The ancient porticoed city of Bologna in Italy’s bountiful Emilia-Romagna region is a utopia for those of us who travel to eat and drink ourselves silly.
From tips on where to eat in the city nicknamed “La Grassa” (The Fat One) to advice on what see between meals, this is your guide to the very best things to do in Bologna.
Bologna is a medieval city. The remnants of its ancient ramparts can still be seen at the gates of Porta Saragozza, Porta Maggiore, Porta San Felice.
It’s also the capital of the wealthy Emilia Romagna region, which is one of Italy’s most important food producing regions.
Even the Romans regard Bologna as one of the world’s greatest gastro destinations.
But Bologna’s main claim to fame is that it’s home to the oldest university in the world (founded 1088), which gives the city the edge that makes it such a great place to visit.
One minute you’re walking through the seemingly endless porticoed arcades, peering in through ritzy fashion boutiques and jewellery stores, and the next you’re lost in a maze of burnt mustard and russet-roofed backstreets, in student-ladened piazzas.
Best Things to Do in Bologna
1. Orientate Yourself in Piazza Maggiore
Wander up the thronging artery of Via dell’Indipendenza and you’ll arrive at Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square and cultural heart.
This is where you can see the iconic Basilica of San Petronio, which is the 7th largest church in Europe, and get into the swing of things with an espresso at one of the many cafes that fringe the square.
Just around the corner from here, in Piazza Nettuno, you’ll also find the Neptune Fountain, where the lord of the seas looms over four ocean nymphs who jet spouts of watery pearls from their perky bronze breasts.
You have arrived.
2. Get Lost in Roman Bologna’s Quadrilatero
The grid of narrow streets and alleys jutting off Piazza Maggiore, including Via Clavature (Street of Locksmiths) and Via Pescherie Vecchie (Old Fishmongers Way), is known as the Quadrilatero and occupies what was once Roman Bologna.
Today this charming little district is a labyrinth of colourful market stalls, bars and delis, and the perfect place to begin your culinary exploration of Bologna.
3. Hang with Bologna’s Thriving Student Population
Via Zamboni is one of the oldest roads in Bologna and carves its way through the historic university district, all the way from the two wonky towers of Garisenda and Asinelli to Porta San Donato (more on these below).
Along the way you’ll discover the university’s Palazzo Malvezzi de’ Medici, G.B. Martini Conservatory of Music, Palazzo Magnani, the Teatro Comunale, Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore, and Palazzo Poggi.
You’ll also find many makeshift bookshops housed under the porticoes, with poems and pages of political ideology plastered on the walls.
Stop at one of the busy cafe terraces for an Aperol spritz and a chance to eavesdrop.
4. Get Lost in the Ghetto Ebraico (Jewish Quarter)
We were fortunate to end up staying right next to Bologna’s Ghetto, which turned out to be our favourite part of the city.
It’s the sort of area where students hang out in the streets, smoking and eating pizza between classes. You’ll find countless cool cafes and trattorias to explore here.
Apparently, back in the day, the gateways into the Jewish Quarter were opened in the morning and closed at night. The main entrance can still be seen on Via de’ Giudei, while the second located between Via del Carro and Via Zamboni, and the third on Via Oberdan.
The Ghetto is built over a series of hidden canals and characterised by its colourful but heavily-graffitied streets and artisan workshops, offering a very real glimpse of local life in Bologna.
Things to Do and See in Bologna’s Jewish Ghetto
Visit Buratti House: The area’s most important religious building and the historic seat of the synagogue.
Stroll Through Piazzetta Marco Biagi: Hidden between Via dell’Inferno and Piazza San Martino.
Drop in at the MEB, Museo Ebraico di Bologna (Jewish Museum of Bologna): Preserving and celebrating Bologna’s Jewish heritage.
5. Eat Like a Local
Let’s not put it off any longer.
Italy’s Emilia Romagna region is responsible for producing Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar (Modena), Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello di Zibello, mortadella (sausage) and a whole lot more.
And this being Italy and all, it’s also a paradise for us pasta lovers.
