What should I see in Bologna? I asked my sister this question a few months ago, as she had worked in Italy for eight years and is very well-traveled. "It's a college town", she said. "Nothing stood out to me except for a couple of towers and huge red buildings". "But I'm sure you'll find amazing sights, unearth fascinating stories, and discover hidden gems!" Challenge accepted, I thought.
Many people think of Bologna as just another big Italian city, a university town. While it's true that Bologna is known for its red buildings and boasts the oldest university in Italy, there is so much more hidden just beneath the surface of its stone streets. If you look past the big buildings and give it a chance, the charm of Bologna will sneak up on you and steal your heart.
So I present to you the city of Bologna, and plead my case as to why it should be on your Italian bucket list. You'll have to decide for yourself if it's worth your time.
Eat. Eat. Repeat.
The number one thing I loved about Bologna was the food. Pasta with meat sauce, green lasagna, mortadella, and Italian flatbread, are your taste buds tempted yet? Here's a breakdown of all the best foods to eat in Bologna.
Tagliatelle al Ragù Bolognese
When you think of spaghetti with meat sauce, you are most likely thinking of a version of Tagliatelle al Ragu Bolognese. This classic dish of pasta with meat ragu was born in Bologna, and it is here that you will eat the best you will ever have in your lifetime. During my three-day visit, I ate more pasta than I thought was humanly possible, and I wear it as a badge of honor. In all honesty, I do actually wear it, because my clothes are all a little tighter since my trip to Bologna. One thing to keep in mind, however; if you go to Bologna and order this pasta dish, don’t expect it to be a tomato-based sauce. True Bolognese sauce is meat-based, with lots of yummy spices and finely chopped veggies, but there’s no tomato sauce. Trust me, you won’t miss it!
Next on the menu is the great-great-grandfather of American “boloney”, my new favorite Italian cold cut, Mortadella. Light pink in color, but big on flavor, this is not your Oscar Mayer variety of “bologna”. Also, let me just stop here and remind you that the correct way to say Bologna is “boe-lone-yuh”. You can still call the American cold-cut boloney (especially when you’re talking about a Southern fried boloney sandwich), but don’t you dare say it that way when you come to the motherland! Italian Mortadella is marbled with small cubes of fat, which gives it a slightly sweet flavor. Peppers, pistachios, or olives are also sometimes added to spice up the flavor. No matter how they spice it, or slice it, it's delicious!
Also known as crescentine, Tigelle is a type of small, round, flat bread that is very common in the mountains around Bologna. Similar in texture to focaccia bread, Tigelle is traditionally eaten with cunza, a paste made from seasoned pork lard. You can still eat it this way; however, they are commonly served along with selections of cheese, salami, and other meats. We ordered some as an appetizer and instantly regretted ordering a meal. We also debated about the best way to eat these delicious circular-shaped morsels. Should you drizzle olive oil on top and eat them alongside your meat and cheese board, or cut them open and create a pita-type sandwich? You'll have to weigh in on the debate if you ever make it to Bologna!
Lasagna Verde al Forno
Last up on the Bologna food list is something I didn’t even know existed until my trip there, and something I still dream about. It’s a Lasagna made with green noodles and béchamel sauce, baked in the oven until it's perfectly crispy on top and piping hot in the middle. There are two things that make this lasagna different than your traditional Italian lasagna. First, béchamel sauce is used instead of the ricotta cheese you would typically found in la. Second are the green noodles that are used, which get their color from spinach that's mixed in when the noodles are made. Lasagna Verde al Forno, or oven-baked green lasagna, is a dish that is truly special, and if you haven't eaten it in Bologna, then you haven't eaten it right!
The Charm of the Old City
Wander the cobbled streets of Bologna's city center and you will get the distinct feeling that you've stepped back in time. Bologna's historic center, in typical medieval fashion, is laid out in a circular shape with streets that extend out from the center like spokes of a wheel. If you walk too far in any direction you will find the remains of old city walls, and every so often an imposing stone gate sitting in the center of a busy roundabout. The people who live here don't seem to be impressed or bothered by them. I suppose when you live in a city with so much history, it just becomes part of you.
Dotted with piazzas, palaces, and churches, Bologna is a city that you don't even need a plan for exploring if you don't want one. We had a plan, and kept getting distracted by things that weren't on our list of "what to see". We found ourselves wandering down crooked streets, discovering museums that used to be palaces, marveling at towering statues standing guard around churches, and stumbling upon remnants of the city's old canal system.
By the way, did you know that Bologna used to have over 60 kilometers of canals? During medieval times, Bologna was actually one of the most technologically advanced cities of the age, with water from the canals powering mills that did everything from grinding flour to spinning silk! One of the only remaining views of these ancient canals can be found just a few blocks off of Via dell'Indipendenza. Known by the name Ventana al canal or Finestrella, there is a small window on one end of a row of buildings that gives you a peek, and a metal gate at the other end. Finding them takes a bit of searching, but it is one of Bolgona's true hidden gems!
