25 April 2022
A hidden gem
Located in the north of Italy, Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region and is home to 388,367 inhabitants. At just 140.9 km², this is a city you can explore almost entirely on foot, but this mini metropolis is bursting with surprises. Whether it’s the great food, medieval history or the vibrant student culture that permeates every facet of Bolognese life, Bologna is a hidden gem amongst more popular Italian cities like Rome and Venice.
In Bologna, the summers are warm and mostly clear and the winters are very cold and partly cloudy, but this is a city whose allure is not in its weather. Instead, the magic of Bologna lies in its culture and history. Whether you’re climbing towers or seeking shelter from sunshine or rain under beautiful medieval arches, Bologna’s charm is undeniable. This is a place where endless medieval monuments are perfectly juxtaposed with a modern student culture, blending together to form a city that is equal parts fun and intriguing. Every street, building and gate in this city has a story to tell, and they’re all yours to uncover.
What makes Bologna, Bologna?
1. Italy's food capital
Bologna is at the heart of Italy’s culinary scene. One of the main things to do in the city is to eat, so knowing where to go for food is a big deal. For the foodie, perhaps the most important place to explore in Bologna is the Quadriletero district. This giant food market is home to al fresco diners, food stalls and family-run restaurants. During the day, the place buzzes with the sound of guests chattering away over hearty meals or sharing gossip over piping hot cups of coffee. When the sun goes down, the bars come to life as revellers descend in search of the city’s best vibes. It’s the perfect time to enjoy an Aperitivo with a nice Mortadella dish at one of the Quadriletero’s many wine bars.
Join the throngs of happy diners as you indulge yourself in restaurants that offer everything from tortellini to tagliatelle. Head to Via Pesecherie Vecchie to browse colourful fruit and vegetable stalls, or pick up handmade pasta in some of the city’s best delicatessen shops. Sample meats and cheese at Tamburini, one of the most famous delis in Bologna that has been operating since 1932, or discover the true traditions of Bologna in Osteria del Sole - one of the oldest inns in Bologna - where wine is served around wooden tables that make conversation with strangers easy.
If you’re wondering what dish to choose once you’ve sat down at one of the many restaurants in Bologna, we’ve got you… This is the city where Bolognese sauce was born so if you’re partial to a great spag bol, don’t miss out on trying the dish in its home town. Don’t let the locals catch you asking for a “spaghetti bolognese”, though! Spare them the horror and ask for a “tagliatelle al ragù” instead. Seated within Emilia Romagna, Bologna is a great place to try the broader region’s delicacies, from parmesan to balsamic vinegar.
Fun fact: Lasagne originated in Bologna, after the invasion of northern Italy by the French Army with Napoleon, who brought bechamel sauce, a key ingredient for making Lasagna.
2. The most enchanting architecture
Old and beautiful, gritty and vibrant in equal parts, Bologna sightseeing makes for long, meandering wanders. From the city’s layout to its elegant buildings, Bologna’s architecture is captivating. Endearingly named La Rossa (The Red) after the terracotta buildings that span the old town, Bologna is a city whose beauty does not go unnoticed. This is a city whose strikingness lies not in the grandeur of its monuments, but in the allure of its streets. The narrow roads of Bologna make up a compact maze of old streets that showcases the city’s medieval origins and Renaissance re-touches. Bologna’s medieval structure is at the heart of tourism here; that feeling of being transported back in time is why people immediately become so enchanted with the city.
One of Bologna’s defining features is the endless rows of elegant porticos that line the city’s streets. First established in the Middle Ages, Bologna’s porticoes are one of the city’s most beautiful architectural additions. It’s no surprise then, that they are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Once upon a time, merchants would set up stalls to sell their wares underneath Bologna’s porticoes. Today the only evidence of the markets that once graced these arches can be found on Via Indipendenza, where an inscription on the ground reads “panis vita, canabis protectio, vinum laetitia” (bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is fun), marking the spot where these products were once sold.
