The university town of Pavia makes an easy day trip from Milan. It has a historic centre, museums, a castle and a botanic garden. What it doesn’t have is lots of tourists: if you spend a day in Pavia you’ll be mixing with locals and students rather than other sightseers.
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Why Visit Pavia?
Pavia has Roman origins and was once the capital of the Kingdom of Lombardy. Today it is best known for its university, founded in 1361, and one of the oldest in Europe.
The presence of the university means that Pavia has a lively atmosphere, with bars and restaurants and several museums. The city centre is small and walkable, and the main attractions, including churches, towers and the 14th century castle, are within easy reach of one another.
A few kilometres to the north is the Certosa di Pavia, a Carthusian monastery complex full of impressive artworks. You can visit the Certosa as part of your visit to Pavia, or as a separate day out.
What To See And Do In Pavia
One of the best things to do in Pavia is just to wander the medieval streets. Stroll around the university buildings, enjoy the architecture and soak up the atmosphere in a pavement café. Note the tall brick towers: just a handful now remain of the more than a hundred towers built by prominent families in the Middle Ages to symbolise their wealth and power.
Don’t miss the Ponte Coperto (covered bridge). Although it is modern – from the mid-20th century – it is a copy of the medieval bridge that was destroyed during World War II.
Churches And The Cathedral
There are many impressive churches, built in the characteristic local red brick, but the most important is the Duomo (Cathedral). Work on this building began in 1488, with Leonardo da Vinci as one of its first designers. However it was not finally completed until the beginning of the 20th century. The Duomo is notable for its grand dome (the 4th largest in Italy): at 97m high it dominates the city skyline.
Other churches include San Teodoro (in the old fishing quarter), which has several Romanesque frescoes, including one depicting Pavia in the 16th century. The 12th century San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro holds the remains of St Augustine, and San Michele is regarded as a Romanesque masterpiece, with sculptures, mosaic flooring and a magnificent nave.
Museums And The Visconti Castle
The Civic Museums are housed within the Visconti Castle (Castello Visconteo). Here you will find several collections, including the Archaeological Section (with Roman and Lombard remains), art collections, and an Ethnographical Museum. Even without the museums, the Visconti Castle would be worth a visit for its history and architecture. It was built 1360 as a palace and hunting ground, a grand fortress with parkland and a game reserve stretching as far as the Certosa di Pavia. The castle later became a barracks, and then a cultural centre.
Although the park has now disappeared, three large wings of the Gothic castle remain, arranged around a large courtyard. Inside the rooms are ornate and lavishly decorated, with frescoes showing hunting and battle scenes. The Blue Room, covered in gold and lapis lazuli, is particularly magnificent.
Elsewhere in the city you will find the University History Museum (covering science and medicine) and the Natural History Museum.
The University Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico) was established on the site of an old convent in 1773. It features greenhouses and around 2,000 plant varieties, including medicinal plants, aquatic species, tropical plants and a rose garden.
Admission to the garden is free.
How To Visit Pavia
Pavia is around 40 km from Milan, and 23 minutes by direct train. If you are also visiting the Certosa di Pavia, get on a stopping train from Milan: the Certosa has its own station.