Bologna is located in the Emilia Romagna region in Northern Italy. It is a region famously known for Parmigiano-Reggiano, Aged Traditional Balsamic and Prosciutto. Not to mention the food Bologna itself is famous for, but more about that soon.
The city of Bologna has a population of around 390,000 people.
It is Italy’s 7th largest city but often seems overlooked by international tourists, who opt for more familiar places like Tuscany, Rome and Venice (to name a few). But if you are looking for a truly authentic Italian experience, then Bologna should be top of your list.
It is a city known as Italy’s food capital, a big call in a country that is celebrated for its culinary fare.
Bologna is home to the longest continuously running university in the world. Established in 1088, Bologna was an intellectual centre during the Middle Ages.
And let’s not forget the Carpigiani Gelato University!
Bologna is certainly not suffering from the mass tourism issue that Venice has, an appealing aspect if you are looking for an Italian city to visit where you don’t have to jostle with overwhelming crowds.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Getting to Know Bologna
Day 2 – Leisurely Walk Around the City
Day 3 – Day Trip
Day 4 – Anatomy, Ruins and the Sanctuary
Where to Eat
How to get to Bologna
Planning Your Trip to Bologna
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Simple, I love food, and after reading blog post after blog post on Bologna and the food it was famous for, I knew I had to go.
I purposely didn’t do a lot of research before I arrived. Unusual for me, and not something I will probably do again, but I wanted to arrive with an unbiased opinion.
I knew it was a university town and that it boasted a Gelato University. I knew some of the food it is known for, but little else.
An industrial city, Bologna is not a “pretty” city; it feels more real somehow, grittier. Its architecture is intriguing.
I fell in love with it, and it ended up being one of my favourite Italian cities to date, one I can see myself revisiting.
I love it when a place defies all my expectations and turns out to be a total gem.
The other aspect that appealed to me about Bologna was the lack of tourists. What I did find was a city that readily welcomed visitors. The atmosphere here is different, something to do, perhaps with being a university city, one that welcomes students from all over Europe and the world. I found there to be more of a café culture, where sitting down to enjoy your coffee and pastry in the morning is more acceptable.
I liked that.
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The UNESCO heritage listed porticoes provide an interesting architectural element to Bologna. Aside from the look, the porticoes provide a convenient way of exploring the city in all weather.
Built out of necessity from the Middle Ages to increase space as demand grew along with the University.
A tour guide told us that it was required that the height of a portico must accommodate a horse with a rider wearing a hat.
You can even follow the Portico di San Luca, consisting of 666 continuous arcades, connecting Porta Saragozza (one of the gates of the ancient city walls) with the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, a church sitting atop a hill overlooking the city.
Bologna is famous for its towers, however out of the original 180 defensive towers that once dotted the city, now only 20 remain.
The most famous are the Due Torri (Two Towers) – Asinelli and Garisenda – located next to each other and both leaning, however, Garisenda puts the Leaning Tower of Pisa to shame.
You can choose to climb Torre Asinelli but be prepared to tackle 498 wooden and narrow steps.
The towers are a distinct landmark of the city.
Bring your appetite!
Bologna is renowned for its cuisine and is where the original bolognese sauce originated. Although, the traditional sauce, ragu, is nothing like the varieties of bolognese sauce found worldwide and is served with tagliatelle, NEVER spaghetti.
Make sure you try these traditional dishes and food – Tortellini en Brodo (in broth), Tagliatelle al ragu and Lasagna Verdi alla Bolognese (green lasagne).
And don’t forget about Mortadella, a delicious silky-smooth textured pork sausage dotted with chunks of pork fat and flavoured with spices. So good!
Close to Piazza Maggiore is Quadrilatero – the ancient food area of the city.
Since the Middle Ages, the streets and alleyways have been filled with food stores and stalls from greengrocers, fishmongers, delis, bakers and pasta makers selling their goods. This is the place to find cheeses, wines and the best local produce.
The Quadrilatero is a must-see for any visitor to Bologna but for serious food lovers, and this will feel like you have died and gone to heaven!
