Bologna, in the Emilia Romagna province of Northern Italy, has Europe’s oldest university. However, this modern meets medieval gem is not just for students. As a tourist, you will never get bored because there is just too much to do and see. In addition, let us not even mention the food that makes Bologna appear on countless bucket lists.
The Best time to Visit Bologna
Plan a visit any time of year, although, over August, many stores and restaurants close. This is when the locals take their yearly leave. Therefore, avoid August.
Fun Facts about Bologna
- Known as La Grassa (The Fat), this town is the home of Mortadella Sausages from which American Baloney is derived from, and Bolognese Ragù Sauce.
- The leaning tower, Torre delle Garisenda impressed Dante immensely and he refers to it in, The Divine Comedy.
- The beloved singer Lucio Dalla’s, Piazza Grande, is about Piazza Maggiore. Many wrongly assume it is about the great Italian squares in Madena or even Arezzo.
- Yet another moniker for Bologna is La Dotta (The Learned). The University was the first to launch degrees in the arts.
- Palos Verdes Estates, California has a duplicate version of the Fontana del Nettuno. Like the original, the fountain has been plagued by controversy.
The Top 10 Attractions in Bologna
10. Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca dell Musica
In the world of music, Bologna is the ‘old lady.’ UNESCO lists it as a City of Music. The International Museum and Library of Music houses historical and strange instruments, hundreds of portraits and busts of legendary musicians and composers, signed theater programs, scores, posters and even costume sketches.
9. MAMbo – Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna
Formerly the Forno del Pan (Bread Bakery), this building is now a trendy modern art museum. Adding to the hipness, there is an onsite bar, bistro, library, and bookshop. Fixed exhibits on the ground floor consist of optical illusions of Bridget Riley, Enrico Castelleni's sculptural paintings, the disturbing works of Gina Pane and others. The second-floor hosts changing presentations from local and international contributors. Past exhibitions have honored Giorgio Morandi and the late David Bowie.
8. Basilica di Santo Stefano
Behind the Piazza Santo Stefano is the basilica telling the story of Jesus Christ’s Passion which is the subject of a popular movie as well.
Built on a site originally dedicated Isis, only four of the seven churches remain. These are complexly interlinked and full of rich religious references and imagery in the architecture and art.
7. Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna
The Archaeological Civic Museum has wondrous displays of local history covering periods from the Bronze and Iron Ages to Ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantine. The Numismatic Collection is significant as there are about 100,000 medals and coins from these eras. The dedicated basement, which was added in 1994, contains roughly 4000 remnants and is considered as one of the most essential Ancient Egyptian collections in Europe alongside the Museo Archaelogico di Florence.
6. Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
The National Art Museum began in the 1700s and following a few name changes, donations and the return of paintings from Milan and Paris after the invasion of Napoleon, the Pinacoteca became what it is today. Rooms are dedicated to individual styles and key artists like Guido Reni. Other works include Raphael’s Estasi di Santa Cecilia, Lodovico Carracci’s, Bargellini Madonna, and Vitale’s San Giorgio e il Drago.
5. Museo Ducati
Nowdays, La Rossa doesn’t just bring ancient red architecture to mind but Ducati and Lamborghini! The Ducati Museum is located at their factory headquarters and has seven rooms covering their motorbikes’ development. The journey begins with the Cuccilo moped that was manufactured after WWII and ends with the Desmosedici. Free escorted tours of the factory are available but you need to book these in advance. The museum was renovated in 2016 to commemorate their 90th anniversary.
4. San Petronio Basilica
Located on the Piazza Maggiore, the clearly unfinished San Petronio Basilica is the sixth largest church in Europe and fifteenth internationally. Initial construction was paused in the late 14th century. A grandiose, mammoth extension was directly curtailed by the Pope in 1562. It was unheard of that St-Peter’s in Rome be outdone and consequently, the adjoining university was built.
Despite this, it is still a must-see as it possesses impressive artworks including a unique fresco of heaven and hell. Additionally, it has the oldest organ and longest indoor meridian line known to humankind.
3. Le due Torri: Garisenda e degli Asinelli
The leaning tower of Pisa is the most recognized structure of its type, but Bologna has two prominent leaning towers: the Asinelli which is taller than Pisa at 97.2 meters and the slimmer Garsidenda.
In the Middle Ages, the wealthy city had almost 200 of these terracotta brick towers for protection which, in conjunction with the ochre colored roofs of many buildings, resulted in the town’s nickname La Rossa (The Red). Less than 2 dozen of these towers remains as the rest were destroyed by fire, lightning, and war.
2. Fontana di Nettuno
The Piazza del Nettuno is a favorite meeting spot featuring a fountain of Neptune, the sea god joined by cherubs and mermaids whose breasts once spouted water. This landmark is currently undergoing reconstruction until September 2017.
At over 3 meters in height and 22 tons, it is no wonder it is the Il Gigante in Italian and Al Żigànt locally. Completed in 1566, the bronze and marble monument was found offensive due to Neptune’s nudity so the church clothed the artwork in pants! This year, Facebook has apologized for outlawing photos of this national moment for being sexually explicit.
1. Piazza Maggiore
In the centre of the city, is the Piazza Maggiore dating back to the 1200s. Developed over time, it received its present name in 1945. Several key attractions border the communal square that makes it the best place to start in. You can also enjoy refreshments at one of the cafés or take a stroll to the four main retail streets.
Activities Available in Bologna
- Shop until you drop – Besides the designer boutiques such as Armani and Gucci, there are cheaper options at the La Piazzola Mercato and Mercato della Montagnola.
- Groceries – Browse the lively Mercato delle Erbe for fresh produce.
- Urban rafting – Bologna has underground canals. The adventurous can go rafting.
