15 Top Things To Do In Bologna, Italy
Bologna, Italy – a city rich in history where every alley and building tells the tale of a glorious past could easily be called the stepchild of Venice and Florence.
Situated roughly an hour from two of Italy’s most visited cities, it is often overlooked by travelers. That is a mistake!
While Bologna is rich in history, it is also among the wealthiest of Italy’s cities, second only to Milan as well as ranking first out of 147 Italian provinces for Quality of Life. Yet, Bologna has retained the quintessential small Italian village appeal, despite being the capital and largest city of the Emilia-Romagna region and seventh most populous city in Italy.
Experience Bologna’s “La Dotta, la Grassa e la Rossa”
(“The Learned, the Fat, and the Red”) …that is how Italians describe Bologna!
La Dotta – “The Learned”
Bologna is home to the oldest university in the Western World. Founded in 1088 as the Bologna Studio, many historical men of letters, science, legal and philosophical thought were educated at the Studio including Thomas Becket and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Today it is known as the University of Bologna, and remains the oldest university in continuous operation.
The Palazzo dell’ Archiginnasio, commissioned by Pope Pius IV in 1563 for the purpose of bringing together all the activities of the University of Bologna in one place, also houses the Anatomical Theatre.
Constructed entirely of spruce and in the form of an amphitheater, medical students could view an autopsy being performed on the marble table in the center.
Located in the Palazzo dell’ Archiginnasio as well is the La Sale Storiche (Old School Classrooms). Transformed into the Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, a research and conservation library founded in 1801, it now holds over 850,000 volumes including many 16th century manuscripts. The walls are adorned with coats of arms and monuments that celebrate the most important figures in the history of the Studio.
Next to the La Sale Storiche is the Sala dello Stabat Mater, one of the most representative rooms of the ancient university. Majestically decorated with various gratulatory compositions and coats of arms, it now serves as a lecture hall in the law school.
Location: Piazza Galvani 1
Enjoy La Grasse – “The Fat”
In addition to being the capital of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, Bologna is well known for its renowned cuisine considered to be some of the best Italian food in the world. Even the loved (and sometimes, hated) American staple – the bologna sandwich – has its origins in Bologna, Italy (though mortadella is nothing like the American bologna meat).
Even if you are not familiar with the Emilia Romagna region, you certainly are familiar with some of its well-known specialties including Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, Bolognese sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Order a plate of fresh Tagliatelle al Ragu and experience why Bologna is where Italians go to eat! But be careful not to request Spaghetti Bolognese unless you want to receive a rude sneer from local restauranteurs. Although popular worldwide, according to the mayor of Bologna, Spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t actually exist – and especially not in Bologna, the birthplace of the sauce.
From Pizza to Prosciutto di Parma to Lasagna Bolognese, the selection of exceptional Italian cuisine is endless. Enjoy a relaxing lunch at one of the street cafes on the Quadrilatero then head to the via San Felice, via Pietralata, and via del Pratello area for a traditional Bolognese dinner at one of the small eateries filled with local residents. Tip: these restaurants don’t open until 19h30, so expect a late, relaxing dinner.
Coffee (“Caffè” in Italian), is synonymous with Italy. Think espresso and cappuccino, words that have become part of our universal vocabulary and where better place to experience the authenticity of the Italian coffee heritage than Bologna. Tip: If you order a cup of coffee in Italy, you will be served espresso. Don’t want espresso? Order Americano coffee.
See La Rossa – “The Red”
From its red terracotta roofs to the bright color pallets of its buildings, Bologna is a vibrant city full of charm.
Walk Bologna’s Porticoes
No other city in the world has as many porticoes as Bologna. Deemed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, construction of the porticoes began in 1100 and encompass more than 62m of the city providing welcome shade from the afternoon sun.
The Portico di San Luca is the longest continuous portico in the world. Consisting of 666 individual arches (each numbered), it stretches 3.79 km up a steep hill to the Basilica di San Luca.
As you stroll through the porticoes, be sure to take time to look above as the various porticoes hold beautiful architectural detail, frescoes and much more!
The Portico Casa Isolani located at Strada Maggiore, 19 is a rare example of 13th century medieval residential construction. Unlike the construction materials used in other porticoes found in the city, the Portico Casa Isolani is supported by oak beams standing 9m high on which the third floor rests.
Visit Bologna’s Piazzas
Throughout Italy you will encounter piazzas, the grand public squares dating from millennium. And, Bologna is no exception!
In the heart of Bologna is Piazza Maggiore. Dating to 1200, the piazza is not only the most important in the city, but is one of the largest and oldest in Italy as well. Lined with arched colonnades, cafes and shops it also hosts an evening open air summer cinema.
Piazza del Nettuno
Walk from Piazza Maggiore through the archway of Palazzo Re Enzo and you will reach the Piazza del Nettuno, anchored by the Fountain of Neptune.
Completed in 1566, the fountain initially provided drinking water for the citizens of Bologna and even today, locals and tourists use the fountain to fill their drinking bottles.
