If you are part-time travellers with a tight schedule, it takes a lot of brainstorming and rough planning to decide upon your next destination. However, if your motto is Italy is always a good idea and you live in neighbouring Greece, things get a tad easier. Therefore, when low-cost airline Ryanair added Bologna to its direct flights from Athens schedule, there wasn’t much to think about. Both Katerina and I are utterly and totally in love with Italy. So much so that we want to go everywhere in the country. Having already been to Rome twice and after a dreamy road trip through Tuscany a few years back, it felt just about the right time to visit a more laid-back Italian city. So, off we were for yet another chance to enjoy la bella vita among adorable locals. And taste some of the world’s most exquisite food in the process.
La dotta, la grassa, la rossa
Bologna is nicknamed la dotta, la grassa, la rossa for good reason.
The learned one. Bologna is home to what must be the oldest university in the Western world. The University of Bologna dates back to 1088. It is the oldest continually operating one in the world. The list of prominent figures connected with the university includes Dante Alighieri, Nicolaus Paracelsus, Carlo Goldoni and many more.
The fat one. Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region. Local delicacies from both the region and the city itself are quintessential to what the rest of the world refers to as Italian cuisine. Many dishes we simply call Italian, actually come from this region. To anyone who appreciates traditional, hearty meals, Bologna is a dream destination.
The red one. Bologna is called la rossa because of its marvellous terracotta buildings and red rooftops. Apart from that, the city has a life-long association with the Left. Its anti-fascist stance and its contribution to the Resistance movement earned Bologna its third nickname.
How many days in Bologna?
We arrived at Bologna very early in the morning of the 14th of April and we left on the 19th of April in the afternoon. While there, we did three day trips: Modena and Parma, Ferrara and Ravenna. The time we spent in Bologna was enough for us to get to know the city very well. You can spend less days in Bologna skipping a day trip or two. However, always keep in mind that you shouldn’t do Bologna as a day trip. You need at least an overnight stay and two full days so as to properly feel the city and taste its delicacies.
What to see and do in Bologna
Bologna has a compact city centre, which is flat and totally walkable. It is so pleasant to stroll around and take in the beauty of a typical Italian city. Bologna has a remarkable local feeling and the liveliness any student city enjoys. All of this without the hordes of tourists other more traditional destinations such as Florence or Siena attract.
At the foot of the Two Towers starts Via Rizzoli, one of Bologna’s main streets. It is ideal for a pleasant stroll or even some shopping, especially during weekends or public holidays. Then, Via Rizzoli and other streets within the historical centre form the so-called “T area” where no cars are allowed.
Le due torri (The two towers)
Torre Garisenda & Torre degli Asinelli are Bologna’s emblematic Two Towers. They are the most well preserved of about twenty towers that survive in the city nowadays. Back in the Middle Ages, more than a hundred towers adorned Bologna’s skyline. Each of them was competing the others in height, thus representing the power and social status of the noble family that had constructed and owned it.
Nowadays, they serve as Bologna’s main landmark. Moreover, the Two Towers help visitors find their way around. They soar above the city 47 m (Torre Garisenda) and 97.20 m (Torre degli Asinelli) high respectively. Both towers are leaning and you can only visit the taller one. The significant inclination that La Torre Garisenda has suffered renders it quite unsafe.
Unfortunately, when we visited, there were long queues to enter the tower and we couldn’t afford waiting. However, it seems that now you can pre-book your tickets on the official website, so queues won’t be an issue any more.
Porticos are so characteristic of Bologna that the city would be a different one without them. There is no other city in the world with so many beautiful arcades. The historical centre alone has a total of more than 38 km of porticos. Thanks to them, visitors and residents can walk around the city regardless of weather conditions. They offer shelter both from heavy rainfalls and the scorching summer sun.
Historically, porticos first appeared in the Middle Ages. It was then that the city’s population started to grow due to the influx of both students and people migrating from rural areas. In order to add more living space to the already existing buildings, they used to make protruding wooden constructions on the upper floors. These were supported by wooden beams rooted on street level. All porticos in the past were made of wood. You can still see a few of them in the city centre (such as the porticos in Via Marsala). However, brick or stone pillars have now replaced almost all wooden ones.
