42km (26 miles) W of Venice, 81km (50 miles) E of Verona, 234km (145 miles) E of Milan 

Most visitors bypass Padua in their rush to Venice. During peak season, when Venice's hotels are full, some travelers stay here but see little except for the train station. However, although the city itself is not especially attractive (it was largely rebuilt after bombing during World War II), don’t be put off by the urban sprawl that now surrounds it; central Padua is refreshingly bereft of tourist crowds, a workaday Veneto town with a large student population and a small but intriguing ensemble of historic sights. Tucked away within its ancient heart lies one of the greatest artistic treasures in all Italy, the precious Giotto frescoes of the Cappella degli Scrovegni.

Like much of the region, Padua prospered in the Middle Ages, and Italy’s second oldest university was founded here in 1222. Its fortunes grew further when St. Antony of Padua died in the city in 1231, making it a place of pilgrimage ever since. Padua was long the academic heartbeat of the powerful Venetian Republic -- Dante and Copernicus studied here, and Petrarch and Galileo taught here. When you wander the narrow, cobbled, arcaded side streets in the timeless neighborhoods surrounding the "Bo" (named after a 15th-c. inn that once stood on the present-day site of the university), you will be transported back to those earlier times.

In the 14th century, the da Carrara family presided over the city’s golden age, but in 1405 Padua was conquered and absorbed by Venice, losing its independence. With the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the city was ruled by Napoleon and then became part of the Austrian Empire in 1814. Finally annexed to Italy in 1866, the city boomed again after World War II, becoming the industrial dynamo of northeast Italy.

Today, Padua is a vital city, with a young university population that gets about by bicycle and keeps the city's piazzas and cafes alive. You'll have to visit during the scholastic year to witness it, however: Padua in summer is something of a ghost town.