Interested in seeing the mosaics in Ravenna? Book a guided tour of the UNESCO monuments and mosaics.
Mosaics can be found in almost every great historic city. Inspired by the Greek road-building method of organising small pebbles into neat patterns, the Romans took this Hellenistic decoration into the mainstream.
By adding small clay or glass pieces called tesserae, Roman artists created gloriously ornate images covering every bare and bland surface with elaborate scenes of religious icons and legends. But it’s rare to find any of these early Byzantine mosaics today.
In Istanbul, the extravagant mosaic interiors of the magnificent Hagia Sofia, built in 537 CE, were forever lost during the Iconoclasms. The widespread destruction of religious images ravaged the cathedral in Turkey and many others throughout Europe.
Ravenna was the exception. Located in the north-eastern part of Italy in the Emilia-Romagna region, the small city flourished during its time as the capital of the Western Roman Empire after the sacking of Rome. Ravenna's blend of Western and Eastern mosaic designs are the best-surviving examples of the art in Europe.
Eight buildings, known as the Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. Today, six of Ravenna’s most beautiful mosaics are easily found in the city centre – the city is small enough that you can walk between them all in just one day.
Ravenna's mosaics were commissioned, created and expanded upon in the early Byzantine period between the 5th and 8th centuries CE. Although the city is relatively unknown to the wider world today, three successive empires chose Ravenna as their capital.
Honorius moved the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Milan to Ravenna in the early 5th century, constructing the first of the great mosaics within the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia and the Battistero Neoniano.
Then, in 493 CE, Theodoric took control of the region, choosing Ravenna as the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, creating the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Battistero degli Ariani and Teodorico Mausoleum.
Finally the Christian Byzantine Empire made Ravenna the capital of the Byzantines in Italy after conquering it in 540 CE. This brought about arguably the best monument - the Basilica di San Vitale, as well as the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in the nearby port town of Classe.
Ravenna eventually fell into Lombard hands in the 8th century, and then the Franks took control shortly afterwards. Soon the city would become just another Eastern Italian settlement.
One of the most celebrated Byzantine monuments in the world, Basilica di San Vitale is unlike any other church in Italy. The octagonal building is surrounded by flying buttresses and capitals, giving it the appearance that it instead belongs east of the Bosphurus.
But it’s the interior that makes this place stand out. The walls are intricately hand-tiled with floor-to-ceiling mosaics, topped by a cupola adorned by Baroque frescoes.
Next door, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is on a smaller scale but is equally mesmerising. You could hear a pin drop as you enter amongst other in-awe visitors and look up towards a sky of blue tiles with golden stars covering the ceiling. The building never fulfilled its original purpose and instead holds several tombs of interesting figures.
Rather than the Byzantine style found at Ravenna’s other monuments, the mosaics at the Neonian Baptistry have a Hellenic-Roman influence dating back to the 5th century. The blue and golden mosaics mainly focus on the baptism of Christ, featuring representations of the Twelve Apostles.
Right next to the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Neonian Baptistry is the tiny St. Andrew Chapel and the eye-opening Archiepiscopal museum. Although small, the unique chapel is well worth a look if you have the time.
With plain walls and barely any furnishings, the Arian Baptistry can feel a little overshadowed by its neighbours. It was built at the time of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric at the end of the 5th century, with its standout feature being the beautiful tiled dome ceiling.
The mosaic details Christ's baptism, the Jordan River, and the dove of the Holy Spirit. Located on the eastern side of the city, it’s less visited than the other UNESCO-listed mosaics and is a good place to get away from the crowds. Note that it isn’t included in the general ticket (entry is € 2) and has different opening times.
Originally built to be an Arian place of worship, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo became a Catholic church after Justinian conquered Ravenna.
All traces of its past were eradicated with vast sections of the mosaics being covered with golden tiles, but you can still spot the hands on the columns of the Palatium from the original mosaics.
Over in the port town of Classe, there’s rather confusingly another Basilica with the same name. This was the original resting place of the first bishop of Ravenna, Saint Apollinare, who was later moved to the city. There you will also find the eighth UNESCO monument - the Mausoleum of Theodoric.
There are plenty of other mosaic masterpieces that aren’t UNESCO listed in Ravenna too. For two of the most interesting, head to the underwater crypts of Basilica of San Francesco or the Domus of the Stone Carpets.
A local guide is undoubtedly the best way to maximise your time in Ravenna. Take a 3 hour guided tour of Ravenna's mosaics and you won’t have to worry about booking a timed entry slot, or queuing for hours to get a ticket.
In summer the sites are open from 9am-7pm, while in winter they are open every day 10.00-17.00 (except Christmas Day and New Years Day),
If visiting by yourself it’s best to prebook tickets online in the summer season. You must choose a timeslot when booking for at least two of the sites (depending on how busy they are).
In the off-season, or if you are willing to queue, you can buy your tickets on the day from a ticket office at one of two of the sites. These are located at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo on Via di Roma 53, or the Archiepiscopal Museum on Piazza Arcivescovado 1.
An inclusive ticket to Ravenna’s mosaics is quite good value as it includes one admission per monument, and is valid for 7 days. The full price is € 10,50, while the reduced price is € 9,50. There is a € 2.00 additional charge for the entrance to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Neonian Baptistery.
Not far from the coast of the Adriatic Sea on Italy’s eastern shores, between the small independent country of San Marino and the tourist hotspot of Venice, Ravenna is a quiet, mainly pedestrianised city in the northern Italian province of Emilia Romagna.
Bologna is just an hour away by car or by train, and acts as the main transport hub for visiting Ravenna with an airport that connects to most other major European airports. Watch out for the limited traffic zone (ZTL) if driving into the city, as with many historic Italian places you can get a hefty fine for straying too close to the centre.
There’s no shortage of things to do in the region, with artisan mosaic shops, eateries, and beautiful beaches hugging the Adriatic Riviera. You can’t go wrong with grabbing an aperitif, preferably an Aperol Spritz, in the Piazza del Popolo and watching the locals go about their day.
Another spot not to miss in Ravenna is the Tomb of Dante Alighieri - the author of the Divine Comedy who is also known as the father of the Italian language. He spent the last three years of his life in Ravenna and was buried in the city in 1321. Although there’s not a great deal of information, you can still visit his tomb in a small temple next to the Basilica di San Francesco.
On the way to Ravenna, make a stop at the historic capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna. The foodie haven is well known for its pasta al ragù, but there’s plenty more to the city than spaghetti bolognese. The lively student city also lays claim to being the ‘mother of European universities’.
The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and is considered the world's oldest university (in continuous operation). There are also plenty of examples of medieval and Renaissance architecture, including the Two Towers - the leaning Asinelli and Garisenda.
A little further west, there’s also the balsamic-rich town of Moderna, and the university city of Parma - home of Parma ham and Parmesan cheese. Or a two-hour drive north will take you to Verona, the setting of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet", as well as the shimmering Lake Garda.