A 21st Century Renaissance
In the shadows of Venice and Verona, quiet and historical Padua—Italy's second-oldest university town—too often goes overlooked. But the city has begun to buzz of late with some recent renovations and several new openings that plant it on modern terra firma. The most significant is the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto's frescoed masterpiece depicting the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. It's one of the wonders of Western art, and, newly cleaned and restored, it has never looked better (the only thing in town that compares is Giusto de' Menabuoi's 14th-century fresco cycle in the baptistry of the Duomo). Reservations to see the Scrovegni Chapel are a must (39-049/201-0020; www.cappelladegliscrovegni.it). Also just reopened after being spruced up is the massive Palazzo della Ragione (Via VIII Febbraio; 39-049/820-5006), one of the most significant buildings in northern Italy. The Palace of Law, as it translates, has a roof shaped like the hull of a ship and houses a massive 15th-century wooden horse.
If the palazzo and Scrovegni Chapel are the heart and soul of the city, the University of Padua is its brain, a monument to its long history as a center of ideas. If you see nothing else there, tour the University's "Anatomical Theater," where surgery and medicine were taught in the Middle Ages. That's Galileo's old lectern on the side. Other great thinkers and statesmen are represented in the southern part of the city: Seventy-eight statues of important figures line the moats around the Prato della Valle (including Pope Paul II and Petrarch). On the Prato, the beautiful Basilica di Sant'Antonio (patron saint of Padua), attracts pilgrims by the millions—they leave notes, flowers, and photos around the saint's tomb.
Every enlightened culture has a vibrant café society, and few are more legendary than Caffè Pedrocchi's ($25 for drinks and casual dining fare; 15 Via VIII Febbraio; 39-049/820-5007; www.caffepedrocchi.it). But the place that Stendhal billed as "Italy's most beautiful café," did, for several years, lose its footing as the gathering spot for Padua's chattering class. Now, new owner Federico Menotti has turned the café, which opened in 1772, back into a bustling hub. Equal parts philosopher and entrepreneur, Menotti is as opinionated and knowledgeable about geopolitics as he is about food. His English is minimal, but ask for a tour anyway. The ground floor is divided into red, white, and green rooms (note the upside-down maps in the red room). The second floor is decorated in varying historic styles, like Egyptian, medieval, Corinthian, and Moorish.
For all its history, Padua also has a modern edge. The new Methis Hotel (rates, $225- $425; 70 Riviera Paleocapa; 39-049/872-5555; ) is a swinging hot spot where the rooms are designed around the four elements. The "air" rooms are the best: all-white, with sheer white curtains around a canopied bed. The hotel's location—on the other side of the river that circles Padua—is its only flaw. Closer to Saint Anthony's, La Casa di Cristallo (rates, $175-$300; 82 Via Del Santo; 39-049/876-5523) is a modern B&B in a stylish loftlike house. The four rooms are each inspired by a different designer: Versace, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and, our favorite, Ralph Lauren. A little hokey, but endearingly earnest.
You'll find the same youthful buoyancy in Padua's nightlife. Everyone, it seems, lives for happy hour, when the hip set flocks to the enoteca Godenda (4-6 Via Squarcione; 39-049/877-4192), a chic little wine bar in the historic former Jewish ghetto. An even livelier mix of people heads to Il Tira Bouchon (23-24 Sotto il Salone; 39-049/875-2138), which just opened amid the food stalls in the Salone, a covered market under the Palazzo della Ragione that dates back to the 1200s. Students, merchants, and locals stand shoulder to shoulder, drinking wine (there are glasses on the menu for $2) and nibbling panini and homemade salumi.
For dinner the smart choices are the new Enoteca Santa Lucia (dinner, $35; 15 Piazza Cavour; 39-049/655-545), where the Pepen family serves traditional food under a stunning vaulted ceiling, and the rustic Al Cicheto (dinner, $35; 59 Via Savonarola; 39-049/871-9794) for delicate pastas and massive Florentine steaks.