The Emilia-Romagna Region
The region is famous for food from Parma and Proscuitto, Modena and Balsamic Vinegar and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
And let’s not even start on the wines – Pignoletto, Sangiovese and Lambrusco (and not the cheap and nasty one your thinking about!)
I joined two food tours while in Bologna. I highly recommend you join at least one tour to sample as much of the food as you can while learning the history.
I joined a day tour to Modena with stops to see the production process of Parmigiano- Reggiano, a Proscuitto factory, wine tasting, aged balsamic tasting and finishing with a traditional lunch. You can easily do a day trip to Parma or Modena but this way you will visit the actual factories and see the production process.
I was trying to travel on a small budget.
Because of that reason, I made a poor choice of accommodation in Verona, which ended up costing me more. So be careful if you are trying to be a cheapskate like me!
But I got it right in Bologna. I even changed my dates around to suit the availability of my accommodation.
I chose Residenza San Martino – it was by far the best accommodation of my three-week trip to Italy.
I loved it and highly recommend it.
Residenza San Martino
I don’t know how to describe Residenza San Martino – some say it’s a simple hotel, others a guesthouse. I don’t feel that it is either; however, I loved its uniqueness.
Located within a convent the rooms, originally novice living quarters, have recently been restored. Although simple, the rooms are spacious and clean. I appreciated the heated towel rack! It was great for drying my hand-washed clothes.
There is no 24-hour reception, although Massimo was on hand between 8 am and 12 pm each day and contactable any other time. The location is perfect in the city centre.
There is no breakfast available, but the area has plenty of café choices and a supermarket across the road. The room had tea and coffee making facilities, rare in Italian accommodation.
It’s not luxury, but if you are looking for budget-friendly, clean and conveniently located accommodation, this is it. I would not hesitate to stay here again.
You can find more details here – Residenza San Martino.
Bologna nel Cuore
I met a lovely couple from Nashville on one of my tours. They raved about their B&B. Joy kindly shared the details with me.
This B&B is conveniently located a few blocks from Piazza Maggiore. It only has two private rooms, each with an ensuite bathroom, and two apartments. There is a shared common living and breakfast room.
This will be my next option if I cannot rebook Residenza San Martino. Fingers crossed because both are extremely popular even in the offseason.
Find out more information here – Bologna nel Cuore.
I arrived early in Bologna so I could drop my bag at my accommodation and meet my walking food tour group. Travelling out of peak season sometimes means you don’t have as many tour date options and this was my only choice during my stay. That meant a 4.30 am wake up call in Verona so I could catch my train. But that’s travelling.
The lovely man at my hotel in Verona insisted on making me an espresso before my taxi pickup at 5.30am. So, I was good to go and wide awake.
Walking Food Tour
This was what I like to call a double duty tour – a good orientation tour of the city and food tasting. It was great. I will share the details below in the tour section.
It was the perfect introductory tour of the city, AND I got to taste traditional Bolognese food. It was also an excellent way to alleviate my anxiety of exploring on my own.
Osteria del Sole
The tour ended after enjoying lunch at Osteria del Sole, Bologna’s oldest bar.
But let me explain about lunch. You cannot purchase lunch here, only drinks. And they are limited to wine and beer.
The tour guide bought lunch – freshly baked bread, a selection of cheese, mortadella – and we shared it amongst us along with a bottle of wine purchased at the bar. Delicious!
You might be thinking why you would come here?
If you are looking for a truly authentic local experience, this is it. The osteria becomes very busy in the afternoons and weekends. It’s fantastic. Buy your food from a local market, shop or supermarket (very budget-friendly), come in and order a drink and sit at a communal table.
There is no big sign announcing the Osteria, only one announcing “vino”. The doorway is non-descript, but head on in and enjoy the experience.
Located in the Quadrilatero area at Vicolo Ranocchi, 1.
After the food tour, I was stuffed! I spent the rest of the day walking around Bologna, ducking in and out of stores, looking at all the fresh food on offer.
