When the legendary Ferrarese filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni called his beloved hometown "a city that you can see only partly, while the rest disappears to be imagined," perhaps he was referring to the low-lying mist that rolls in off the Adriatic each winter and shrouds Ferrara's winding knot of medieval alleyways, turreted palaces, and ancient wine bars—once inhabited by the likes of Copernicus—in a ghostly fog. But perhaps Antonioni was also suggesting that Ferrara's striking beauty often conceals a dark and tortured past.
Though it was settled as early as the 6th century AD, Ferrara's history really begins with the arrival of the Este, who first made their appearance in the city in 1196. For more than three centuries the dynasty ruled with an iron fist: brother killed brother, son fought father, husband murdered wife. The majestic moated castle, now the architectural gem of the historic center, was originally built as a fortress to protect the ruthless Este dukes from their own citizens—and deep within it they kept generations of political dissidents in dank cells. Though the Jews were already well established in Ferrara as early as the 1380s, it was Ercole I who invited Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain to settle in Ferrara, thus giving form to one of the liveliest Jewish communities in Western Europe. The maze of twisting cobblestone streets in the ghetto witnessed the persecution of its Jews once Fascist Italy was officially at war with Nazi Germany in October 1943.
Today you’re likely to be charmed by Ferrara's prosperous air and meticulous cleanliness, its excellent restaurants and chic bars (for coffee and any other liquid refreshment), and its lively wine-bar scene. You'll find aficionados gathering outside any of the wine bars near the Duomo even on the foggiest of weeknights. Though Ferrara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city draws amazingly few tourists—which only adds to its appeal.
If you plan to explore the city fully, consider buying a Card Musei ("Museum Card," also known as "My Ferrara Tourist Card." Two days cost €10, three days €12, and six days €18). Purchase the card at the Palazzo dei Diamanti or any of Ferrara's museums; it grants admission to every museum, palace, and castle in town. The first Monday of the month is free at many museums.