Last updated on September 13th, 2021 at 01:15 pm
If you’re wondering what to do in Bologna, one of Italy’s most laid-back cities, then you’ve come to the right place because it just so happens that it’s one of our favourite cities in the country.
Bologna is Italy’s indisputable food capital as well as the actual capital of the stunning Emilia Romagna region. The latter is the third destination in Italy we’ve ever visited (Rome and Tuscany were the first two) and we can safely say that it fuelled our Italy wanderlust to a remarkable extent.
Bologna has a compact city centre which is flat and totally walkable. It is utterly pleasant to just stroll around and take in the beauty of a typical Italian city. Moreover, Bologna has a remarkable local feeling and the liveliness any student city enjoys. All of this without the hordes of tourists other more popular destinations in Italy attract.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the best things to do in Bologna as well as provide you with a thorough guide comprising all the practical information and tips you need to plan the perfect trip to la dotta, la grassa, la rossa of our hearts.
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Why Is Bologna Called La Dotta, La Grassa, La Rossa
Bologna has not one, not two but three nicknames. La Dotta, the learned one. La Grassa, the fat one. La Rossa, the red one. But why?
The learned one. Bologna is home to the oldest university in the Western world. The University of Bologna dates back to 1088 which makes it the oldest continually operating university in the world. The list of prominent figures which are somehow related to the university includes Dante Alighieri, Nicolaus Paracelsus, Carlo Goldoni and many more.
The fat one. As the capital of the Emilia Romagna region, Bologna is a culinary heaven like no other. Many dishes which, to the rest of the world, are simply regarded as 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, though, the city has a life-long association with the Left. Its anti-fascist stance and its contribution to the Resistance Movement are what actually earned Bologna its third nickname.
What To Do in Bologna & How Long To Stay
Bologna can keep you busy and happy for a very long time. Apart from the charms of the city itself, Bologna is the ideal base from where to explore the gorgeous Emilia Romagna region. Furthermore, one of the main reasons why you most definitely have to plan a trip to Bologna is the food. Trust us when we say that you’ll want to have as much time as possible to sample all of the city’s and the entire region’s delicacies.
Therefore, although Bologna is a compact city, a trip there requires a minimum of four days. During this time, you’ll get to check out all Bologna attractions at a slow pace and even have time for a day trip or two, while savouring the most scrumptious food along the way.
16 Amazing Things To Do in Bologna Italy
1. Marvel At The Two Towers
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.
Torre Garisenda & Torre degli Asinelli are Bologna’s emblematic Two Towers (Due Torri). They are the best preserved of about twenty towers that still survive in the city nowadays and they are Bologna’s main landmark. Moreover, the Two Towers do a great job helping visitors find their way around.
Bologna’s leaning towers soar above the city at a height of 47m (Torre Garisenda) and 97.20m (Torre degli Asinelli) respectively. The Asinelli Tower is open to visitors and it offers jaw-dropping views to Bologna’s red rooftops from its top. On the other hand, the significant inclination that the Garisenda Tower has suffered throughout the centuries renders it quite unsafe and this is why its doors remain closed to the public.
2. Explore The Porticos
Porticos are so characteristic of Bologna that the city wouldn’t be the same 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 38km of porticos. Thanks to them, visitors and residents alike can walk around the city regardless of weather conditions. Porticos offer shelter both from heavy rainfalls and the scorching summer sun.
Historically, porticos first appeared in Bologna 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, people started building 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 yourselves in Bologna, you will see that porticos are literally everywhere. Just remember to look up every now and then so as not to miss the wonderful frescoes that adorn many of the porticos’ ceilings.
3. Eat All The Food
If anyone should ask the question What is Bologna known for?, the obvious answer would be Food. Bologna and the entire region of Emilia Romagna produce some of Italy’s most world-renowned products such as parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto and aceto balsamico whereas the region is also home to popular recipes such as tagliatelle al ragu or lasagne al forno.
Food in Bologna is a reason to visit the city in its own right and this is why we’ve written a guide to all of the city’s must-eats. If visiting Bologna on a really short trip, though, which we don’t recommend by the way, probably you’ll be better off joining a top-rated food tour, during which you’ll get to try some of the area’s most typical products and dishes.
4. Hang Out At Piazza Maggiore
Dating back to 1200, Piazza Maggiore is Bologna’s main square. It’s situated at the very heart of the old part of the city and it’s home to quite a few impressive buildings among which the Basilica di San Petronio and the Palazzo del Podesta. The latter houses the city’s Tourist Information Centre (Bologna Welcome) on the ground floor.