With a 4.30 am start to my day, I called it a night early. Lucky for me I had a well-stocked supermarket across the road from my accommodation, so I stocked up on goodies for my room. Is anyone else obsessed with supermarkets when travelling? Crazy, I know, but it’s one of my favourite things to do.
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Basilica of San Petronio
Located in Piazza Maggiore, you would be forgiven for thinking this was Bologna’s main cathedral. It isn’t. But what is distinct about it is that is unfinished. Originally it was intended to be the largest church outside the Vatican with construction beginning in 1389. Opposition to the building of the basilica, because the church had not sanctioned it, but the government, finally stopped it from being completed.
I didn’t go inside the Basilica on this visit.
Information on visiting the Basilica can be found here – Basilica of San Petronio.
This day I had no plans except to explore on foot. I like getting out early and seeing a city before it gets busy. And Bologna was no different.
I sat in a cafe to enjoy breakfast. It was nice to take the time to drink my coffee and eat rather than gulping it down at the bar. There is no extra charge for sitting in Bologna.
After breakfast, I walked and walked and walked.
I checked out the towers, although I chickened out walking to the top. I did not feel that energetic. I wandered the streets. There is a distinctly medieval feel to the city.
The city was adorned with Christmas lights, and I wandered around a lovely Christmas Market.
Basilica of Santo Stefano (the complex of Seven Churches)
I came across the Basilica of Santo Stefano located in the lovely Piazza San Stefano. Built in the 5th century, it was initially a complex of seven churches, however only four remains.
You can find more information here – Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano.
Piazza Maggiore, Piazza del Nettuno and the Fountain of Neptune
I spent time back in Piazza Maggiore. It’s a great place to people watch, but I was more interested in the Fountain of Neptune. Unfortunately, fencing was going up around it so that it could be cleaned.
Mercato delle Erbe
Being on my first solo trip, I had not become entirely comfortable dining out alone at night. Lunch was fine, but I just wasn’t in the mood to stay out late and eat. So, I had two lunches. As you do!
First stop was Mercato Erbe so I could explore the market on my own. We had been there the previous day with the walking tour, but I wanted to take my time and investigate all the stalls and produce.
When I had finished, I was hungry, and even though it was a little early for lunch, or what seems to be socially acceptable in Italy, I stopped in and ordered pizza and a glass of wine. Not a bad start.
Filled with fresh produce stalls in the middle and meat, cheese and bread stores on the outer edge, Mercato Erbe is the place you will find locals doing their shopping.
You can also find Altro, a space incorporating restaurants, food and wine and a place to sit and enjoy a delicious lunch or join the locals for an evening aperitivo.
Mercato Erbe is open:
- Monday – Thursday 7 am to MIDNIGHT
- Friday – Saturday 7 am to 2.00 pm
Located at Via Ugo Bassi, 23-25
Mercato di Mezzo
Then I wandered through the city and found myself at Mercato di Mezzo. Located in the Quadrilatero and filled with food stalls offering an array of food that would suit even the fussiest eater. For me, it was the traditional Tagliatelle al ragu, paired with a glass of wine. The Welsh ladies who shared my table insisted I taste their ravioli in gorgonzola and fig sauce. Oh my! I know where I’m heading next time I visit.
For a tasty, authentic and cost-effective food, Mercato di Mezzo is the place to go. It fills at lunchtime with locals, so it may take a while to find a seat.
Located on Via Clavature and open from 8.30 am to 7.30 pm.
I had decided to give myself a break and join a full-day tour with Amazing Italy. It was fabulous! Touring the Modena countryside where we stopped to see the process of making huge wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a prosciutto factory and a traditional balsamic tasting. Who knew 30 years aged balsamic would be so good. Sweet, rich, thick, strong. Tastings of balsamic were served on cheese and ice cream. Yes, ice cream. And it was delicious. Even though it is expensive to buy, I couldn’t leave without purchasing one as a gift for my partner, Dan. It is like liquid gold, and we use it sparingly.
There was also wine tasting and a traditional meal to finish off the day. Fabio, our tour guide, was knowledgeable and entertaining. I highly recommend a day with Amazing Italy.