Unless you are spending many days in the Emilia Romagna capital or you are a porticos enthusiast, there is no reason why you should plan special itineraries to see the porticos. The minute you find yourself in Bologna, you will see that they are literally everywhere. There is no better way to enjoy them than stroll around from one arcade to the other. Remember to look up occasionally. Wonderful frescoes adorn many of the porticos’ ceilings.
Top Sightseeing in Bologna
Piazza Maggiore is Bologna’s main square. It lies at the very heart of the old part of the city. One of the most important buildings on the square is the Palazzo del Podesta. Visit the Tourist Information Centre of Bologna on the ground floor for tips to help you plan your stay in the city.
Another important building on the square is the Basilica di San Petronio. The church is dedicated to Bologna’s patron saint. It boasts a lovely terrace, 54 m high, with panoramic views to Bologna’s beautiful red rooftops. You get access to the terrace by actually climbing up the scaffolding used for the church’s restoration works. You can either use the lift or go up the stairs. There is a small fee of 3€ and all revenue goes to said restorations. Entrance to the terrace is from Piazza Galvani at the church’s side.
Leaving Piazza Maggiore behind, your feet will take you to Bologna’s old medieval market, the famous Quadrilatero. Brace yourselves for colourful stalls of fresh vegetables, fish, baked goods, local prosciutto and endless wheels of exquisite parmiggiano reggiano cheese stocked one on top of the other. A feast for the eyes and especially the palates.
No trip to Bologna would be complete without a visit to the Archiginnasio, one of the city’s most important buildings. It served as the main building of the University of Bologna from its inauguration in 1563 until 1803. The University was then transferred to Palazzo Poggi, where it remains until today.
Nowadays, the Archiginnasio houses the city library. Unfortunately, we missed it because we visited during the Easter holidays and it was closed. However, it must be well worth a visit, so you should make sure to check opening times before you go.
It also houses the remarkable Anatomical Theatre. This was the hall they originally used for anatomy lectures at the medical school of the University of Bologna. It is made of wood throughout with magnificent carved statues decorating its walls and ceiling. The most interesting statues are Gli spellati, The skinned ones. The highlight of the Anatomical Theatre, though, is the imposing white marble table right in the middle of the room. It must have witnessed many a human or animal body dissection for the sake of Science.
The Stabat Mater lecture hall is also worth a visit with its hundreds of old university books.
Walking around the Archiginnasio breathes an air of history and splendor. The thousands of coats of arms painted on the walls add to that effect. Each of them represents the birthplace of students elected by their peers as heads of student organizations.
Piazza Santo Stefano
Bologna city guides often overlook it but Piazza Santo Stefano is a marvellous square. It is home to a complex of religious buildings locals call the Sette Chiese, Seven Churches, that you can visit for free. You can enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in one of the square’s bars any time of day. The piazza is buzzing with local life all day long.
La finestrella di Via Piella
It’s difficult to believe that Bologna has a 60 km network of canals flowing underneath it. They are mostly covered and only visible in a handful of spots around the city. The most striking viewpoint to the Reno Canal lies in Via Piella, 16 and is actually a hole in the wall. La finestrella is a little window from where you get a glimpse of the medieval canal. The window is actually so small and unassuming that you might easily miss it had it not been for the little crowds that always gather around it. Right across the street from La finestrella you also have an unobscured view of the canal.
What to eat in Bologna
If Bologna was a book, food would be one of its bigger and most important chapters. It is considered the food capital of a nation whose cuisine is prominent in world gastronomy. That says a lot about what to expect from this city as far as culinary experiences are concerned. Some of the most famous and delicious Italian dishes come from Bologna or the Emilia Romagna region in general.
Bologna and all of the Emilia Romagna region is a land of temptation for vegetarians. I’m not proud of myself but, although I never ordered a ragu dish myself, I always had a tiny bite from Katerina’s plate. As for the cold cuts, well, I just couldn’t keep my hands off of them. Fellow vegeterians, you have been warned.
