There are a whole host of things to do in Bologna. As it’s the biggest city of Italy’s gastronomic heartland, eating in Bologna comes near the top of the list. Bologna is the birthplace of dishes such as ragù, better known the world over as Bolognese sauce.
There are so many other things to see in Bologna. The red-brick medieval centre has many gems, from the twin towers of Bologna, Asinelli and Garisenda, to several great churches and the famous fountain of Neptune.
The University of Bologna is the western world’s oldest, founded in 1088, and the student population keeps the city fresh and buzzing. The city also has several excellent museums, both in the centre and the outskirts.
If you can, try to give Bologna three days or so of your time. It’s a very special city, one that really got under my skin – and into my belly.
- 1 Things to do in Bologna – Explore Piazza Maggiore
- 2 Bologna Porticos
- 3 Food in Bologna
- 4 Shopping in Bologna
- 5 The Two Bologna Towers – Asinelli & Garisenda
- 6 Bologna University
- 7 Bologna Cathedral
- 8 Basilica di San Domenico
- 9 Basilica di Santo Stefano
- 10 Santuario di Madonna di San Luca
- 11 Gelato Museum, Bologna
- 12 Ducati Museum Bologna
- 13 Pinacoteca Nazionale
- 14 MamBO Bologna
- 15 Museo Per La Memoria di Ustica
- 16 Bologna Tours and Cooking Classes
- 17 Where to Stay in Bologna
- 18 Getting to Bologna
- 19 Getting Around Bologna
Things to do in Bologna – Explore Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore (meaning ‘big square’) is the place to begin your exploration of the fine city of Bologna. Several Bologna sights are clustered around the square and its extension, Piazza Nettuno, named after the fountain of Neptune that graces it.
The Neptune fountain is one of the city’s main icons, and one of the finest fountains in Italy. It was completed in 1565 by local sculptor Giambologna.
The south side of the Piazza is dominated by the Basilica of San Petronio, which was never finished. It was planned to be the largest church in Christendom until the Vatican got to learn this and promptly withdrew funding for it.
One of the biggest surprises I had was the stunning Biblioteca Salaborsa, a wonderful ornate public library in the Palazzo d’Accursio on the west side of the square that was formerly the city’s stock exchange. It also has a great café, an ideal place to start the day the Italian way with an espresso and pastry.
Most central Bologna streets are lined with porticos – arched, covered walkways. In all there are around 40 km (25 miles) of porticos in Bologna, making for a distinctive, beautiful streetscape. The city is sometimes referred to as ‘la pianeta porticata’ – the porticoed planet.
The porticos of Bologna have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status, and are currently on the ‘tentative list’.
Food in Bologna
My first stay in Bologna was a birthday present from my wife Faye at the end of a long trip around Italy. Bologna is food paradise for me, and it’s probably a good thing we only stayed a few days as I would have probably needed to put my belt back a notch or two.
Unless you’re vegetarian or vegan, the top of your Bologna things to do list should be to try some tagliatelle al ragù. The first time I tried it in Bologna was a revelation. Every humble ‘spag bol’ recipe I had ever tried was immediately redundant: this was unbelievable, some of the best food that had ever passed my lips. I had to have it again the next day, just to make sure it really was that good. Two of the best restaurants in Bologna that we visited were Trattoria Valerio and Buca Manzoni.
Hundreds of Bologna restaurants serve variants on the Bologna ragù recipe. But ragù is only the beginning. The sauce is also the basis of another classic Italian dish from Bologna – lasagna. Bologna is also the home of mortadella sausage and tortellini, the ring-shaped pasta pieces. Even the humblest Bologna food is extraordinary – the piadina is another staple, a delicious flatbread sandwich with ham, cheese and salad.
Then there’s the rest of Emilia-Romagna – with balsamic vinegar of Modena made at the next city up the motorway, and prosciutto di Parma – Parma ham – and Parmigiano Reggiano – Parmesan cheese – from half an hour further up the road. This area is home to some of the best food on the planet.
Shopping in Bologna
Our Bologna shopping list was only going to have one thing on it: food.
The main Bologna market for food is the Mercato di Mezzo, just off Piazza Maggiore. This is also on the edge of the Quadrilatero, a small grid of streets between Piazza Maggiore and the Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda.
