The city of Parma in the Northern part of Italy. It is not in the top 4 of most popular cities, but Parma should definitely on your Italian itinerary. Let’s found what Parma is known for.
Parma, located in the Emilio-Romagna region, is known as the place where Parmesan Cheese and Prosciutto Ham are originated. Parma is a university city with a vibrant nightlife and great music performances. The city is known for its unique architecture, historic buildings, and renowned countryside.
This relatively small city is great to spend a day or two when you’re in Italy. In this article, you’ll find all the highlights of the city, where to find the best cheese and prosciutto, and much more useful information. This is the only guide you’ll need for your visit in Parma!
Famous highlights of Parma
Parma is known as university city. The University of Parma is one of the oldest’ modern universities’ in the world. It was founded in the year 962. However, over the years, the university was often closed and reopened again. Since 1762 it developed into an important university with different faculties. Today’s university consists of modern buildings. It gives Parma a unique and vibrant vibe.
There are a lot of highlights to find in Parma. From historical buildings, one of the world’s oldest indoor theater, and renowned food. Areas around the city were already inhabited in 800BC. Around 183BC the area became a Roman colony and settlement. The location of Parma was important because it was halfway on the road that connected the Adriatic Coast with the northern part of Italy.
These are the unique buildings and places you don’t want to miss while visiting Parma:
As with many catholic churches, the Parma Cathedral is dedicated to the blessed Virgin Mary. However, the Parma Cathedral is not the average Cathedral. It is a vital building regarding romanesque architecture. The dome, decorated by the influential painter Antonio de Correggio, is the most famous part of the Cathedral. Antonio de Correggio had an illusionistic style, more dreamy-like. The paintings in the dome are entirely different than you’ll see in buildings from the same time.
The construction of the Cathedral began in 1059. In 1117 the building was heavily damaged by an earthquake. After the reconstruction, the façade was changed. The paintings from Correggio inside the building are still renowned as one of the finest examples of renaissance art.
You’ll find the Cathedral at piazza del duomo (square of the dome). In the center of the old city.
Baptistery of Parma
Located next to the Cathedral of Parma, you’ll find the Baptistery. Built between 1196 and 1216. A unique building, with 16 arches with on the ceiling each a different painting. The building has a pink color on the outside because it is built with Verona pink Marble.
The building has a rectangle structure on the outside and has several portals with each its own artwork en statues.
- The portal of the virgin
It’s the north-facing portal. Named after the crowned virgin. The figure, probably ressembles virgin Mary, holds a flower and a blessed child. On the pillar, you’ll see the year 1196, which dates back to the beginning of the construction.
The bishop makes its ceremonious entrance via this port. He is the only one that can use this entrance during ceremonies.
- The Portal of the Redeemer
Shows the works of and six ages of mankind. The redeemer in the middle, sitting on a throne. A symbol of his divine nature. This portal is facing west.
- Portal of the Baptist
This is the portal where people used to enter before they were baptized.
The Baptistery is one of the most important medieval monuments. And shows the transition period of Romanesque architecture to the early Gothic style architecture.
Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi
When in Parma you’ll find a lot of squares. Piazza = Square in Italian. Actually, most cities in Italy are known for their piazza’s. Where people came together to celebrate and eat. But also where important meetings were held to explain big decisions for the city. Piazza’s in Italy were also used as courtyards, where people got their punishment to set as an example for other citizens. So the beautiful piazza’s as we know them now can have a bloody past.
The main piazza in Parma is built over an old Roman Forum. Before it was named after the unifier of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi, the piazza was referred to Piazza Grande (Big Square). The square always functioned as a place where citizens gather and as a commercial hub for the city.
Nowadays it is surrounded by beautiful buildings, with restaurants and terraces. Still the central square in the city.
Teatro Farnese (Must Visit)
I’ve visited a lot of theaters and concert venues. But Teatro Farnese is maybe the most unique theater I visited. So the next part is perhaps a bit ‘personal opinion’, but I think you should definitely visit this theater.
It’s not the most beautiful theater I’ve ever seen, but the way it’s built, entirely from wood, refined stands. It is impressive to see. You’re not allowed to climb the stands, but you can stand on the podium. From the podium, you’ll have a great view.
Unfortunately, the theater was almost entirely destroyed by bombings during WWII. But a lot of the original wood was somehow still usuable. The theater was rebuilt and today still one of three Rennesaince theaters that exist.
The origin of this theater is quite a funny story though.