Mortadella is a light pink Italian sausage served in very thin slices. You can find a kind of mortadella, that usually goes by the name “Bologna”, all over the world. However, the latter has nothing to do with the actual mortadella in terms of taste and quality. If you try the real thing in Bologna I doubt you will ever be able to eat “Bologna” again.
Prosciutto crudo and prosciutto cotto are cold cuts originating from nearby city of Parma. In Bologna you can find exquisite prosciutto: either crudo, which is dry-cured, uncooked ham or cotto, which is cooked ham. They come in very thin slices and they taste nothing like the prosciutto you may have tried outside of Italy.
Also from Parma, the famous parmiggiano reggiano cheese is of the finest quality and you can find it practically everywhere in Bologna. You can also take a piece or three back home in vacuum sealed packages. Go for the 36-month-aged parmiggiano reggiano or at least the 24-month-aged one.
You would be better off ordering a tagliere di affettati misti, a platter of cold cuts and some cheese, that is. This way you can try all of the above and even more in one go. Usually platters come with crescentine which is a kind of delicious deep-fried bread you shouldn’t miss.
Primi piatti (first course)
Tortellini is a kind of fresh pasta with a meat or cheese filling. The story behind the origin of tortellini is a funny one. They say that the Pope’s daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, was staying at an inn while visiting a small town near Modena. The innkeeper was so enchanted by her beauty that looked at her through the keyhole. All he could see, though, was her navel and it inspired him to create pasta to commemorate its shape. Tortelloni is the exact same thing, only bigger. Tortellini can be served in many ways but the traditional dish of Bologna is tortellini in brodo, namely tortellini in broth.
Who doesn’t love spaghetti alla bolognese? I’ve got bad news for you, though. This is not a dish typical of Bologna but one created to attract tourists that haven’t bothered to look for the real thing. Tagliatelle al ragu is the flagship of Bolognese cuisine and is a simple but delicious fresh egg pasta with meat sauce dish. They serve it in each and every restaurant in Bologna. Strangely, though, no ragu tastes the same as any other, but they are all mouth-watering. On top of that, tagliatelle al ragu is generally extremely reasonably priced and it usually comes in huge portions.
Another worldwide favourite, lasagne al forno, also comes from Bologna. Layer upon layer of fresh flat pasta, ragu, bechamel sauce and grated parmiggiano reggiano cheese guarantee an explosion of tastes.
A dish not commonly known outside the Emilia Romagna region is gramigna alla salsiccia. It’s typical of Modena and it consists of fresh curly pasta with sausage ragu.
Who doesn’t want dessert after a hearty meal? Most restaurants serve the famous zuppa inglese. This dessert came to be in times gone by when the Italian nobility of Emilia Romagna asked their cooks to come up with a variation of the English trifle. Zuppa inglese consists of layers of custard and sponge cake soaked in liquer. It may not sound much, but once you taste it, you’ll want more. Zuppa inglese is also a common ice-cream flavor.
Torta Barozzi comes from Vignola in the province of Modena. It’s a chocolate cake which claims a secret recipe and has been trademarked since 1948. They sell it in various locations and it’s not cheap. We bought our barozzina, a small 100 gr package, at Eataly Bologna for about 9€. Expect a thick cake with rich and intense chocolate flavour. It’s really good but nothing so out of the ordinary.
Last but not least, aceto balsamico, balsamic vinegar, comes from beautiful nearby town of Modena. Taste it on everything and buy a bottle so as to carry the essence of Italy back home.
What to drink in Bologna
Lambrusco wine is omnipresent in Bologna. It is a naturally sparkling wine, light in taste and bright red in colour. There is both a dry and a sweet lambrusco variety. You will probably find it as the house wine in most osterias and trattorias in the city.
If you prefer white wine, you should go for Albana. It is the first DOCG (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) white wine in Italy ever.
Where to eat and drink in Bologna
It has come to our understanding that Bologna is different from anywhere else we’ve travelled when it comes to choosing a place to eat. It feels as if Bologna is the only place on earth where otherwise life-saving applications such as Foursquare are useless. It’s hard to find bad food in this city. What can I say? These people must be genetically predisposed to cook great food.
