Don’t let Bologna stay under your radar: this medieval and charming Italian city has a lot to offer in terms of architecture and foodie culture. There are so many cultural and quintessentially Italian things to do in Bologna, that it makes for a wonderful city break – and one off the main tourist trail.
The centre of Bologna is packed with medieval monuments and Bologna’s streets are lined with charming arched porticoes, giving the city a grand, beguiling character. And not only is its architecture captivating, but it is also the centre of one of Italy’s most abundant foodie regions. Emilia-Romagna is the region from which we get Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiana Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico de Moderna – and Bologna is slap bang in the middle of it, making it a great place to taste everything the region has to offer.
In this post, I will go through some of the best things to do in Bologna, whether it is a destination for a city break, or a stop during on a road trip around Italy.
1. Discover why Bologna is ‘Portico Centrale’
The Porticoes of Bologna date from the 12th Century and are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Often they are painted in shades of orange and yellow. Their presence all around the centre of Bologna gives it real warmth, character and style – not to mention a useful cover when it rains! Walking the porticoes is a delightful thing to do in Bologna.
What are porticoes and why are there so many in Bologna?
Porticoes are sheltered walkways, stretches of pavement that run under buildings, covered with arched ceilings and supported by pillars.
Apparently, they first started appearing in the middle ages when the population of Bologna started to swell as the university attracted more students. These extra residents needed accommodation, so buildings extended their space over the pavements, creating the covered walkways underneath. Some of the early examples around Piazza di Porta Ravegnana are wooden, but more recent porticos are made from stone, brick and plaster.
The use of porticos became so established in Bologna that in 1288, it was actually a requirement for new buildings to feature porticoes. And wealthy families took pride in creating the most attractive porticoes – so some are very grand and ornate.
Where can you find good porticos to walk
Walking the porticos is an absolutely must-do thing to do in Bologna – they make every street that little bit grander, that little bit extra, and quite romantic.
The good news is that you won’t have to try hard to find a portico. There are 40km of porticoes in the centre of Bologna, so walk for a few minutes and you are likely to find some. However, if you wander the busy arterial routes like Via dell’indipendenza and Via Guglielmo Oberdan, the porticos may be busy with people. So if you want to wander the porticos with less company, try some of the quieter streets like Via Galliera, Via Saragozza.
Some of my favourite porticoes are in the region of the university on Via Zamboni – this end of town felt a little shabbier but still so impressive.
The Portico of San Luca
The Portico of San Luca is the city’s and world’s longest portico at nearly 4km.
This portico stretches from Porta Saragozza, which is an old gate to the city dating from the 13th century, in the southwest of the city centre. The San Luca portico goes out of the city and up the surrounding hills to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca.
The Portico of San Luca is a lovely palate of warm shades, with some attractive arches, a gorgeous bridge section at Arco del Meloncello, and many frescos along the way.
However, it is also fairly strenuous! There’s a reason many Bolognese people use the route for training and exercise. The 2km uphill section from Arco del Meloncello to the Sanctuary is long and unrelenting. You might want to think twice about taking camera equipment up there as I did. And you will certainly feel like you have earned your pasta and wine when you finish this.
If you don’t fancy the hike, there is a gaudy/fun* (delete as you see fit) tourist bus shaped like a train that drives up the hill to the sanctuary and back.
If you’re interested in finding out more, check out my article on walking the Portico of San Luca.
2. See the Ancient sights of Bologna
Bologna’s charming red-roofed city centre dates to the middle ages and it has plenty of ancient historical buildings and monuments to satisfy any sightseer. And the centre of the city is small, so sightseeing is quite an easy thing to do in Bologna.
University of Bologna
Bologna has been a university town for nearly a thousand years. The university was founded in 1088 and is the oldest university in continuous operation in the world. Its motto is ‘Alma mater studiorum’, translating as ‘Nourishing mother of studies’.
The university buildings are in the northeast of the city centre, in and around Via Zamboni. Most of the buildings only allow access to students. However, there is an art gallery at Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna and the Palazzo Poggi Museum contains exhibits a number of scientific artefacts including the history of medicine and waxworks on human anatomy.
The Two Towers
Dominating Piazza di Porta Ravegnana (and the skyline of Bologna) are two ancient brick towers. At 97m, the taller and thinner tower is called Asinelli. The shorter one (48m) is called Garisenda. Their names come from the families which are credited with having constructed the towers between 1109 and 1119.
The Towers have been through a lot, surviving several fires. They have been used for a variety of purposes over the centuries, including as a prison, for astrological study and as a lookout post during WW2. However, neither has managed to stay standing upright: both are leaning, although the tilt on Garisenda is most pronounced – and its height was reduced when it started to lean too much in the 14th Century.
