Why Parma Should Make Your Travel Hit List in 2019
The design lover’s guide to Italy’s food capital.
Published Jan 30, 2019 7:00 AM
Ask any die-hard foodie what part of Italy tops their bucket list, and the answer is probably Parma. Home to a bevy of culinary specialties that range from prosciutto to Parmigiano to a soft, fried dough called Torta Fritta that could convincingly be seen as a gift from above, the Renaissance city has long been a hotbed for those who are guided primarily by their taste buds. But it would be a mistake to write off the town as simply a gastronomic getaway: With a burgeoning contemporary scene just as fascinating as its rich history of art and architecture, Parma is a veritable design capital.
Conveniently, it’s located a mere 30 minutes away from Milan. If you’re headed that way (maybe for the upcoming Salone furniture exhibition or fashion week?), Parma is an easy day trip. You’ll get a different taste of Italian design—less flashy than the fashion epicenter with just as much personality.
On a recent trip to Parma, we witnessed this firsthand. The city is peppered with old cobblestoned streets where you’re just as likely to stumble upon a cool concept shop as you are a tiny hole-in-the-wall boutique, helmed by a woman with a sewing machine who will make you a bespoke silk scarf on the spot. Classic eateries are infused with modern elements, like colorful light fixtures or sculptural chairs. Rows and rows of vintage shops scatter the streets, where you’re guaranteed to find the perfect souvenir (though getting an antique side table through airport customs is a struggle we’ll leave you to navigate). The town is both steeped in tradition and pulsing with modern elements, an interesting mix that makes it a must-see if you’re in the Emilia-Romagna region.
We tapped Valentina Bertazzoni—head of design and brand of Italian kitchen appliance company Bertazzoni and lifelong Parma resident—to get a local’s intel on all the best places to eat, browse, and shop in the city. Consider this your design-focused itinerary to Italy’s food capital.
9 a.m: Fuel Up
Start your day off in the center of the city. By late afternoon, T Café turns into an aperitivo hot spot, but go early for a morning caffeine boost and peruse the cafe’s art and photography exhibits in peace.
10 a.m: Do a Walking Tour
Step outside T Café and straight into the Piazza del Duomo to beat the crowds by ticking off the most touristy part of the city early on in the day. The piazza houses the famed Cathedral, which is worth popping into for any fresco fanatics.
Continue your visual history lesson by making a beeline toward the river. The Piazza della Pilotta houses two of Parma’s can’t-miss spots: the Galleria Nazionale and the beautiful Teatro Farnese. The former is an art museum, featuring a collection of art by the likes of Correggio and Leonardo da Vinci, which is rivaled only by the extensive library. The latter is an all-wood theater dating back to the 1600s. “As you tour, picture the orchestra filled with water, as they used to do stage battleship scenes—a reminder that there are no limits for creative minds,” suggests Bertazzoni.
Spend the rest of the morning getting lost on the cobblestoned streets. Oh, and bring your camera: You’ll get all the color inspiration you’ll ever need just by looking up at the saturated homes. Terra-cotta reds, lemon yellows, and salmon pinks abound.
2 p.m: Enjoy a Taste of the Town’s Most Famous Export
You’re in the food capital of Italy, after all. It would be a crime not to ingest some form of prosciutto or Parmigiano as often as possible, and the opera-inspired Panino D’Artista will help you accomplish just that. The eatery serves “gourmet” panini, which you can enjoy while listening to Verdi opera music and eyeing the surrounding gramophones and records. Prosciutto and opera may not be a pairing one might traditionally expect, but it’s a welcome one nonetheless.
If you’re after a more traditional experience, Trattoria Sorelle Picchi is right down the street and coincidentally owned by the same person. Originally a Salumeria (deli), it serves up dishes unique to the Emilia region. Get the tortelli d’erbetta (a spinach- and cheese-filled pasta native to the area) and thank us later.
3:30 p.m: Take a Shopping Break
Design lovers, this is your time to shine. For such a historic town, Parma offers a unique blend of antiques and cool new brands. You’ll want to make sure you visit with enough space in your suitcase for the odd decorative accent.
On the newer end of the spectrum sits Store 333 on Borgo Giacomo Tommasini. Head on down to the basement to find brands you love like Ferm Living and Muuto, as well as discover some labels you might not know, like Pomandere Living (the most gorgeous linen napkins) and Serax (a must for tableware aficionados). Down the street, you’ll find Hidden Forest, a fashion and lifestyle boutique with unique pieces. Looking for a bigger-ticket souvenir from Parma? Bertazzoni recommends Blank Design. “Without a doubt, the best selection of contemporary furniture and design in Parma,” she says. “The owners (a young architect couple) continue to offer the most sophisticated selections from top Italian design brands.”
If, on the other hand, your taste errs toward the traditional, you won’t be disappointed by the vintage. Gazzabuglio is a must for “an original vintage outfit,” per Bertazzoni and is a hot spot for visitors in the know. And you’ll want to dedicate a good chunk of time to peruse the Antiques Shop District in Parma’s historical center. From concept shops to small antique boutiques and art galleries, there’s a lot of hidden treasure to unearth. “Explore and enjoy that time moves at a different pace within the unique atmosphere of these small boutiques,” says Bertazzoni.
6 p.m: Aperitivo Time
Unwind after a day of architecture and design in one of the city’s many aperitivo spots. Head to Tabarro, a little wine bar/enoteca, for a glass of the region’s famous Lambrusco. The sparkling red is best enjoyed with a healthy dose of—what else?—prosciutto and fresh bread, which you can get to tide you over until dinner. In the warmer weather, take your drink outside to enjoy on one of the wine barrels used as tables and spend the early evening people-watching in Parma’s center.
8:30 p.m: Eat (again)
There’s obviously no shortage of delicious eateries in Parma, but two, in particular, are worth a mention. The first is Borgo20, a cozy, industrial-style bistro, where you should get the risotto alla parmigiana if you know what’s good for you (honorable mention goes to the focaccia pizza, which is meant as an appetizer to be shared). The second is Officina Alimentare Dedicata, a woman-owned, farm-to-table eatery. The seasonal menu offers contemporary twists on traditional Italian cuisine.
10 p.m: Have a Nightcap
It might be the least discreet “speakeasy” in existence (there is literally a sign on the door that says “speakeasy”), but J. Roger is a fun, thematic little bar that’s the perfect spot to end your design-filled day. Modeled after the Prohibition era, the details are what make this intimate venue so endearing: Drinks are served on playing cards, not coasters, jazz music plays in the background, and even the servers are in ’20s attire. It’s a local favorite, and the absinthe cocktails, in particular, are a must-try.