The only Bologna itinerary you need!
Locked between Florence to the south and Venice and Milan to the north, the medieval city of Bologna often gets overlooked by many travellers. Through this itinerary guide, we will dive into what makes Bologna so special and why you need to stop in this city the next time you are travelling to Europe!
Did you know that many Italian cities have nicknames? You might have heard of the one for Rome, the eternal city. Well, Bologna has 3, “La Dotta, la Grassa e la Rossa”. We will use this motto to guide you through this city. “La Dotta”, the wise one, is for the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the Western world. “La Grassa” refers to Bologna's renowned cuisine, and “la Rossa” for the red hue that characterizes it's building.
We stayed 3 days in Bologna, however, you can easily visit the city in a day or two. Through this Bologna Itinerary we will show you the things to do, where to eat and where to stay.
Things to do in Bologna
Besides the red hues that dominate the city, the porticos are the essential architectural style of the city and in fact, they are ranked in the UNESCO World Heritage sights. Each portico has a different style, so don’t forget to look-up to be amazed by the internal decorations. These middle age add-ons to the streets give you a nice shelter from the weather. Believe me, I appreciated walking underneath them during the summer heat wave.
The city is constructed around the Piazza Maggiore. This enormous plaza is always buzzing with activities and events. It is also the meeting point for many tours. The historic buildings that surround the square: Palazzo D’Accursio, Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo dei Banchi, all built between the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, are a must see.
At the time of our visit, the Piazza was taken over by the Film under the stars festival which showcased a different film every night for 50 evenings. We were lucky to catch an Italian film and enjoy a beer in the layout terraces.
Churches & Basilicas
The city holds several astonishing churches that are worth visiting even if you are not religious. Basilica of San Petronio is Bologna’s most important church. The inside frescoes are known for depictions of Heaven and Hell. There is also a viewpoint of the city in the church.
The biggest complex is the Sette Chiese (Seven Churches) in piazza Santo Stefano, which houses a number of churches and courtyards, cloisters and passages.
A little on the edge of the city centre, you will find the Basilica of San Luca perched on a hill. There are over 600 arches of porticoes that connect the sanctuary to the city.
The historic centre of Bologna does not have many trees so Giardini Margherita is the lung of the city. The beautiful park holds a cool greenhouse that is now used partly for co-working spaces, giving a hipster touch to the park.
Climb the Asinelli Tower
During the medieval times, Bologna was the equivalent of New York City as the town was full of towers that used to show the wealth of the dominating families. In its golden years, the city had approximately 200 towers that will make up its skyline. Today, there are only 20 towers remaining. The most famous towers are the two towers of Garisenda and Degli Asinelli. The latter is an 11th-century construction and is the tallest in Italy.
You can climb the Asinelli Tower for €3. Be warned that the tower is 97 meters and has 498 steps. The views from the top are worth all your cardio! If you are planning to go up, I will recommend booking your ticket beforehand since there is only a limited number of people allowed inside the tower per day.
The Bologna University
The city is known to be “la Dotta”, the wise one, as it is the home of the oldest University in the western world. The University neighbourhood is very lively and buzzing with student life, cafes and bars.
The must stop at the University is the Anatomical Theatre & Library of Archiginnasi. The 17th-century carved anatomical theatre used to hold public dissections. Visitors with a medical and anatomical background will be astonished by the sculptures depicting the human anatomy.
Bologna has more than 20 museums that span from the medieval times to fine arts. Since we had extremely hot temperatures and we stayed several days in the city, we visited the Museum of the History of Bologna, the Palazzo Pepoli Vecchio and the MAMbo, the contemporary art museum. However, I was extremely deceived by the museums as they did not hold to our expectations of other museums in Italy.
Psst: Do not forget to buy the Bologna Welcome Card . This card is a money saver since you can get unlimited access to top attractions and museums for a very affordable price
Keep an eye on the hidden gems
Finally, you will quickly see that Bologna is a medieval maze. There are many hidden gems in the city, so be on the constant lookout! For example, we came across a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin Mary in a small street with very few passers.
What and where to eat and drink in Bologna
As I said before, one of Bologna nicknames is “la Grassa”, the fat one, and this nickname cannot be more accurate. Bologna and its region, Emilia Romagna, are the creators of the world most beloved Italian dishes like pasta al ragù (bolognese sauce), Tortellini and lasagna, to name a few.
To try these dishes, head to the Quadrilatero, the ancient food market in the medieval times. Here, you’ll find many traditional eateries and market stands. The handmade pasta on the windows will make you want to stop at every stand!
Via Drapperie is filled with many small eateries serving cold meats and cheeses on small street terraces. We decided to stop at the famous Salumeria Simoni. This family-own delicatessen has been open for 4 generations. Here, we had a glass of white wine with a delicious cold-cuts plate composed of the region key ingredients such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto and Mortadella.
For dinner, you need to stop at the Trattoria Della Santa for a traditional Bolognese meal. The tortellini are handmade following the nonna's recipe, a real treat! I will suggest pairing your dishes with the house wine which was delicious for a very cheap price.
For dessert, a few blocks away, you can stop at the Cremeria d'Azeglio. They offer delicious gelato and they even have vegan ones! The vegan cioccolato gelato is delicious, I ordered two gelatos back to back, that is how good they were!
As said earlier in the article, the city has many hidden-gem. Le Stanze bar is one of them. Le Stanze’s used to be a private chapel of the Bentivoglio family and it is now a trendy bar. The main appeal of the bar is that it still holds the chapel frescoes and Corinthian columns. The frescoes depict mythological and religious scenes set amongst Renaissance trompe-l’oeil architecture, sadly, some of the details have been erased by the time.
Where to stay?
Behind the Piazza Maggiore, the Art Hotel Commercianti holds a privileged location. The boutique hotel is a beautiful hotel that gracefully merges art, history and hospitality. The elegant hotel, although it has been recently renovated, retains all the characteristics of the original building dating back to the middle ages like the wooden beams.
The rooms are very comfortable and some still hold frescoes or part of them, we were lucky enough to have partly erased frescoes in one of our walls.
The other highlight of the hotel is their breakfast. The price of the room includes breakfast, and it is delicious! The buffer offers various types of bread, cold cuts, quiche fruits and pastries to name a few. The Nutella croissants are to die for, I still daydream about them!
The city is very enjoyable by feet, so get ready to walk! The city also has public transportation that is very accessible.
You should know that the historical centre is a limited car zone, which means there are some cars that pass through the streets but they are very few. I will suggest leaving the car either in one of the city parking lot or near the hospital, you can park for free in some of the surrounding streets.
Getting in and out of the city
Bologna is a train hub for many surrounding cities. Some of the regional cities like Parma, Ravenna or Modena are between 20 min to 1 hour by train, great for day trips. Also, Florence and Milan are few hours away.
Disclaimer: The city passes were a courtesy of Bologna Welcome, the tourism board. And we enjoyed a discount at the hotel courtesy of the Art Hotel Commercianti A big thank you! All opinions are my own
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