A city break in Bologna: all the famous Italian cities in a nutshell. What can you see in Rome in two days? Is Venice really that much fun with all those foreign tourists? Maybe a bit of Florence, but without the price tag! Is the Leaning Tower of Pisa the only leaning tower in Italy? San Gimignano, with its medieval skyscrapers, is often left off an itinerary being a little off the beaten track, and you really don't have to go to Milan for shopping, because if you want to do some high fashion window shopping, Bologna is a good place to go. And if you want to eat well, you're probably in the right place at the centre of Italy's Food Valley.
What sets Bologna apart
High above Bologna, the Santuario di San Luca stands out against the setting sun like a promise of things to come. The first of many times you will have to admit, 'only in Bologna'. A 4 km long portico with 666 vaults leads to the cylindrical 18th-century basilica and, rain or shine, a popular route for Bolognese joggers.
Heading towards Piazza Maggiore, the main square, you will pass through more covered galleries than you will find in many other towns put together, another record as Bologna has no less than 40 km of them. In 2021, Bologna's porticoes were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The historic centre of Bologna, renovated in the 1960s, is the biggest surprise, at least for me: two dominant leaning towers remind me of San Gimignano, which of course has more of them, but these two, the Garisenda and the Asinelli, are so imposing that their height makes you forget about other towers. They have stood there for more than 800 years and if you decide to climb the 498 steps to the top, the view is well worth it. In fact, Bologna still has 20 towers left of the 100 that originally existed. The towers were closed in 2023, as one of them is started to lean a bit too much, making it slightly more dangerous.
The oldest university in the western world
Bologna is Italy's seventh-largest city, and you can't ignore its university with its 90,000 students. The oldest university in the western world, another feat, was founded in 1088, although the first law students studied Roman law here as early as the 5th century. Copernicus once taught here, as did Albrecht Dürer, Dante Alighieri and Marconi.
Basilica of San Petronio
Back in the main square, the first façade that catches your eye is that of the Basilica di San Petronio, still unfinished! It was built in honor of Saint Petronius, the patron saint of Bologna. In the 16th century the church was supposed to rival St Peter's in Rome, but the Pope at the time didn't like the idea and stopped the work, which was never resumed.
Interestingly, a fresco was painted in the basilica at the time showing the Prophet Muhammad being attacked by demons. In 2006, this was the reason for a terrorist attack on the church, which was prevented by the police. Speaking of which, Bologna's railway station was the scene of the largest terrorist attack since the Second World War in 1980.
Piazza Santo Stefano
Not much further on is the triangular piazza of Santo Stefano, a good reason to get out your camera. Everyone seems to have the same idea. No wonder, because it is indeed a photogenic little square with great views. The best thing about it is that you can take pictures of it without having to include the crowds of people. This is Siena or Ravenna without the hordes of tourists! Enjoy a glass of wine under the portico while discovering that no two columns are the same, the façade opposite is decorated with the heads of more or less important figures in Bologna's history.
If you love to cook, Bologna is paradise
The area behind Piazza Maggiore, in particular, is full of speciality shops selling typical products from Bologna and Emilia Romagna. Tortelloni, tortellini stuffed with anything you can imagine, homemade pasta, ravioli, not to mention pastries. A few addresses not to be missed are:
- Mercato del'Erbe This is a fairly large covered market hall in the middle of the city center with a food plaza with several trattoria to choose from. Every Thursday night there is a public cooking class at 7 p.m. Via Ugo Bassi, 23-25, Bologna
- Piazza Maggiore, a smaller version of the Mercato del'Erbe, on the second floor is also a small store of the Eataly chain.
- Tamburini, Piazza della Mercanzia and Salumeria Simoni, Via Drapperie, 5/2a . The birthplace of Mortadella and Salumi of Emilia Romagna.
- Paolo Atti & Figli, Via Caprarie, 7. Bologna's pasta store, world-famous but pricey pasta, made fresh, of course.
- Enoteca Italiana The place to buy the best Italian wines with, of course, a great selection of wine from the Emilia Romagna region.
- FICO Eataly, if you have a little more time go to the gourmet amusement park, just outside the city, a world of flavor and slow food.
The cradle of Italian cuisine
Walking through the streets, it's easy to forget that this is a city that hardly any people actually bother to visit. Bologna is better known as an airport, a transfer point for a train connection or a sign along the Autostrada on the way south.
- Known as the birthplace of Italian food culture, but then again not as well known as Turin where the Slow Food movement has its home.
- Known for the Gelato museum located just outside Bologna.
- Famous for 'Spaghetti Bolognese', a dish that doesn't even exist, the sauce is officially called Ragù Bolognese.
- Famous for one of the largest music museums in the world and the hometown of Verdi, but Cremona steals the show with Stradivarius.
