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.