Bologna has a rich heritage dating back thousands of years, with historic buildings and churches and the oldest university in the Western world. All of that exists alongside fabulous markets, world-class entertainment, and some of the best food you’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.
One of the largest and oldest squares in Italy, Piazza Maggiore is the epicentre of political and social life in Bologna, and the starting point for everything to do in Bologna.
Surrounded by some of Bologna's grandest buildings the Basilica di San Petronio, Palazzo dei Notai, Palazzo d'Accursio, Palazzo del Podestà and Palazzo dei Bianchi, Piazza Maggiore really is the most beautiful European squares we've laid eyes on.
But the beauty of Piazza Maggiore lies beyond its attractive facade. For centuries, locals have embraced and enjoyed this space, and it really is the true definition of a public square. In fact, Piazza Maggiore was home to one of Europe’s biggest open-air market until the mid-1800s with products coming from all over the world, which explains how it grew into the meeting spot for locals in the city.
We spent many afternoons in Piazza Maggiore doing something we love: people watching. We sat on the stairs of San Petronio watching as cyclists swerved through crowds of rowdy students, tourists posed for selfies in front of timeless architecture, locals enjoyed an espresso and cigarette at shaded cafes, and buskers filled the square with their musical delights.
As the sun went down, we watched Piazza Maggiore and its beautiful buildings illuminate, as the noise from crowds reverberated throughout the whole square. It makes for a slightly surreal but seriously alluring experience.
Furthermore to the north west of the square sits the Piazza del Nettuno that contains the famous Fountain of Neptune.
THE LEANING TOWER
Who would of thought that the famous tower at Pisa is not the only leaning tower? Bologna actually has a pair of leaning towers and one is taller than the iconic campanile! Bologna actually has a myriad of towers, but the two tall examples standing in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana are the most legendary.
Asinelli and Garisenda are two tall towers that stand next to each other and are both named after important Italian families.
Asinelli stands at 97.2 m and was used as a prison and a stronghold. Garisenda stands only at 48m but has an extremely noticeable tilt and overhang of 3.2 m
Climb the towers for unparalleled views of Bologna and see the epic landscapes stretching for miles around.
BASILICA OF SAN PETRONIO
Smack bang in the middle of Bologna, just off Piazza Maggiore, lies one of the city's most important and imposing structures, San Petronio church.
Named in honour of the patron of Bologna, Saint Petronius, construction of the basilica started in 1390 and through to 1479. Although it was never completed due to a rivalry with Rome, the church evolved through the middle ages to become the structure it is today.
This immense structure stands as the 10th largest church in the world by volume and presents a domineering presence in the centre of the Piazza Maggiore.
Inside the church feels truly epic – The large brick columns adorned with decoration seem to stretch forever and the main altar draws your attention as you walk down the central aisle
THE MARKET STREETS OF QUADRILATERO
To the east of Piazza Maggiore lies the bustling, colourful streets of Quadrilatero, one of our favourite parts of Bologna.
This is the trendy, beating gourmet heart of Bologna. It’s somewhat odorous alleyways are filled with greengrocers and fishmongers shouting the days specials, while the warm scent of fresh-baked bread wafts from the local artisanal bakers. Quaint cafes churn out morning espressos for their regulars, while tourists slowly wander through taking in all the sights and sounds.
Quadrilatero is a sensory overload in the best possible way.
Set on the site of ancient Bologna, the Quadrilatero was the home to many markets and food stalls during the Middle Ages. It is now the commercial heart of the old town and the place in Bologna to find all the incredible local produce, including freshly made pasta, local balsamico, aged cheeses, delicious charcuterie, and of course terrific and inexpensive wine.
There are also a number of restaurants and bars that dot the area, perfect for a lunch or afternoon antipasti.
DISTRICT OF GHETTO EBRACIO
First things first, Bologna is one of the coolest places we've ever visited.
Due to its liberal, progressive inhabitants and world class university, the city is brimming with people way cooler than we'll ever be. And the home of Bologna's uber-cool is Ghetto Ebracio.
This is the former 16th century Jewish Ghetto, now transformed into an area brimming with some of the city's most hipster shopping, bars and restaurants. The atmosphere created by the narrow streets, tiny windows and curious corners make it a great place to explore. Indeed, we spent many an afternoon meandering around its colourful streets, enjoying the heady mix of boutiques, vintage stores, bars and street art.
After an afternoon exploring the colourful district, we stumbled upon Camera a Sud, enticed by the hipster-vintage surrounds and the prospect of cheap Aperol Spritz. And after spending every afternoon there for the next three days, we're happy we did. Not only was the Spritz cheap, it ended up being the perfect place to chill out after a long day of walking.