Visit The Towers Of Bologna
The two towers of Bologna – Garisenda and degli Asinelli – are located in the heart of the city at the entrance to the ancient via Emilia. The Torre degli Asinelli, built between 1109 and 1119, stands 97.02 meters high. Climb the 498 steps leading to the top for a spectacular view of the city below.
While Pisa is known for its famous “Leaning Tower”, Bologna has one as well. The Torre Garisenda, built at the same time as the degli Asinelli, leans at 4 degrees and at 47 meters is actually the tallest leaning tower in Italy.
Entrance to the Torre degli Asinelli cost 5€ for adults and 3€ for children under 12 or seniors over 65. Free entry with the Bologna Welcome Card PLUS.
Stroll Past Bologna’s Palazzo Re Enzo
The gothic palace Palazzo Re Enzo located on Piazza del Nettuno was constructed between 1244 and 1246. Once the residence of King Enzio of Sardina, the son of Emperor Frederick II, it is now used for cultural events and exhibitions. Currently closed for renovation.
Visit Bologna’s Old Stone Gates
Originally a medieval walled city, Bologna had twelve portals that led into the city of which nine remain today.
Porta San Felice
Positioned on the main road of the ancient Via Emilia, the 13th century Porta San Felice stands as an island in the middle of a busy intersection.
Location: Intersection of via Aurelio Saffi, Via Antonio Silvani and via San Felice.
The 14th century Porta Saragozza was the entry point to the Portico di San Luca that leads up to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca.
Visit Bologna’s Cathedrals
Bologna is home to an enormous number of cathedrals, basilicas and churches most in absolutely superb condition.
The Santuario di Madonna di San Luca is a must see. Constructed in 1723, the basilica is situated on top of the Monte della Guardia, some 300 metres above the city. Be sure to have your camera ready to take some beautiful panoramic views of the city below. It can be reached by walking along the Portico di San Luca, by taxi or by riding the city’s San Luca Express.
The Church of San Petronio, situated directly on Plazza Maggiore, is the largest and most important church in Bologna and the fourth largest church in Italy.
Construction began in 1390, however, the exterior was never completed with only the lower elevation of the facade covered in marble. Step inside and you will find a majestic interior divided into three naves, which open onto twenty-two beautifully decorated chapels.
Visit Bologna’s Museo Civico
Located just off the Piazza Maggiore, the Museo Civico Archeologico is just one of many museums to be found in Bologna. Opened in 1881, this archaeological museum’s Egyptian section is considered to be one of the best in Europe with an extensive collection of ancient artifacts.
Search For Bologna’s Hidden Canals
Bologna is full of surprises, one of which is its ‘Hidden Canals’. Unlike Venice, Bologna is an inland city that for centuries was a major waterway and commercial trade centre thanks to a series of canals constructed during the Middle Ages.
Beginning in the 12th century, over 60km of canals were dug to connect the city with the Reno and Savena rivers. Over the years, the canal system was covered by roads, parking lots and buildings making them “hidden” rather than destroyed. Five canals remain partially visible today including the Navile, Savena, Cavaticcio, Moline Canal and Canale di Reno.
Photo Tip: Look for a small window located at via Piela, 16 that overlooks the Canale di Reno.
Visit Bologna’s Old Market of Quadrilatero
Situated in the heart of Bologna’s old town, this ancient marketplace is lined with shops that have been passed from generation to generation.
Location:Walk Along Clavature & via Pescherie Vecchie
Shop, Shop, Shop Bologna
Bologna can be a shopper’s paradise! From local brands to high-end fashion, you can find it all in Bologna. Shop where the locals shop along via San Felice, via de Toschi and the narrow side streets along Piazza Maggiore.
and for Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Tiffany and more top brands visit the Galleria Cavour located at Via Farini, 14.
Shopping Tip: As is the tradition in Italy, most retail stores will be closed from 13:30 to 15:30 each day for lunch and all day on Sundays so plan to shop during the morning and evenings.
Take In Bologna’s Street Art
Everywhere you look you will find Bologna’s buildings covered in tags and street art. Unlike many cities, street art is actually encouraged in Bologna with shop owners welcoming the colorful paintings. As you explore the city’s alleys and narrow side streets, take a moment to enjoy some of the best interpretive art!
Explore The Rest That Italy Has To Offer
Bologna is one of Italy’s major train transportation hubs with connections throughout the country. Bologna Centrale (the city’s main train station) is Italy’s fifth busiest with over 800 trains passing through the terminal each day.
Eurail Pass? Don’t need it. Just buy a ticket at one of the kiosks and board!
When Not To Schedule Your Vacation To Bologna
Summers in Bologna can get quite hot, especially during August, the month most businesses (including restaurants) close for extended vacations. August is also the month for the Ferragosto Holiday (Assumption of Mary Day), an Italian religious tradition celebrated each year on 15 August. This day also marks the beginning of vacations for many Italians who leave the inland heat for the coastal beaches. If you plan to visit Bologna during August, be aware many businesses will be closed from Assumption Day until the end of the month.
Planning a trip to Italy? Be sure to include Bologna in your itinerary!
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