An elderly couple strolls hand-in-hand, choosing a front-row seat for people watching in the piazza. University students gather in the same spot, debating a venue for their evening meal. Dogs frantically chase pigeons, but never manage to come out ahead. These are the scenes of Pavia.
Dating back to pre-Roman times, Pavia’s historical résumé is impressive. For starters, it was an important military site under the Roman Empire, and the capital of the Kingdom of the Lombards from 572 to 774.
Its ancient university dates back to 1361, and it’s pretty enough to make you want to be a student again.
The city’s red-brick Duomo, which dates back to 1488, is Italy’s third largest cathedral – and Leonardo da Vinci himself contributed to the design.
A beautiful castle stands guard, just as it did when it was built in 1360, when the site was a residence for the Visconti family. A tranquil park surrounds the premises, which is now home to several museums.
But Pavia’s greatness isn’t only embedded in its past. In fact, it has plenty to offer in the present.
A river runs through it
One of the most famous scenes of Pavia is its ponte coperto (covered bridge) that stands tall over the Ticino river. Although it’s a 1949 reconstruction of a 1351 structure that was badly damaged in World War II, it’s a gorgeous way to cross the river.
The bridge connects the historic center with the district of Borgo Ticino, which was originally outside the city walls. The views are lovely, as the bridge overlooks colorful houses lining the riverbank.
As expected, the city’s main features lie in its historic center. This is where you’ll find its charming piazza, lined with beautiful buildings and countless cafes.
It’s also where everyone gathers, both young and old, to socialize and drink Italy’s much loved Aperol Spritz.
In steep contrast to the open-spaced piazza, many of the city center’s streets are narrow and full of charm.
Restaurants and cafés abound, and those without a specific outdoor seating area put tables outside anyway, adding to the city’s already lively atmosphere.
A delightful dinner
While Pavia is full of lovely places to dine, there’s one particular restaurant that may be the best. It’s the fun decor – mismatched chairs, exposed brick walls, and a bike that sits on a platform above the bar – that initially draws people into Milla Bistrot, but it’s the food that keeps them coming back.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that gnocchi is on the menu – but you’ve likely never had it served with such a modern twist, and so beautifully presented. It’s garnished with pear slices and flavors that come together wonderfully.
Even the vegetarian lasagna is unique, with hazelnuts strewn in among the typical flavors.
As for dessert, the tiramisu doesn’t look like tiramisu at all…but it has that same delicious flavor.
Despite the fancy presentation, the prices aren’t fancy at all. Two mains + dessert + two glasses of wine + bottle of water = €35.
If the food and the history and the piazza and the overwhelming charm has you wishing you were in Pavia instead of wherever you are right now, go ahead and visit. Trains are frequent from Milan’s Central Station, and the journey only takes 30 minutes.