Nestled between Florence and Venice, Bologna is an undiscovered gem. The capital city of Emilia-Romagna is brimming with history, art, food, culture, and warm hospitality. It’s one of those places that I could travel to a hundred times in my life and never grow tired of it.
Since I was new to the city, I opted for a guided tour. Fabio, born and raised in Bologna, spent four hours showing me the many sites that make his town uniquely special.
The locals have a special saying they use when describing their city: “Bologna e La Rossa, La Dossa, La Grassa.”
La Rossa (The Red) for the predominantly terracotta roofs and red brick buildings
La Dossa ( The Learned) for the oldest working university in the world. The first semester was back in 1088AD
La Grassa (The Fat One) for the many culinary delights that is the “soul” of Italian food.
If you are a foodie, you will love it here. Bologna is a land of slow food, famous for dishes that took centuries to perfect:
Balsamic vinegar, aged from 12 to 25 years
Prosciutto di Parma cured for up to 2 years
Parmigiano reggiano aged for 12 months
Fresh lasagne with a slow-simmered ragù
Tortellini hand-shaped each day
You can also add tagliatelle and mortadella (the original to what we call baloney) to that list.
The University of Bologna today hosts nearly a quarter of the city’s 400,000 inhabitants. Which makes for a lively place to live and visit.
The main square is Piazza Maggiore. Built in the 13th century, it is one of the biggest and one of the oldest squares in the world. For me, it is certainly a close second to St Mark's Square in Venice. Many important political and historical structures surround the square including Palazzo D’Accursio (which houses the monumental staircase designed by Bramante), Palazzo del Podestà, Basilica of San Petronio, Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune’s Fountain), Palazzo Re Enzo, and Torre dell’Arengo.
My guide took me outside the main square to many beautiful churches (some listed below), palatial homes with great exterior detail, the university of course. There we visited the antiquated anatomical theater - which is basically like an antique teaching room for med students. The oldest lecture room (still used today) and only a small portion of the massive 850,000 volume library.
Bologna is less than an hour on the fast train from Florence. I did a day trip from there, but I look forward to spending a few nights on my next visit. Below are a few suggestions for your visit to this amazing city.
Due Torri More than 100 towers pierced the sky above Bologna in the Middle Ages, but only 20 still stand today. The most famous are the city center’s Two Towers (Due Torri), which lean at a gravity-defying angle that rivals Pisa’s Leaning Tower. Climb to the top of Torre degli Asinelli- believed to be the tallest leaning tower in the world (97.2 meters) for fabulous views over the city and surrounding countryside.
Piazza Maggiore 1/e
Open Daily from 10AM-5PM by reservation only. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Church of Santo Stefano - Bologna’s Jerusalem. Rebuilt in the twelfth century in a period of close contact with the Holy Land, S. Stefano bears a close resemblance to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as restored by the Byzantines in 1048.
Via Santo Stefano, 24
Sunday 8:30AM-1PM 2:30PM-7:30PM
Tues - Sat 7:30AM-12:30PM 2:30PM-7:30PM
Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio Museum in Palazzo dell’Archinnasio (scholastics) once the main building of the University of Bologna, it currently houses the Archiginnasio Municipal Library and the Anatomical Theatre. The university - founded in 1088 and never out of business, is the oldest university in the world.
Piazza Galvani, 1
The Secret Window Look for the wooden shutters that open to reveal Bologna's canal system. 66 miles of canals underneath - some over 1000 years old, used to carry salt. Mostly covered in the 12th century - this visible stretch reminds us of how the canals connected Bologna to Ferrara, the River Po, and the Adriatic sea.
Via Piella, 2,
Open all the time. Go early to avoid the crowds.
Basilica de San Petronio The world’s largest Gothic church built on bricks. It is named after Bologna’s patron saint, Petronius, who was once the city’s bishop in the 5th century. Inside you’ll find a large sundial, measuring 67.7 meters. This is the world’s longest indoor meridian line designed by a professor in astronomy at the nearby University of Bologna.
Piazza Galvani, 5
Daily 8:30AM - 1PM, 3PM-6PM
Bologna’s Famous Vaulted Arcades Climb a little more than a mile under the world’s longest porticoed walkway to the hilltop Basilica Santuario di San Luca. It houses the Byzantine icon of the Madonna and Child, thought to date back to the 10th century.
Via di San Luca, 36
Paolo Atti -established in 1868, Paolo Atti & Figli continues to famously produce bread as well as sweet and savory delicacies. They now have two locations - but visit the original for the historical perspective. You can even do a 30-45 minute guided tour of the shop and a bit of Bologna history included. Reservations: email@example.com
Via Caprarie 7 and Via Drapperie 6 (the original)
Mon-Sat 7:30AM - 7:15PM
Food Markets - visiting a food market in any city is a must. Bologna has five to choose from. Here’s two:
Mercato di Mezzo - the oldest in the city which makes it the most fascinating and the busiest. Plan on going early when the market first opens. The market is spread out over several streets - each dedicated to a particular food category: fish, cheese, sweets, etc.
Address: The area between Via Rizzoli, Piazza Maggiore, Piazza Della Mercanzia, and Piazza Galvani
Opening Time: Depending on the shops, usually from 8:30AM to 7:30PM
Mercato Delle Erbe - set inside a former barracks the structure is made of glass and iron. Here you will walk shoulder to shoulder with the locals - think white-haired ladies pushing their "granny buggies."
Address: Via Ugo Bassi, 23-25
Monday - Friday 7AM - 1:15PM and 5:30PM - 7:30PM
Saturday and Thursday 7AM - 1:15PM
La Leonarda (second-hand shop)Italy is well known for recycling, reusing, and repurposing. This shop goes one step further by supporting the poor. All proceeds go to projects aimed at helping the homeless. Mostly fashion, but they also sell great books and a few antiques.
Via S. Leonardo, 2a
Mon-Sat 10AM - 7:30PM
Sette Tavoli This restaurant's name translates to "Seven Tables" dedicated to their seven favorite writers and poets. Cozy and intimate with authentic Bolognese food and the best wines.
Via Cartoleria 15 / 2b
Monday - Saturday noon to 3PM and 7PM-midnight
Ranzani 13 If you are looking for Bologna’s best pizza and craft beer, this is it.
Via Camillo Ranzani, 5/12
Mon-Fri Noon-2:30PM and 7PM-11PM
Sat and Sun 7PM-11PM
Osteria de Sole - established in 1465, it's the oldest bar in town. They don't serve food so stop in at Ceccarelli’s down the street for some takeaway beforehand. It’s allowed…and it's fun!!
Vicolo Ranocchi, 1
Terrazza Mattuiani - visit Hotel Touring’s rooftop bar for the amazing views. Go for lunch to hear the church bells sing at 1PM. There is a one-drink minimum.
Via De’ Mattuiani, ½
From the Bologna airport - take the new "People Mover Train" - a seven-minute shuttle from the Marconi Airport to Bologna Stazione Centrale train station.
Info and time schedule: marconiexpress.it
Tickets: One way: 8,70€ Return: 16€ Free for kids until 4 years old.
From Florence - take the fast train. Only 37-40 minutes non-stop from Florence's Santa Maria Novella station to Bologna's Centrale station.
Tickets: One way: from 26-30€ for second class (non-stop)