The Guardian, Jan 24, 2012
Few cities could be more romantic or beautiful than Italy's Verona, the setting for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet – one reason why Lonely Planet's new 1,000 Ultimate Sights book pegs it as one of the world's best places to fall in love.
But there's much more to Verona than star-crossed lovers, or even stars themselves (Madonna is the latest to house-hunt here). A city that dates back to the Romans, Verona today is a delight of medieval palaces, winding streets, ancient ruins and elegant churches. And, since it's only a one hour and 20 minute train ride from Venice, it makes a superb day trip … or even an alternative (far less crowded!) base.
Il Sogno di Giulietta
Although Romeo and Juliet were fictional creations, Verona's romance is real – and there's no better place to experience it than at the "Juliet's Dream" guesthouse. Located in a medieval palazzo right on "Juliet's courtyard", the 16 rooms seduce with gold-threaded duvets, antique rugs and ornate bed frames (in one suite, there's even a particularly ethereal-looking canopy). Nearly all of the rooms boast a balcony, and three overlook the famous "Juliet balcony" itself. All of that romance seems to pay off: entries from couples who became engaged while staying here fill the guestbook. And when the film Letters to Juliet was filmed, the cast's stars slept here.
• Via Cappello 23, +39 045 8009932, sognodigiulietta.it, a two-night stay from 13-15 Feb, room-only, costs from €369, up to €3,200, depending on the room
Corte delle Pigne
You can't get more tranquil than this brand-new B&B tucked into a side street which, despite being a five-minute walk from Piazza delle Erbe, one of the main squares, is frequented by few. Inside, the rooms feature a palette of soothing creams and taupes and romantic details, such as wrought-iron bed frames and French armoires. Guests can have breakfast in bed, the courtyard or, if they prefer, at the small, shared bar, where they can get advice on sights from the B&B's sweet (English-speaking!) owner, Elisabetta.
• Via Pigna 6/A, +39 333 758 4141, cortedellepigne.it, B&B doubles from €90
Hotel Gabbia d'Oro
Located on Verona's loveliest street, one bookended by the ancient Porta dei Borsari and Piazza delle Erbe, the Gabbia d'Oro is as elegant as it is charming. The ivy-covered, 16th-century palazzo's rooms exude antique-chic, with splashes of bright colours, complementary prints, and quaint details handpicked by the owner, like a vintage lace canopy or framed engraving. Curling up in an Imperial-style sofa against the parlour's 500-year-old stone wall, you'll feel as if you've just fallen into an elegant and slightly eccentric noble's home.
• Corso Porta Borsari 4A, +39 045 800 3060, hotelgabbiadoro.it, a two-night break in a double from 13-15 February costs from £316 B&B
Piazza delle Erbe
Although tourists flock to the Arena di Verona's famous Piazza Brà, Piazza delle Erbe represents the real heart of Verona. Once the site of the ancient Roman forum, today the piazza, ringed with medieval and Renaissance architecture, might just be Italy's most stunning. During the day, a market sells produce, souvenirs and clothes; at aperitivo hour, youths (and tourists) pack the piazza's cafes and bars. Leave the square via the Arco della Costa, with its hanging whale rib (legend says the bone will fall on the first person to pass under it who has never told a lie) to take a peek at the Arche Scaligeri, among Italy's most elaborate gothic funerary monuments.
Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore
If you have time, buy a single-ticket biglietto unico (€6), which gives you admission to four of Verona's churches – they're all gems, but San Zeno is probably the best. The basilica was founded in the fifth century in honour of Verona's patron saint; the current building, which dates back to the 12th, is one of Italy's finest Romanesque churches. Don't miss the extraordinary 12th-century bronze panels on the doors, which depict biblical scenes and the saint's miracles with drama and ferocity, or Mantegna's lush, vibrant altarpiece, one that established the 15th-century painter as one of the most important artists in Renaissance Italy.
• Piazza San Zeno, +39 045 8006120, chieseverona.it, entrance €2.50 or €6 for biglietto unico
Just down the street from Piazza delle Erbe, this little cafe serves up coffee with a twist: as well as classic blends, caffeine jolts come in creative flavours including chestnut, ginseng, and chocolate orange. Although it's been a favourite spot since its 1969 opening, there's no name outside, so look for a brightly coloured sign with cut-outs of coffee cups, a flower, and a smiling sun – and a list of offerings, from coffee with guarana to coffee with gelato.
• Via Porta Borsari 15/D, +39 045 803 2296, coffee from €1
While Verona's most famous (and convenient) view is from the 84m Torre dei Lamberti, just off Piazza delle Erbe, it's not your only option. For the same €6 fee, enjoy one of Italy's finest Renaissance gardens and a gorgeous city panorama at Giardino Giusti. Or take the short walk up to Castel San Pietro; from the piazzale (large square), you can see the sweeping city skyline … for free. Or, for the price of a €3 spritz, sit on the terrace at Cappa Caffé, enjoying the lovely view across the River Adige to the Roman amphitheatre.
• Torre dei Lamberti, Via della Costa 1, +39 045 927 3027; Giardino Giusti, Via Giardino Giusti 2, +39 045 803 4029; Cappa Caffé, +39 045 8004516, Piazzetta Brà Molinari 1
Opera at the arena
Although opera, ballet and symphonies take place year-round in Verona, in the summer, operas move to the city's most atmospheric venue: the ancient Roman arena. The summer opera festival, which has starred such greats as Maria Callas, kicks off its 90th season on 22 June with Don Giovanni; other favourites on the roster include Aida, Carmen, Aida, Turandot and, of course, Roméo et Juliette. While there's nothing like seeing the classics performed in the 2,000-year-old arena beneath the moonlight, just be warned: if you get the cheap seats, bring or buy a cushion.
• +39 045 800 5151, arena.it, seats from €21
Located a stone's throw from the Casa di Giulietta, Al Pompiere should be swamped with tourists. But, trilingual menu aside, it remains the kind of trattoria where friends chat, businessmen dine, and waiters in chefs' hats scurry about. Start off your meal with one of a lengthy list of speciality meats (including six kinds of prosciutto crudo), and don't miss the thick, creamy pasta e fagioli or the risotto, both regional specialities. There are 300 wines to choose from, too.
• Vicolo Regina d'Ungheria 5, +39 045 803 0537, alpompiere.tv, main courses from €10
You can't get more elegant or romantic than this Michelin-starred restaurant, located just around the corner from the arena. The osteria, which has been around for more than 200 years, serves up a variety of traditional dishes with a nouvelle twist, like venison carpaccio with a terrine of foie gras, berries and candied citron or squid-ink pasta with calamari, zucchini and sea urchin. For the full experience, tasting menus start at €45. Just be aware that there's a €5 cover charge and a 10% service fee.
•Portichetti Fontanelle 3, +39 045 913 305, ristorantelafontanina.com, main courses from €16