Here you can wander for hours around the other food markets in Bologna, the streets lined with fruit and vegetable stalls and myriad food shops. Some of these shops have been here for generations, including Paolo Atti & Figli which sells fresh and dried pasta on Via Caprarie.
This turned out to be our favourite Bologna shopping street – it’s also home to Tamburini, a huge food shop with a tavola calda (restaurant) and wine bar out the back.
The Eataly chain has also opened a vast complex devoted to regional and Italian food on the outskirts of the city. Eataly Bologna is billed as the world’s largest agri-food park. We didn’t visit as it hadn’t opened when we last visited Bologna. We’ve gathered, from the reviews we’ve read, that a lot of the food is great, but it’s presenting Italy and Italian food in a very un-Italian way. When I say ‘Italian way’ I mean traditional delis like Tamburini and Atti in city centre streets, as opposed to a vast out-of-town mall complex. For the authentic Italian experience, stick with the traditional delis and markets in the city.
The Two Bologna Towers – Asinelli & Garisenda
After all this food, you need some way to burn off some calories, and the Torre degli Asinelli is the place to do some virtuous exercise. It’s the taller of two surviving medieval towers (the Torre della Garisenda is the other) built for defensive military purposes.
You can only climb the Asinelli tower, which is a fair hike up 498 steps and guaranteed to get your thigh muscles aching for a few hours. It is worth the effort for the fantastic view over Piazza Maggiore and the rooftops and skyline of Bologna – the best in the city.
One of Bologna’s nicknames is la dotta, the learned, which it fully deserves with over 930 years of learning under its belt. It’s one of the most fascinating attractions in Bologna. You can visit the Bologna Archiginnasio, which was once the University’s main building.
It’s a hugely impressive building, which now serves as the Bologna municipal library. It was built in the 16th century and has a beautiful colonnaded courtyard and library rooms. The highlight, however, is the amazing wooden Anatomical Theatre, which was finished in 1637. It’s shaped like an amphitheatre, with the examination table in the centre. Statues on the walls add a sense of grandeur, and two more skinless figures flank the professor’s chair and hold up the canopy above.
The Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro is Bologna’s much-remodelled cathedral. There has been a church on the site for over a millennium, but most of what we now see is from the Baroque period, between the early 17th and mid-18th centuries. The cathedral is a stone’s throw from Piazza Nettuno, and its tower is open on weekend afternoons, another place to see the great medieval skyline of the city.
Basilica di San Domenico
St Dominic, a contemporary of Francis of Assisi and founder of the Dominican order of friars, chose to live and work in Bologna towards the end of his life, setting up a school there, and dying three years later.
The Basilica was built to house his incredibly elaborate shrine, the Arca di San Domenico, which was sculpted by the workshop of Nicolo Pisani. Some of the figures around the base of the shrine were also carved by the young Michelangelo.
Basilica di Santo Stefano
This isn’t actually one church but a complex which contains four. They’re among the most evocative churches in Bologna, with three of them originating from between the fourth and eighth centuries. Piazza Santo Stefano is also one of the most beautiful squares in Bologna.
Santuario di Madonna di San Luca
This mountain-top church outside the city was built to house an icon brought from Constantinople. You can reach it by climbing up the longest arcade in the world, 3.8 km and 666 arches long. It was built to provide shelter for the icon being carried down and back up the hill from the city. As well as being another great viewpoint over the city, walking up the Portico di San Luca is a good way to shed some of the calories consumed down in the city.
Gelato Museum, Bologna
If you’re still not sated by all the Bologna food you’ve tried, there’s also dessert. One of the newer things to do around Bologna is a visit to the Gelato Museum, which is at Anzolo dell’Emilia, just beyond the airport. It’s also a Gelato University, where extended courses instruct students in the science of gelato. You can learn how to make gelato from ancient recipes – the Romans started it all off by eating ice from Etna and Vesuvius, flavouring it with honey.
You can go on a museum guided tour, enjoy tastings, and the kids can assist in making gelato – and then, of course, eat it. We’ll be taking our Little Man here next time, for sure.
Ducati Museum Bologna
The Ducati Museum is another Bologna attraction in the city outskirts. The motorcycle manufacturer’s museum and factory are on the north-western edge of the city at Borgo Panigale.
