The picturesque open-air markets of Piazza delle Erbe (Square of the Herbs) and Piazza della Frutta (Square of Fruit) frame this massive 13th-century palazzo and have stood as the town's political and commercial nucleus for centuries.  Before being distracted by the sprawling outdoor fruit and vegetable market stalls, turn your attention to the magnificent Palazzo della Ragione, whose interior is as impressive as its exterior. The two-story loggia-lined "Palace of Reason" is topped with a distinctive sloped roof that resembles the inverted hull of a ship, the largest of its kind in the world. It was built in 1219 as the seat of Padua's parliament and was used as an assembly hall, courthouse, and administrative center to celebrate Padua's newly won independence as a republican city. Considered a masterpiece of civil medieval architecture, it was heavily damaged by a fire in 1420 that destroyed, among other things, an elaborate cycle of frescoes by Giotto and his students that adorned il Salone (the Great Hall). The hall, 81m (266 ft.) long, was almost immediately rebuilt and today is the prime draw, for both its floor-to-ceiling 15th-century frescoes -- commissioned immediately after the fire -- by Nicola Miretto. The frescoes are similar in style and astrological theme to those that had been painted by Giotto, and comprise one of the very few complete zodiac cycles to survive until modern times.

On the far (west) side of the adjoining piazzas' canvas-topped stalls, flanking the Palazzo della Ragione, is the Piazza dei Signori, most noteworthy for the 15th-century clock tower that dominates it, the first of its kind in Italy.