Many of the streets in the walled, picture-perfect city of Ferrara, Italy, are lined with elegant palaces. Unfortunately, some of the most beautiful parts of this city 70 mi/112 km southwest of Venice—the courtyards and gardens hidden within the palaces—aren't generally accessible.

In the center of town, you can explore a few rooms, including the royal suites, in the striking Castello Estense, once the home of the Este dynasty, which ruled the city from the 13th to the 16th century. Highlights are the Sala dei Giganti (Giant's Room) and the Salone dei Giochi (Games Room). The castle's moat is intact, water and all, which is somewhat unusual. You can also visit its prison, where in 1425, Duke Nicolo d'Este had his young second wife and his son beheaded because he found out they were lovers (the story inspired Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess"). Other parts of the castle are used for government offices. Nearby is the Duomo, which has a gorgeous and very intricate marble facade.

Our favorite of Ferrara's several museums is the Pinacoteca Nazionale (with paintings by the Ferrara School of artists). It's housed in the Palazzo dei Diamanti (Palace of Diamonds), which gets its name from the 12,500 pieces of diamond-shaped marble that make up its facade. Be sure to do as the locals do and take a walk on the stunning ramparts surrounding the city—there are walking paths and even parks with trees up there. Ferrara is also known as the "City of Cyclists" because of its compact and flat terrain.

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