Modena, Italy: The Town Where Balsamic Vinegar and Fast Cars Reign Supreme
If you're like me, then there are a few countries that are at the top of your travel bucketlist and for me one of those countries was Italy. I have to say that Italian food is probably my absolute favorite (or Mediterranean food in general), so I always knew that I had to visit the country where good food reigns supreme. As for many of my trips, I found out I'd be traveling to Italy to present my research at a conference focused on Intelligent Human Systems Integration in Modena, Italy and I was absolutely THRILLED!
As with any work trip, I was focused on having my research accepted to the conference and getting it ready to present to the scientific community, but at the same time excited to be able to travel to Italy for the first time in my life AND see and do some of the things I'd always dreamed of doing. Also, if you've read any of my other posts, you know that I like to fit in a lot and do as much as possible, especially if I'm traveling to a country for the first time. So without further ado, here's my long overdue post on my trip to Modena, Italy and some other stops in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy.
Getting there: But first, where is Modena? If you're like me, you've probably never heard of this area, except to see the name on some balsamic vinegar bottles. So I was intrigued that of all the places in Italy I could go, Modena would be my home base. Modena is in Northern Italy, specifically in the Emilia-Romagna region. When you enjoy Parmesan Cheese, amazing Prosciutto de Parma and tangy balsamic vinegar, think of Emilia-Romagna. I also learned that this is the home of the 'Motor Valley' region where many of the luxury Italian car brands are made.
When planning a trip to Modena, it's important to know that there isn't a major international airport there, so it's best to fly into Bologna international OR fly into one of the other major airports like Florence or Venice. BUT if you're like me, and want to fit in as much as possible, fly into Milan. I flew from LAX and landed in Milan super early in the morning so I had an entire day to explore the city. Of course 1 day in Milan isn't enough, but it was just what I needed considering I didn't have much time. When traveling to Modena from any other major city, you'll most likely take a train to Bologna central station and from there take a smaller train to Modena. For me that was a train from Milan's Malpensa airport --> Milan central station --> Bologna central station --> Modena's train station and finally a cab to my hotel. Yes, a very long travel day but well worth it.
Where to stay: Being in a small town just adds to the overall charm of Modena, which I loved, BUT at the same time, understand there aren't a lot of hotels. However, there definitely are a few and I was super excited to find a hotel that had been a former Duke's palace. It was the PHI Hotel Canalgrande and was located right near the town square, which I loved because a lot of the places I went to were walkable. The hotel was more boutique style, and on the smaller side which I personally love. It was so beautiful and you could see the history of the place, with the tile work and different mosaics. I was also so excited to learn that they had upgraded me to the suite which was absolutely beautiful, had a bedroom, sitting room with a desk, and a dreamy bathroom!
The hotel also had some fantastic courtyards to sit in and explore, an amazing breakfast, where I had 1 of MANY espressos each morning, delicious pastries and a full service restaurant with some of the best Bolognese I've ever had, and just look at the view from my hotel room windows!
Now that we've got the planning part over, what is there to do in Modena?
Walk through the Town Square and Visit the Cathedral: Whenever I visit a new city or town, I like to spend my first day getting the 'lay of the land' and take a walk around town if I can. That's what's truly great about small European cities, you can wake up and take a stroll around the city center. Because Modena is so small, that was absolutely what I did my first morning. Just a short walk from my hotel was the main Piazza Grande, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and includes the fantastic Ghirlandina bell-tower.
But one of my favorite stops in town was the beautiful 12th century Romanesque Cathedral (or Duomo) right in the center of town.
After visiting the Piazza Grande, stroll on over to the nearby Mercato Albinelli, one of the most famous food markets in Europe. Stock up on some amazing produce, cheese and of course tortellini!
Visit Pavarotti's Home: "When he was born, God kissed his vocal cords"- Herbet Von Karajan. If you're an opera or music fan, then you have to pay homage to one of the greats and see where Pavarotti called home. Originally born in Modena, he built his house to entertain friends, teach young singers and enjoy his family. There's a private collection of memorabilia, costumes, awards, and stables. The house is open everyday from 10am-6pm and tickets are about 10 Euros.
See Balsamic Vinegar Production: One of the top things you absolutely have to do when visiting Modena is not only taste some balsamic vinegar, but actually see how it's produced and learn why it's so special. I already wrote another post on the subject of balsamic vinegar so won't get into the specific details here, but suffice it to say this stuff is special. It's not like the watery stuff we get at home, it's absolutely fantastic and thick, sweet and syrupy. You'll also learn that many of the great brands of balsamic vinegar are family productions that go back hundreds of years.
Some of my favorite places to shop for balsamic vinegar in Modena were Giuseppe Giusti, which dates back to 1605, and is right in the middle of the town square, and Cantina Estense, also right down the street from my hotel. Both had some beautiful balsamic vinegars for sale but if you think you're leaving the store without trying some you'd be wrong. In fact, the shop owners really won't let you buy any without having first tried them to decide which decade is your favorite. I really appreciated how much pride they had in letting me sample the vinegars according to their year ( which include 5, 10, 25 and even 100 year olde 'vintages') and recommending them from there.
They also came in some of the most beautiful packaging I've ever seen (I spent way too many Euros on bottles of balsamic vinegar)!
