There are several good day trips one can make from Venice, one of the easiest being to the fun small city of Padova (which we Anglophiles often call Padua). The city is an easy half hour train ride from Venice, with trains leaving around every half hour, so advanced reservations really aren’t needed.
For centuries Padova lived under Venetian rule although several hundred years ago it became an independent city. The town is well know for its historic University, in existence since the 13th century (and highlighting such faculty as Galileo, Copernicus and Dante). So Padova has many of the enjoyable features of visiting any smaller college city. It also features two unique and worthwhile churches and a historic core that’s compact and pleasant to walk about it.
Things to do in Padova:
1) Scrovegni Chapel. You’ll need a reservation to visit this small chapel but it’s well worthwhile. The chapel was built by the wealthy Scrovegni family as “penitence” for charging high interests in their banking business against the will of the church. It features 40 memorable frescoes by Giotto, who painted them from 1303-1305. These frescoes highlight the life of Mary, Joachim, Jesus, and shows vices and virtues. The main wall of the chapel has a dramatic “Last Judgment”, not unlike Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel. The art is important historically because it represented some of the first paintings of the Renaissance — showing real people with real emotions. The chapel was recently restored and only 25 people are allowed in every 15 minutes (preceded by 15 minute process of dehydrating the air while you watch a show about the chapel). There is also a small museum associated with this church which we found to be average at best, but the chapel is a gem worth going out of your way to see.
2) Basilica of St. Anthony. This church is on Vatican land and is a great and massive house of worship. Outside it features an equestrian statue, crafted by the great Donatello, of mercenary general Gattamelata . The statue itself is nothing exceptional but it was historically important because if was the first life-size statue of secular theme crafted in 1000 years.
St. Anthony, from whom the church derives its name, was a beloved saint and great orator, and the church is a site of pilgrimage. I found it quite moving to see dozen of pilgrims visiting this basilica and praying and paying respect to the saint at his tomb and relics. The church was crafted in the 13th century, shortly after St. Anthony’s death; besides an elaborate tomb it features items from Anthony’s life (eg. robe) and his vocal apparatus (don’t ask). The alter highlights a Donatello Crucifix and there are six other Donatello statues in the basilica.
3) University. The university sprawls across much of this small city, being comprised of a number of small buildings rather than a single campus like we’re used to. While I did not come prepared to visit it (we were focused on seeing the above two attractions) I wish I had tracked down its famous Anatomy Theater which dates to the 16th century.
4) Market Squares and Palazzo Della Ragione. There are two famous market squares, busiest in the morning, Piazza Frutta and Piazza Erbe (as the names imply, selling fruits and spices). Piazza della Signori also highlights a clothes market. We really enjoyed strolling through Palazzo Della Ragione which houses a number of butchers, bakers, cheese shops, fish shops and other unusual items. Terrific and tasty stuff!! Be sure to sample some Gelato, such as you’ll find in nearby Gelateria Grom.