Ravenna, Italy

Apse mosaic (526-47 AD) in San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna. Photo © Sacred Destinations.

Most people visit the central Italian city of Ravenna for its superb Byzantine mosaics - and rightly so, for they are the finest outside Istanbul. A thriving seaport in ancient times (it now lies five miles inland), Ravenna rose to power in the 1st century BC under the Emperor Augustus. The Roman emperor built a port and naval base at nearby Classe, which is currently undergoing archaeological excavation. The town converted to Christianity very early, in the 2nd century AD. As Rome's power declined, Ravenna took over as capital of the Western Empire (402 AD). The following century it came under the rule of Thedoric and the Arian Ostrogoths, and in 540 the city became part of the Byzantine empire under Justinian. Ravenna's exquisite early Christian mosaics span the years of Roman, Ostrogothic and Byzantine rule. Today, Ravenna is a very pleasant town of about 140,000. It looks much like any other Italian city at first glance, with old streets, fine shops and peaceful squares, but the Byzantine domes of its churches still evoke its Eastern heritage. Ravenna's early Christian churches and mosaics have been collectively designated a World Heritage Site. As an extra bonus, Ravenna is a great place to taste the famously delicious food of the Emilia-Romagna region.

San Vitale Basilica
Built in 548 over the site of the martyrdom of St. Vitalis, this octagonal church contains some of the most celebrated mosaics in the West.
Arian Baptistery
This baptistery was built at the end of the 5th century, when the Arian Visigoths ruled Italy. The dome mosaic shows the baptism of Christ with a personification of the River Jordan.
San Giovanni Evangelista
Although much restored, this is one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna, dating from c.426-30 AD. Its chief attractions are its 5th-century architecture and 13th-century mosaics of the Crusades.
Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Dedicated to St. Apollinarus (Ravenna's first bishop), this 6th-century basilica is known for its two rows of ancient mosaics that stretch the length of the nave, telling biblical stories.
Neonian Baptistery
The Baptistery of the Orthodox dates from the 5th century and has even more beautiful mosaics than its Arian counterpart.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
One of the most powerful women in western history, Galla Placidia was probably never buried here. The main attraction is splendid mosaics dating from 430 AD.