I hope that if I have a second life, I come back as a Parmigiano, a native of Parma, as there is so much to love about this city.
Like most of Italy, Parma — a part of the country’s famed Emilia-Romagna region in the north — has had its fair share of corruption. (Remember the $14 billion Parmalat scandal dubbed “Europe’s Enron” of the 2000s?) But Parma remains more known throughout all of Italy for her elegant, well-preserved beauty, her passion for good food and her famous musicians (Verdi and Toscanini). Because of centuries of prosperity, this university city offers incredible architecture and art, a thriving musical tradition, world-class artisans, elegant shops and a righteous obsession with food.
Moreover, the city center is full of grace and charm — and is easy to navigate because it’s open only to pedestrians and bicyclists.
Parma has been off the main tourist track since the days of Marie Louise, the second wife of the French emperor, Napoleon, resulting in a lasting French influence in the city due to centuries of French domination. As the daughter of Francis I of Austria, Maria Luigia — as she is affectionately called in Parma — was given the city as part of her duchy when her husband was exiled to St. Helena.
Ham and cheese
Parma, like her nearby neighbor to the southeast, Bologna, has been food-focused for centuries. This area is home to both traditionally made prosciutto (Italian ham) and Parmigiano (Parmesan cheese), crafted using centuries-old techniques designed to guarantee their quality.
Prosciutto owes part of its perfection to the pigs fattened on the whey left over from the making of Parmesan cheese. Parmigiani love to explain how the nearby hills and gentle breezes of the Langhirano, south of Parma, are ideal for curing their hams, too.
Music in a new space
Attend a concert at the renovated Eridania Sugar Factory, now known as the Paganini Auditorium (above). World-famous architect, Renzo Piano, blended the remnants of the Eridania Sugar Factory with floor-to-ceiling windows to form an incredible backdrop for the stage, allowing the internal space to be flooded with natural and artificial light, revealing numerous trees in the surrounding park.
In addition to the incredible Parma Cathedral (pictured) dedicated to Maria Assunta with its Antonio da Correggio frescoes, visit the exquisite octagon-shaped Baptistery, constructed in the 12th century and located just a stone’s throw from the cathedral in the heart of the city.
The reliefs, both inside and outside the iconic building, are among the most beautiful and important of the Middle Ages. The pink Veronese marble that covers the exterior is breathtaking.
Shop and sip
Within walking distance of each other, there’s a healthy mix of artisan storefronts as well as larger retail stores, such as Max Mara and Luisa Spagnoli. Parma has been a center of the shoe industry for decades and boasts the shops to prove it. Other shopping options include stores with antiques, books, hats and jewelry.
No fancier aperitivo can be had than those served by Le Bistro in the main square, Piazza Garibaldi (inset), whose iconic clock is a city symbol.
What’s an aperitivo? Italians often like to meet in a bar, fare un brindisi (make a toast) by clinking their glasses with friends and/or family, and imbibe un aperitivo — a civilized way to start the evening meal. These before-dinner drinks are typically somewhat bitter in order to awaken the appetite and are typically brightly colored (think Campari and Aperol).
Order an aperitivo cocktail — the current favorite is an Aperol Spritz — and appetizers, then sit back, relax and watch the evening passeggiata (stroll) unfold.
Have a first-rate gelato at La Gelateria. With more than 50 ice cream stores in the center of Parma, the competition is keen, but this gelateria is well known for tasty, creamy confections favored by locals.
A picnic lunch
The bustling Saturday-morning market is chock full of food, clothing (a few stalls feature local designers), small appliances and housewares. Situated in Piazza Ghiaia, this market — which used to be the site of the city gallows and slaughterhouse — offers the makings for a perfect picnic lunch from the various fruit, cheese and vegetable stands. Pick up lunch fixings, but also take time to gawk at the exquisite array of produce in the market. Be aware of your surroundings, however, and keep your wallet in a safe place.
One of the lesser-known but leading artists who hailed from Parma is Amedeo Bocchi, born here in 1883. The Bocchi museum is just the right size for an hour visit and is a lovely way to learn about an influential oil painter who flourished in the early 1900s. Bocchi’s portraits are particularly noteworthy for their warmth and luminosity. His creations can also be found in several other museums in town, but this museum is devoted exclusively to his work.
Palazzo della Pilotta
The Teatro Farnese (inset), an imposing Palladio-inspired theater, is part of a complex of buildings including the Galleria Nazionale. A vast palace built for the Farnese family in the 1500s, this set of buildings includes not only the theater, but also an art museum with works by Fra Angelico, Da Vinci, El Greco and Parmigianino.
There are other smaller museums, like the Museo Bodoniano, devoted to Giambattista Bodoni, the eminent engraver, printer and typographer. Both the theater and the National Gallery are located in the Palazzo della Pilotta, often simply called the Pilotta, which comes from the word for an ancient Basque card game called pelota, played by Spanish soldiers once stationed here.
The best pizza in town can be found in an upscale pizzeria right in the center of town, Al Corsaro (Strada Cavour 37, reservations recommended). A couple from the port city of Salerno, who certainly know the best pizzaiolo techniques, warmly welcome their guests and will suggest local wines to complement your meal. Both indoor and covered outdoor seating are available and the menu offers a wide variety of artisan pizzas.
Walk through gardens
Cross the Parma River at the Giuseppe Verdi Bridge behind the Pilotta and stroll in the elegant gardens that border the University of Parma and the storied Ducal Palace. This park is reminiscent of Parisian parks like the Luxembourg Gardens, featuring broad gravel paths, pools and a small lake. You’ll find plenty of benches and a bar in the center of the park, perfect for a morning espresso and croissant.
Remember — despite your mission to see the sights — it’s often the unplanned and unexpected events that leave the strongest travel impressions. It’s the kindness of strangers, a free concert in the park or a chance viewing of some inexplicable civic event that will add the most magic to your trip.
In Parma, it’s quite possible, for example, to encounter a middle-age man set up on a stool who plays his accordion in the center of town. When I saw him, he was playing Bach, flawlessly, making his accordion sound as if it were a small church organ.
Marjorie Eisenach has traveled extensively in Italy. She studied at the University in Bologna and taught at the MBA program at Bocconi University in Milan. She lives in south Minneapolis where she teaches Italian language courses and provides
trip-planning help to prospective travelers. Learn more at italyanditalian.org.