5. Admire The View From The Basilica of San Petronio
The Basilica di San Petronio is dedicated to Bologna’s patron saint. It boasts a lovely 54m-high terrace with panoramic views to Bologna’s beautiful red rooftops. Access to the terrace is via the actual 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.
6. Stroll Around The Quadrilatero
The Quadrilatero is Bologna’s old medieval market. Once there, brace yourselves for colourful stalls of fresh vegetables, fish, baked goods, local prosciutto and endless wheels of exquisite parmigiano reggiano cheese stocked one on top of the other. The Quadrilatero market is a real feast for the eyes and, especially, the taste buds. Walking around its busy quaint streets is definitely one of the best things to do in Bologna.
7. Discover Bologna’s Hidden Canals
It’s difficult to believe that Bologna has a 60km network of canals flowing underneath the city. The canals are mostly covered and only visible in a handful of spots around Bologna. The most striking viewpoint to the Reno Canal lies at Via Piella 16 and it is literally a hole in the wall.
La Finestrella di Via Piella is a little window from where you get a glimpse of the medieval canal. The window is actually so small and unassuming that it could easily go unnoticed 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.
8. Visit The Oldest University in The World
No trip to Bologna would be complete without a visit to the Archiginnasio, one of the city’s most important buildings and among the best things to see in Bologna. 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.
Walking around the Archiginnasio breathes an air of history and splendour. The thousands of coats of arms painted on the walls only add to that unique ambience. Each of these coats of arms represents the birthplace of students elected by their peers as heads of student organizations.
Nowadays, the Archiginnasio houses the city library, the Stabat Mater lecture hall with its hundreds of old university books and the Anatomical Theatre. The latter is by far the most impressive room of all.
The fascinating Anatomical Theatre was the hall originally used for anatomy lectures at the medical school of the University of Bologna. It is made of wood throughout while magnificent carved statues decorate its walls and ceiling. The most interesting statues are Gli Spellati, The Skinned Ones, which is rather self-explanatory.
The highlight of the Anatomical Theatre, though, is the imposing white marble table right in the middle of the room. We can only imagine how many a human or animal body dissection for the sake of Science this cold table must have witnessed throughout the centuries.
9. Feel Like Locals At Piazza Santo Stefano
Bologna city guides often overlook it but Piazza Santo Stefano is probably the city’s prettiest square. It’s our personal favourite open space to hang out, people watch and mingle with locals in Bologna. Piazza Santo Stefano is often the site for cultural events, concerts and flea markets. You can enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in one of the square’s bars any time of day. After all, this piazza is buzzing with local life all day long.
Another name for Piazza Santo Stefano is Piazza delle Sette Chiese, The Seven Churches Square. The Basilica di Santo Stefano that dominates the square is actually a complex of seven different churches all of which are little architectural wonders that will truly amaze you. The most gorgeous part of the complex is hands down the medieval cloister outside the Basilica di Santo Stefano which is known as the Courtyard of Pilato.
You can visit the Sette Chiese on your own for free. However, there’s a super interesting narrative behind the construction of this religious complex as well as many secret stories which you can only learn if you join a private tour of the Seven Churches with a knowledgeable local.
10. Climb All The Way Up To San Luca Sanctuary
Overlooking the city from the top of Guardia Hill, St. Luke’s Sanctuary is certainly one of the best places to visit in Bologna. The sanctuary connects to the city by the longest portico in Bologna and the world. It is almost 4km long and it has 666 arcades.
The ascend towards the sanctuary starts from the beautiful Arco del Meloncello (Meloncello Archway). From there, it’s a 40-minute uphill walk 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 it offers.
You can get to the Meloncello Archway on foot from the city centre of Bologna. If you want to reach the Meloncello Archway by public transport instead, take any bus from the city centre that stops at the Meloncello bus stop. For instance, line 20 from San Pietro, Bologna’s Cathedral.
If you don’t feel like going up on foot, though, 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 del Nettuno to get straight and effortlessly to San Luca Sanctuary. However, even if you do so, don’t miss the chance to walk the longest portico in the world anyway so make sure you return to the city on foot.
Once up the hill, you can visit the church and admire the stunning views to Emilia Romagna’s rolling hills. Locals 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 St. Luke.
Either you are in Bologna during the Easter holidays or at any other time of year, pick a sunny day and visit the Santuario di San Luca. It’s a wonderful opportunity for a day out in nature but also very close to the city centre.
11. Enjoy an Evening Stroll Along Via Ugo Bassi
Via Ugo Bassi is one of Bologna’s main commercial streets. It’s lined with all kinds of shops as well as eateries. In the daytime, Via Ugo Bassi is just like any other European shopping street. Yet in the evening it’s the best place to enjoy the quintessentially Italian passeggiata among locals.
