Yes, Bologna is worth visiting and here are some reasons why. Firstly, Bologna is the gastronomic capital of Italy just as Lyon is in France. In fact, the city is often called The Fat because of its irresistible food specialities (see number 9)! Bologna is also a city of unique historic architecture found in the porticoes (see number 4), beautiful churches and, of course, the Due Torri (see number 1) which dominate the skyline and are the symbol of Bologna.
Where is Bologna?
Bologna is in northern Italy and is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. Bologna is accessible by car, train or plane and the international airport is located 6 km from the city. There are buses from the airport to the train station and the commute is approximately 20–30 minutes. From Bologna’s railway station all the major attractions are within 1.5 km. Alternatively, you can take a taxi from the airport to your hotel.
What to do in Bologna?
1. The Two Towers (Le Due Torri)
The Due Torri are two towers which are the symbol of the city. Like the tower in Pisa, they lean but not to the same extent. The towers are located in the old part of Bologna and you can use them as a good indicator to know whereabouts you are. Basically, if you get lost in the city, look for the towers to re-orientate yourself. The towers are very tall and dominate the city skyline, so it is very easy to see them.
Interestingly, the two towers are not the same size. The taller tower is called “Asinelli”, whereas the smaller is called “Garisenda”. So, why two towers? The towers were named two families. To demonstrate their power, these families decided to build the towers in around 1110. The Asinelli family built a bigger tower than the Garisenda family, so I imagine they were more powerful. You can visit the towers and climb the stairs to the top.
2. Basilica di San Petronio
The Basilica di San Petronio is located in Piazza Maggiore and is the biggest church in Bologna. It is also the sixth largest church in Europe, measuring 132m long, 60m wide and 45m high. The façade of the church was never finished, so it is strange to see the façade half white and half in bricks. To begin with, this building was not supposed to be a church at all but a public space. Don’t miss the intricate sculptures over the doorways on the front of the building. Be aware that to enter the Basilica, you must respect a dress code – no hats and your shoulders must be covered.
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3. Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is a church which has been built on top of a hill above Bologna. As a result, it provides great views of the city. The entrance to the church is free but for a small charge you can climb to the observation deck. When you plan your visit, be aware that the church is closed between 12:30 and 14:30.
How to get to the Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca
There are 3 different ways to visit this church:
Firstly,you can walk (and for us this is the best option). Although it’s a long walk (3.5 km), it’s worth the effort. Along the way, you will walk under porticoes (see below number 4) and you will pass 15 chapels. Each chapel has an information board displaying their name and description to help you learn more about them. If you choose to walk, we strongly advise you to take some water with you because you won’t find any on your way. If you don’t have a reusable water bottle, we recommend this one on Amazon because it’s a good size and is reliably leakproof. We always take it with us on our travels along with this handy torch.
Secondly, you can take the tourist train from the Piazza Maggiore at a cost of 10 Euros. An audio guide will give you lots of information during your journey.
Thirdly, you can take the public bus number 58. You won’t get an audio tour, but this method of transport will just cost you 1.5 Euros. A great option if you’re on a budget!
4. Walking under the Arcades (Porticoes)
The porticoes in Bologna form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. You will find them everywhere in Bologna. In total, there are 38 km of porticoes in the city. The porticoes are basically arched arcades which stretch over the pavement to protect you from the rain or the sun. The Bologna porticoes make the city unique in the world and make walking about very easy whatever the weather.
5. Palazzo d’Accursio
The Palazzo d’Accursio is situated on the Piazza Maggiore and it is free to enter. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 09:00 to 18:30 and 10:00 to 18:30 on weekends. The Palazzo is the seat of the Government and it is one of the most important buildings in Bologna. Don’t miss the horses’ great staircase which was the original staircase to enter the building. Initially, it was designed for horses with carriages to access the apartments on the upper floor. Today, it is more commonly used for wedding pictures!
6. Fountain of Neptune
You can find the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza del Nettuno. The Neptune fountain was built by Pope Pius IV when Bologna become subject to the Papal States. This fountain is large and is often called Il Gigante as it stands four meters high and weighs more than two tonnes. Neptune stands on top of the fountain with his arms outstretched to block the winds, but also portrays the power of the Pope. Under the statue, you will see four angels which represent four of the world’s major rivers: the Nile, Amazon, Danube and Ganges.
7. Piazza Maggiore
You can’t miss the Piazza Maggiore. It’s located in the centre of Bologna next to the Fountain of Neptune. This square has kept the same layout since the 15th century. Many events take place on the Piazza during the year, like open air cinema showings. It is also a great place to rest and enjoy a delicious meal or coffee. The square has stunning architecture and is also home to many famous buildings, including the Pallazo d’Accursio (see number 5), the Palzzo del Podesta (a civic building built in 1200), the Basilica di San Petronio (the main masterpiece of the Piazza) or the Palazzo Comunale (another city office). All of these buildings are of architectural interest.
