Bologna is everything cultural and culinary that you think off when it comes to visiting northern Italy, except its charm is in remaining lesser known. Wedged in between the country’s more established and well-trodden cities of Venice, Milan and Florence, Italy’s seventh largest city – the historical capital and hearty food epicentre of the Emilia-Romagna region – is often bypassed.
But it’s precisely this feeling of new discovery that captivates when you visit Bologna.
My Bologna trip was a part of the tourism drive to uncover various destinations in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy as part of a project called Blogville. Checking into an apartment on one of the main thoroughfares that leads to the very centre of the city – via dell’Indipendenza – I got to live local for four days in this hidden pocket of Italy and lose myself in its wide grid of elegant architecture and gritty side streets, food markets and coffee shops, crumbling historical houses and defining towers.
Living locally and with more time than the average one to two-day trip normally afforded, made for the perfect Bologna itinerary and immersion in the city.
- 1 Bologna is a Medieval Maze
- 2 Bologna’s Porticos Conceal Another Layer
- 3 Bologna is Every Hue of Orange Pantone
- 4 Bologna is at the Centre of Italian Cuisine
- 5 Bologna is Full of Elevated Viewpoints
- 6 Bologna Could be Mistaken, in Parts, for Venice
- 7 Bologna is the Launch Pad to Explore the Emilia Romagna Region
- 8 Things to Know About Travel to Bologna
- 9 Planning to Visit Bologna? Pin It!
Bologna is a Medieval Maze
The history of Bologna is layered in every block and street corner you cross and every building intersecting that forms part of a historical maze that showcases the city’s medieval origins and Renaissance re-touches. Old and calmly beautiful, gritty and vibrant in equal parts, Bologna sightseeing makes for curious, long wanders.
The three connecting open squares are the very core of the action. Piazza Nettuno (home of the cultural centrepiece that is the Salaborsa Library and the symbolic Fountain of Neptune) is the starter to the bustling main that is Piazza Maggiore.
Full of colonnades, cafes and pretty Palazzos, it’s at Piazza Maggiore where you will find the famed Renaissance beauty that is the Basilica di San Petronio that has the largest sundial in the world and Palazzo D’Accursio – the Town Hall and where you can gaze at the City Art Collection. Look out for Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, marking Bologna’s stamp on higher learning. It’s the oldest University in the ‘western hemisphere’, established in 1088.
Head west along via Rizzoli and you will find impressive medieval towers of Asinelli and Garisenda – the two tallest of twenty that sprout from the city’s historical structures, the last of what was once an original cluster of over 100 in the city’s medieval days. From here you can walk to Piazza Stefano, a picture perfect square dominated by the church.
For contrasting gritty street scenes, murals and the other half of Bologna’s persona, wander around the neighbourhood that was the former Jewish ghetto. It’s edgy, has a younger crowd, third-generation coffee shops, and sporadic street art that I can see booming on the grid-street walls over the coming years. There’s a free two-hour street art bike tour dedicated to this expressive scene.
For more secluded streets, I spent some time south of the Piazzas, west of via d’Azeglio, enjoying the architecture and hoping that the Chiesa Della Santa church was open to see the mummified relic of St. Catherine, which sits on a golden throne. The spoiler is it’s rarely, if at all, open.
Bologna’s Porticos Conceal Another Layer
When it comes to what to see in Bologna, it’s easy enough to say that every street and square is its own attraction. However, one of Bologna’s defining features is its endless rows of elegant porticos that hold up the upper layers of the city and which are seen as extensions to the houses themselves. You can’t help but come off the street to walk beneath them. You’ll end up stepping a fair few metres of Bologna’s 40 kilometres of porticos, so beloved that they are on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage listing. Not only are these a shelter from the weather, but also they are a chance to walk through one of the city’s most beautiful architectural additions that were established first in the Middle Ages.
Some of the original wooden porticos can be found in the historical centre of the city on some of the older, uneven structures that stand out, but the more modern structures can be found everywhere. Because of a law passed in 1288, it was a rule that any new house in Bologna should be built with a portico. Where once man and horse took pace, you stride, gliding from one site to another in style.
If you want to say you’ve walked the longest portico in Europe at 3,796 metres long, find the one that starts just outside the city walls and leading to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca on the top of the Colle della Guardia – a hilltop pilgrimage site of sorts in the city.
Bologna is Every Hue of Orange Pantone
Blazy. Dusty. Vermillion. Flame. If you took an orange Pantone swatch with you to Bologna, you would no doubt find a building or wall that matches every shade. Want to know where to go in Bologna? Don’t follow a route or try to tick off a particular list of sites but instead be hypnotized by orange. There’s something about these warm hues that make Bologna always feel inviting and warm with old rustic charm.
Bologna is at the Centre of Italian Cuisine
Not many have heard of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy but would immediately recognise its well-known gastronomy specialities like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar and Bolognese sauce. All of this puts Bologna food right in the beating heart of the culinary scene. Knowing where to eat in Bologna is a big deal because even you can easily visit the food areas that surround the city, you can just as easily indulge in these Italian delights in the foodie capital, exactly as they should be served.
For a bundle of the best food picks head to the Quadrilatero district, which is a giant food market. During the day it’s humming with the sound of al fresco diners, food stalls, friends gossiping over coffee and family run restaurants. For a list of the best restaurants, especially those serving the best pasta dishes with award-winning chefs and eateries with rotating menus, this Bologna food guide will have you covered. At sundown, it’s time to enjoy an Aperol Spritz or two in one of its many bars.