All of this being said, allow yourself time to wander the streets of Bologna, but do make sure that you include a few places on your itinerary. Piazza Maggiore is the main piazza and the center of Bologna. It is one of the oldest and largest squares in Italy. Here, the magnificent Basilica of San Petronio, flanked on all sides by grand palaces, will invite you to find a place to sit in order to take it all in. In fact, the steps of the basilica are a splendid place to sit and watch the sun set behind the Palazzo dei Notai.
Just in front of this historic building is the Fountain of Neptune. Take a moment to consider this fountain, with the larger than life Neptune and his, shall we say manliness, holding back the seas, the four angels at his feet representing the rivers of the four known continents, and the sensual sea nymphs at the corners squeezing water out of their breasts. I find it intriguing that this fountain was commissioned by the Pope at the time, in all of its delightfully naughty glory.
Another must-see in Bologna is the Piazza Santo Stefano. While Piazza Maggiore is stunning in its grandeur, this piazza will take your breath away with its quiet beauty. The unique shape and design of the floor, surrounding porticoes, and the Complex of the Seven Churches make this one of the most special places in the city. I could go on forever about all the amazing churches, palaces, and piazzas we found, but we will have to save that for another time. Let's discover the other reasons Bologna should be on your Italian bucket list!
The Two Towers
That's right, folks, Pisa isn’t the only Italian city with a leaning tower. Bologna has not one, but TWO of them! The history of towers in Bologna is an interesting one. Most of the other Italian towers you’ll find are campanile, or bell towers, which were built in connection with a church or city hall. While these two particular towers in Bologna are next to a church, they were originally built as military lookouts and status symbols. And they weren't the only ones. These two tall towers that stand out in the Bologna skyline are part of a small number that remain out of what used to be hundreds. During medieval times, the wealthiest families of Bologna built towers to signify their power and status. As you might have guessed, the bigger the tower was, the higher status it signified. The two tallest of these were the Garisenda Tower and the Asinelli Tower, both of which happen to be leaning.
You can go inside the Asinelli Tower, and if you’re brave enough to climb the 498 steps to the top, you will be rewarded with incredible views of the city. Be forewarned, these are not like the stone steps in the Tower of Pisa, they are wooden steps with slats you can see through to the depths below. The only saving grace for me was that every 100 or so steps there is a solid platform which blocks your view to the bottom. It almost makes you forget how high up you are. That is, until you look out a window, or reach the sign about two-thirds of the way up that indicates you are at the height of the Tower of Pisa. I’ve made it my mission to not let my fear of heights stop me from experiencing incredible things such as this, but this one almost got me. I’m glad I powered through, however, because the view from the top is absolutely breathtaking! If you decide to climb the Asinelli Tower, make sure you buy your tickets online in advance so you are able to choose your time slot.
Portico is the Italian word for a covered walkway supported by columns along the side of a street. It can be translated as a patio, terrace, or front porch if it is in front of a single building, or as an arcade or colonnade if it's along a row of shops. Technically the Italian plural form of portico is portici (por-tee-chee), but the plural form in English usage is porticoes. Enough grammar, let’s talk about the amazing system of covered walkways that traverse the entire old city center of Bologna.
Bologna’s porticoes began in medieval times, when they were built to provide covered walking paths for wealthy people to go to the markets. As various ruling powers took control of the city, many things changed; however, the porticoes remained. Over the years, they were improved, and the wooden timber designs were replaced with stone and marble. The wealthier neighborhoods had grander and more elaborately designed columns, arches, and tile work. To be exact, there are 23.6 kilometers of porticoes in the city of Bologna. That being said, don't bother bringing an umbrella if you come to Bologna. It rained several times on our visit and we never once took out our umbrellas.
The Church on the Hill
Speaking of porticoes, the longest one in the city is a true marvel. Built to connect the city center with the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, the Portico di San Luca measures almost four kilometers long! The history of the church itself is special in its own right. The story begins with a painting of the Virgin Mary which was thought to have been painted by St. Luke. The painting was brought to Bologna by a hermit, where it was entrusted to a noblewoman. The woman used a small piece of land on a hill just outside of town to build a small church as a sanctuary for the painting. This church became a place of prayer for people across the city, and money was given to the woman in order to build a larger church. Over time, the church became a sacred place to honor the Blessed Virgin, and stairs were built from the Saragozza Gate up to the church.
