Emilia-Romagna doesn’t attract nearly the same volume of tourists as its neighbouring provinces of Lombardy, the Veneto and Tuscany, which is strange because it offers just as fine a distillation of the region’s charms: glorious countryside, plenty of historic architecture and local cuisine renowned across the rest of Italy. It’s also pretty easy to get around, with most of its main sites located along the Via Emilia (or more prosaically the A1 and A14 roads), the dead-straight road first laid down by the Romans in 187 BC that splits the province in two along its east–west axis, dividing the Apennine mountains in the south from the flat fields of the northern plain, the Pianura Padana.
Dotted along this road are some proud, historic towns, filled with restored medieval and Renaissance palazzi, the legacy of a handful of feuding families – the Este in Ferrara and Modena, the Farnese in Parma, and lesser dynasties in Ravenna and Rimini – who used to control the area before the papacy took charge. The largest urban centre, and the main tourist draw, is Bologna, the site of Europe’s first university – and today best known as the gastronomic capital of Italy. It’s generally regarded as one of the country’s most beautiful cities with a mazy network of porticoed, medieval streets housing a collection of restaurants that easily live up to the town’s reputation.
To the west are the wealthy, provincial towns of Modena, Parma and Reggio Emilia, easily reached by train, and each with their own charming historic centres and gastronomic delights, while to the east lies Ravenna, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire and today home to the finest set of Byzantine mosaics in the world. The Adriatic coast south is an overdeveloped ribbon of settlements, although Rimini, at its southern end, provides a spark of interest, with its wild seaside nightlife and surprisingly historic town centre.
Away from the central artery, Emilia-Romagna’s countryside comes in two topographical varieties: flat or hilly. To the north lies one of the largest areas of flat land in Italy, a primarily agricultural region where much of the produce for the region’s famed kitchens is grown. It also boasts a good deal of wildlife, particularly around the Po Delta on the Adriatic (a soggy expanse of marshland and lagoons that has become a prime destination for birdwatchers) and in Ferrara, just thirty minutes north of Bologna, one of the most important Renaissance centres in Italy. To the south are the Apennines, an area best explored using your own transport, sampling local cuisine and joining in the festivals; although it’s still possible to get a taste of this beautiful region, far removed from the functional plain to the north, by bus. If you’re a keen hiker, you might be tempted by the Grande Escursione Appenninica, a 25-day-long trek following the backbone of the range from refuge to refuge, which can be accessed from the foothills south of Reggio Emilia.