An energetic thing to do in Bologna is to climb the 498 steps to the top of Asinelli for a unique view of the Bologna.
As a side note, Asinelli and Garisenda are not the only towers of Bologna. There are seven others dotted around, including Prendiparte, which is actually available to stay in as a B&B!
Piazza Maggiore & Piazza del Nettuno
The main square in Bologna is Piazza Maggiore, adjoining which is Piazza del Nettuno. This large open space is surrounded by a series of huge, impressive historic buildings, including:
- Biblioteca Salaborsa – the city library, which includes a view of some archaeological excavations of Roman and Etruscan ruins from as far back as 189 BC.
- Palazzo d’Accursio – the 14th century town hall, which is now a museum
- Palazzo dei Notai – built in 1381 by the city’s notaries guild
- Basilica of San Petronio – more on this to follow
- Palazzo dei Banchi – a Renaissance-style palace
- Palazzo del Podestà, Bologna – a 13th Century civic building
In Piazza del Nettuno, there’s a statue of Neptune, dating from the 16th Century. The statue and fountain were commissioned to celebrate the new pope, Pope Pius IV. Neptune’s trident was also the inspiration for the symbol of Maserati cars (Maserati was established in Bologna).
Some fun things to do in this area of Bologna include testing the whispering walls under the porticoes of Palazzo del Podestá. There’s a central atrium and if two people stand in opposite corners, facing closely into the wall, they can hear each other even if they speak in a whisper. I tried this with someone I was on a tour with and I was surprised to discover it really works!
You could also spot the naughty joke made by the sculptor of Neptune: there’s a certain spot behind the statue, from where the position of Neptune’s hand could be mistaken for… a different part of his anatomy (sorry!). I don’t know how true this is, but I was told this was something the sculptor did on purpose to spite the cardinal who commissioned the statue. He had prudishly suggested the size of Neptune’s nether regions was reduced, so the sculptor created this optical illusion to get back at him.
Basilica di San Petronio
At the south end of Piazza Maggiore is an absolutely enormous church, Basilica di San Petronio, one of the major landmarks in Italy. It looks very imposing and austere – in part because of its size and in part because the front of the church is mainly bare brick. The bottom third is covered in marble, but the rest of the building remains brick. This is because the church was never finished…
The story goes that construction started in 1390 and lasted several centuries. It was set back several times until the 16th century when work was halted by Pope Pius IV, who feared the size and grandeur of the project would rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Therefore, the façade remains unfinished, the dome was never added and planned extensions to create a cross-shaped footprint were cancelled.
This reminded me of the competitive cathedral-building in Cusco, Peru – these stories of church-building pettiness really do amuse me!
To the east of Piazza Maggiore, you may glimpse some interesting looking alleyways through the arches of Palazzo dei Banchi. This is the Quadrilatero, a medieval market area. This dense network of pedestrian streets has plenty of cafes with outside tables, and you might fear it has become a tourist trap – but fear not. The area is still home to long-established and high-quality food stores and cafes, like Simoni Laboratorio and Zerocinquantino.
If you love authentic Italian food, or if you just like people-watching, then finding a perch in the fray of the Quadrilatero is a great thing to do in Bologna.
Piazza Santo Stefano
Much smaller than Piazza Maggiore, visiting Piazza Santo Stefano is a more chilled thing to do in Bologna.
There are two main attractions in this triangular square. First, there’s the Basilica di Santo Stefano, which is an attractive complex of religious buildings dating from as far back as the 4th century! And second, there are some lovely porticoes along Via Santo Stefano.
3. Have an Aperitivo
An Italian tradition that you must observe in Bologna is to have Aperitivo before your evening meal. An Aperitivo is a pre-dinner drink, designed to stimulate the appetite. The word is derived from the Latin verb ‘aperire’, which means to open.
There are different customs in different places around Italy. For example, in Venice, spritzes are the standard drink of choice. However, in Bologna, it definitely seemed like wine was Aperitivo of choice, accompanied by cold meats and cheeses.
Sample the wine
The classic wine of the Emilia-Romagna region is Sangiovese, a full-bodied red wine that pairs perfectly with the meats typical in the region. However, I was surprised to learn that there’s a red Lambrusco which is absolutely delightful.
Some of us in the English-speaking world may have come across a very sweet, cheap Lambrusco Bianco in our youth – which I am told is the bad quality wine Emilia-Romagna was happy to export. The Lambrusco they keep for themselves entirely different. This chilled, sparkling red was a revelation for me – and a perfect accompaniment to local meats and cheeses.
