A lot of travelers zip through this northernmost stretch of central Italy as they hurry along the well-worn path between Florence and Venice. Which is good news for anyone wishing to slow down long enough to experience a region that’s a little less discovered and a little more engaged in everyday Italian life than more-visited places are. Not that there’s not plenty to see and experience in Emilia-Romagna’s cities—treasure troves of art and culture and hedonistically devoted to fine food.

Bologna is one of Europe’s largest remaining medieval enclaves, its old palaces are filled with art, and its stony piazzas host an animated street life revved up by students at Europe’s oldest university. Parma proudly shows off its famous hams and cheeses, its musical traditions, and its art. Ravenna is awash in glittering Byzantine mosaics, and Ferrara is a time capsule of the Renaissance. It’s easy to get from one place to the other by train—Bologna makes a handy base for exploring the entire region—and once you reach these old cities, the preferred mode of transport is bicycle.