Tortellini – Bologna’s famous tortellini – fresh little pasta parcels stuffed with pork, diced mortadella sausage and Parmigiano-Reggiano – is one of those heart and wholesome dishes that you just can’t get enough of. Grate giant flakes of Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top and see it away with a bottle or two of Pinot Grigio and spend the rest of the day in a warm and fuzzy state of bliss. That’s breakfast sorted.
Tagliatelle al Ragù and Lasagne alla Bolognese – Us Brits who grew up on spaghetti bolognese (aka “spag bol”) might be surprised to hear that the dish doesn’t actually exist in Bologna, and it never did. As with our creamy “Indian” curries, it seems spaghetti bolognese is a dish of our very own creation. No, in Bologna it’s all about tagliatelle al ragù (and lasagne alla bolognese), which is similar but a whole lot better. It’s rich and meaty, served with flat strands of fresh tagliatelle pasta. Goes down a dream with a bottle of Chianti, or indeed a few frosty jars of Peroni.
Where to Eat in Bologna: This being a region that’s long been defined by its food culture, you’ll struggle to find a “bad” place to eat in Bologna. And because this is a university town, you’ll also find plenty of affordable places to eat and drink.
My advice is simply to follow the crowds. You’ll spot the popular trattorias and pizzerias a mile off – they the places that look like they’ve been there for a hundred years and are generally graced by people dressed significantly better than your average tourist.
Start by exploring the many restaurants on and around streets like Via del Pratello and Via Zamboni, Via Saragozza and Via Indipendenza.
See a few great restaurants in Bologna here.
6. Join a Food Tour and Eat All the Right Things in All the Right Places
If you’re particularly interested in learning about, and eating, Bologna’s famous cuisine then I would highly recommend taking a food tour such as this one.
I also like the look of this half-day Parmigiano Reggiano cheese tour, which takes you out to some of region’s famous producers.
I almost always try to take a food tour when I’m exploring a new city/country as I believe you can get a quicker and more solid understanding of a place by studying its cuisine. Plus it’s the sort of “study” you never tire of.
7. Drink Like a Local
Being the gastronomically-minded city it is, you’ll find countless Italian craft beers and wines to try in Bologna, but be sure to try the local Pignoletto sparkling white that the Emilia Romagna wine region is famous for. It’s not so different from Prosecco, but don’t let the locals hear you saying so!
You’ll also find various varieties of Lambrusco all over Bologna. Don’t let your adolescent transgressions put you off tipping back a glass or two – it’s perfect on a sunny a day and goes down lovely with a bowl of piping hot pasta (or at breakfast with fresh croissants and a glass of OJ).
Where to Drink in Bologna: Follow the crowds and hop around the many bars in and around Piazza Verdi, Piazza Maggiore and Via Zamboni.
Osteria del Sole Bologna is a great place to begin your enological adventures.
Squirrelled away in the shadows of the wonky towers, Café Gamberini is actually a historic pastry/coffee shop but they’re highly regarded for their cocktails and savoury tidbits, making it an ideal place for a few pre-dinner aperitivos. Or of course you could pop in for breakfast and just… well, hang around until it’s time for a Negroni.
8. Climb the Wonkiest Tower in Italy
Dating back to 1109, the ancient Garisenda and Asinelli towers date back to Bologna’s medieval beginnings and are the wonkiest towers in Italy (yes, even more so than Pisa) and offer the very best views over the city.
You can climb up the 498 steps of the Asinelli tower (the tallest of the two towers), which as we came to learn is much taller than it looks from ground level.
The rickety wooden staircase was really quite terrifying and both Rosana and I were trembling from fear as much as exhaustion by the time we reached the top.
No joke. I honestly can’t understand how it’s still standing.
Entry is €5 (€3 for kids) but there’s only one time slot per hour so be sure to book your visit on the website ahead of time and work your day around it.
Tip: If you’re anything like us then you’ll need a drink or two after your knee-trembling ascent (not that the descent was much better). In which case you may prefer to join this short tour that includes entry to the tower as well as a visit to a nearby wine bar for cold cuts and a few nerve-calming glasses of the good stuff.
9. Explore the Porticoes
Bologna is famous for its 666 terracotta arcades, or ‘portici’ as the locals call them, which stretch out for almost 50km.