If you are a food lover and don’t’ want to go on an organised tour, then I suggest you take a trip to Modena and Parma instead. Both are a quick train ride, and you will be able to sample the regions produce.
I met lovely people that day and fingers crossed sometime in the future our paths will cross again.
If you are travelling independently and have been in charge of all your travel plans joining a day tour can be a much-needed break. It’s nice to sit back relax, enjoy the company of other travellers and have someone else look after all the arrangements, just like a mini holiday!
This was one of those days that just didn’t go to plan. I was supposed to join a free walking tour in the afternoon, but when I arrived 5 minutes early, I saw a group of around 20 young people walking away. I assumed this was the tour. It didn’t look like my type of thing, and I was annoyed they left early, so I set off to explore on my own.
It was the first time I have been disappointed by a free walking tour. Oh well, it had to happen sooner or later.
After a breakfast that consisted of espresso and a pistachio croissant (yum!), I headed out to explore more of Bologna. I had created a loose plan for the day, but plans went out the window when I kept running into people from the tour.
It was one of the best days I had in Bologna.
Anatomical Theatre (Teatro Anatomico)
I had wanted to see the Anatomical theatre, but even before I had a chance to look up its location, I walked past it.
Located in the Archiginnasio (part of the original university), Teatro Anatomico is designed like a theatre with the marble autopsy table centre stage. The anatomical lecture hall is rather macabre, but I found it fascinating.
Original Medical School, where students would observe the autopsy, with a professor presiding over the proceedings and a priest on hand to ensure everything ran accordingly and within the church’s teachings.
The theatre is decorated entirely in wood panelling and detailed wooden sculptures of famous doctors and the rather gruesome carvings of two skinless cadavers.
The theatre was rebuilt from original pieces after sustaining extensive damage during WWII.
You can also visit the Stabat Mater Lecture Hall, peek through the gate and see the ancient classrooms and walk the hallways adorned with family coats of arms.
You can find more information here – Teatro Anatomicos
- Admission is €3
- Opening Hours: Monday – Friday – 10 am – 6 pm, Saturday – 10 am – 7 pm, Sunday and Public Holidays – 10 am – 2 pm
The Anatomical Theatre is located at Piazza Galvani, 1
Located next to Neptune’s Fountains is the main public library, but I wasn’t there to check out the library.
I had been told to go to the main area and stand on the floor with the glass tiles and look down.
Below the library are Roman ruins, part of the original city and includes remains of ancient buildings, three wells and a sewage system.
You can visit on your own – entry is free, but a donation is expected. Or you can reserve a spot on a guided tour also free with a donation.
I found it interesting and highly intriguing to find such a thing under a public building.
You can find more information here – Archaeological Excavations in Salaborsa.
The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
Sitting on a hilltop overlooking Bologna is the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. You can walk up via the continuous route of the 666 porticoes or take the San Luca Express. Either way, it’s worth a trip up. The views are glorious, and the complex is impressive.
The church is worth a visit, and you can climb the dome for €5.
I visited in early December in the afternoon. While there, the sun dipped, and so did the temperature. It became bitterly cold. Make sure you dress warmly if visiting at the same time of the year as I did, although if you walk up and back down, you should stay warm enough.
You can find more information here – Sanctuary di San Luca.
Located in the part of the city that was the Jewish Ghetto, I found one of Bologna’s canals. Canals were once abundant in Bologna with most now covered or only visible from private buildings.
I found this on my wanderings after I decided not to join the walking tour.
This canal can be found on Via Piella. Look for the small window in the wall. You can walk around the block for a different view from the bridge.
Here are a few restaurants that I tried or were recommended to me:
- Trattoria dal Biassanot
- Ristorante Franco Rossi
But in all honesty, the food in Bologna is impressive from the cafes to the markets and the restaurants. Of course, some are better than others, but the only thing I recommend you do is to go with a huge appetite and try as much as you can.
If you are on a budget, you can still eat well. You can purchase excellent food at both the markets I have mentioned and not feel like you have missed out.
