In the heart of northern Italy, between the hills of the Emilia-Romagna region, lies its capital: Bologna. Less known by tourists than Florence, Pisa, or Rome; Bologna has over the years rightfully earned the respect of the Italian folk and has lovingly been dubbed La Dotta (The Learned), La Rossa (The Red), and La Grassa (The Fat). Accommodating the oldest university in the Western world (est. in the eleventh century), Bologna has a reputation for being the home of intellectuals and academics. Likewise, La Rossa refers not only to the traditional red-hued bricks and terracotta roofs of the city’s architecture, but also to its leftist (former communist) political scene. And last but not least, La Grassa stems from the region’s cuisine, which is recognized throughout the country and has famously coined the beloved Bolognese sauce, Lasagne, Parma ham, Mortadella and Parmegiano.
Bologna’s atmosphere is lively, culturally diverse, authentic, friendly, and absolutely food-centric. Now, if that doesn’t sound ideal, I don’t know what does.
When to Go?
As is the case in most Italian cities, Bologna gets extremely hot in the summer months and is deserted by its inhabitants in August, leaving most shops and restaurants closed for the month. The best time to visit weather-wise would be spring or autumn, when the city is alive with its large student population and is filled with a warm breeze.
If you want to experience the city and region at its most vibrant, try planning your trip around one of the many festivals taking place. One of the largest, the Celebrazioni Madonna di San Luca, takes place in May over Ascension Day. However, some of the oldest and most renowned Palii (bare-back horse races) take place in June. In late June the Cinema Ritrovato festival takes place in the central square of Bologna, during which modern films as well as classics are screened open air. Lastly, September sees grand celebrations of food and the Bolognese cuisine with plenty of free samples to go around.
It is most convenient to fly to Marconi Airport and from there take the Aerobus airport shuttle for €5 (tickets can be purchased on board), which gets you to the center of Bologna or the train station within 20 minutes. The FS Stazione Centrale, the central train station, is one of Italy’s major junctions, so if you’re coming from anywhere else in Italy, the trains will get you there.
Within Bologna it is best to get around by foot, bike (which you can rent at the station), or by making use of the city’s surprisingly efficient bus network. A City Pass, valid for 10 journeys, will cost €8,50 and can be purchased at one of the tobacconists.
As the natural layout of the city suggests, one must first and foremost admire Bologna’s centro storico (historic center) which is one of the oldest and best preserved city centers in Italy. From there one can admire the city’s center-pieces including the Piazza Maggiore, Fontana di Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) and, a little further down on Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, the Due Torri (Two Towers) which were built in the middle ages. You can climb the taller one (96m) to get an excellent view of the city.
Another excellent way to admire the well-preserved structures of the city, take shade from the sun or shelter from the rain, is to follow the 666 portici (arches) which make up the longest arcade in the world; the Portico di San Luca. Commencing at the Porta Saragozza, follow this path up the hills to the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca and admire the landscape from above.
If you find yourself wandering around Via Piella, you can catch a secret glimpse of the Canale delle Moline which runs underneath the city and is one of the few spots that was not covered with asphalt in the beginning of the twentieth century. The small tributary has earned this corner of the city the nickname of “Little Venice.”
Don’t miss the Freschi in the San Giacomo Maggiore and Basilica di San Petronio, which demonstrates the wealth of the noble families of Bologna and houses some of the greatest works of art (including Madonna and Child and the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian).
Lastly, if the city heat becomes unbearable, I strongly suggest renting a car (or befriending one of the locals) and escaping into the hills on the outskirts of the city, where you can hike, picnic, or dip into the cold mountain springs.
Eat and Drink
If you haven’t yet made the connection that your classical Bolognese sauce with spaghetti originates from this homonymous city, let me at this point tell you that this particular sauce in Bologna is called ragù.
For the best Bolognese cuisine stay clear of the touristy restaurants by Piazza Maggiore and wander into the Ghetto Ebraico for some authentic trattorias. In close vicinity you will find the Osteria dell’Orsa and Trattoria del Rosso, which both offer the best of Bolognese specialties, including Lasagne, Tagliatelle al ragù, Crescentine with prosciutto di Parma, Mortadella and Squaquerone cheese. Add to your meals a local Lambrusco wine.
For cheap drinks and apperitivi, it is worth heading towards the university area around Piazza Verdi and Via Zamboni. At night this neighborhood is usually alive with students, music, and art.
And in case you want to join the youngsters in a wild night out, you could head to club Arterìa, especially on a Wednesday or Friday, which offers a variety of musical styles and parties.
Don’t. Well, at least not on your first night! However, once you have satisfied your cultural thirst and party-animal desires, here are three options.
If you want a cheap alternative, Airbnb is currently very popular in Bologna and usually gives you the chance to get some local tips.
A popular two-star hotel is Tuscolano, which is located in the university area and has been run by the same family for 34 years. Hence, if you want to spend most of your time strolling the streets during the day and return to a familiar, local, genuinely Italian atmosphere at night, this hotel won’t disappoint.
If however, you crave a more romantic, luxurious, and central place to stay in Bologna, Al Cappello Rosso is your best bet. The building itself dates back to 1375 and its name (The Red Hat) stems from the medieval tradesmen and their headgear who resided there.
Here are additional options for where to stay in Bologna.