That said, we do have some suggestions for dining options. We can’t help but share the divine culinary experiences we’ve had in Italy’s food capital. All the restaurants mentioned below serve well-sized or large portions and they are all excellent value for money.
Pasta Fresca Naldi serves delicious fresh pasta with a variety of sauces. The handmade pasta comes in well-sized portions and low prices. There is no dining-area, only take away. The quality and taste are remarkable. It’s not open on Mondays. On all other days they only serve lunch (09:30am-14:30pm). On Friday and Saturday they also serve dinner from 18:30pm until 23:00pm. If you want a taste of something different try the Tortelloni di zucca al burro e salvia, fresh pasta filled with pumpkin and served with butter and sage. Expect some queues.
Il Cantinone is a no frills osteria in the lively Pratello neighbourhood. Originally osterie were places that wine was the only option on the menu. Nowadays, osterie serve both food and wine but they still tend to limit their food menu to only a handful of dishes. Therefore, food options in Il Cantinone are limited and you basically rely on a dish-of-the-day kind of mentality. However, pasta dishes are delicious and they serve fantastic lambrusco house wine. Whatever you choose as a main, it’s imperative that you order the tagliere di crescenta e mortadella DOP. This must have been the best mortadella we had in our entire trip. And we had a lot.
051 or Zerocinquantello is the place to be in late afternoon or early evening when locals flock in order to have a glass of wine after work. This is a good place to order a cold cuts platter. They have great variety and the finest prosciutto cotto we’ve ever tasted. Don’t forget to order some tigelle, a special kind of flat bread.
Being Greek, we are used to having dinner rather late in the evening. On Easter Sunday at about 22:30pm we desperately tried to have dinner at some osterias but none would have us. Disappointed, we headed towards our AirBnB in the Pratello neighbourhood. Suddenly we remembered that there was a burger restaurant just around the corner from our flat.
Hesitantly we entered America Graffiti and asked whether it was too late for us to have dinner. Reluctant though we were to eat anything but traditional Bolognese food during our five-day trip to Bologna, we were more than happy when the extremely kind and warm-smiling staff showed us to our table. Burgers were awesome and so was the vegetarian chicken nugget sandwich I had. The decoration also rocks.
We are particularly fond of osterias, so we couldn’t miss Osteria dell’Orsa. Open daily for both lunch and dinner, it’s very popular with students. It serves hearty meals at really reasonable prices. The specialty of course is tagliatelle al ragu.
Just a stone’s throw from Osteria dell’Orsa, you can have drinks at delightful, alternative and super friendly Caffè Rubik.
On our last day in Bologna, an awfully rainy weather almost ruined all of our plans as well as our mood. Exhausted and soaked to the skin after a day trip to Ravenna, we went to our AirBnB to change clothes and all we wanted was to go somewhere nearby to eat without sulking too much and ruining our last dinner in culinary heaven. We chose Buca Manzoni for its vicinity to our flat. It turns out we had one of the best meals we have ever had in our travels. Probably in our lives. Needless to say the sulking part went out of the window.
The minute we stepped into the trattoria we knew that we were in for an authentic experience. Checkered tableclothes is one thing. But, most importantly, the place was packed with locals. There was no better indication that the food would be great. First of all, if you want to try tortellini in brodo, do so here. By all means. Also, do order the mortadella platter and the crescentine, which are by far the best we tasted in our trip. Do not overlook the contorni of oven baked potatoes and spinach with butter and parmiggiano reggiano.
I can’t find the right words to describe the food in this trattoria. Just go and try it. If possible, leave some room for their fantastic zuppa inglese.
We rarely have a proper meal before catching a flight. We usually grab a snack or something. But, hey, this is Bologna, Italy’s food capital and all. We couldn’t afford missing the chance to try yet another restaurant before leaving. Trattoria Fantoni was literally next door from our AirBnB. It’s a no frills trattoria, with checkered tableclothes (what can I say, we adore them) and great lambrusco house wine. Foodwise it’s exquisite. After many a tagliatelle al ragu dish, I daresay theirs was the best. Same goes for their cacio e pepe. That’s a dish typical of Roman cuisine rather than Bolognese, but it’s still Italy, right?