If you rent an apartment, you will have an opportunity to buy fresh produce and cook for yourself, something I love to do. You can buy freshly made tortellini, beware though it’s not cheap, it is all handmade and delicious. Beware the stores that have their tortellini displayed in the window – it dries out, and the best is fresh. This pasta is from Le Sfogline, where you can watch the ladies making it as you wait.
And then there’s gelato. There was a debate with our tour guide and a couple of the travellers over the best gelato – perhaps set yourself a gelato challenge on your visit and you can tell me.
We stopped at Oggi Gelato on our food tour, and it was delicious. I have nothing to compare it to, but I would recommend a visit.
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Taste Bologna was fabulous. I highly recommend this company. They have a good selection of tours to choose from, including cooking classes. The company only employs locals, something I look for in a tour company.
You can find more information here – Taste Bologna
I thoroughly enjoyed my tour with Amazing Italy. However, there are numerous companies offering day tours so I would recommend you search to find the one that suits you best.
If you are flying to Bologna from another European destination, then flying into Bologna’s G. Marconi International Airport might be your best option.
For Australians like me, you will fly into Rome, Milan or Venice and then I suggest catching a train to Bologna.
Bologna is located on the main train line and is serviced by the high-speed train network. It is a major hub and a great point to travel to other Italian locations. As such, it is a busy station.
Bologna is approximately (depending on the service you use):
- 1 hour 15 mins to Milan
- 35 mins to Florence
- 1 hour 30 mins to Venice
- 1 hour to Verona
TIP: Bologna Centrale is a massive station spread over four levels. It is not hard to navigate, but it can be overwhelming due to the size. If you are not familiar with the station, allow extra time in your schedule to find your platform.
Walking is the best option to see Bologna. With the porticoes providing shelter from all-weather, Bologna is easily seen on foot.
The City Red Bus is a hop on hop off bus allowing you to explore the city without having to use public transport. A combo ticket is available for both the City Red Bus and the San Luca Express.
You can purchase tickets at the Bologna Welcome tourist office –
- €15 ordinary ticket
- €22 combined ticket with San Luca Express
The non-stop tour lasts one hour, and your ticket is valid for the day (2 consecutive days for the combo ticket).
You can find more information here – City Red Bus.
Buses are an alternative way to explore the city and further afield. Purchase tickets at the Bologna Welcome tourist office in Piazza Maggiore.
A lot of people visit Bologna as a day trip. But I think that is doing the city an injustice. My suggestions for the best trip to Bologna are:
- Stay at least three days
- One to explore the city
- One to take a day trip to a town nearby
- One to relax, indulge in the food and get lost
- Get Accommodation close to the city centre to allow for easy walking
- Join a food tour (an absolute must in my opinion)
Or you can use Bologna as a base – stay longer and use it to explore more of the surrounding areas. Located on the main train line makes other places easily accessible. By being a slow traveller, you stay longer and unpack once but explore more areas than you would otherwise see. And you can use the evenings to try as many restaurants as you can.
Day trip suggestions include:
Bologna is called ‘la dotta, la rossa e la grassa’ – the educated, the red and the fat. It is an acknowledgement of the university, the colour of its buildings and its food.
It is an exciting and diverse town with a different vibe from other Italian cities I have visited. I found the people welcoming. I was travelling solo and felt utterly safe and at ease at any time of the day and night.
Although Bologna feels more raw, and grungier, with graffiti splashed abundantly around the city, I felt comfortable. An English traveller I met described it as more real.
Don’t skip Bologna; add it to your next trip to Italy. And if you’re like me and don’t like crowds, then Bologna will suit you perfectly.
If you are travelling around Italy, you might find this useful:
- What to See and Do in Rome
- How to See the Best of Venice
- How to Plan Your Ultimate Trip to Bologna
- A Day in Milan
- How to Plan Your Ultimate Trip to Florence
- The Best of Verona
- One Day Complete Guide to Visiting Orvieto
- A Tuscan Town Called Cortona
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