Nowadays, the city’s endless archways serve an entirely different purpose. Spanning 62km in total across the entire city, these beautiful tunnelled passages are the world's longest stretch of porticoes. Each passage is unique in style and structure, and strolling through them is a great way to learn about the city and its history, one step at a time. If you’re in Bologna, you can’t miss the extremely long archway of San Luca. This beautiful series of arched arcades make for an amazing hike, with 666 arches spanning 4km. Follow the path through Bologna’s pretty arches to find the beautiful basilica church, Sanctuary of the Madonna San Luca, located 300 metres above the city plain - the perfect place for breathtaking panoramic views over the city.
Good to know: Piazza Maggiore is a central square in Bologna. The appearance in the 21st century generally reflects the layout from the 15th century.
3. Fascinating medieval history
With such a rich medieval history, it’s no surprise that Bologna is the historic capital of the Emilia Romagna region. First settled in 1000BC, Bologna was made up of three main walls: the Circle of Selenite, the Circle of the Thousand and the Circla. The walls were largely destroyed after being bombed heavily in the Second World War, but 10 of the original 12 city gates of La Circla still exist and can be admired in the historical centre today. Head to Via San Vitale near Piazza Aldrovandi to find the gate Porta San Vitale. The gate beautifully frames the Torre Asinelli, a symbol of Bologna, and makes for a great photo opportunity.
If you’d prefer to see the gates (also known as torresotti) in their former glory, the Museum Civico Medievale in the Ghisilardi-Fava Palace (via Manzoni 4) offers a great insight into the city’s history. Here, you’ll find works of art and objects from the Middle Ages, as well as a reconstruction of Bologna as it looked at the end of the 13th century. At that time, the city had only just begun to expand beyond the second ring of walls, which had 18 entrance gates. These gates once controlled the coming and going of people and imports to the city, as well as being part of great complexes consisting of a captain's house, keep, moat and drawbridge. Having played such an important role in Bologna’s history, these gates are well worth learning about.
Bologna is lovingly dubbed La Turrita - the City of Many Towers, thanks to the city’s… well… many towers. During the Middle Ages, the city had more than 100 towers. Their main function was defensive, but over time, they became a symbol of Bologna’s power. Today, only around 20 towers remain, but they are just as impressive and grand as in their heyday. Located in the heart of the city, the Two Towers (or Due Torri) are the leaning symbol of Bologna, Italy, and the most prominent of the Towers of Bologna. The Asinelli Tower (Torre Degli Asinelli) is the only one open to the public, with 498 internal steps that lead to the top. At a height of 97 metres, the tower offers spectacular views of the city. The Torre Garisenda, built at the same time as the Asinelli Tower, is known for leaning far enough to rival the Leaning Tower of Pisa! Fears that the tower would collapse in the 14th century meant that it was lowered, which is why the tower stands at only 47 meters today. If you’d like to explore some of Bologna’s other towers, visit the Torre dell’Arengo above Palazzo Re Enzo, which was used to summon people to the piazza for important announcements. You can even stay the night in the Torre Prendiparte - a tower which today houses a Bed and Breakfast.
At the heart of Bologna lies Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square. First built in the 13th century, the square has since had many uses. This is where Bologna’s citizens once gathered to listen to the enunciation of new laws and to witness capital executions, but it was also home to one of Europe’s biggest open-air market until the mid-1800s. Today, many of the buildings that surround the square were built during the Middle Ages, including Palazzo D’Accursio, Palazzo del Podestà, and Palazzo Re Enzo.
Fun fact: It’s been said that the city was home to 180 towers in the 13th century - an impressive number, considering how difficult it was to build such tall structures with the limited resources in Italy at the time.
4. It’s home to the oldest university in the world
At this point, we’re pretty sure Bologna should be called the City of Nicknames, because we’ve got yet another one. Dubbed La Dotta - or “The Learned One”, Bologna is home to the oldest university in the world, built in 1088. The university is at the heart of Bologna, with the city’s vibrant student lifestyle being one of its most defining characteristics. The university has been instrumental in fostering Bologna’s current culture: progressive, trendy, young-spirited. In fact, this is one of only two left-leaning cities in all of Italy, favouring education over the Church.