- A shopping arcade, Galleria Cavour, not lacking a D & G, Armani or Kenzo in Bologna, established more to fill a need than to serve as just a storefront.
- The capital of Emilia-Romagna and one of Italy's largest cities, but who knew that?
The best sights in Bologna
The porticoes of Bologna are covered walkways or galleries that flank the front of buildings, supported by columns or arches. They provide shelter from the sun and rain and have played a central role in the city's daily life for centuries. These structures are not only functional, but also add aesthetic value to the city's architecture. There are miles and miles of porticoes in Bologna. They range from simple wooden structures to more elaborate and decorated versions in stone and marble.
Some of the most famous porticoes lead to the Shrine of San Luca, located on a hill outside the city, a route that stretches for almost 4 kilometers. In 2021, due to their historical, cultural and architectural importance for the city and the world, the porticoes of Bologna were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Fountain of Neptune: One of the city's symbols, a creation of the Flemish sculptor GiamBologna or Jean de Boulogne, one of the last great Renaissance sculptors, between 1563 and 1566. Neptune's spear was also used as inspiration for the logo of the luxury Italian car brand Maserati, also from Bologna.La Fontana di Neptuno - Piazza del Nettuno, 40124 Bologna
Biblioteca Salaborsa: A beautiful blend of ancient and contemporary, the Biblioteca Salaborsa is Bologna's main public library. It is housed in the 13th century Palazzo d'Accursio. The library took over the building in 2001. It is one of my favorite places because it really is a fascinating space. When you enter, you can see the archaeological ruins of the old city through the glass floors and there are always cultural events and art exhibitions going on. Moreover, there is air conditioning and free Wi-Fi, which is something that both locals and tourists can enjoy.Biblioteca Salaborso, Piazza del Nettuno 3, 40124 Bologna - https://www.bibliotecasalaborsa.it
Piazza Maggiore: for the Bolognese this is the heart of the city, dominated by the Basilica of San Petronio and the Palazzo d'Accursio. Today, this place is well protected because the basilica houses a controversial painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad being attacked by demons.
Santo Stefano and the 7 churches: Most visitors and residents of Bologna consider this to be one of the most charming places in the city. In the triangular square you can enjoy a quiet cup of coffee under the vaults, even in winter as most of the terraces are heated. A good place to admire the splendor of the Seven Churches of Santo Stefano, whose oldest foundations date back to the 4th century.
The Leaning Towers (Le Due Torri: Garisenda e degli Asinelli): Did you think that only the Tower of Pisa was leaning? Then you haven't been to Bologna! You can see these two towers at the end of the shopping street Via Ugo Bassi. The second photo shows how crooked they are. Bologna had hundreds of such magnificent towers in the Middle Ages.Le Due Torri: Garisenda e degli Asinelli, P.za di Porta Ravegnana, 40126 Bologna BO
Palace of the Archiginnasio, the ancient university building: The splendor of the frescoes that decorate the corridors and halls of the old library of Bologna. Until 1803 it was the seat of the University, and from 1838 it housed the Municipal Library. Bologna is the oldest university in the western world. Two large staircases lead to the classrooms above, where you can see two large halls where lectures were held: one for the sciences and one for the law faculty. The walls of the halls, staircases, and loggias are richly decorated with inscriptions and commemorative plaques of professors and thousands of coats of arms bearing the names of students from noble families. The Anatomical Theatre, made entirely of carved wood, was built by Antonio Levante in 1637 to teach anatomy to medical students.Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio: Piazza Galvani, 1, 40124 Bologna - Website https://www.archiginnasio.it
The forgotten canals: Through a small portico on Via Piella, you get an impression of what Bologna looked like in the Middle Ages, with canals just like in Venice.Portico on Via Piella, 40126 Bologna
The ancient Jewish ghetto: the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world, located in the medieval center of Bologna, still preserves its original structure. A maze of alleys and passages, covered bridges and narrow windows that tell the story of an entire community. In 1556, all the Jews in Italy were forced to settle in certain parts of Italian cities. This district has a labyrinth of streets with many characteristic shops.Jewish Museum of Bologna, Via Valdonica, 1/5, 40126 Bologna - https://www.museoebraicobo.it
The beautiful luxury shopping mall Cavour: Italy's most luxurious shopping center is not in Milan or Rome. This mall just a few footsteps from Piazza Maggiore houses only the finest and most expensive Italian brands. You can even buy a Maserati there!Galleria Cavour, Via Farini, 14, 40124 Bologna BO
Museo Civico Archeologico: The Archaeological Museum undoubtedly has a large collection of archaeological art treasures worth visiting. There are regular workshops and special exhibits for children (of all ages).Museo Civico Archeologico, Via dell'Archiginnasio, 2, 40124 Bologna - https://www.comune.bologna.it/museoarcheologico