This hidden gem is filled with uni students and Bologna's uber cool, who sip spritz and smoke while no doubt discussing the horrid state of Italian politics. Rain, hail or shine, it's the perfect place to sit, chill and chat.
Listed as one of the most important buildings in Bologna, the Archiginnasio was once the main buildings of the University of Bologna and now houses the famous Anatomical Theatre.
This fantastic building was created in the 16th century and is located on the Piazza Galvani.
As a piece of historical architecture, the Achiginnasio is fantastic in its own right, but the Anatomical Theatre is undoubtedly the centre piece.
Created completely in wood, this small room has an immense amount of wood panelling and carved statues of famous medical practitioners.
Furthermore, in the centre of the room surrounded by seating platforms lies an ornate anatomical table.
This is the place where university students would have learnt about the human anatomy and watched dissections and demonstrations of surgery etc.
BOLOGNA NATIONAL GALLERY
Whilst some galleries display works from a variety of countries, the Bologna National Gallery contains works that are related someway to the Emilian region and the city – These paintings range in age as far back as the 13th century, up to the 18th century.
Located within the confines of the old university complex, the museum is within easy reach of the city centre and the main Piazza Maggiore.
Split into two main sections, the museum contains the Accademia Clementina and the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts; the first of which contains a myriad of fantastic 13th century Byzantine paintings and the latter contains later works.
Notable pieces include the Ecstasy of St. Cecilia by Raphael and Christ and the Good Theif by Titian
THE MADONNA DI SAN LUCA CHURCH (MONTE DELLA GUARDIA)
The longest portico in the world leads up to the top of Monte della Guardia...
As one of the oldest churches in Bologna, the Sanctuary of Madonna was first created in 1194 but not finished until 1765. This church sits on top of the Monte della Guardia and offers great views of the city of Bologna.
Towering over the surroundings, the main building features a central basilica and is created from an orange/pink material with green domes; its style is considered to be Baroque.
Inside, the sanctuary features a plethora of fantastic decoration and detailed frescos that depict important religious scenes.
Furthermore the is also an icon of the Virgin Mary that was supposedly painted by Luke the Evangelist.
ORATORY of BATTUTI, Santa Maria della Vita
This small chapel located within the church of Santa Maria della Vita features a tremendous amount of design and decoration and is one of the rarely seen finds in Bologna – Many people simply forget it is there.
The Oratory was constructed in 1604 and was designed by Floriano Ambrosini.
Contained within the Oratory is a myriad of sculptures included statues of St. Proculus and St. Petronius, and also a variety of beautiful frescos.
If you tilt your head back, the ceiling presents you with a stunning depiction of the ascension of Madonna, and the walls feature other religious iconography.
ST. STEPHEN BASILICA
This historical religious complex is located in the Piazza Santo Stefano and features several different buildings including the Church of Saint John the Baptist, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the courtyard of Pilate.
As you walk through the first church, you might think that it is just one building, but as you step into the main arched courtyard you can see the various different buildings.
Each church has its own character, design and artwork and there is also a free museum that contains historical information about the complex.
WALK BOLOGNA’S ENDLESS PORTICOES
Lights and shadows, unique architectural angles, columns, capitals and frescoes; Bologna's porticoes create the most fascinating urban landscapes, and ones which we couldn't help but fall in love with.
The UNESCO world-heritage listed porticoes of Bologna were built between the city's prosperous Middle Ages and the early 20th century, when the growth of the University created the need for extra space.
Bologna is famed for its extensive Portico – A Portico is essentially a partially enclosed walkway that is lined with arches and columns.
As Bologna grew as a university city, so did the amount of Porticos present in the city.
There are close to 40kms of porticoes throughout the city of Bologna, each with their own unique style and structure. By simply strolling the city's porticoes, it felt like we were getting to know the city and its history, one step at a time.
There are numerous different porticos scattered around the city but the most famous are the Bonaccorsi Arch and the walkway leading to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.
Walk through the porticos and admire the wonderful ancient architecture.
Try a local dish of Tortellini
Tortellini is one of the most popular traditional Italian foods in Bologna and most local restaurants will serve this tantalizing dish.
Traditionally, Tortellini ring shaped pasta is filled with various stuffing’s such as pork, prosciutto and cheese, and served in a form of chicken or beef broth.
Mystery and intrigue surround the origins of this food but Bologna is considered to be one of the best places to experience an authentic Tortellini dish.
Consider frequenting one of the restaurants surrounding the Piazza Maggoire, or venturing down the side streets to find a local eatery not geared towards tourists.