You can turn up and visit the Ducati Museum without a booking, but if you wish to join the guided tour of the factory you’ll need to book in advance. The quickest way to get there is by train to Borgo Panigale from Bologna Centrale station, then going three stops on the number 13 bus before alighting.
If you’re interested in motoring and motor racing, Emilia- Romagna is a fascinating part of the world to visit. Modena and nearby Maranello have two Ferrari museums, and other top car brands such as Maserati and Lamborghini are also based in the area. You’ll always need to book factory visits in advance, and can do so for the latter manufacturers at the Motor Valley website.
The Pinacoteca Nazionale is the main historic art gallery in Bologna. It’s housed in a 17th century building in the Univerity district in the east of the city, close to the current main building, the Palazzo Poggi.
One of the earliest works is the Bologna Polyptych by Giotto da Bondone, and there is a large collection of works from the Renaissance period, most notably the Ecstasy of St Cecilia by Raphael, and some by Venetians Tintoretto and Titian.
The Museo di Arte Moderne di Bologna is one of the most fascinating modern art museums in Italy. It has nine themed galleries featuring art from the mid-20th century onwards.
Museo Per La Memoria di Ustica
The Museum for the Memory of Ustica is a deeply moving installation by the French artist Christian Boltanski. An aircraft flying from Palermo to Bologna in 1980 crashed into the sea near the island of Ustica, off the Sicilian coast, with 81 people losing their lives. It has never been officially accepted, but the most likely cause was a bomb explosion in the rear of the aircraft.
Most of the aircraft has been reassembled, with 81 lights above it and 81 loudspeakers behind black mirrors. You’ll probably never see anything else quite like this very haunting memorial.
Bologna Tours and Cooking Classes
There is a great selection of Bologna day tours to show you around the city and help you uncover its many secrets. You can go on a Bologna Segway tour, and there are several walking and cycling tours of the city as well. It’s also possible to join some Bologna food tours, which are especially informative and help a great deal if you don’t speak much Italian.
You can also join cooking classes in Bologna. These often involve a trip to the market, during which you get to learn about the ingredients used in the dishes you’re going to cook. You then go to a local home where you could be shown how to make delicious tortellini pasta from scratch, or learn how to prepare tagliatelle al ragù.
Where to Stay in Bologna
There’s a great range of accommodation in Bologna to choose from, with everything from luxury five star hotels to hostels and apartments. The city also makes a great base from which you can explore the region, with many day trips from Bologna possible.
Last time we visited we went with the Bologna Airbnb option, which was wonderful as we got to stay with a lovely lady for a few days.
One of the best options in the centre is the 4-star Art Hotel Commercianti, which is right next to the Basilica di San Petronio and Piazza Maggiore – an unbeatable location. It’s in a historic building with many of the rooms based on themes relating to the history of Bologna.
Zanhotel Tre Vecchi is another great choice, halfway between Piazza Maggiore and Bologna Centrale station on Via dell’ Independenzia.
The two-star Hotel Centrale is one of the best budget hotels in Bologna. It’s in a great location on Via della Zecca, very close to Piazza Maggiore and the Quadrilatero. Many guests rate it better than most 3 star hotels they have stayed in. The rooms on the top floors also have great views over the city rooftops.
Getting to Bologna
You can get flights to Bologna from many European countries, as well as Amman and Dubai in the Middle East and Shenyang in China. Bologna also has good links with several Russian cities.
At present you can’t get a direct flight to Bologna from the US or Canada. You can fly direct to Rome, Milan or Venice and catch a train from each of those to Bologna Centrale.
If you’re arriving at Guglielmo Marconi airport in Bologna, it’s very simple to get into the city centre, with the Aerobus Bologna taking just twenty minutes to Bologna Centrale railway station.
Getting Around Bologna
Many of the best things in Bologna to do are within walking distance of each other. We made limited use of the local buses in Bologna as we walked almost everywhere, but if you’re planning to visit some of the outlying museums in Bologna you’ll need to use them, a taxi or Uber.
We bought a block of ten bus tickets for €12 from a news stand – you can also get them from tabacchi, tobacco sellers. You need to validate the ticket on board the bus – it’s then good for 75 minutes’ travel. If you change bus within this period you need to validate the same ticket again.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.