I have mixed feelings about Verona. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful, historic city with its terra-cotta roofs, an ancient arena and the beautiful Adage river. On the other hand, it’s often crowded with tourists who funnel into the narrow streets on their way to the fictitious balcony of Juliet and the tour groups who dominate the narrow sidewalks as they scurry to follow their intrepid guides.
Although Verona is a quick side trip for many travelers, it’s quite a busy city in the middle of the summer—especially in the historic center. During the popular opera season, hotels are expensive and not easy to find. But with the help of the internet, we found a great spot—outside the city walls.
We took a short train ride from Vicenza (30 minutes) and found a very comfortable apartment using airbnb.com, a handy website for lodging. Our apartment was located about eight blocks outside the old city center, but it was on a quiet street and had many more amenities than a hotel room, for half the price. Although we didn’t need the modern kitchen for this stay, we were happy to have the washing machine and refrigerator.
Our friendly hosts gave us some fun itineraries nearby so we saw Verona from a different perspective. First, we took a pleasant walk down our street to Giardino Giusti, the site of an old villa with a large, terraced, Tuscan garden. The weather had finally warmed up, so it was nice to have the shaded paths to explore. This verdant garden doesn’t have a lot of flowers, but it has lots of tall cypress, boxwood borders and statuary. As we followed the gravel paths deeper into the garden, we found an old Limonaio, a protected area for growing lemons and other citrus.
At the very back of the garden, there’s an old stone tower with a spiral staircase that takes you up above the garden for great views of the city roofs and the Adage river. It’s like a secret garden with nice lookout points and a beautiful stone Belvedere.
If you continue heading north on the same street, you’ll also find the old Roman Theatre, (Regaste Redendatore 2), which has a full schedule of music and events in the summer. We chose to walk in the neighboring park of Castello San Pietro, which provides nice views of the theatre and the surrounding hillsides. Just past the Roman Theatre entrance, you can find a variety of narrow lanes that lead up into the park on the hillside. From the paths, you can get a free view of the Roman theatre and maybe hear a rehersal, if you’re lucky. If you continue on the park trails, you will arrive at the old castle with more terraces for viewing. There’s even an upscale restaurant with fantastic views from the terrace. They were having a fun wedding reception on the day we visited.
After our hike back down to street level, we found the pedestrian bridge (Ponte di Pietra) which led us back into the north side of the old city, just a few blocks away from the crowds. After crossing the bridge, we turned left to find a lunch spot along the river. We had a tasty, light lunch at Bar al Ponte, a small and casual place with tables that overlook the river.
Later that night, we braved the crowds for a night at the opera. On a warm summer night, an opera or concert in Verona’s Amphitheater, known as The Arena, should be on everyone’s itinerary. Although the cheapest seats on the marble steps are fun, next time, I would spring for the real seats, called poltrona. After four hours of an opera, no matter how spectacular, sitting without any back support is not easy. They gave us several seventh inning stretches—small breaks where we could stand up and give our tired backs (and butts) a break. But, for some people, this might not be enough. There’s another good reason to purchase the reserved seating—you can enjoy a later arrival time and therefore, less waiting around time. It’s probably worth the extra euros.
For our first experience of opera in Italy, we saw a modern version of Aida. The stage was almost completely bare, with just a large crane as the main prop. Gradually, with the help of high tech and lighting, the stage magically transformed itself into the Egyptian desert, ancient palaces and the Nile River with swimming crocodiles. The orchestra was excellent and the music was breathtaking. The acoustics aren’t the best in this open air theatre, but it’s quite a setting for an outdoor performance of classical opera on a summer evening in Italy.
If you aren’t into opera, Verona is a great city for foodies. We were really impressed with a new restaurant just off the main Piazza Bra (near the Arena) called Locanda 4 Cuochi. The four cooks are all young and inventive, using classic ingredients in a new way. Not only is the food fresh and creative, but the service is also excellent. Even the cooks come by to check your table and talk about the food—www.locanda4cuochi.it
If you travel outside the city walls, across Ponti Navi, you’ll find Trattoria San Basilio and probably only locals in this charming restaurant. Since our apartment was nearby, we happened to see it and stopped for lunch. The outdoor patio was shady and peaceful. The food was delicious and the service was very attentive. This chef also came out to check on things. He and his staff all spoke good English and were very helpful—www.trattoriasanbasilio.it
If you stay away from Juliet’s touristy balcony, you can find the real Verona. Wander beyond the busy Via Mazzini and get lost on some side streets. Visit the amazing Sant’Anastasia church, wander along some side streets or walk across the Ponte di Pietra. When you venture outside the city walls, you are often free from the crowds and you’re bound to discover something interesting.