The stairs were eventually replaced with, you guessed it, a portico. The Portico di San Luca took 200 years to build, is almost four kilometers long, and has an elevation gain of 215 meters. There are 666 arches along the route. Obvious speculation has ensued over the years about the relevance of the number of arches and what devilish significance it may have. The snake-like shape of the portico, with its twists and turns, has inspired the idea that the portico represents a serpent being crushed by the Virgin Mary. Along the way, there are also 15 shrines that tell the story of Christ, or more specifically, the 15 mysteries of the rosary.
The portico was built with a specific purpose; to safely carry the painting from the church on the hill into the city. Over 500 years later, the church still holds the relic that honors the Blessed Virgin, and the tradition continues to this day. You can witness it yourself every April, as the original Byzantine relic is carried from its sanctuary on the hill down to the Cathedral of San Pietro in the city center. If you can't visit in April, not to worry. You can purchase a ticket to the crypt below the church, where the relic is held the rest of the year. I recommend that you buy the combination ticket that also includes a climb up to the dome, the views of the city and Po Valley are stunning.
To reach the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of San Luca, you can either walk, drive, take a taxi, or ride a bus. There's even a San Luca Express Train. The walk is not easy, but is so worth it! The church of course is beautiful, but the journey up through the porticoes is the real treasure. Along the way you'll be rewarded with views of the entire city of Bologna and the surrounding valley, not to mention how beautiful the portico itself is. Stretch out those leg muscles and set your GPS for the Saragozza Gate, then begin the climb! If you can't, or would rather not walk, the church's official website has directions on all the ways to get to the top.
Bologna has a history of art and science that is centuries old. Would you expect anything less from the city with the oldest University in the world? In fact, due to its prominence in the world of academics, Bologna was referred to as the "learned city of excellence" during the 16th through 18th centuries. It had a thriving book industry, renowned for its printing and typography. The city is also a UNESCO city of music, with the claim to fame that Mozart studied here in order to pass the tests that allowed him to perform at royal courts across Europe.
Although there are multiple museums in Bologna dedicated to its many forms and history of art, what I fell in love with was found in the streets. Specifically, Via del Pratello. We had a few hours to spare, and since I'm a bit obsessed with street art I typed "street art" into my Google Maps app and hit the jackpot!
Far from the more frequented "touristy" part of Bologna, we discovered a neighborhood rich with authentic daily life. What struck me the most was the number of people we saw meeting for a caffè or aperitivo at one of the vast number of bars and restaurants that lined the street. Apparently we stumbled upon one of the coolest streets in Bologna, a haven of social gatherings famous for its nightlife, with more than a few secrets hidden behind its doors.
The neighborhood, called Il Pratello, has a bit of a sordid past, as I've found most cool neighborhoods do. This particular area of the city was largely inhabited by prostitutes as far back as the 1500's, and over the years developed a reputation for being a "rough" neighborhood. It was also in this neighborhood that the proletarian and antifascism rebellions were born, and the Resistance was started.
Today, Il Pratello is known as a hip and trendy neighborhood, and it is still a place where self-expression is encouraged and celebrated. The most beautiful example of this is the open-air gallery of street art that you'll find on the walls, buildings, doors, and porticoes of Via del Pratello and the surrounding streets. If you time your visit during afternoon riposo or in the early evening, your experience will be completely different than during normal business hours. Many of the works are painted on metal doors that pull down when the shops are closed, so you'll miss out on some hidden treasures if you don't time your visit right! Here is just a sampling of the incredible art we found.
How to get to Bologna, where to stay, and how to get around
Bologna is easy to get to from anywhere in Italy! The airport is just outside of town, and there's a shuttle that goes back and forth from the airport to the central train station every seven minutes. Inside the airport, just follow the green signs and arrows on the floor that say Marconi Express. When you get to the shuttle station, buy your ticket from the machine, they are around €8.00 per person each way. The city center is the second stop. Now all you have to do is hold on tight, because this ride feels like a roller coaster!
If you don't have a car, I highly recommend that you stay in the city center. We stayed at the I Portici Hotel Bologna on Via dell'Indipendenza and it was amazing. There are plenty of other hotel options nearby as well. We loved the location because it was only about a 10 minute walk from the train station, and we were able to walk everywhere else we wanted to go. Even the Sanctuary of the Madonna, although we did walk 8 miles that day.
Bologna seems to have a very efficient public transportation system as well. Everywhere we walked, we saw buses going by. If you don't have a car and are not able to walk to everything you want to see, check with your hotel for help using the bus system or consult their website here.
I hope that in reading this you discovered, as I did, that the charm of Bologna does not belong to just one thing, or even a list of places. It leaves you with a feeling of awe that is most definitely more than big red buildings and tall towers. I hope that one day you will get to visit Bologna, so you can also uncover its amazing sights, unearth its fascinating stories, and discover its hidden gems.
If you enjoyed reading this, drop me a comment and check out some of my other Italian city guides below or on my European Destinations page.
Cheers to finding adventure near, far, or wherever you are!