International Music Museum and Library: A large collection of musical instruments, books and scores, as well as the piano on which Rossini composed the Barber of Seville. Rossini who once said, "Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music," was a true Bolognese. There is an entire room dedicated just to him. The museum has only been open for 10 years, but has international acclaim in the music world.Museo Musica di Bologna, Strada Maggiore, 34, 40126 Bologna - https://www.museomusicabologna.it
Ducati Museum: If, in addition to riding a Ducati, you want to know how the story of Ducati glory began, this is the place to go. Of course, there are more bikes on display than you have ever seen. Also, there is the opportunity (a collaboration of Maserati and Ducati) to study at a University of Motor Vehicles.Ducati Museum Via Antonio Cavalieri Ducati, 3, 40132 Bologna - https://www.ducati.com
Ice Cream Museum Carpigiani: If you are expecting something like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, with huge scoops of ice cream in all shapes and flavors, you will be disappointed. However, it is a real museum that tells the story of artisanal ice cream in Italy. Fortunately, there is a shop attached to where you can taste all that delicious ice cream. There is an international 'university' where you can take courses and learn how to make ice cream.Gelato Museo, Via Emilia Ponente, 45, 40011 Anzola Bologna - Website https://gelatomuseum.com/en
Museo Civico Medievale: Beautiful collection of medieval life in prosperous Bologna. Bologna is still a city in which the Middle Ages are omnipresent. But to get a good idea of how people lived here 500 years ago, it is well worth a visit.Museo Civivo Mediavale, Via Manzoni, 4, 40121 Bologna - https://www.museibologna.it
Teatro Comunale:The theater is one of the most famous opera theaters in Italy and every year important operas are performed here. It was the first theater to be paid for out of taxes and of its 99 stalls, 35 were "sold" for private use, which wasn't the term they used at the time, as it was referred to as "a rent for eternity."Teatro Comunale, Largo Respighi, 1, 40126 Bologna
Theater at the Villa Aldrovandi Mazzacorati: If you're looking for a private theater, look no further. A darling of the 18th century, in original, somewhat decadent condition, with what are said to be fantastic acoustics. There are weekly concerts open to the public, etc.Villa Aldrovandi Mazzacorati, Via Arno, 26, 40139 Bologna - http://www.comune.bologna.it/ambiente/luoghi/6:11809/3567/
The Lamborghini Museum: At this museum, do not be tempted to touch the cars, let alone get behind the wheel for a moment, because although it looks like a showroom, it is not. In the museum store you can buy a miniature version of your favorite car, which you are allowed to touch. Or a T-shirt. Children under 12 are free.Lamborghini Museum, Via Modena, 12, 40019 Sant'Agata Bolognese Tel. +39 051 681 7611 - https://www.lamborghini.com/
The Statue of Mary and Mary Magdalene (Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vita):The Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vita stands in the center of Bologna, near Piazza Maggiore. The church is known mainly because it houses the terracotta sculpture group by Niccola dell´Arca, dating back to 1460, a group for which Bologna has become famous in the art world. It depicts the group of faithful, including Mary and Mary Magdalene, crying out their grief at the sight of the body of the dead Christ. The realism in its depiction makes it one of the most moving images in the world.Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita, Via Clavature, 8/10, 40124 Bologna BO - https://genusbononiae.it/palazzi/santa-maria-della-vita/
FICO Eataly: The play/eat paradise of Slow Food, an unmissable excursion for anyone who is a bit of a gastronome.FICO World Eataly, Via Paolo Canali, 8, 40127 Bologna BO -httpss://www.eatalyworld.it/ - Open every day from 10:00-23:00
A quadrangle full of food: the Quadrilatero
The area behind Piazza Maggiore was once home to the guilds, each with its dedicated street. The Quadrilatero is literally a square of streets, with the weavers in via Drapperie and the butchers in via Caprarie. The streets are partly paved with the original uneven cobblestones, which after a while start to hurt your feet, but fortunately, there are plenty of places to rest. The Bolognese, who come here to do their daily shopping, sit comfortably on the stools that almost every shop has in front of the shop window, clearly intending to tasting the goods along with a good bottle of wine. They know how to live well in Bologna.
Not only in the shops, but also among the greengrocers, who leave just a narrow passage in the alleys for passers-by. In the Quadrilatero you will find world-famous shops selling handmade tortellini, hams, mortadella and freshly prepared ragù. Although the Quadrilatero is the most famous area, you can also go shopping in other parts of the city, which I found to be slightly cheaper, but certainly not inferior. Around the Mercato dell'Erbe, located between Via Belvedere and Via Ugo Bassi, you can also go out and eat well. And, as always, there are plenty of places where you can eat deliciously without having to worry about the bill.