After its junction with Via dell’Indipendenza, which is yet another of Bologna’s central streets, the name changes and Via Ugo Bassi becomes Via Rizzoli. The latter ends right at the foot of the Two Towers.
Keep in mind that during weekends and public holidays, Via Ugo Bassi alongside many other streets within the historical centre of Bologna form the so-called T Area where no cars are allowed, thus providing locals and visitors alike with the unique opportunity to enjoy the most pleasant strolls.
12. Snap a Selfie With Neptune
Right next to Piazza Maggiore, the Fountain of Neptune is the centerpiece of Piazza del Nettuno. The over-life-size bronze statue of god Neptune, alongside cherubs and breast-holding Nereids, awaits tourists for selfies that will conquer Instagram.
Yet the god did us no such favours as the fountain was completely covered for restoration works when we visited. Kind of what happened with the Basilica di Santa Croce when we visited Lecce in Southern Italy, come to think of it.
13. Experience Bologna Nightlife
Just so we’re clear, by nightlife we don’t mean huge loud nightclubs that go strong until the early morning hours, no. The best way to spend a fantastic evening in Bologna just like the locals do is to have a glass or five of wine alongside a platter of local cheese and cold cuts at any of the bars lining the quaint narrow alleys in and around the Quadrilatero market.
However, if, after you leave the Quadrilatero area, you still want to enjoy a couple of drinks a bit later in the night, then head to the Pratello district, which is probably our favourite part of the entire city. Pratello is a lively neighbourhood that stays up late and has a number of wonderful places to eat or drink without ever feeling sketchy or dark.
14. Shop With Locals At Mercato Delle Erbe
Dating back to 1910, Mercato delle Erbe is Bologna’s vibrant covered market where you can shop delicious local products at your heart’s content. Apart from shopping though, you can also sit and have something to eat or drink there as Mercato delle Erbe is an amazing food court as well.
15. Attend a Cooking Class
It would be a huge shame to visit a city that is mostly known for its culinary tradition without sitting down to learn some of the local cuisine’s best-kept secrets. The optimal way to do so is by joining a top-rated cooking class, during which you’ll delve into the depths of Emilia Romagna’s mouthwatering cuisine while enjoying one of the best things to do in Bologna.
16. Take The Best Day Trips
Bologna enjoys an ideal location from where you can explore the stunning Emilia Romagna region as well as super popular Italian cities in other regions by taking easy day trips either by car or by train. Hidden gems like Ferrara, Modena and Parma alongside major Italian destinations such as Venice and Florence are all within easy reach from Emilia Romagna’s capital.
Bologna Travel Guide
Best Time To Visit Bologna
We visited Bologna in mid-April, during the Easter holidays. The weather was generally sunny and warm with the exception of one day when it rained heavily all day long. Spring is the ideal time to visit so as to enjoy longer days and sit outdoors as much as possible. Also, the countryside is at its best during springtime.
Although autumn must be equally lovely but with shorter days to enjoy, perhaps you should avoid winter and summer months altogether as they can get quite cold and extremely hot respectively.
How To Get To Bologna
Guglielmo Marconi Airport is situated 6 km north of Bologna city centre. You can get to the city centre from the airport either by Aerobus or by taxi. The Aerobus runs every 11 minutes 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 to the city centre. However, buses on this route are not at all frequent and the bus stop near the airport is hard to find. Overall, a terrible waste of precious time. We fell for it. You shouldn’t.
The Bologna Centrale train station is at the northern edge of the city centre. Trenitalia trains connect Bologna to all major Italian cities as well as almost all destinations within the Emilia Romagna region.
How To Get Around Bologna
With the exception of the ascend to San Luca Sanctuary, Bologna is completely flat, thus absolutely walkable. Therefore, you can get to all places of interest mentioned in this guide easily on foot.
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.
Where To Stay in Bologna
For your Bologna trip, no matter how short or long, make sure you book somewhere central to stay. This way you will get to know the whole city on foot. We’ve handpicked a few of the best accommodation options in Bologna for you to check out.
Appartamenti Pratello: Apartment in a private building in the Pratello district. We stayed in Pratello during our first trip to Bologna and liked it a lot.
Galliera Residence: Smartly decorated B&B near Montagnola Park.
Grand Hotel Majestic gia’ Baglioni: Luxury hotel housed in an 18th century palace right in the heart of Bologna’s historic centre.
Have you been to Bologna? Are there any places of interest worth checking out that we haven’t included in this article? If so, let us know in the comments so as to check them out next time we visit Bologna!