When Cosimo II de Medici, at that time the grand duke of Tuscany, planned a journey to visit Milan, he also prepared a stopover in Parma. The duke of Parma Ranuccio Farnese wanted to celebrate his visit in style, and ordered to build this theater.
It was a political matter, to strengthen the relationship with the Medici family, who were the most influential families in that time. And celebrate an agreement over a planned marriage between the two families Farnese and Medici.
The theater was built rapidly by the architect Giovan Battista Aleotti. Despite the fact that the theater was built in a few years. The construction is one of the most refined of that time period. Cosimo II de Medici never made it to Milan and Parma, because of his untimely and unexpected death. The theater was already finished but never used for another 10 years, when the planned marriage between the families finally took place.
Teatro Farnese is one of the first theaters where people watched to a stage, which could change in different sceneries. Just like how we know theaters now. Because of this complexity, and much equipment that was required to change the scenes of the stage. The theater was only used another 8 times between 1652 en 1732.
Teatro Farnese is located in Pilotta Palace.
Pilotta Palace is like the cultural heart of Parma and also has a lot of Italian history. The palace, which is a monumental complex, consists of several historical exhibitions and musea. You can easily spend a whole visiting Pilotta Palace.
In this complex, you’ll find Teatro Farnese, The National Gallery, Archeological Museum, Palatine Library, The Bodoni Museum.
It is worth your time to visit Pilotta Palace, but make sure to plan your visit ahead. Some parts of the monumental complex aren’t opened every day.
We already told you about Teatro Farnese (see above), so let’s found out what the other exhibitions and musea are about.
The National Gallery
The origin of this museum is an interesting story. The Farnese family, who were a leading family in the Parma region, had an extensive collection of art and sculptures. However, a large part of the collection was transferred to Naples in 1734 by Charles Bourbon, one of the last Descendents of the Farnese Family who governed Parma.
Luckily a few of the most important paintings weren’t transferred. A few years later, in 1752, the Duke Don Fillipo Bourbone, the brother of Charles Bourbon, created the Academy of Fine Arts to make up for the losses of the rich collection.
The Academy of Fine Arts quickly developed as a vital institution for contemporary art in Europe. The development grew rapidly with intelligent acquisitions of important paintings. Soon many Italian and European painters found their way to the Academy of Fine arts, which resulted in the magnificent collection you’ll find there today.
Some of the important paintings you’ll find in the National Gallery are:
- “Morte di Virginia” (“Death of Virginia”) by Gabriel Francois Doyen
- “Healing of the man born blind” by El Greco.
These are just two of the paintings which you’ll find in the gallery, both were important in the early stages of development of the Academy of Fine Arts. There are nine exhibitions spaces in the museum which is nowadays known as the National Gallery. Each exhibition covers a specific period with paintings and artwork from that period.
The archaeological museum was established in 1760, which makes it one of the oldest museums in Italy. The museum contains important archaeological materials from Rome and Egyptians. But the most interesting is to learn about the scientific excavations that took place in the Parma region during the 19th and 20th centuries. It gives a great insight into how people lived during medieval times in the Parma region.
The Bodoni Museum
It is not known by many people, but the city of Parma was a long time, during the 18th century, one of the world’s most famous cities regarding printing. Giambattista Bodoni was a typograhper that lived in Parma during the end of the 18th century and developed several font designs and ways of printing. His font designs which are known for the contrast between the thick and thin parts of the body. The typography is still used in many designs worldwide.
The Bodoni Museum is dedicated to the work of Bodoni. It shows the development of typography throughout the years, the way designs were used in early printings. If you’re into designs and printing, it is an interesting collection to visit.
This library also developed after a great collection of the Farnese family was transferred to Naples. In some way, it is kind of luck that this event happened, otherwise the Academy of Fine Arts and Palentine Library never developed in such a way as it did.
The library was developed in 1761 with the intention to serve as a learning area. Paolo Maria Paciaudi, a catholic monk who was appointed as the librarian, played a big part in the development of the library. He traveled all over Europe and had great contacts with writers, politicians, and artists. Which he used to create the collection of the Palatine Library.
Pacciuadi collected a great series of books which he divided into several categories like Theology, History, Philosophy. He also introduced the catalog of possessions, which was unique for that time. The catalog of possessions was no longer written in ledgers, but in moveable filecards which contained all the important information of a book.
Many books and writings needed to be covered or bound together. Giambattista Bodoni took care of that, who turned out to be a master bookbinder as well.