One of the best ways to spend an afternoon in Bologna is people watching in magnificent Via dell’Indipendenza. Sit at an Impero table and enjoy an espresso and some dessert from a wide selection.
Everywhere in Italy ice-cream is a huge deal. I believe that you can’t go wrong with Italian gelato in any cremeria or gelateria. As far as Bologna is concerned, I consider the gelato we tried in Cremeria San Francesco by far the best. It can easily compete other famous gelaterie across the country in terms of quality and freshness of ingredients.
Other personal favourites for gelato in Bologna include Cremeria Sette Chiese, Cremeria Funivia and Gelateria Gianni.
Where to stay in Bologna
Make sure you book somewhere central to stay. This way you will get to know the whole city on foot. Hotel rooms as well as AirBnBs range from average to expensive. I don’t think there is such thing as a cheap room in Bologna. But don’t let that discourage you. Flights, food and drinks are relatively cheaper than elsewhere in Italy.
We chose an AirBnB on Via Pratello and we couldn’t be happier with our choice. Pratello is a lively neighbourhood that stays up late and has a number of wonderful places to eat or drink. As ladies travelling alone, we felt perfectly safe in the district. We would happily go back to Pratello next time we visit Bologna. Come to think of it, we felt safe everywhere in Bologna.
Not only does Bologna serve as the perfect base to explore the Emilia Romagna region, it also has connections to most major Italian cities such as Rome or Venice. Italy boasts a wide train network which covers the entire country. Trains range from regional to high-speed ones. Ticket prices are reasonable while trains are clean and reliable in terms of punctuality. Check out the Trenitalia website so as to plan your own day trips or simply be inspired.
We chose to do day trips to some of Emilia Romagna’s smallest towns instead of heading to destinations such as Venice. It felt right to try and see as much of this wonderful region as possible. Venice should be a future trip on its own, after all.
There is frequent train connection from Bologna to all the beautiful towns we visited. This means that you don’t necessarily have to pre-book your train tickets. This gives you the freedom to spend as much or as little time as you like in each town. Just go to the train station and buy your tickets either from the agents or from the automatic machines.
Modena & Parma
For our first day trip we decided to see two towns in one go, Modena and Parma. They are very close to one another and equally beautiful. If time is not an issue, consider seeing them separately dedicating one day to each.
Although not a large town, Ravenna is home to, wait for it, seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. It was imperative that we visited. And we did on what was the ultimately worst day of our entire trip weatherwise. However, heavy rainfall didn’t stop us from checking everything off our sightseeing list.
Not initially on our list, Ferrara was only added when we realised that we had plenty of time for yet another day trip. Actually, we had never even heard of Ferrara before we started planning our Bologna trip. But it’s a town well worth entering your bucker list. It’s a true hidden medieval gem. In retrospect, if we had time for a single day trip, we would opt for Ferrara. Yes, it was that enchanting. Read all about our Ferrara day trip here.
When to go to Bologna
We visited Bologna in mid-April, during the Easter holidays. The weather was generally sunny and warm. It only rained heavily for an entire day both in Bologna and in Ravenna and probably elsewhere too. Spring is the ideal time to visit so as to enjoy longer days and sitting outdoors more. Also, the countryside is at its best during springtime.
Autumn must be equally lovely, only with shorter days to enjoy. I suppose that winter months can get quite cold as Bologna lies in northern Italy. Summer months on the other hand can be extremely hot in the city. If possible, try to visit either in spring or autumn so as to make the most of your time there.
How to go to Bologna
Guglielmo Marconi Airport is situated 6 km north of Bologna city centre. You can get to the city centre either by Aerobus or by taxi. Aerobus runs every 11′ and it costs 6€ for a one way ticket. Alternatively, a taxi to the city centre costs about 15€.
