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Region and City Guides

What to do in Bologna

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The Italian city of Bologna isn’t as well visited as the likes of Venice and nearby Florence. The upside of this means less crowds and reasonable prices.

Bologna’s history extends to pre-Roman times but most of the historical sights date back to the 12th century. The city is famed for its red brick architecture.

Central Bologna is compact and can be covered in two days. This What to Do in Bologna guide outlines the main activities that can be covered in that short space of time.

WHAT TO DO IN BOLOGNA

Stroll around the University Quarter

Bologna’s university is the world’s oldest university and comprises several buildings within the city along with buildings dotted elsewhere in the Emilia-Romagna region. The university’s original building, the Palazzo dell’ Archiginnasio, is not located in the University Quarter but instead in the city centre.

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University Quarter – Piazza Guiseppe Verdi

If visiting during term-time, the streets and lanes of the University Quarter will be teaming with students. Reasonably-priced cafes and restaurants are found in this area, particularly in Piazza Giuseppe Verdi.

Nicolaus Copernicus, Petrarch and Umberto Eco are some of Bologna University’s alumni. 

Potter under the Porticoes

Along with red brick, porticoes are another distinct feature of Bologna’s architecture. While porticoes are dotted around the city, I felt those on Via dell’ Indipendenza, Via dell’ Archiginnasio and Piazza Cavour were the most impressive.

While most porticoes serve as shade and shelter from the sun and rain, some cafes and restaurants extend their seating area underneath. Sipping a coffee underneath a portico and watching the world go by is a highly recommended activity on this What to Do in Bologna list.

Experience the Two Towers

Pisa isn’t the only Italian city with a crooked tower. In fact, Bologna has two! Towers were a feature of 12th and 13th century Bologna, built by local wealthy families.

Some of these towers are still in existence. The most famous towers are Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda located in Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. It’s possible to climb Torre degli Asinelli although, at 97m in height, it’ll require a fair bit of stamina.

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View of Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda

Explore the Squares

Bologna has a number of great piazzas (squares) that are an essential part of any city trip. Piazza Maggiore would be considered the main square of Bologna and contains major sights such as the Basilica di San Petronio, Palazzo Communale (aka Palazzo d’Accursio) and the nearby Neptune Fountain.

As previously mentioned, Piazza di Porte Ravegnana is where you will find the Two Towers but it is also a busy junction where several streets intersect.

Piazza Cavour contains shops, restaurants and offices. But in the centre lies a garden with statues, seating and all-important shade, if you are visiting in the height of the summer.

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Piazza del Nettuno

Visit the Churches

There are a number of ecclesiastical buildings worth visiting in Bologna. From what I could see, Basilica di San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore was the busiest. Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro on Via dell’ Indipendenza was also impressive.

Basilica Santuario della Madonna di San Luca is located south of the city on a hill. It is linked to the city centre by the world’s longest portico.

Bologna Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro
Bologna Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro

Go to a Concert

Outdoor classical concerts are a feature of summers in Italy. Check with the tourist office in Palazzo Re Enzo on Piazza Maggiore for performances. The city’s municipal council also hosts concerts in Palazzo Communale so check out their listings. 

Eat

Bologna is the capital of the fertile Emilia-Romagna region, a region famed for food. Putting on weight after visiting Bologna is quite common given the city’s plethora of restaurants with exquisite fare. The city’s signature dish is tagliatelle al ragu.

The streets that I found myself drawn back to when it came to food were Via degli Orefici and Via Caprarie. Via Oberdan had a number of excellent restaurants as well.

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Simoni food shop’s food map of Emilia-Romagna

Shop

I don’t normally do too much shopping when I travel abroad. But my luggage was a lot heavier leaving Bologna than arriving there. There are some excellent clothes shops on Via dell’ Indipendenza and Via Rizzoli. And I found myself visiting LaFeltrinelli Librerie bookshop quite frequently as their English language section was excellent.

Take day trips

Bologna is an excellent base for day trips to neighbouring cities. Ravenna, Ferrara, Modena, Florence, Rimini and Parma are all easily reached from Bologna by train, with frequent services to each city. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence deserves a longer stay than a mere day trip. But if time and money are in short supply, using Bologna as a base is a good option.

BOLOGNA TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Getting to Bologna

From abroad, Bologna Airport is served by both flag carriers and low cost airlines from main European cities and a select number of cities in the Middle East.

The best way to travel around Italy is by train. Bologna Central Railway station (Bologna Centrale) is a major junction in the Italian railway system and has excellent connections to major cities such as Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. Therefore, Bologna Centrale will be manic so allow plenty of time if connecting through this station.

Getting around Bologna

An automated train shuttle called the Marconi Express connects Bologna Airport with Bologna Centrale. It’s quite an expensive journey relative to other railway lines (€9 one way during my visit). Bologna Centrale is located on the northern side of the city.

A taxi to the city centre from the airport costs approximately €20. A public bus links Bologna Centrale with the airport.

Where to stay in Bologna

Bologna is a small city that is easily walked and is quite safe, therefore no place is off-limits. I stayed on Via dell’ Indipendenza and found it to be an excellent choice. For those looking for a quiet place to sleep, it may not be the best place. Check out booking.com for an extensive choice of accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes. 

Best time to visit Bologna

I visited in June and found the weather and crowds tolerable, although accommodation was a little on the pricey side. Spring and Autumn would be an ideal time to visit Bologna as well. Like most places in Europe, July and August would be the hottest, busiest and most expensive time to visit.

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