Unfortunately, Pilotta Palace was heavily damaged during the bombings in WWII. Which resulted in the losses of many paintings, books, and almost the complete Teatro Farnese. Luckily the people were able to rebuilt and restore many collections. Which makes Pilotto Palace one of the best cultural and historical places to visit in Parma and Italy.
While visiting the Pilotta Palace and several museums and exhibitions, it is important to plan ahead. Not every exhibition is opened every day. Opening times also change per season, so make sure to visit the website of the palace to find the most recent and up to date information.
Pilotta Palace is easy to reach, you’ll find it in the historical center of Parma. You can walk to the palace, which is a nice walk in the center. When you’re arriving from outside the city center, you can also take public transport. The link above, which will direct you to the museum’s website, also shows information on the best way to reach the Pilotta Palace
A great way to spend some time with the local citizens of Parma is to visit Parco Ducale. Parma has several city parks, but Parco Ducale is the most significant, with over 200 square meters, and beautiful gardens. Parco Ducal used to be a park only for the royals. Who visited the park during the summer months.
Today the park is easily accessible for everyone. Many locals go for lunch, to hangout or to do some sports activities in the park. It is great to walk around and explore.
Typical Parmanese Food
Officially it is called Prosciutto di Parma. Prosciutto means ham in English. So Prosciutto di Parma = Ham from Parma. Those who asked themselves; Is Parma ham the same as Prosciutto di Parma? Yes, it is the same product.
Prosciutto di Parma is basically dry-aged ham, without any additives. Except for sea salt. Made in the Emilio-Romagna region. Ham from other regions will have a different name and often are made in a different way. The prosciutto is always made of the hind-leg from a pig. They only use specially bred pigs from the region for the prosciutto.
Every pig gets a tattoo stamp, which indicates the farm and quality of the meat. Before the drying and curing process begins, each leg is tagged with a datestamp. Which indicates how old the prosciutto is and the start of the aging/ curing process.
Salting is one of the most important processes at the beginning of curing the prosciutto. Salting the prosciutto is only be done under supervision or by the salt-master. Salting the prosciutto needs to be done in a traditional way, which gives the unique flavor to the ham.
After the salting process, the prosciutto is put in a refrigerator for a few weeks. The next step, after the cooling process, is to add a layer of lard, which prevents the prosciutto from drying too quickly and keeps the taste and fresh flavor.
The hams will be hanged in different cellars for months, to improve the curing and aging process. Every few months the prosciutto will be transferred to another cellar with different temperatures and humidity. The curing process will take at least 400 days. Some prosciutto will cure for more than 4 years!
At the end of the process, the prosciutto is inspected for its quality. When it passes the test, the prosciutto gets a brand mark with the parma crown and identification code. Which indicates the quality of the ham. When you find prosciutto without this brand mark, it is not officially a Prosciutto di Parma.
After it gets its brand mark, it is ready to be sold, sliced and eaten!
Also an original product of the Emilio-Romagna region. Cheeses that are made outside this region are prohibited from getting the name ‘parmesan cheese.’ There might be cheeses with a lot of similarities, but the original parmesan cheese is always from this Italian region.
Parmesan cheese is a hardened cheese, which has a fruity and nutty taste. It is used to add flavor to many different recipes. The traditional production process consists of 13 steps. Starting with milking the cows in the evening and the morning, and put those kinds of milk together. Evening and morning milk seems to have a different flavor. Adding natural rennet, and with the cooking, knitting process, this process is like a regular cheese-making process. It’s getting more unique with the curing and aging.
The young parmesan cheeses are put in special sea salt tanks for the first 24 days, which adds the unique flavor. After this step, the cheeses are hanged in curing rooms for over a year. But every 10 days the cheeses are turned and brushed.
When the cured for around a year, and pass the quality test, the cheeses get a brand mark of Parmigiano Reggiano. Which indicates the official Parmesan Cheese.
How to get around Parma
The city of Parma is not too big, so it is easy to get around. Traffic is not allowed in the historical center, so you need to make sure you park your car in a parking place outside the center. We prefer to walk around Parma because in this way you’ll see most of the city. And you’ll get to feel the vibe. Walking around the city, you’ll learn the city like a local.
When you’re not keen on walking, you can also use public transport. The city of Parma has an excellent public transport network, connecting the outskirts of the city. However, when visiting the historical center, you need to get around on foot.
