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The energetic, historic capital of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is our favorite type of city. It is large enough that there are lots of things to do in Bologna and many beautiful things to see, but it is easy to navigate and lacks the crushing crowds that can flood some of the bigger cities, making it a perfect place to explore.
Bologna has a rich heritage dating back thousands of years, with historic buildings and churches and the oldest university in the Western world. All that exists alongside fabulous markets, world-class entertainment, and some of the best food we’ve ever had. The fact that it’s slightly off the main tourist circuit makes it even better. Here’s a look at some of our top recommendations for what to do in Bologna.
Things to do in Bologna
Experience San Petronio inside and outside
The Basilica of San Petronio sits right on the city’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, so it’s impossible to miss and is one of the best places to visit in Bologna. Built from 1388 to 1479, the church was never finished, which is apparent when you see its pink and brown exterior–the lower half is carved marble while the upper half is essentially exposed brown brick. It’s not exactly what you’d expect from the church that was once intended to be the largest church in the world.
Inside, the Basilica of San Petronio is beautifully decorated, with a line of imposing columns stretching down the nave and a huge gilded crucifix over the altar. The sides of the Basilica are lined with 22 chapels adorned in marble, bronze, and gold. One houses relics from San Petronio and another was the place where Pope Clement VII crowned Charles V as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1530.
The Basilica is impressive from the outside, too. Don’t miss the chance to take the elevator to the top for sweeping views of the lovely city below and to see its towers from a different angle–it’s one of the Bologna highlights.
See the wonders of the local food markets
Visiting local food markets is always one of our favorite things to do on a trip, whether in Provence, Siena, or pretty much any other destination. As you might expect, Bologna markets are some of the best we’ve come across.
Bologna has open-air markets with ancient histories and food halls with kiosks featuring local products and restaurants. There’s also a slow food market where locals love to hang out and listen to live music.
Outside the center, you’ll find FICO Eataly World, which bills itself as the largest food park in the world. Wandering these delicious spaces and trying their wares was one of our favorite things to do in Bologna.
Stroll under the porticoes
There are nearly 25 miles (40 km) of porticoes in Bologna. These beautiful arches stretch throughout the city center and all the way to the Basilica of San Luca. There are so many that have lasted for so long (nearly 1000 years) that they’re even being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, they lend character to this ancient city, not to mention providing great shade and shelter from the rain.
Run or ride to San Luca
The burnt orange Basilica of San Luca sits on top of a lush hill just outside the center of Bologna. The 18th-century church houses an icon of the Virgin Mary, supposedly painted by St. Luke himself.
There are two main ways to reach this lovely spot–walking or bus. From Bologna, you can stroll just under 2.5 miles beneath 666 of the city’s famous porticoes out to the church. Alternatively, hop on the San Luca Express like we did in Piazza Maggiore. It’s a red bus that visits a circuit of about 12 stops around the city, culminating in a visit to San Luca.
Try traditional food
Fabulous food is a given in Italy, and Bologna is full of amazing regional specialties. Try the mortadella (known elsewhere as bologna) or a piadina (flatbread), perhaps with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that’s made only an hour away in the Parma area. Tagliatelle al ragu––sometimes referred to as Bolognese––is also a must-try along with tortellini in brodo.
These great dishes can be washed down with a local sparkling wine like the light, white Pignoletto or a fruity, red Lambrusco. Indulging in the local food is one of the best things about Bologna travel.
Climb into the sky
Another option for great views (plus a great workout) is climbing the towers. Like San Gimignano in Tuscany, Bologna was once a city of towers with over 100 tall buildings dominating the skyline. Only about 20 remain, and the most famous of these Bologna sights are the Asinelli and Garisenda Towers, together called the “Two Towers.” Conveniently, they stand next to each other in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana.
If you have energy left after walking under the porticoes, climbing the Two Towers gives you great views over Bologna. Asinelli requires a steep 498 steps to reach the top, which soars nearly 100 meters in the air. The leaning Garisenda tower is a slightly easier task at about half the height.
Visit the relics at Basilica di Santo Stefano
At one end of a pretty square (which reminds me of a mini version of Siena’s Piazza del Campo), Basilica di Santo Stefano is actually a complex of churches. Originally seven houses of worship, the buildings were built between the 5th and 13th centuries. Wandering among the rooms, you can find early Christian relics, fantastic artwork and sculptures, and brilliant mosaic floors.
Find a festival
Special events happen all year long in Bologna. From the summer film festival to winter’s Carneval, there are often unique events happening throughout the city. Check the calendar to see what’s going on during your visit.
Indulge in aperitivo
Finishing the day with an aperitivo at one of the city’s many bars is one of the top 10 things to do in Bologna. Try a local wine or a spritz, a combination of Prosecco and Aperol, and enjoy the buffet. Usually laid out around 7pm, the spread is likely to include an array of meats, cheeses, breads, pizzas, and sometimes even full pasta dishes and desserts. As long as your glass is full, you can continue to nibble.