When I was in Bologna, I enjoyed wine by the glass in two wine bars, which were both great, in different ways. And even great wine is so affordable in Bologna – I didn’t pay more than €5.50 for a glass, and that was for a pretty decent wine.
The first wine bar is Enoteca Italiana, a sizeable wine shop on Via Marsala, which has several tables inside for customers to enjoy Aperitivo. The staff were really helpful in first finding me a table in the busy shop, and also recommending a wine to suit my taste
The second is Medulla Vini, on Via Guglielmo Oberdan. It is a tiny place, with tables outside under the charming portico. Again, the staff were really gracious to speak with me in English and recommend a really great wine.
I didn’t go into this place, but it’s worth knowing there is a really old osteria in the Quadrilatero, marked only by a sign saying ‘vino’. Osteria del Sole dates from the 15th century and is an old-fashioned osteria that only serves wine. If you want food to accompany it, you’ll need to bring your own. But fear not, there are plenty of places to find some good meats to accompany the wine, which brings me to the next point…
Try the cold cuts
Emilia-Bologna is the region that gave the world Proscuitto di Parma – so it should be no surprise that cured ham & sausages are king here. And some light cold cuts are perfect for lunch – or as an accompaniment for your pre-dinner wine.
Some of the classic cold meats you could try include Proscuitto di Parma, Culatello, Mortadella (the local variety has peppers, not olives dotted throughout it) and Salame Felino. I don’t love all cured meats and salamis, so I was pleasantly surprised to find I really enjoyed Salame Rosa, which has a light flaky texture, with no chewy or fatty bits.
La Proscuitteria is known for its meat & cheese platters, and they have some great options. But do make note of the sign: this place is a franchise from Florence, so if you’re really after the local Emilia-Romagna experience, you might want to keep looking.
A better option might be Bruno e Franco la Salumeria, a store specialising in meats, cheeses and fresh pasta from the region. Now, this is a shop, rather than a place to sit and have Aperitivo, but it would be a great place to buy some hams to take with you into Osteria del Sole.
4. Appreciate the amazing local food
Wherever you go in Italy, the cuisine is likely to be a real treat – but somehow it seems even more of a big deal in Bologna than elsewhere I’ve been in Italy. I think that might be because the region of Emilia-Romagna is so well-known for food. And also because Bologna hasn’t been such a major tourist destination, that much of its food scene remains authentic, rather than tailored to tourist tastes.
I really enjoyed discovering the local cuisine in Bologna, which, surprisingly (to me), doesn’t often feature spaghetti bolognaise (more on that later).
Take a food tour
My top recommendation for things to do in Bologna is to take a food tour. I did a half-day tour with Delicious Bologna, which is a small company that offers small group tours of Bologna. If you’ve read my post on travelling as an introvert, you will know I don’t love group tours – but this one was special, and I really enjoyed it.
First up I will say it isn’t cheap. At €85, it is more than many standard city tours. But having done it, I can say I think it is worth it because it is such a rich educational journey through the history and traditions of Emilia-Romagna food. The knowledge of and passion for Bologna’s food heritage of Mattia, my guide, was really impressive and infectious.
My tour started with breakfast at a coffee bar, followed by a tour of the Quadrilatero, learning about the speciality shops and local products. I also visited a small factory to see Bologna’s most quintessential pasta, tortellini, being made by hand. After this, I had an Aperitivo tasting session including local wine and a range of cold meats and sausages, cheeses and aged balsamic vinegar. Then for lunch, we had hand-made pasta at a traditional osteria, followed up by a dessert of gelato.
It was a great way to learn about food in Bologna – and also Bologna itself. As we crisscrossed the city to the various foodie spots, we also had a local’s guide to the city and its landmarks, which really brought the city to life.
Probably my two highlights of the tour were: 1) watching the tortellini being made by hand – the people doing this were so fast and deft with their hands, it was amazing! And 2) tasting an Extravecchio Balsamic Vinegar that has been aged for 25 years, and which costs €100 a bottle. It was absolutely divine, with a texture like silk.
For these reasons, not only is this my top recommendation of things to do in Bologna, I think you should do this early in your stay in Bologna. I did mine at the end of my trip, and I learned so much that I really wished I’d done the tour sooner so that I could have put my newfound foodie knowledge into action during the rest of my trip and made better eating choices.
Eat the pasta for which Bologna is famous: tortellini in broth.
