If you’re just going to see one place in Trieste, it’s got to be the amazing Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia (formerly know as both Piazza San Pietro and Piazza Grande (as well as Piazza Francesco Giuseppe during the latter part of the city’s Austrian rule).
The piazza, often described as Trieste’s Salotto or living room – despite the fact that it’s over 12,000m2 – is bordered, dramatically, by the sea on its Western Side and i
s often cited as Europe’s largest sea bordered piazza (a curious niche category, by any standards).
The Piazza gives a flavour of Trieste’s former glory days, when it was one of the favoured cities of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the piazza was a gathering place for merchants, bankers, businessmen, journalists and more.
The Piazza has long been known, locally, as Piazza Grande (the big square) – luckily enough given that, like many Italian Piazzas, it has changed its name a number of times.
The oldest name for the square was Piazza San Pietro, taking its name from the Church of San Pietro that existed around the 14th Century. Later it would officially be called Piazza Grande, and then – not particularly popularly – Piazza Francesco Giuseppe. After the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the First World War, and Trieste’s integration into Italy, the piazza became known as dell’Indipendenza.
It was after the second world war, and the final return of Trieste to Italian territory that the main square was renamed grandly Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia.
The piazza has changed dramatically over the centuries (the original square was about half the size of today’s square), with the current appearance dating back to a major restructuring between 2001 and 2005 when the square’s principle buildings were restored and the popular Fontana dei Quattro Continenti was restored to its original site in the centre of the square, in front of the municipality.
The Piazza has been the scene of a number of famous events including:
* 1728 Arrival of Emporor Charles VI on a three day visit to the city (where he would meet the composer Vivaldi)
* 1914 The remains of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sofia, assasinated in Sarajevo, are brought to Trieste on their way back to Vienna. Thousands crowd the streets and the Piazza at this iconic moment of World History
* 1938 Mussolini holds a large rally in Trieste where he announced Italy’s shameful racial laws
* 1954 The Piazza celebrates Trieste’s return to Italy, with President Luigi Einaudi
* 2016 Iron Maiden play to 15,000 people in the square (just one of a number of high profile concerts held in the square)
Strolling around the Piazza, you will encounter some of the most important buildings in Trieste including
Il Municipio or Palazzo del Comune is the main building that dominates the square. Designed by local architect Giuseppe Bruni, in 1875. The building is a magnificent monumental work, looking out across the Piazza towards the sea. It is the main building that you notice in the square, and has a wonderful bell tower as its centrepiece, with two figures, Michez and Jachez, who strike the bells. The palace is an iconic image of Trieste, though originally it was criticised by locals who christened it amongst other things The Bird Cage (cheba), the Elephant’s Gut (budel de leonfante) and the Marzipan Castle (castel de mandolato).
Nowadays, though, the Palazzo is widely recognised as an innovative piece of architecture, mixing styles cleverly while fitting in closely with other buildings in the piazza (not surprising, perhaps, given the Bruni also designed the nearby Palazzo Modello).
Palazzo Modello was started in 1871, conceived as the model building (hence Palazzo Modello) for the major redesign work going on in the piazza, following the demolition of key buildings like the Church of San Pietro, the Locanda Grande, and the old port (Mandracchio) in the preceding years. The Palazzo has three facades, and an elaborate style which includes ornamental figures (Telamoni) on the facade of the fourth floor who are, to put it politely, holding themselves – a common gesture in Italy deemed to ward off bad luck. Up to 1912 the Palazzo was a hotel (the Albergo Delorme), but after this closed the Palazzo was taken over by the Comune.
The Lloyd Triestino shipping company (originally known as Lloyd AustroUngarico) was founded in the 1830s and became one of the most important shipping companies in the world, helped in part by the opening of the Suez canal in the 1860s, and due to its location in Trieste, the strategic port of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire. As the 19th Century was a boom time for shipping, its no surprise that at a certain point the Lloyd Triestino company would seek to have a prestigious headquarters in Trieste, and so in 1880 the company purchased the old fishmarket at the edge of the Piazza, and commissioned architect Heinrich von Ferstel (who had made his reputation with important buildings in Vienna) to develop a building suitable for this formidable enterprise. The building, inspired by renaissance architecture, opened in 1883 complete with two ornamental, allegorical fountains sculpted by Joseph Pokorny and Hugo Härdlt.
The oldest of the surviving buildings in the Piazza is Palazzo Stratti, now owned by Assicurazioni Generali (or Generali as they’ve been re-branded). In 1839 the Greek merchant Nicolò Stratti commissioned the architect Antonio Buttazzoni to design a building for his varied business interests. Financial troubles caused him, though, to sell the building in 1846 to Generali. Amongst the interesting points about Palazzo Stratti is that originally its main facade was not on to the piazza, but instead onto Passo di Piazza and Via del Teatro – which just emphasises the changes that happened to the piazza from the 1860s onwards, as previously it wasn’t seen as central to the city’s commercial and cultural life. In the 1870s the building was restructured, moving the main facade to the new Piazza Grande. The imposing figure on the roof, which represents Trieste, was also turned to face on the piazza.
On the ground floor of the Palazzo is the famous Caffè degli Specchi, one of the city’s most famous cafes where the painters and poets the likes of Dino Campana ,Mario Novaro, Camillo Sbarbaro, Aurelio Craffonara and Federico Maragliano would meet. It’s also a setting in the famous 1974 film Profumo di Donna
To treat yourself to luxury in the heart of Trieste, in the Piazza itself there’s no better choice than the famous Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta which is located in the Piazza itself, in a historic building that dates back to 1873. You can’t beat it for style, history, and all the comforts of a modern four-star hotel. Try to get a room with a view looking onto the piazza.
Also recommended is the Savoia Excelsior Palace Trieste, which while not being on the Piazza itself, is a stone’s throw away and in a historic building from 1911 which, on opening was described as “the most important and luxurious hotel in the Austro-Hungarian Empire”.
For something a little more modern, just 50m away from the Piazza try the Duchi Vis a Vis design hotel with Le Corbusier furniture in the lobby and the Eileen gray tables in the rooms.
Slightly further away (just five minutes from the piazza) is the Boutique Hotel Albero Nascosto, a small boutique hotel with classic rooms with wood floors, free WiFi and satellite TV.
For a classy hotel with a twist, look no further than the Victoria Hotel Letterario, a four star hotel in a building where James Joyce lived. If you want to get a flavour of Trieste’s unique literary past, this is the place for you, and it’s only ten minutes from the Piazza.