A cosy provincial town in the middle of the Po plain, CREMONA is renowned for its violins. Ever since Andrea Amati established the first violin workshop here in 1566, followed by his son, grandson (Nicolò) and pupils Guarneri and – most famously – Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737), Cremona has been a focus for the instrument. Today the city hosts an internationally famous school of violin making, as well as frequent classical concerts.

Cremona has some fine Renaissance and medieval buildings, and its cobbled streets make for some pleasant wandering, but it’s a modest sort of place: target it as a half-day trip from Bergamo or Milan, en route towards the richer pickings of Mantua.

Piazza del Comune

At the centre of Cremona is the splendid Piazza del Comune, a narrow space dominated by monumental architecture.

In the northeast corner looms the gawky Romanesque Torrazzo (Tues–Sun 10am–1pm & 2.30–6pm; €4, joint ticket with Baptistry €5), at 112m one of Italy’s tallest medieval towers. Built in the mid-thirteenth century and bearing a fine Renaissance clock dating from 1583, its 502 steps can be climbed for excellent views.

Adjacent to the Torrazzo stands the Duomo (Mon–Sat 8am–noon & 3.30–7pm, Sun 10.30–11am & 3.30–5.30pm; free), connected to it by way of a Renaissance loggia. The Duomo’s huge facade, made up of classical, Romanesque and fancy Gothic elements, focuses on a rose window from 1274. The interior is rather oppressive – lofty and dim, marked by the dark stone of its piers, and covered by naïve frescoes done in the sixteenth century, including a trompe l’oeil by Pordenone on the west wall showing the Crucifixion and Deposition. Also of note are the fifteenth-century pulpits, decorated with finely tortured reliefs.

The south side of Piazza del Comune features the octagonal Baptistry (Tues–Sun 10am–1pm & 2.30–6pm; €2, joint ticket with Torrazzo €5) dating from the late twelfth century. Its vast bare-brick interior is rather severe, though lightened by the twin columns in each bay and a series of upper balconies.

Directly opposite the Duomo, the Palazzo del Comune (Tues–Sat 9am–6pm, Sun 10am–6pm; €6, joint ticket with Museo Civico €10) has a small exhibition of nine historic violins in its upstairs Sala dei Violini, including a very early example made by Andrea Amati in 1566, as well as later instruments by Amati’s pupils, Guarneri and Stradivari. There are recordings of the different instruments and at certain times of the day on weekdays you can hear one of them being played live (check times with the tourist office).

Museo Civico: the Museo Stradivario

  • Via Ugolani Dati 4
  • Tues–Sat 9am–6pm, Sun 10am–6pm
  • €7, joint ticket with Collezione di Violini €10

The pilastered Palazzo Affaitati – a pleasant ten-minute stroll north of Piazza del Comune – holds the Museo CivicoAla Ponzone”, displaying a pedestrian collection of mainly Cremonese art. Head upstairs to a suite of eighteenth-century rooms – filled with the sound of recorded violin music – which hold the Museo Stradivario, displaying models, paper patterns, tools and acoustic diagrams from Stradivari’s workshop. An informative video helps to unravel the mysteries of the violin-maker’s art.

The rest of town

Southwest of Piazza del Comune, on Via Tibaldi, the church of San Pietro al Po has better frescoes than the Duomo; look for Bernadino Gatti’s hearty Feeding of the Five Thousand in the refectory next door. If you like that, you’ll love San Sigismondo in the eastern outskirts (bus #2 from Piazza Cavour). Built in 1441, its Mannerist decor is among Italy’s best, ranging from Camillo Boccaccino’s soaring apse fresco to Giulio Campi’s Annunciation, in which Gabriel floats in mid-air.