Another option to get around the city is to rent a bicycle. It is straightforward to use a city bike in Parma. Many shops offering rental bicycles, and there are also some great cycling routes to find around the city. This way you’re able to see a bit more of the city surroundings.
When you are traveling by car through Italy, and visiting Parma, we recommend parking outside the center. You can either walk to the center or take a bus that brings you to the center. It is more convenient parking outside the center, because close the center a lot of routes are just going one direction, which can be a hassle.
Did you know Italy is a great country for a road trip by car? Make sure to read the several itineraries we recommend to explore the country.
Best Restaurants in Parma
Parma is known for its Parma Ham and Parmesan Cheese, but also for its fine dining. The city offers some great restaurants with the best Italian food. But also, as a university city, street-food and fast-food are very popular. And luckily the food you’ll find at the smallest restaurants are often perfect for a great Italian lunch.
Some of the best restaurants according to TripAdvisor are;
- Pepen a small tavern where you can buy great sandwiches with traditional parma ham. Perfect to buy some lunch to go for a picknick in the Parco Durale. You’ll find Pepen at Borgo Sant’Ambrogio 2, 43121, Parma
- Salumeria Garibaldi this small restaurant feels more like a shop and offers great traditional food. A variety of different aged parma hams, but also vegetarian options. Depending on the things you choose, it can be a bit expensive, but you’ll get a great local experience!
Great place for lunch and dinner. You’ll find the restaurant at Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi 42, 43125, Parma, Italy.
- Ristorante La Forchetta when you’re looking for a local restaurant with traditional recipes, La Forchetta is the place you want to go. It is located in the historical center and can be quite busy. Because of the location, it can be a bit expensive. The restaurant is located in the most active tourist spot. However, the food and service they offer are splendid. A wide variety of local dishes, ofcourse the parma hams and cheese, but also many vegetarian options and seafood. You’ll find this restaurant at Borgo San Biagio 6d, 43121, Parma, Italy
There are many more restaurants to find in Parma, and you probably can’t go wrong walking into a local tavern or restaurant. We selected these three restaurants because they get the best reviews on TripAdvisor from other travelers. But feel free to explore the city, and just drop in a restaurant you like or come across while walking around the city. The Parma and Italian kitchen are known for their great food and hospitality.
We always try to discover small local restaurants. During our travels, we learned; when the locals go to eat somewhere, most of the time it will be good food!
Best places to stay in Parma
Finding a great place to stay in Parma can be a bit of a hassle. There’s are so many different hotels and guesthouses it is challenging to choose one. We selected a few places which we feel are worth to stay.
Most of the time, we use Booking.com while selecting a place to stay. The hotels we selected in Parma, we didn’t stay ourselves. But we only choose hotels that get excellent and honest customer reviews. When selecting hotels on Booking.com, we always looking for accommodations that are reviewed by customers with a 9.0 or higher.
Our recommendations in Parma are:
- Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati (check the latest price on Booking.com)located at Strada Duomo, in the heart of the historical center. This aparthotel offers big modern rooms with breakfast. It is rated with a customer rating of 9.4.
- B&B La Terrazza Sul Duomo (check the latest price on Booking.com) this Bed and Breakfast is also located in the heart of the center of Parma. So when you stay here, it is easy to go out and explore the city. On average the Bed and Breakfast is rated with a 9.6
- Bsuites Parma (check out the latest price on Booking.com) rated with a 9.2 on average. Great location in the center of Parma. Most people love the location this Bed and Breakfast is located. It is easily accessible.
Best time to visit Parma
Visiting Parma is great all year round. However, the weather varies during the year. In the winter months, there can be a lot of rainfall in this region. The city of Parma is not as busy as Rome, Venice or Florence. But during the peak months of August and July, it gets busier in Parma as well.
We recommend visiting Parma between May and October. Where we feel the best months are May, June, September, and October. The weather is still favorable during these months, and tourist season is not in the peak season. Which makes is less busy, and prices are often more favorable during these months. During the peak season, prices tend to rise.
Between May and October temperatures vary from 77 Fahrenheit (25 Celcius) to 86 Fahrenheit (30 Celsius). Sometimes it gets a bit colder or warmer. On average, this region doesn’t get sizzling hot, which makes it great to travel around.
These months are also favorable for a road trip through Italy, where you can combine your visit to the biggest cities and beautiful Italian countrysides.
While you’re planning and researching for your trip to Italy, you might be interested in our other articles about Italy. We try to be as helpful as possible, so you can get the best information about Italy.