8. Archiginnasio of Bologna
The Archiginnasio of Bologna is perhaps the most important building in the city. It houses the Anatomical Theatre and the Municipal Library. The building dates from the 16th century when the Piazza Maggiore was redesigned. The impressive porch of the building is 139 meters long and features thirty arches which are supported by columns. Students learn about the human body in the Anatomical Theatre. This room has remained unchanged over the years and you can easily imagine yourself taking an anatomical course here. The room was built in wood by skilled craftsmen and there are plenty of intricate details to be discovered.
9. Bologna Food Specialities
Rome is ancient, Venice is romantic, Naples is pizza, but Bologna is known for being the capital of gastronomy in Italy, just like Lyon in France. The Italians call Bologna the La Grassa and La Rossa (The Red and The Fat). I’m guessing you know where Bolognaise sauce originates from as most people enjoy Bolognaise pasta dishes. However, you need to try this dish here and you may be surprised. If you love lasagne, you definitely need to try Bologna Lasagne green.
Alternatively, if you are looking for something special, you could try the Tortellini en Brodo which is a pasta dish served in a hearty broth. The tortellini are stuffed with meat and cheese.
Bologna is also famous for its delicatessen foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Mortadella. Don’t miss the opportunity to have a Piadina which is a folded or rolled sandwich with this inside.
In Bologna you don’t need a guidebook to find the best place to eats, you can expect to have delicious food everywhere in the city. However, to have a memorable experience during your time in Bologna, you can learn how to cook delicious Italian meals. Why not take a cooking class and learn to cook like a local in a Bologna home?
I love food markets and it is here where I can feel the city, where I can see the locals and where I can discover new varieties of vegetables, meat or fruit. It is a great place to immerse yourself in a new culture with your eyes, nose, mouth and hands. Bologna is a great place for markets. This is unsurprising given that Bologna is Italy’s food capital.
There are several markets in the city. One of my favourites is the Mercato della Erbe. If you get up early, you will find locals doing their shopping with their small trolleys. The market itself is a great place to wander around to admire the glass and iron structure. In the evening, you can also enjoy a nice Aperitivo.
Other markets worth visiting are: Mercato Ritrovato, Mercarto del Novale or Mercato di Mezzo which is the oldest.
11. Santo Stefano
The Santo Stefano is a well-known complex of seven churches (Sette Chiese). This area will transport you back in time. There are plenty of hidden gems in this complex. These interconnected churches are like a small village inside the city. All the areas are pedestrianised, so you don’t need to worry about the safety of your kids – they can run and have fun! Make sure you plan enough time to explore everything as there is plenty to see. There are many charming coffee shops and restaurants in this area, if you need them. When you are in this stunning area, you will forget the rest of Bologna and feel like you are part an old movie. It’s a real gem!
12. Bologna with Kids
If you want a place to relax for a while with your kids, you could head to the Bibliotheca Sala Borsa near the Piazza Maggiore. They have a special library section for kids and a terrace with a vegetable garden.
Alternatively, you could leave the buzz of the city and enjoy the Complex di Santo Stefano where your kids can run and have fun in this pedestrianised place.
Another idea is to take the San Luca Express to the Sanctuary of San Luca. The train ride will be popular with kids and save the whining on the long walk!
13. Pinacoteca Nazionale
The Pinacoteca Nazionale museum is considered the best museum in Bologna. Here you will find religious art which is very well presented. It’s an interesting place to visit.
14. Day Trips from Bologna
If you are in Bologna for few days and you love cars, then you should go to experience the beautiful Ferrari Museum in Maranello, the Ducati Museum and Factory and the Lamborghini Museum and Factory. If you are a sports car lover, don’t miss out on these visits as they are so near to Bologna. See below for a full day out visiting the most prestigious car makers in history.
As I’ve mentioned, Bologna is the capital of food, but the wine is also very good. From Bologna, you can go for a trip in the Romagna Region for a day of wine tasting. Taste the wine but don’t drive! For peace of mind, join a guided tour group and have the best wine tasting experience.
15. Bologna Hidden Places
Did Venice copy Bologna or is it the other way around? In Bologna, there is a place called Little Venice (Finestrella di Via Piella). In the past, Bologna had many canals which were used to transport goods but now only a few remain as they have been filled and covered over the years. The best viewpoint of Little Venice is a window looking over the canal in the Via Piella.
Bologna’s creepiest attraction is a mummified body. If you want to see it, you need to go to the church of Saint Catherine and follow the sign ‘Cappella della Santa’. At the door, ring the bell and wait to enter. Walk until the end where you will see a mummified relic of St. Catherine of Bologna sitting on a throne. The chapel is open Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 09:30 to 11:30 and 16:00 to 17:45.
Is Bologna Worth Visiting?
Although Bologna is perhaps not as well-known as some other Italian cities, it is the gastronomic capital of the country. If you love good Italian food and appreciate architecture, it’s a lovely city to visit as it has some unique historic features like the porticoes. Of course, if you are also a sports car fanatic, the city offers a great base to visit the museums and factories of respected world-class car manufacturers. A once in a lifetime opportunity and perhaps great gift for that special person in your life!
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