THE BEST OF THE COUNTRYSIDE The Euganean hills southwest of the city provide a welcome break from the otherwise flat terrain of Padua. Arquà Petrarca, the most beautiful of the hill towns, is where the poet Petrarch lived. His 14th-century house is open to the public (39-0429/718-294). Nearby are the Golf Club Montecchia (39-049/805-5550; www.golfmontecchia.it) and the stunning formal gardens at Giardino Barbarigo Valsanzibio (39-049/805-9224). The area's best restaurant is I Ronchi (dinner, $50; 132 Via Costa, Arquà Petrarca; 39-0429/718-286; www.ironchi.it).
SPA OUTSIDE THE CITY Abano Terme, along with Montegrotto Terme, has been Padua's spa town since the Romans discovered it. Now leading the charge into the future is Hotel Magnolia, offering yoga and Ayurvedic therapies in addition to the traditional thermal waters and mud treatments. $35-$75. At 6 Via Alessandro Volta; 39-049/860-0800.
Road-Tripping Through the Veneto
Most travelers in the Venetian countryside head either northeast to Friuli or west to Verona. But in the Veneto's northeast are a string of charming less-visited towns with terrific food and pristine villa hotels.
Maròstica, best known for its chessboard-style square built in 1454, is also a great food town. At Osteria Madoneta (21 Via Vajenti), a tavern just off the main piazza, the northern Italian cooking is as casual and authentic as the setting: walls covered in photos, family trees, bottles, and antlers. Locals sit at long communal tables, playing cards and drinking one of the dozen wines listed on the chalkboard for $2 a glass. It also has a terrifically wild garden and an even better host—Mirko Bertacco, who runs the place with a convivial touch, is all of 24 years old. Ristorante al Castello Superiore (dinner, $75; 4A Via Cansignorio della Scala; 39-0424/73315; www.castellosuperiore.it), Maròstica's best restaurant, has a seasonal menu serving the region's famous white asparagus, veal, and rabbit. It also has a fantastic location in a hillside castle.
BASSANO DEL GRAPPA
Just east, Bassano del Grappa sits along the Brenta River at the foothills of the Dolomites. The best view of its churches and fountains is from Ponte degli Alpini, the stunning wooden bridge designed by Palladio in 1569. It is only the first masterpiece in a town full of examples of exquisite craftsmanship. Ceramics are the specialty here, and the place to buy is Ceramiche d'Arte (4 Salita Ferracina; 39-0464/228-359).
Bassano also makes a sensible starting-off point; the Ca' Sette hotel and restaurant (rates, $200-$425; 4 Via Cunizza da Romano; 39-0424/383-350; www.ca-sette.it), one mile north, just renovated its villa and adjoining farmhouse. The juxtaposition of old (painted ceilings) and new (WiFi in the rooms) is perfectly done. Ask for the Napoléon Suite (he seized and occupied the hotel in 1796).
A pretty hill town that flourished in the late 1400s under the patronage of Queen Caterina Cornaro of Cyprus, Asolo has always attracted artists and musicians. Today the town's chamber-music festival, held every September, and the monthly antiques market are the most important events in the region. A tour of the rich cultural offerings begins in the countryside at Villa Barbaro (39-0423/923-003) and Villa Emo (39-0423/476-334), two stunning Palladios. In nearby Passagno, the Gipsoteca Canova (39-0423/544-323; www.museocanova.it) is a magical collection of the sculptor's drawings, paintings, and plaster models. The Canova Temple next door, the only building the artist ever designed, makes the Lincoln Memorial seem modest. Between visits to villas and monuments, stop for lunch at Osteria al Morer (27 Via San Vettore, Maser; 39-0423/ 565-275), a wood-beamed dining room that serves excellent baccalà. And the place to stay in town remains the Hotel Villa Cipriani (rates, $375-$635; 298 Via Canova; 39-0423/523-411; www.sheraton.com/villacipriani). Neither flashy nor particularly modern, it's like Asolo itself: perfectly settled into gentle nobility.
THE GRAPPA MASTER The Poli family has been making grappa since 1898, a proud tradition carried on today by Jacopo, the first descendant to export the family brew outside the Veneto. After only a decade he has made Poli grappa one of the best known in the world. It's worth a trip to Schiavon, outside Bassano, to tour the distillery and pick up bottles you can't find in this country, like Tagliatella, a grappa-china mix, and Grappa di Pura Vinaccia, available in varying degrees of potency. At 46 Via Guglielmo Marconi; 39-0444/665-007.