I recently visited Brescia Italy on a business trip. I had some extra time since I travelled by night train and so took the opportunity to explore the city. Brescia is a relatively small city in the northern part of Italy about an hour from Milan on the main railway route between Milan and Venice.
I stayed in the Hotel Vittoria, a classic hotel in the centre of Brescia. It was my favorite type of hotel: old but very clean and well maintained. The breakfast was excellent with great coffee and a German style buffet (with Italian foods!).
I decided to visit the Santa Giulia museum (home page in Italian only, odd for a tourist destination, but all the information in the museum is provided in English and Italian). This museum is built on the site of a former abby that was founded in the 700s. Brescia was an important Roman town and getting to the museum you pass the old forum and ruins of the Forum Temple and Roman theater. The Santa Giulia museum covers the city’s history from pre-historic times until the present. The city brought items found throughout the city to the museum for viewing.
The museum is quite cool because it uses the old abby buildings to show the history. You walk through several eras of history in the different chapels that are on the site. Artwork from the appropriate age is displayed in the chapels and connecting structures. In between you can look out on the classic abby courtyard. The museum has some real treasures including a precious stone embedded cross (Cross of Desiderius, late 8th Century) and unbelievable medieval frescoes in the Santa Maria in Solario chapel.
Then, because the abby was built over part of the old Roman city they have a large indoor space where you an look down on several remarkably well preserved Roman houses. The frescos and mosaic floors are incredible to see. I took lots of photos, the better ones are on my Flickr photos of Santa Giulia Museum. There are also lots of examples of everyday objects from the Roman era. The transport planner in me liked the milestone markers and the sections of Roman roadways that they left intact for us to see.
I would highly recommend the museum for those interested in seeing Roman city planning history and medieval art, two things I really enjoy. My photos of the Santa Giulia Museum Brescia on flickr.
After several hours in the museum I went walking through the city and found myself on Via Carlo Cattaneo. One of the buildings struck me and when I read the historic plaque I learned that it was the Torre D’ercole, one of those tower structures that noble families used to build during the late middle ages as a fortress in the city. At a certain point whoever was ruler of the city required all these towers to be cut-off at a certain level to reduce the power of these other families. But the lower part of the structure still shows the tower architecture. (Also interesting, like many buildings in Brescia it was built partly out of stone from older Roman buildings, they recycled the building materials.)
In the ground floor of this old tower is a charming cafe serving simple food and great drinks. Like most all Italian cafes they offer free snacks during happy hour. They have great beer including Belgo from Belgium and I even saw a bottle of Sierra Nevada (one of my favorite US beers) on a shelf. I visited twice, the first time I had a Campari soda (very Italian of me) and the second time a very tasty draft Brat beer. They have a few tables in a little square across the street, and even have an ingenious solution for smokers, a little table and chairs placed in an alcove in the street with windows into the cafe (see photo). They had music the second night I visited, this is the kind of cafe everyone needs nearby!
There were several very interesting shops nearby. A wonderful design and antiques store across the street, a “hat laboratory” a little way down the street, a wonderful pasta store, a garage with a marble floor, an architectural office with a neat tape measure art piece in the window. A really fun street with lots of creative people around. See all my photos of Via Carlo Cattaneo on flickr.
There are also lots of interesting buildings in the historic center including the Loggia (my photos of the Loggia on flickr), the official city hall, which was designed by several famous architects including Pladdio, and the Cathederal. Also lots of nice squares, many of which have been turned into pedestrian areas.
Brescia is part of the EU funded CIVITAS project and they are doing lots of interesting work on sustainable transport. Brescia has a very nice bicycle rental system, good public transport (they are building a tram line through the center of the city, partly underground) and a unified smart card for public transport, car sharing and bicycle rental. Very impressive for a relatively small city (about 250,000 in the city and a million in the region). All my photos of Brescia on flickr.
In summary, Brescia is a nice city to visit, especially so because it’s off the main tourist path.