The superlatives come thick and fast in Parma. You could easily argue that this elegant city in northern Italy has the country’s best ham, its best cheese and its best opera composer. Something special in the climate of the Po Valley lends itself to the production of prosciutto di Parma, the delectable dry-cured ham that comes from pigs fed on the whey from Parma’s other great food export: parmigiano reggiano.
As autumn draws near, local producers throw open their doors during the annual Festival del Prosciutto di Parma (festivaldel prosciuttodiparma.com; 6-22 September), which includes free tastings in the main Piazza Garibaldi.
The city even provides its own compelling soundtrack to this feast as it celebrates the 200th birthday of the man who changed Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi, born in nearby Le Roncole. Since 2004, Parma has been paying homage to its adopted son with its annual Verdi festival (www.teatroregioparma.org; 30 September-31 October).
The 1829 Teatro Regio opera house in Strada Garibaldi is the setting for the festival, its severe Neoclassical façade giving little clue to its dazzlingly ornate interior inspired by Milan’s La Scala. If your Italian is up to it, you can join one of the tours every half hour (Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-12pm, 3-5pm, €4/£3.40).
If you head down Strada Garibaldi and turn left on to the Strada Mazzini, you come to one of Parma’s hubs, Piazza Garibaldi, with its buttery yellow Governor’s Palace and medieval Palazzo del Comune housing the tourist office.
To the right of the tourist office is Strada Farini, whose lively bars make it a favourite spot for the evening passeggiata. Further down Strada Farini, you soon meet more temptation in the form of La Prosciutteria at No 9 (www.noidaparma.it). Displays of Parma ham, parmesan cheese, culatello (another excellent local ham) and homemade pasta drive home the salivating point that the Emilia-Romagna region produces some of Italy’s most sublime food.
Back at Piazza Garibaldi, carry on along Strada della Repubblica, where at No 2 is Parma Color Viola (www.parmacolorviola.com), an exquisite shop selling products made from the Parma violets popularised by Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma and second wife of Napoleon. Just left here at Borgo San Ambrogio is a handy spot for a quick lunch at Pepèn, where you can pick up a kebab-like spacca for €4.50 (£3.85) or an artichoke tart called carciofa for €2.50 (£2.14).
Follow this narrow street before going right and veering left on to Borgo Venti Marzo, which leads to the Piazza Duomo and some of Parma’s most distinctive landmarks. The medieval octagonal baptistery (€6/£5.14) looms over the square. The magnificent cathedral (www.cattedrale.parma.it; free), flanked by a Gothic bell tower, dates from the 12th century and contains breathtaking Mannerist frescos by Correggio.
Take the Borgo del Correggio to the right of the bell tower and, before you turn left into Borgo Pipa, nip over to the K2 Gelateria on the far corner for some superior ice cream. Then carry on along Borgo Pipa through the little Parco di Piazzale Salvo d’Acquisto and turn left into Borgo degli Studi. Here, a huge Verdi banner stands in the courtyard of the Casa della Musica (www.lacasadellamusica.it; shut Monday-Tuesday, €2/£1.70), a Renaissance palace that includes a multimedia museum of opera, the Teatro Regio musical archives, concert venue, café and the musicology department of the University of Parma. It’s also the home to Club dei 27 (www.clubdei27.com), a Verdi appreciation society whose members take their love of the maestro’s work into local schools.
Make a left into Borgo del Parmigianino and within a few minutes you reach the former monastery housing the Pinacoteca Stuard (www.parma cultura.it; closed Tuesday, €4/£3.40), with several Goyas among its 200-odd works of art. All of this is just a prelude for when you go left into Strada Melloni and emerge into the enormous Piazzale della Pace, where the equally huge 16th-century Palazzo della Pilotta awaits (www.gallerianazionaleparma.it; shut Monday). This monumental legacy of the Farnese dynasty includes the National Gallery, an archaeological museum and a small gallery devoted to the typographer Giambattista Bodoni.
If you head under the arches of the palazzo and cross Verdi bridge, you come to the Parco Ducale, vast ornamental gardens originating from the 16th century. Just outside its southern outskirts on Borgo Rodolfo Tanzi is the Casa di Toscanini (www.museotoscanini.it; shut Monday, €2/£1.70), birthplace of the prodigiously talented musician who conducted Verdi’s operas while he was a teenager.
Around the corner on Vicolo Asdente is an apt place to end the walk at Ristorante Corale Verdi (closed Monday). Over plates of meat-filled anolini with truffle and cream (€12/£10.30) you might have a suitably operatic soundtrack if your visit coincides with one of the restaurant’s musical evenings.
The posh burger craze reached Parma in July, when Meet Hamburger Gourmet opened at Via XX Settembre 8 (00 39 0521 171 3812; meetburgourmet.com). All products are organic, locally sourced and made by hand – even the sauces. The lunchtime special is a juicy burger, salad and a soft drink for €10 (£8.50).
Parma’s “other side of the river”, Oltretorrente, has been smartening itself up recently, helped by the opening this summer of the city’s second five-star hotel. A late 19th-century former hospital has been converted into the Park Hotel Pacchiosi (00 39 0521 077 077; www.parkhotelpacchiosi.it), where sumptuous doubles start at €240 (£205), including breakfast.
Parma airport is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted. A bus costing €2 (£1.70) each way goes to the city centre, 5km away.
Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati (00 39 0521 386429; www.palazzodallarosaprati.co.uk), a beautiful old family home on the Piazza del Duomo, has spacious double rooms (with kitchens) from €150 (£128), including breakfast.
Food Valley Travel & Leisure (www.foodvalleytravel.com) offers cultural and food tours of Parma and other parts of Emilia-Romagna.
Parma tourism: turismo.comune.parma.it
Emilia-Romagna tourism: emiliaromagnaturismo.com