Bologna is often referred to by travellers and writers as “Italy’s most underrated city”, and they’re onto something. Bologna is often missed during trips to Italy, and frequently seen as a gateway to Florence or Venice but there is so much more to this city. The capital of Emilia Romagna in Italy’s north identifies as a university town, with the Università di Bologna drawing a youthful energy to the city since 1088. This vibrant atmosphere paired with innumerable cultural and historical experiences to enjoy, means there are plenty of things to do in Bologna.
Over the past couple of years, travellers have awoken to what Bologna has to offer. Visitor numbers are rising but the city has maintained its authenticity. There are many cities in Italy, and Europe in general, which can feel like they exist as show-pieces for tourism these days. Locals drawn out, traditional restaurants fallen to international chains, and cultural life diminished, all the experiences real travellers are actually searching for. But in Bologna, stepping back from the main touristic centres of Piazza Maggiore and the Two Towers, and it’s easy to find porticoed streets bare of tourists. It is here where you can wander and feel the atmosphere of the city and stop for a quick standing espresso at one of Bologna’s many cafés and tabacchis.
Bologna’s history is long and full. I was surprised to learn how ancient many of the buildings, particularly the towers, truly are. With the city founded around 600AD, the culture, art, atmosphere, and architecture here has developed over centuries. Complex traditions and attitudes have formed which are fantastic to unpack. Undeniably, one of the most important features of Bologna is its food scene. Hailed as a foodie destination, Bologna’s cuisine has developed over many generations and been perfected to a heavenly level of deliciousness. You can’t come to Bologna and not expect to gain a few kilos!
Aptly nicknamed by locals as “la dotta, la grassa, la rossa” (the learned, the fat, the red), Bologna will delight you with its history, moreish foods, and architectural warmth. There are so many dimensions to this ancient city and it is impossible to explore them all, but here are my Top Things To Do In Bologna if you have to choose.
SEE BOLOGNA’S TWO TOWERS
Bologna is dotted with towers, most of which are from medieval times. Some have been turned into accommodation, some into jewellery stores, and some remain as they were for visitors to experiences. It is believed that there were up to 180 towers in the city which were mostly built for defence purposes. These days, there are substantially less, but you will still see them throughout Bologna.
The two most iconic towers in the city of Bologna are called the Two Towers. The smaller of the Two Towers is Garisenda and it has a lean which is difficult to ignore. If you missed out on visiting Pisa, you can find solace in Bologna’s leaning towers instead. These two huge towers are symbolic of the city and are thought to have been built in the 12th century. They feature in many historical texts and paintings depicting Bologna through the centuries, and are fantastic to see.
Opening Hours see below | Address Piazza di Porta Ravegnana | Cost €5.00 to climb or free with Bologna Welcome PLUS card
CLIMB ASINELLI TOWER
The taller of the Two Towers is Asinelli Tower which stands 97m above the city. Built by the Asinelli family in 1100 AD, the tower is still standing and it is possible to climb it. Of all the things to do in Bologna, this is probably the most popular. Why? Just look at the panoramic views! Getting to those views takes a bit of work, which makes the reward all the more sweet. To get to the top, there are 498 narrow wooden stairs winding their way up the inside of the tower. It gets your heart rate up but it isn’t as hard as it sounds. From the top you are blessed with views over the whole of Bologna, gazing upon Piazza Maggiore, the terracotta roofs of the old town, and around to the surrounding hills. Who needs a drone, hey?
Tickets need to be purchased in advance, either online or from the tourist centre Bologna Welcome, or by having a Bologna Welcome PLUS card. To limit numbers and avoid having crowds going two ways on the narrow stairs, time in Asinelli is capped to 45-minute blocks. You enter at your scheduled time and have 45 minutes to climb the stairs, take in the view, and make it back down, before the next group commences. So make sure you arrive on time for your booking or you might miss it!
Times for entering the tower are: 9:30, 10:15, 11:00, 11:45, 12:30, 13:15, 14:00, 14:45, 15:30, 16:15, 17:00, 17:45, and 18:30. Be aware that the steps are narrow and very steep, so if you have difficulty with mobility, balance, or heights, this will not be the best experience for you.
Opening Hours 9:30 – 19:30 (last entry 18:30) | Address Piazza di Porta Ravegnana | Cost €5.00 or free with Bologna Welcome PLUS card
TAKE A SECRET FOOD TOUR
You came to Italy to eat, right? Well, I know I did! So if there is one thing I recommend doing in Bologna, it’s taking a food tour Secret Food Tour of Bologna. Even if you think you know Italian food, the cultures and traditions vary so much between regions and cities, so it is great to learn about Bologna-specific cuisine. With a knowledgeable guide, you are able to learn about the food you enjoy and the city of Bologna itself. It is really two experiences for the price of one.
Having a guide is great as you wander through the porticoes and duck into shops and restaurants you would’ve struggled to find on your own. The tour starts at 11:00 and runs for 3-4 fascinating hours throughout Bologna’s old town. The groups are usually a smaller size to ensure everyone has a quality experience and this gives you the opportunity to explore more quaint venues and ask questions.
With our guide Marco, we started off at local vendors producing Bologna’s world famous cured meats and aged parmigiano reggiano. Standing in a room of giant wheels of parmigiano whilst sampling and learning about some of the world’s best cheese? An unbeatable experience. For lunch we were able to taste Bologna’s most iconic and traditional pasta dishes: tortellini and ragu alla Bolognese. The afternoon was spent in smaller, vibrant streets sampling a range of balsamic vinegars ranging in age from 12 – 25 years, drinking and eating in a thriving traditional tavern, and topping it off with quality gelato. Throughout the day, we were able to learn about how these iconic foods are produced, sample products at all stages of maturity, and learn how locals eat. It’s an experience that made my trip to Bologna and one I won’t forget for a long time!
