Modena, the Italian city famous for fabulous food and fast cars, all of which will pass by in this post. But I would like to add two more reasons to visit the Modena area: an (unexpected) architectural masterpiece and a beautiful medieval city center.
We traveled to Modena by invitation of Emilia Romagna Tourism, who are promoting the Emilia Romagna region in the North of Italy. A region that I only recently started to discover and that has already showed me some truly hidden gems: the cities of Bologna and Ferrara, and the hilltop village of Brisighella. But in this post, we are going to discover the things to do in Modena!
Italian hilltop village of Brisighella
1. Modena Motor Valley: the Enzo Ferrari Museum
Modena is heaven for all two and four wheels lovers: Ducati, Maserati, Ferrari, Pagani, Lamborghini; all are manufactured in the Modena area. They don’t call this area Motor Valley for nothing!
On a quiet Sunday morning we visited the Enzo Ferrari museum. The museum opened in 2012 and consists of two areas: one is actually Enzo Ferrari’s birthplace and describes the history of the brand and the work of Enzo. The second part is a futuristic automotive design gallery. The hearts of fast car lovers will for sure start to beat faster upon entering this gallery: just look at all the cars on display! The museum presents the first Ferrari ever displayed at a motor show, the 166 MM, next to unique models like the exclusive LaFerrari Aperta. If only I had the money….
2. San Cataldo cemetery
In the introduction, I talked about an unexpected architectural masterpiece. Here it is: San Cataldo cemetery. Designed in 1971 by Aldo Rossi, the San Cataldo cemetery is one of a kind. At the center stands a terracotta-colored cube-shaped ossuary without a roof, windows or doors but with hundreds of graves (of which many still empty). To me the whole cemetery felt somewhat surrealistic, in a positive way. It actually was never finished because the architect Rossi died in the process following a fatal car crash in 1997. San Cataldo is a cemetery never seen before. If you love architecture, this is a special place to visit. And if you are unable to visit, click here to see dozens of pictures of this interesting place!
3. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
Have you ever looked at the balsamic vinegar shelf in your supermarket? Big chance the real stuff says Modena on the label. Balsamic vinegar is part of the most ancient, authentic traditions of Modena and traces its roots back to the 11th century.
The province of Modena is known for its Lambrusco, tortellini and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. But never did I realize the importance and fame of its balsamic vinegar. The traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is a unique product among the world’s vinegar seasonings. It is actually derived directly from grape juice, and since the year 2000 holds the Protected Denomination of Origin (DPO) label.
We visited one of the oldest (early 19th century) balsamic vinegar farm houses in the area: Acetaia Paltrinieri. Here you can enjoy a (tasting) tour of the farm house where you are introduced into the magic world of producing balsamic vinegar. And I say magic because only now I realize how special the production process actually is!
It all starts with boiled grape juice produced in the vineyards surrounding villa Paltrinieri. The grape juice boils for 50 hours. But that is only the beginning as the real secret is the very long ageing of the syrup in wooden barrels.
The ageing process of good balsamic vinegar
The ageing process can take up to 25 years! The whole process is purely natural where the sweet and acid taste is balanced. The syrup moves from the initial bigger wooden barrel to smaller ones (you can see the variety in barrels on the picture below). Barrels are never emptied, there is always a residue left. This residue can be 100 years old and is actually extremely important in the process as it contains bacteria that attacks the formation of alcohol and delivers the perfect balance between acidity and sweetness.
Modena balsamic vinegar is known for its dark and glossy color, that reflects its syrupy consistency, and for its refined and deep aroma. The combination with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is just perfect, as we tasted in the Paltrinieri’s farm restaurant.
4. Medieval city center
Modena offers another beautiful medieval city center (as many of the cities in Emilia Romagna do!). After exploring Bologna and Ferrara, I loved strolling around Modena. It has its fair share of porticoes, cathedrals and earth-colored houses. We bumped into a group of people giving away free hugs!
Early morning, we watched the rising sun illuminating the main cathedral. It’s always a pleasure to just sit down and watch as Italian life unfolds around you. There is so much happening on the streets that you don’t need much more. Although a nice Italian espresso is an excellent idea any time of day!
Modena; where to stay and eat
You should consider staying at the Hotel Cervetta 5, perfectly situated in the city center. It has elegant rooms, beautifully designed by the owner herself. Tucked away in a narrow cobblestoned street, it is the ultimate place from where to explore the Modena city center. We loved it!
Being in the heart of the Food Valley, Modena offers some great culinary experiences. If you get excited by Michelin stars, Modena is your place to be. Three-star restaurant Osteria Francescana is considered one of the best restaurants in the world. Another place is one-star restaurant L’Erba del Re with chef Luca Marchini. Honestly speaking this formal way of dining is not really our cup of tea, but it’s nice to be treated with the utmost elegancy/care sometimes… And the wines were absolutely stunning!
If you want to go for a less formal dinner with a true local atmosphere, try the local Uva d’Oro trattoria.
Things to do in Modena
There are lots of things to do in Modena and it actually makes a great daytrip from the regional hub of Bologna. That city has more to offer on multiple levels, but if you want to temporarily escape the bustle of rough Bologna, consider Modena.