Evidence of the university’s influence can be seen all over the city - from monuments to the university’s famed scholars, to churches that were once used as lecture halls. The university had humble beginnings; it did not have a permanent location until the mid-16th century. Instead, doctors held lectures in their own homes, or in halls rented out from the Municipal Authority, like the Church of San Procolo which can still be explored today.
In the squares near the church of San Francesco and San Demonico, you’ll find the Graves of the Glossatori (or Tombe dei Glossatori). The Glossatori were leading jurists and scholars associated with the University of Bologna, and they were so highly regarded that these beautifully haunting funerary monuments were made in their honour. You’ll also find them lauded in the Medieval Museum. Monuments often depict a professor teaching a lesson to students - a theme that would become recurrent in Gothic sculpture. Keep your eyes peeled for the bas-relief from the Arca (Ark) of jurist Giovanni da Legnano - a favourite in Bologna. The sculpture portrays students in class; one sits in the centre of the classroom, deep in thought. One hand rests on an open book while the other sits on his chin.
Fun fact: Students at the Università di Bologna have two superstitions. They avoid climbing to the top of the Torre Degli Asinelli, and they never walk across the middle of the Piazza Maggiore. It is believed that if you do either of these you will not graduate.
5. Stunning elevated viewpoints
Bologna is home to some of the most enchanting city views, and what better way to see the city in all its glory than to get up high? Seeing Bologna from above offers a glimpse into a city that was once a Medieval Manhattan; a place that was once home to even more towers than the impressive number that remain today. If you’re wondering where to find the best views in the city, here are our top three picks:
The Terrace of the Basilica of San Petronio (or The Terrazza Panoramica della Basilica di San Petronio) sits in the very centre of the city, offering incredible panoramic views in all directions.
If you want to work for your views, head to Asinelli Tower. With 498 wooden steps, it’s definitely a challenge, but once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with a birds eye view of Piazza Maggiore and all that surrounds it.
This is the City of Many Towers, so don’t miss out on actually seeing those many towers! Located in the south of Bologna, San Michele in Bosco is a short hike up the Bolognese hills and offers the best view of all the city’s famed towers.
Fun fact: Bologna once resembled Venice, with 60 km of connecting waterways. The canals have been blocked or covered, but on Via Piella, you can still see a glimpse of old Bologna. Look for a square window with a sliding latch in the wall, through which you can gaze out onto the beautiful scene of a remaining canal nestled between buildings still in the open.
Good to know
Bologna is a compact and easily walkable city, so we recommend exploring it on foot. Not only will you see more of this delightful city, you’ll also work off all the calories you’ll no doubt consume in this gastronomic capital.
If you do take public transport, make sure to buy a ticket and validate it properly to avoid being given a fine by unforgiving officials. There are some (cash only) machines on buses where you can buy tickets on board, but they often don’t work or simply don’t exist on certain buses. Instead, pre-buy tickets at the electronic machines at train/bus stations OR at a “Tabacchi” shop (marked with a big T) and validate your tickets once on board.
Unlike in most Spanish cities, you’ll want to get up early to make the most of sightseeing in Bologna. The city rewards early risers with serenely empty streets to explore.
Bologna is still pretty cash-heavy, so don’t rely on your card to pay for things. Make sure to always have some cash on you.
Book things in advance! Bologna is not a great city for spontaneity, especially if you’re keen to see some of the city’s top attractions. The starring attraction, Asinelli Tower for example must be reserved in advance. The same principle applies to popular restaurants - so always make reservations to avoid disappointment!
There’s a “coperto charge”, or cover charge, in all restaurants in Bologna. Typically, each person at the table will have to pay it, even if they didn’t eat.
You have to actively ask the server for your bill, they won’t bring it out in a non-subtle attempt to shoo you out like they often do in the UK.
Bologna is an LGBT-friendly city that is home to the headquarters of Arcigay - the National Gay Alliance. LGBT couples should have no issues expressing themselves in a respectful way when in public, and there are a series of gay clubs and bars in the city.
Culture at its core
Bologna is about more than just sightseeing - this is a place that’s really all about the culture, and at the heart of it all is education. Whether you’re a history buff who’s keen to learn more about the medieval roots of Italy, or a young person looking to connect with like-minded Italians, Bologna is the place to go.