You may feel tempted to take public transportation and pay a mere 1,30€ for your journey from the airport. However, buses on this route are not at all frequent and the bus stop from where you catch them is hard to find. Overall, a terrible waste of precious time. We fell for it. You shouldn’t.
Bologna Centrale railway station is at the northern edge of the city centre. Trenitalia trains connect Bologna with all major Italian cities and with most destinations within the Emilia Romagna region.
For bus transportation in the city of Bologna and within the Emilia Romagna region as well, check the relevant website here. However, if you’re having trouble understanding Italian, it won’t help much. There is no other language available throughout the website.
Santuario di San Luca
Built on top of Guardia hill, St. Luke’s Sanctuary overlooks the city of Bologna. It serves as a visual landmark for locals and visitors alike upon entering the city. The sanctuary connects to the city by the longest portico in Bologna and the world. It is almost 4 km long and it has 666 arcades. The ascend towards the sanctuary starts from the beautiful Arco del Meloncello, Meloncello archway. It’s a 40-minute walk uphill that can be tiring at times, but it’s totally worth it. You don’t need to hurry after all. Walk at your own pace and stop from time to time to admire the beautiful portico and the city views.
To get to Meloncello archway, take any bus from the city centre that stops at Meloncello bus stop. For instance, line 20 from San Pietro. If you do not feel like going up on foot, there is bus line 58 that starts from Villa Spada, near Meloncello, and goes all the way up to the sanctuary. However, this particular bus is very infrequent, especially on Sundays and holidays. We would advise you against relying on it.
Alternatively, you can take the San Luca Express from Piazza Maggiore and arrive at San Luca as comfortable as can be. Even so, don’t miss the chance to walk the longest portico in the world. Return to the city on foot and enjoy a pleasant walk down the hill.
Once up the hill, you can see the church and admire the view to Emilia Romagna’s rolling hills.
The Bolognese traditionally visit St. Luke’s Sanctuary on Easter Monday, Lunedi dell’angelo or Pasquetta in Italian. On that day, the portico is constantly busy as people go up and down all day long. Local families, tourists, nuns and monks from all over the world climb Guardia hill to have a picnic or simply pay their respects to the church.
Either you are in Bologna during the Easter holidays or any other time of year and if your schedule allows it, pick a sunny day and visit the Santuario di San Luca. It’s a wonderful opportunity for an outing very close to the city centre.
This is a top tip for the whole of Italy but we discovered it in Bologna, so here it is. First things first. I know it may come as a shock but we don’t drink coffee. Ever. As far as I’m concerned, it gives me terrible palpitations. Also, both Katerina and I follow homeopathic treatments which are incompatible with coffee consumption.
So, being Italy lovers and not being able to drink coffee is kind of an oxymoron. But our beloved Italians have the solution and it’s called café d’orzo. This is a caffeine-free beverage made from ground and roasted barley. It is used the same way espresso is. You can drink it as ristretto, cappuccino etc.
It dates back to World War II when real coffee was very expensive and hard to find. So people had café d’orzo instead. Nowadays, Italians use it in order to initiate their children to the coffee philosophy. Children have their very own coffee without the unhealthy side-effects. Recently café d’orzo is becoming popular among adults who have chosen to lead a caffeine-free life as well. What’s brilliant about café d’orzo is that it tastes quite similar to the real thing and that you can find it in any café or restaurant in Bologna.
The thing is that coffee substitutes exist all around the world, Greece included. But they taste funny and they fail to remind us of the real thing. So, whenever we travel to Italy we make sure we buy a package of café d’orzo or four to take back home to Athens.
Another little miracle we discovered in Bologna but it’s an Italian thing in general are contorni, side dishes. When in Italy, we never have a second course. We only have room for appetizers and primi piatti. However, there are some instances when you feel like eating a bit more but not that much as in ordering a second course. In times like that, contorni come to the rescue. They consist of small portions of goodies like baked oven potatoes or grilled vegetables. The key word here is small. You don’t feel stuffed. It’s just this little something you need to feel full. They don’t cost much and they are hands down delicious. How can they not be? We’re in Italy, remember?