquarters of fashion house Max Mara. Guided visits are free but visits must be booked in advance. Via Fratelli Cervi, 66, 42124 Reggio Emilia, Italy
9. The Synagogue of Reggio Emilia is not to be missed for those who are interested in this little known part of Italian history concerning Italy’s Jewish population. Sparsely decorated and furnished, this house of worship is haunting and deserves a visit. Via dell'Aquila 3/a, 42100 Reggio Emilia, Italy
10. Libreria dell’Arco—one of the most beautiful and inviting bookstores I’ve ever been to. Spend hours admiring art or photography books while wandering through the rooms of the gorgeous period building. There is an outdoor patio as well. Via Emilia Santo Stefano, 3, 42121 Reggio Emilia, Italy
11. The Tempio della Beata Vergine della Ghiara (also known as the Basilica della Madonna dell Ghiara) is one of Italy’s hidden gems. Located on modern Corso Garibaldi, this building takes you back centuries to its inception—beautifully restructured and restored, it’s like stepping right back into the Renaissance. I was extremely lucky because I lived right next door!
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