- Seek the strange – The city has tons of secrets and oddities to explore. One of these is the whispering walls.
- Enjoy a rooftop café – Pop into the Hotel Touring and savoring a gorgeous 360° view from the Terrazza Mattuiani with a drink in hand.
- Touring – If you are not doing this solo, join a guided tours focusing on food, history, and more. One of the most popular is the Ferrari & Food.
- Nightlife – There is an overwhelming amount of pubs, clubs, discos and venues with live entertainment such as Covo Club, Celtic Druid, Carosello, Matis, RED and Studio 54.
- Cinemas – There are ample movie theaters like the Cinema Chaplin, The Space Cinema and Rialto Studio. During Il Cimena Ritrova Festival, watch restored movies at several venues including the Piazza Maggiore, which transforms into a magical open-air theatre.
- Performing Arts - Theater aficionados can benefit from the Teatro Communale.
- Cooking Classes – There are dozens where you can learn to make anything Italian from gelato to pasta.
- Cycling – Take the recommended routes for sightseeing on your rented bicycle or Vespa.
Top Events in Bologna
- Madonna di San Luca Festival - Held every year over Easter.
- Danza Urbana - Happens in different months every year. 2017’s festival is in September.
- San Marino Formula 1 Grand Prix - An annual event. This year it is 30 June – 1 July.
- Bologna Music Festival - Happens twice a year from March to May and October to November.
- Artefiera/Fiera di Bologna - Occurs annually in January.
What to Eat in Bologna
Perfectly Pleasing Pies
Light thin-crusted pies are baked in a traditional wood-fired oven at Risto Pizza Nicola’s. One of the rather bizarre but bursting with flavor is the egg and zucchini pie.
Ravishing Ricotta Ravioli
Trattoria Gianni serves some fantastic vegetarian dishes but the Ravioli Burro e Salvia will make you salivate. Spinach ravioli is stuffed with sage, butter and two kinds of cheese: ricotta and Parmigiano.
Best Brewed Beers
International university students have made craft beer more popular than wine. Baladin has been brewing beers for years. They have some innovative and often experimental creations using pumpkin, griotta cherries, ginger, heather honey, and coffee. These specials are usually limited.
Craving Cheese Cake
Garganelli Restaurant has a desert buffet that includes Bolognese Cheese Cake made with soft and squacquerone, yogurt, sour cream, and pears.
Grabbing Great Gelatos
An agreeable assortment of flavors of gelatos is available at the La Sobretteria Castiglione. Classics include dark chocolate, yogurt, pistachio, and almond. There are also seasonal choices like coffee, coconut, rum and raisin, walnut panna cotta and even eggnog.
Getting to Bologna
Bologna has its own airport. You could just fly there, but not all international flights go directly to Aeroporto Guglielmo Marconi di Bologna. In that case, you would need to take an interconnecting flight as there are European airlines that fly straight to the airport.
The airport is 8km from the city. To complete your journey, you can travel by train, taxi, shuttle, or bus. Most travelers prefer to make use of the railway for the final leg of their trip. It faster, affordable, comfortable and reliable.
Getting around and about in Bologna
Many of the main tourist attractions are either on or very close to the Piazza Maggiore. You will actually be able to travel by foot. Cycling and scooters are extremely widespread as well.
There is a public transport system, TPER – Bologna Passenger Transportation that provides means of travel in the province’s suburban and rural areas.
You could consider a cab to get to where you want to go. There are numerous local companies at your disposal like Conzorzio Autonomo Taxisti, Radio Taxi Cotabo or Uber. You need to call first to book a cab as you cannot flag them down in the street.
Where to stay in Bologna
Price / Quality Ratio
Budget & Family Options
List of Recommended Souvenirs
Top Tips for Travelers Traveling to Bologna
- Wear comfy shoes. You will be walking a lot when exploring the 40 km long porticoes. No umbrella is required.
- Many restaurants, shops, and market stalls do not accept cards for small amounts. Make sure you always have cash on hand.
- This library on Piazza Nettuno is not just for bookworms. The Biblioteca Salaborsa has an open Roman excavation and road visible through the glass floor. Check your e-mail, listen to music, watch a movie, or read an international paper. Best of all, everything is free.
- Appreciate the remaining notorious graffiti. Recently, there has been much debate about this urban art. This has caused the anonymous street artist Blu, whose creations cover walls all over the world to remove his works in 2016.
- Climb the whopping 498 stairs of the Asinelli Tower. You will be glad you did when you see the view. It is out of this world.
Enjoying Bologna on a Budget
- Don’t pay a guide. Many of the best attractions are free of charge. Make sure to purchase a museum card that offers value for money.
- Live like a student and take advantage of the canteens as well as discounts at the movies and certain bars.
- Browse the markets where vendors will offer just about everything at a cheaper price. If you are not shy, haggle.
- Walk or rent a bike for longer distances.
- Eat an aperitivo at a bar instead of ordering full meals. You can dig into the buffet for a price of a drink if your timing is right.
Day trips from Bologna
- There are plenty of university museums in and around the city. For something bizarre, check out the Museo di Anatomia Patologica e Teratologia Veterinaria in Ozzano dell’Emilia. View waxworks and models of animals’ internal organs and disturbing grotesque deformations.
- If you would like to see more opulent cars, the Museo Lamborghini is only 25 km away.
- Hop on a train and spend a day of fun in the sun at Rimini Beach.
Visitor Information & Useful Links
Tourist Office: Bologna Welcome
Piazza Maggiore, 1/e.
Tourist Office: Bologna – Emilia Romanga Turismo
Piazza Maggiore, 1/E
Emergency Contact Numbers
Fire Brigade: Vigili Del Fuoco Distaccamento Cittadino "Carlo Fava" Bologna