They make it possible to stroll the entire city while avoiding the rain or blistering heat, but that wasn’t exactly what they were always intended to do.
They were actually built as Bologna’s student population was exploding, when there was an increased demand for housing.
The porticoes allowed the city to build vertically, quite literally, over the existing city streets.
The idea was to make them high enough to allow horse and carriages to travel beneath.
But today they harbour cafe terraces, outdoor book stalls, pastry shops, gelaterias and those who have no other place to call their own.
10. Nibble Your Way Through Bologna’s Famous Markets
Mercato di Mezzo is the oldest and most famous market in Bologna and is conveniently located just off Piazza Maggiore. A little overpriced, but still worth a visit.
Mercato della Terra is a fantastic open air market organised by Slow Food Italy.
Mercato delle Erbe is a sort of food court-cum cultural space. A fantastic place to eat, hear live music and take part in various local celebrations.
11. Fill Up on Art
As a 3,000-year-old city, it’s no surprise that Bologna is packed with world-class museums and galleries. Here are a few of the best:
Pinacoteca Nazionale is overflowing with paintings created between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries.
Collezioni Comunali d’Arte is a spectacular space housing art from the 14th century to today.
Galleria D’Arte Maggiore is a heavyweight gallery exhibiting masterpieces from artists new and old.
MAMbo is a world-renowned contemporary art museum.
Museo del Patrimonio Industriale is housed in an old brick factor and celebrates the region’s industrial prowess. Explore everything from antique power plant machinery to Ducati motorcycles and Maserati sports cars.
12. Pizza, Pizza, Pizza (for Dinner)
Proper Italian pizza is cooked in wood-fired ovens that take a long time to heat up. For this reason, many Italians choose to eat pasta for lunch and pizza for dinner.
This being one of Italy’s leading gastro cities, it’s really not difficult to find quality pizza (at anytime of day or night). Snag a table at Ranzani 13 Bologna, Pizzeria Altero
But really, don’t be afraid to explore any little places that look good to you. The more I travel, the less inclined I am to go to the “essential foodie spots” listed in blog posts like this. They’re quite often overrun and managed by tired staff. I enjoy finding the authentic places that are happy or even surprised to have tourists dining with them.
13. Take a Day Trip to Modena
Located just 20 minutes away from Bologna by train, we stayed in Modena by accident but completely fell in love with the place.
In a way, it’s sort of like a miniature version of Bologna, with all of its best bits distilled into a smaller, cleaner and less touristy package.
Although I should that it does have its own claims to fame, including being the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti, Modena balsamic vinegar, Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Ducati motorcycles.
If you have time then definitely go for the day or, better yet, stay over night.
Things to Do in Modena
1. Amble around the main square of Piazza Grande and gaze at the gorgeous Duomo di Modena.
2. Stop for drinks in Piazza XX Settembre.
3. Visit the flower market in Piazza Roma and explore the many cafes and patisseries nearby.
4. Explore the lively 100-year-old Albinelli Market.
5. Hop from bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant.
Make it Happen
How to Get to Bologna
Bologna’s main airport is Guglielmo Marconi Airport, which is served by all the usual suspects. From the airport you can hop on the Aerobus shuttle, which departs every 11 minutes and costs €6.
When to Go to Bologna
I’d say Bologna is the sort of place you could enjoy at any time of year, especially as it’s not a major tourist destination.
How to Get Around Bologna
Just walk. It’s small and compact and the porticoes make it a particularly easy city to explore on foot.
Where to Stay in Bologna
We stayed at the excellent L’8 Boutique Design Apartments, which are housed in a historic palazzo within strolling distance of the city centre.
The eight apartments feature modern furnishings and facilities with pristine kitchens and bathrooms, but with elegant touches that remind you that you are staying in an old Italian palace.
We loved starting our day with coffee on the leafy terrace, where we also relaxed with a bottle of Lambrusco before heading out for dinner each night.
It’s a family business and the friendly staff have an office on the ground floor of the building, which is convenient when you have questions or want to ask for advice.
Check availability and book your L8 Boutique apartment in Bologna here – from €90 a night, which is excellent value.
Note: Our stay at the L8 Apartments was gifted but these opinions and photos are 100% my own.
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