You can also see balsamic vinegar production and the family estates where it's made. One way to do that is to go visit a family farm, which sometimes includes a restaurant (also known as Agrotourism) and see their own personal collection of balsamic vinegar. On my visit to Modena, I was able to visit a home like this and was taken up to the attic to the see the rows upon rows of vinegar barrels and hear how it's made. They usually also have their own product available to buy as well which I really enjoy supporting. If you can't make it to a family home to see how balsamic vinegar is made, there's also the Balsamic Vinegar Museum right in the center of Modena's town hall. You can visit the museum with a guided tour Friday- Sunday.
Explore the Art of the Emilia Romagna Region: If you're an art or history fan and want to learn more about the rich history of Modena, you can visit the Baroque style Ducal Palace, which is the former residence of the Este Dukes of Modena. Or the Galleria Estense, which houses the art collection of the d'Este family who ruled the region during the 13th and 18th centuries.
Tour the Ferrari Museum: I already wrote a post about my trip to the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, but including a bit of information here. If you didn't already know, Modena is in the region in Northern Italy lovingly referred to as 'Motor Valley' because that's where many of the car and motorcycle manufacturers, race tracks and museums dedicated to the auto industry are centered. The region is also historically linked to luxury race car brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Dallara and Ducati and is famous for the racetracks in Imola and Misano. So suffice it to say, speed and cars course through the veins of this historic Italian region.
One of the best ways to get to experience the motor valley history is to check out the Ferrari Museum, which is about 11 miles from Modena's city center and is technically located in the neighborhood of Maranello. The museum is open seven days a week, however it's always best to book your tickets online beforehand for the self-guided tour. While walking through the museum, you can see the different Ferrari models and designs that changed throughout the decades.
I have to take a moment and say that I never thought I was a car person until I visited this museum, each and every one of these cars are a work of art, just absolutely beautiful. Towards the end of the museum you can see the trophy room where all of the awards and Formula One trophies are on display. Outside of the museum, you can also experience all that the 'Motor Valley' region has to offer by taking a driving course and visiting one of the famous race tracks.
Appreciate the Food of the Emilia Romagna Region: I also have to mention the food in Modena and the Emilia Romagna region in general. There are many regions in Italy, and each of them take their food and traditions seriously, and Modena/Emilia Romagna is no different. While you're there, you have to try the balsamic vinegar, Lambrusco Wine, Parmesan and Mortadella from Parma and Bologna and of course the homemade tortellini and bolognese pasta! If you're a real foodie you can even take one of MANY guided food tours throughout Modena and Emilia Romagna.
In any place I visit I also like to see if they have a marketplace to see what kind of fresh produce they have and even make a picnic for myself. BUT if you're in Modena, you absolutely have to TRY to get a reservation and have a meal at the famous Osteria Francescana (3 Michelin stars), the restaurant one of the world's best chefs Massimo Bottura opened and still cooks in. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a reservation myself when I was there but there's always hope for the future!
You could also try for the smaller Franceschetta58, the little sister of Osteria Francescana. Other great restaurants around Modena include cafes like Bottega 39, Juta or Stile Libero, but some of my favorite restaurants were Ristorante l'Erba del Re, Osteria Giusti, Osteria Ermes Modena or Osteria Stallo del Pomodoro and finally Trattoria Aldina for amazing home-cooked meals. Since I couldn't get into Osteria Francescana, I was thrilled that the conference banquet dinner was planned in an authentic Agrotourismo right outside of Modena.
This was one of the best meals of my life and I was thrilled to see the homemade cooking with tortellini, lasagna and of course lots and lots of balsamic vinegar that the family makes. The dinner also included a tour in their upstairs attics to see the rows upon rows of balsamic vinegar barrels.
Some Day Trips from Modena: I also always like to look up quick day trips from any city I'm visiting to see if I can fit in more bucketlist destinations. From Modena, those include Bologna, Parma, Florence, Venice and even Milan, which are all accessible via train if you go from Modena --> to Bologna central station and change trains from there. Most of these major Italian cities are only a few hours away and completely do-able as a day trip. During my time in Modena, I checked out Milan, Florence and Venice as a day-trip or even afternoon trip and it was fantastic. Definitely fast-paced, but well worth it if you want to visit those cities and don't have much time.
So that's about it, my time in Modena, Italy was so special. This was my first solo international trip and while I was a bit nervous, I couldn't have been more excited. I also have to mention that this trip took place in February 2020 right as COVID-19 was beginning to break out all over Northern Italy, which may have impacted what I did because things were starting to shut down and I wasn't feeling too energized myself at times.
But despite that, I have to say that Italy and Northern Italy in general are just absolutely special. I was glad that I was in a smaller town so I didn't feel overwhelmed and could explore the bigger cities like Milan, Florence and Venice from there. I also have to say that the food was beyond phenomenal and I couldn't get enough of the regional pasta bolognese, with extra parmesan cheese on top of course. The best part of traveling solo on this trip was I didn't have to share the parmesan haha ;)
Want more tips on planning and things to do in Italy? Then check out some of my other posts linked below:
https://www.readypackedgo.com/post/putting-the-pedal-to-the-metal-at-the-enzo-ferrari-museum As always, I'd love to hear about your time in Modena or Italy and any other recommendations or suggestions you might have!