If, like me, you thought spaghetti bolognaise (or bolognese) would be the top dish in Bologna, then like me, you’d be wrong. The Bolognese will know what you mean if you ask for it, and you will find a version of it on many menus, but with two differences. Firstly, the sauce is simply known as ‘ragù’ rather than ‘bolognaise/bolognese’ sauce as we’ve come to call it elsewhere in the world. And secondly, it is most likely to be served on tagliatelle rather than spaghetti.
If you really want to try the most Bolognese of pasta, you should choose tortellini in broth instead. Tortellini is small parcels of pasta, stuffed with a mixture of six ingredients: pork loin, prosciutto, mortadella, parmigiana, nutmeg and eggs. The filling is fairly rich, so it doesn’t need a rich sauce, hence the tradition of serving it in chicken broth.
Of course, if you don’t fancy tortellini, there are other local pasta traditions, including green lasagna, where the pasta sheets are made with spinach.
The best restaurant I ate at was introduced to me by Delicious Bologna and is called Hostaria San Carlino. There, I tried a trio of hand-made pasta, including tortellini, tagliatelle with ragù and green tortellini, which was spectacular!
If you’re interested in pasta, you might also be interested in the best Italian pasta brands.
Browse a food market
As well as eating out in restaurants, you might want to check out some of the local food markets. These can be useful if you are self-catering, or looking for a good place to grab lunch – and they can also be fascinating places to observe the life of the city.
In the Quadrilatero, there is an indoor food market called Mercato di Mezzo containing food stalls and street food vendors. And further west, there is a bigger covered market called Mercato delle Erbe, where you can buy all sorts of produce – and along the side, there are also several restaurants.
Coffee, Italian style
Italians didn’t invent coffee, but coffee Italian-style is my absolute favourite. I’ve been a fan ever since my first visit to Italy more than twenty years ago. You can keep your grande almond lattes and your flat whites – give me a well-made cappuccino any day.
Caffè Terzi is a name that kept coming up in my research about Bologna, and on my food tour, I learned that they are one of the most popular coffee bars in Bologna. They have been established for 20 years and roast their own beans – so Caffè Terzi’s tiny bar on Via Oberdan is a good place to start.
However, the best coffee that I tried in Bologna was at Caffe Letterario, which is a slightly more formal-looking cafe on Via Manzoni. They have some table outside under a portico, overlooked by the renaissance-era church, Chiesa della Madonna di Galliera e di San Filippo Neri. My cappuccino there was perfect: short, cool enough to drink straight away and the ideal texture (not too wet; more like you’re drinking the espresso through the foam).
Another coffee shop I liked was Caffe Rubik, which was a little more hipstery – again with a nice seating area in the porticos, and plenty of people-watching opportunities.
Top tips when ordering coffee in Italy: if you just ask for coffee (or ‘caffe’), you will be served espresso. If you ask for a latte, it could well be you get served a glass of milk – so make sure to specify ‘caffe latte’. Oh and you might sense some disapproval for ordering a cappuccino after 11 am, but I still do it anyway!
Indulge in gelato
How could anyone resist having gelato when in Italy? I couldn’t, even though I went to Bologna in November, haha!
My Delicious Bologna food tour reinforced something I’d heard before about gelato: if the gelato is piled up in big colourful mounds, it is likely not the best, as it will need artificial ingredients to stop it from melting and to give it those colours. Therefore, a sign that the gelato is authentic and good is that it is served from covered stainless steel urns.
The best gelato I had in Bologna was from Cremeria la Vecchia Stalla, near Piazza Santo Stefano – it was lush!
When to go to Bologna?
Bologna can be visited all year round. It isn’t such a huge tourist destination that it has an exaggerated high and low season, and its student population keep the city buzzing year-round. However, like many places in Italy, it can be best to avoid the height of summer due to high temperatures and the exodus of locals during August.
Therefore, Spring (March-May) and Autumn (September-October) can be really nice times to visit, because the temperatures are milder.
But don’t rule out winter: Italy’s winters are not as bitter as northern Europe, so winter can be a good time to visit Bologna. I visited in early November. Whilst all the locals were rugged up in coats and scarves, the temperatures of around 12 degrees Celsius were quite comfortable for me, and I did most of my wandering in a hoodie.
Where to stay in Bologna
I stayed at a mid-range hotel in the city centre, next to a man-made canal, which is a bit of an attraction in its own right. There’s a cute window overlooking the canal on Via Piella, which has queues of people waiting to take photos of it.
Il Canale Hotel has an old-fashioned style which they have run with by adding antique nik-naks in the corridors. My room overlooked the canal, which was a nice touch. The hotel is very conveniently located – it’s very easy to reach anywhere in the city centre from there. The staff were helpful as well, and I felt safe there (which was important, because I was travelling solo).