Website Secret Food Tours | Cost €75.00 (Adult)
The sprawling Piazza Maggiore is the centrepiece of the city of Bologna. The city’s central square is flanked by important cultural and political buildings, and it links major thoroughfares and squares of Bologna. When wandering the streets of Bologna, you will stumble upon Piazza Maggiore dozens of times as all roads here seem to lead back to the square. It is often used for events and is a central meeting spot for the people of Bologna. With restaurants and bars spilling into the square, and plenty of street performers, it’s never dull to sit in Piazza Maggiore. Don’t forget to see the grand statue of Neptune, too.
Opening Hours Always open | Address Piazza Maggiore | Cost Free
Maybe it’s the nerdy medical student in me, but seeing the Teatro Anatomico in Bologna was fascinating. Visiting the 17th-century site of bodily dissection might seem like a strange thing to see as a tourist, but it gives insight into life in the old University of Bologna and the city’s pursuit of knowledge. It was an intriguing peek into the past of the medical field and how it has developed over the years.
The theatre is located within the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio which is itself an important building in Bologna’s history. The Teatro Anatomico is an eerily beautiful room, made almost entirely of cedar wood with tiered viewing seats. The marble-topped dissection table lies centrally and there are two rather unique carvings on the canopy of skinless men. I can assure you, anatomy rooms no longer look this grand!
Opening Hours 10:00 – 18:00 | Address 1 Piazza Galvani | Cost €3.00
A NOTE ON THE BOLOGNA WELCOME CARD
Bologna Welcome is the tourist authority for the city of Bologna and they have the Bologna Welcome Card and Bologna Welcome Card PLUS on offer. This works similar to other cities where you purchase the card and then entrance to loads of museums and attractions is free. The benefit of the cards on offer by Bologna Welcome? They don’t have a time limit like many other cities. So if you are in Bologna for more than a day, this becomes a really affordable option to see all the city’s museums, viewpoints and attractions without needing to rush. Read about what is included below!
PINACOTECA NAZIONALE DI BOLOGNA
The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna is a huge 30-hall gallery with an overwhelming array of Emilian paintings from the 13th century to 18th century. This incredible collection takes you through the history of Bologna and enlightens about different times in the city’s past. The museum itself is beautifully renovated and the artworks are presented in an easy-to-follow manner. There are works in the museum by Raphael and El Greco too, so keep your eyes out. The museum opens at 8:30 but if you get here any time before 10:30, you are likely to have the place almost to yourself.
Opening Hours 8:30 – 19:30 | Address 56 via delle Belle Arti | Cost €6.00, or free with Bologna Welcome Card
WANDER THROUGH THE PORTICOES
The thing that struck me first in Bologna was the abundance of porticoes. These porticoes create a unique perspective, play with light, and provide shelter in the city. Porticoes are everywhere in Bologna, in fact, there are 40km of them in the city! They have been a part of Bologna’s history since the Middle Ages, and their numbers exploded as people flocked to the city to work and study.
Originally, they were wooden structures (examples of which you can still see today) but eventually there were so many of different shapes and sizes that regulations were needed. Many cities dealt with growth by banning porticoes all together, but in Bologna they were made near mandatory and needed to meet certain standards and sizes. From here, the iconic stone porticoes of the Bologna we know today were born.
The porticoes are a delight to wander and enjoyable in any weather. Some front apartments whilst others are full of shops, cafés, and museums, some are plain in appearance whilst some are heavily decorated — the variety is fantastic. It’s easy to spend a few hours enjoying the unique architectural beauty of Bologna’s porticoes in all their forms.
Opening Hours always | Address throughout the old town | Cost Free
BASILICA DI SAN PETRONIO
This basilica, created in honour of the city’s patron saint Saint Petronius, is hard to miss as it takes prime position in Piazza Maggiore. Construction of the basilica started in the 1300s and there have been several additions since. Basilica di San Petronio is the sixth largest church in Europe and is believed to be unfinished. Walking inside the beautiful and spacious basilica is a must-do experience in Bologna, and it is a nice place to sit and reflect. The basilica also has a 54m high Panoramic terrace which can be visited for a fee.
Opening Hours Mon – Fri 7:45-13:30 and 15:00-18:30, Sat – Sun 7:45 – 18:30 | Address Piazza Maggiore | Cost Free entry
MARVEL AT MAMbo
Bologna’s art scene is incredible and something I hadn’t realised was so thriving until my visit. The pride and joy is the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, or MAMbo for short. The art contained within MAMbo is experimental, modern, and mind-opening. It’s something I love about Bologna: a city so steeped in history still home to vibrant, modern minds and museums. The gallery is purpose-built and the spaces are magnificent, able to showcase paintings, installations, and performance. At the moment, it is also home to the Museo Morandi which is a fascinating display of the works of Bologna artist Giorgio Morandi.
Opening Hours 10:00 – 18:30 | Address Via Don Giovanni Minzoni | Cost €6.00 or free with Bologna Welcome Card
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL CIVIC MUSEUM OF BOLOGNA
The Archaeological Civic Museum of Bologna is one of the great museums in Bologna and worth exploring. Focusing mostly on the history of region, it houses many archeological finds from around the city dating back to pre-historic periods. It is fascinating to see such ancient artefacts and realise extent of human history that has unfolded in Bologna! The museum also has an interesting Egyptian collection which is one of the most regarded in Europe. Not what I had expected to see in Bologna, but interesting nonetheless!
Opening Hours 9:00 – 18:00 | Address 2 Via dell’Archiginnasio | Cost €3.00 or free with Bologna Welcome Card
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