Ferrara is a Renaissance gem in Northern Italy, half an hour drive from Bologna. Visiting its iconic Castle, “Castello Estense”, with kids is like stepping in a beautiful fairytale.
One thing you will not find anywhere else is its atmosphere: it is actually the only castle in Europe still surrounded by water… And if you visit in April or May, when the Palio and other historical festivals take place, it will be most likely to meet real knights in their shining armours and beautiful princesses.
Explaining the Castle history to kids
As soon as you step on its drawbridges, you will realise that this castle is different from any other castle you might have seen before. The splendour of the Este Court is all around…
The castle was built by the powerful Este family, as a fortress against their own population. Back in 1385, indeed, people were starving. Therefore, they decided to rise up against Nicholas II d’Este, ruler of Ferrara at the time. Nicholas was so scared that ordered this defensive structure, which was built in only two years.
As time passed by, the interiors of the castle lost its austerity, slowly becoming a magnificent palace. Each Duke who ruled Ferrara brought embellishments and changes to the fortress, often dismantling what had been built by his predecessor. Due to these ongoing changes, today it is challenging to accurately reconstruct the internal aspect of the Castle during the Renaissance time.
In 1500, a fire before and an earthquake after, severely damaged the castle. During the renovation works, the architect in charge decided to bring some changes to the external facade of the building: more elegant balconies replaced the impressive battlements of the fortress in white stone; one extra floor was added to the Castle, and the shape of the tower was softened. This is how the Castle became what we see today.
Organising the visit at the castle of Ferrara
There are lots of things within the castle that your kids will love! The fun starts in the courtyard, where they can touch a real cannon…
Or climb on big stones which were, once, catapults’ shoots.
On the ground floor, take your time to visit the kitchen. There is not a lot regarding furniture, but there are a few details which are worthwhile to be explained to your children. Look at the original flooring and admire the visible drains of the old sinks.
Encourage your children to imagine tens of skilled chefs working hard in these kitchens, cooking for the beautiful ducal ceremonies, where delicious and abundant food was served during shows and concerts… Listen carefully; you will hear sweet music, mixed to the sound of pots and crockery… Marvellous, isn’t it?
Right after the kitchen, follow a narrow corridor and then the steep stairs that will take you to the dungeons, laid in the basement, almost at the moat’s level.
These cells were reserved to nobles and very important people! Among the most famous prisoners, the story of a couple stole my heart: Ugo and Parisina, respectively son and wife of the Marquis Nicolò III. They were both twenty years old when, in 1425, were imprisoned and then beheaded. Their cell is almost luxurious, compared to others. Indeed, it has a private bathroom, in fact, the only furniture of the prison.
Further on, it is possible to visit two more cells, less luxurious than the one reserved to the famous couple: one thing that surely will catch your attention is the graffiti covering the walls. Finally, there is the imperial cell, larger than the others, with a barrel vault, a tiny door and no windows.
Two very famous brothers were imprisoned in this cell: Ferrante and Giulio, brothers of Duke Alfonso I. They were plotting against the Duke but were unmasked and arrested. Ferrante died in jail after 34 years of imprisonment. Giulio, however, was forgiven and set free when he was 81 years old (after 43 in prison!).
After the prisons, it is time to visit the first floor of the Castle, where the nobles used to live. One of the first thing you will see is the Orange Garden, once a gorgeous roof garden. The visit will then continues along the beautiful aristocratic rooms, with stunning frescoed ceilings. You will sadly notice that they are currently sort of patched up, due to a recent earthquake in the Emilia Romagna region.
When to visit Estense Castle in Ferrara
At the beginning of this post, I did mention that – on certain occasions – the castle comes alive with true knights and beautiful dames. Well, I was not kidding! The fortress is always worthwhile to visit, but there are a few times of the year where it becomes truly magical. Children and adults alike will jump back in time, meeting dukes and duchesses, knights, jugglers, musicians and fire-swallowers … When? In February, there is the beautiful Renaissance Carnival; March and April, every Sunday, the event Omaggio al Duca (A Tribute to the Duke) come alive. And in May, not to be missed here is the Ferrara Palio (a traditional Italian Horse Race ), which is the oldest in the world.
Good to know
- How to get there: Ferrara is located in the Emilia Romagna region, half an hour drive from Bologna. By car: the town is served by motorway A13 Bologna-Padova, exit Ferrara North (the closest to the centre). By train: to get from the station to the centre, you can either walk (about 20 minutes) or get the bus n 1 or 9 (bust stop right in front of the train station main entrance). By plane: the closest international airport is Bologna (52 km from Bologna); from the airport, either you can rent a car, or you can get the shuttle service Bus&Fly, which will take you to the city centre of Ferrara in about an hour (www.ferrarabusandfly.it)
- Where to park: one of my preferred parking area, very close to the city centre, is located in Via Darsena 66. Parking costs are very cheap, and it is free during weekends. There is another parking area, completely free but slightly further from the centre: it is the Ex MOF area, in Via Darsena 140 (to walk to the city centre, get out from the gate opposite to the one you have used to get in; it will take you about 10-15 minutes to reach the castle). The Ex MOF parking area is suitable for campervans and motorhomes..
- Castle opening times: 9:30am – 5:30pm (ticket office closes at 4:45pm). From 1st June to 31st August, opening times are: 9.00am – 1.00pm / 3.00pm -7.00pm. From October to February and in July and August, the Castle is closed on Mondays.
- Tickets: adults 6 euro; seniors (from 65 years old) e children up to 18 years old, 4 euro; free of charge to children younger than six years old and disabled people; Family ticket: one child free of charge for every paying adult.
- Children activities: guided tours, workshops and other kids activities often take place in the castle. You will find the schedule on the website Ferrara Terra e Acqua, event section.
- Facilities: on the first floor, there is a Cafè open every day, except Mondays. The castle can be visited with strollers. No changing facilities on site.
- Other events not to be missed: in April, Vulandra, a wonderful kite festival, in September, there is the Ballon Festival and in August/September the Ferrara Buskers Festival (a worldwide famous street art festival).
- What to see around: not to be missed, a visit to the Po Delta Park; you could join, for example, a guided tour in the Boscoforte Penisola, to admire flamingos and other beautiful birds. Also, Ferrara is named the Bicycles City – therefore, a must is to hire a bike and explore the city centre like a local. You can find a list of bike hire addresses here. My advice is to call in advance and ask whether they have child seats available.
For more information about the Estense Castle in Ferrara
Tel: +39 0532 299233
Sito Web: www.castelloestense.it