Browse the art at MAMbo
The Bologna Museum of Modern Art (known as MAMbo) features modern and experimental art in a space that used to house a bakery. The permanent collection includes some of the most innovative art of the post-war period and some of the most interesting things to see in Bologna when it comes to artwork. The museum also devotes space to temporary exhibits that include solo shows, retrospectives, and themed presentations.
Stop by the ancient Anatomical Theater
The Anatomical Theater is one of the more unusual Bologna tourist attractions. It’s located inside the Archiginnasio, the first seat of the University of Bologna, which is the oldest university in the West.
The fascinating Anatomical Theater, built in 1636, is where autopsies took place, teaching students about the human body. From uncomfortable, elevated wooden benches, students watched the dissections happening in the middle of the room. While it’s slightly macabre, the theater is fascinating for the advanced nature of the studies that happened there.
Find Bologna’s hidden canals
A little bit like Venice, Bologna once had open, visible canals running through the city. They were used for transportation and powering businesses like the silk weavers and tanneries.
Over the last 100 years, the canals have been largely built over and covered from view, but there are certain opportunities to see them through unique vantage points. One such place is on Via Piella where you can see an old canal through a small window cut in the wall. Look carefully for the cut-out square and push the window open to reveal the canal.
Soak in the Bologna nightlife
Wondering what to do in Bologna at night? Just off of Piazza Maggiore is the Quadrilatero. The streets of this section of the city center are lined with cafes, bars, and specialty food shops. It’s busy during the day, but it’s on fire at night.
Like other mid-size university cities such as Ghent and Oxford, as friends and co-workers arrive for after-work fun, tables spill out into the narrow lanes. Every store front seems to be lit up. There is music and laughter everywhere. Pull up a chair, if you want to, or just walk through the streets and breathe in the good life of Italy.
Have your fill of gelato
No visit to Italy is complete without trying gelato…perhaps a couple of times a day. Bologna has a number of authentic gelato shops where you can try every flavor you’re craving. The best options are the shops where the gelato colors are natural (i.e., mint is white, not electric green). Cremeria Funivia was one of our favorites.
Take a Day Trip from Bologna
Bologna makes an ideal base from which to explore other parts of Emilia Romagna. In about an hour, you can visit a wide variety of places.
Explore the food and attractions of Modena
Only a half-hour away from Bologna by train, Modena makes a great day trip. You can make a special reservation at one of the world’s best restaurants, Osteria Francescana, or take a more low-key approach visiting the city’s sights.
A great way to hit the highlights in Modena is to take their hop-on/hop-off bus that leaves from Bologna. You can visit the home of opera great Pavarotti, taste test the famous Aceto Balsamico di Modena (balsamic vinegar), and visit a local winery. If cars are more your speed, you can get your fill of Ferraris, too.
Relax at Villaggio della Salute Più
In the hills of Monterenzio, Italy, you’ll find a water wonderland, Villaggio della Salute Piu. This spa complex features more than a dozen pools, plus slides, fountains, and a myriad of other amazing water features. You can also get massages and other equally indulgent spa treatments. It was one of our favorite ways to spend a day relaxing after all the sightseeing in Bologna.
Head to Parma for the day
Another university town, Parma is known for its architecture, music, art, and food–particularly Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. On a day trip, you can explore the city center, including shops, the frescoed Parma Cathedral, and the nearby pink marble Baptistry.
If eating is on your agenda, get up early or come in the night before to watch Parmigiano-Reggiano (this is NOT the stuff in the green can) come to life in front of you. From the milk delivery through the the aging process, you can see every step of the creation of this world-famous cheese.
Visit the coast in Rimini
On the Adriatic Sea, Rimini is known for its beaches and nightlife. If sand and clubbing aren’t quite your speed, there’s also lots of great food to be had. The Grand Hotel Rimini–a frequent feature in Fellini films–has a fabulous weekend brunch, which is offered as an outdoor picnic on special occasions. Every June, you can also find a fantastic food festival, Al Meni, which showcases dishes and chefs from all over Italy an the world. If you’re in town, it’s definitely worth a trip.
Where to Stay in Bologna
Aemilia Hotel: A 10-minute walk from the city center, Aemilia Hotel offers four-star accommodations. With air-conditioned rooms, an on-site restaurant and bar, and a rooftop terrace and jacuzzi, the amenities are top-notch. There is also a garage, so it’s perfect for those traveling by car.
UNAHOTELS Bologna Centro: This modern hotel right by the central train station makes it easy to explore the old town and beyond. Rooms have air conditioning and satellite TV, and exercise equipment is even available in your room.
B&B Santo Stefano: In a quiet part of the historic center, you’ll find B&B Santo Stefano. This charming B&B offers air-conditioned rooms and a great breakfast buffet. Guests love the personal hospitality.