A food theme park, aptly named ‘Eataly World’, opened in November 2017 to further carve out Bologna’s name as THE culinary capital of Italy with over 30 restaurants, a huge market and multimedia experiences with gastronomy learning at its core.
Bologna is Full of Elevated Viewpoints
The majority of cities have one defining viewpoint or lookout from which to admire a panorama or see the city in its entirety, and this is precisely what to do in Bologna after you’ve lost yourself in the beauty on the ground. While the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca basilica church in Bologna is elevated, it doesn’t give the best views over the city. However, three other high spots do.
The Terrazza Panoramica della Basilica di San Petronio (the terrace of the Basilica of San Petronio) is the best place for a panoramic view over the city from the very centre. At the moment, it is still under construction, with only half of the terrace open, yet this does not impact on the half you can see, making it still worthy of entry.
You can also climb the 97-metre high Asinelli Tower and its 498 wooden steps, for a bird’s eye view on Piazza Maggiore and around.
If you want a wider perspective and the best view of all the famed towers in their varying heights, take a short hike up the Bolognese Hills in the south of the city to the San Michele In Bosco (Srt. Michael in the woods) complex. My friend, Emiel from Act of Travelling captured this view when he was in Bologna with me. This church and convent complex has been re-mastered in design many times since the Middle Ages with a Renaissance façade addition and frescos from the 16th Century.
Bologna Could be Mistaken, in Parts, for Venice
A small underground canal cuts through the city’s grid streets while remaining out of sight and is one of the hidden things to do in Bologna. The city was once filled with open canals but pushed underground over 200 years ago.
For a glimpse of what remains of this little Venice, you have to find the very small window that looks out onto one side of the canal the runs under via Piella. Turn around and you will see a wall that marks another viewpoint.
Bologna is the Launch Pad to Explore the Emilia Romagna Region
You are right in the epicentre of the Emilia Romagna region, so day trips from Bologna are as much a part of the experience as the city itself. With the Italian rail service serving all corners of the country, there’s no excuse not to easily explore the wider Emilia Romagna region outside of its capital. Bologna is the ideal base to hop to other destinations (which I later did by visiting Forlimpopoli for the Festa Artusiana food festival, and later for adventure activities in the autonomous microstate of San Marino) but also to take accessible day trips.
I got to visit Italy’s ‘Food Valley’ where I got to admire the landscape and learn about the history of pre-united Italy from the rooms and terraces of Torrechiara Castle. Such fortified structures stand in testament to the times after the fall of the Roman Empire, when a pre-united Italy and its then stand-alone provinces were constantly under siege and occupation.
Nestled at the base of Castello Di Torrechiara is Lamoretti – a part of the region’s famous food valley status, whose 22 hectares produce the best Malvasia wine and the perfect pairing with one of the area’s darling culinary specialities, Prosciutto De Palma. They say only Palma wines match the gastronomy, so being right here in the heart of it all is true perfection. The castle fortress view just adds to the cultural-culinary magical mix.
Within easy reach is Rivalta Castle, in the neighbouring Piacenza province of Emilia Romagna. It’s a medieval castle and now a private residence, although it is open all year round for tours and even has a number of bedrooms for those wanting to indulge in its legacy.
A historical hotspot and food valley haven, it’s surprising the places to visit in Bologna remain so undiscovered. Its preservation of the old and traditional Italy that everyone seeks is what makes it such a wonderful surprise when you finally stumble upon it.
Things to Know About Travel to Bologna
Getting to Bologna
- From Bologna International Airport, you can either take a taxi into the city centre (around €15) or use the Aerobus shuttle bus service that connects the airport and the main railway station. It runs every 11 minutes in both directions, and costs €6.
Where to Stay in Bologna – Living Local
Looking for a more local style of living when visiting Bologna? I’ve recently been speaking to Francesca and Federica – the ladies behind the gorgeous L’8Boutique. They decided to renovate their grandparents’ home where they spent much of their childhood and transform it into stylish, beautiful living spaces for people visiting Bologna.
Their goal is for everyone to not only discover the city but experience real Bolognese living too, just as I did. These eight carefully restored and spectacularly furnished apartments are located halfway between the train station and Piazza Maggiore and are perfect for those looking for personality and style beyond larger hotels, and who wish to connect one-on-one with Bologna locals. Prices start from just €60.
Getting to Bologna by Train
- Bologna is accessible via the Italia Rail as well as being the main station from which to easily travel to regional areas and neighbouring cities. Timetables and ticket bookings can be found on the Italia Rail website, although it’s easy to buy tickets for shorter journeys directly at the station. ALWAYS remember to validate your ticket (via the ‘stamp’ machines) before boarding!
Bologna Welcome Card
- Like any city card, the Bologna Welcome Card is a money saver if you are looking to go to a lot of top attractions and museums. You can buy a €20 card with free entrance to listed museums and places of interest for 48 hours or a €30 card, which gives you access for 72 hours.
Further Reading on Bologna Travel
- Those wanting to dig deeper into daily life in Bologna and its hidden corners should consider the storytelling and illustrated travel guide to Bologna: Bologna Reflections – An Uncommon Guide.