One of the things I learned in Bologna is that it’s a city with many fascinating identities. Spend some time in this corner of northern Italy and you’ll understand why.
Visit Bologna: Things To Do in Bologna
Bologna is an inland Italian city with hardly the fame of destinations like Rome – or the other two cities it is situated between: Florence and Venice. That’s a plus from my perspective because exploring the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region is about seeing a side of Italy without all the touristy crowds.
Without bucket list fame, there is still much that sets this city apart. Here’s what I learned in Bologna during my stay.
Awesome Things I Learned in Bologna, Italy
Bologna Has 3 Nicknames
One of the first things I learned in Bologna is that it has three unofficial nicknames. One is La Grassa (the fat one) which refers to its rich tasty cuisine. After all, this is the home of ragu or bolognese. La Dotta (the learned one) pays homage to the world’s oldest Western university founded in 1088. La Rossa (the red one) refers to the fantastic terracotta shades that define the city’s porticoes and rooftops and the name symbolically cites the left-wing leanings of its people throughout history.
“We’re kind of rebels.”
That’s how one local put it to me the first day I arrived. As I explored more, I kind of got what she meant. Like one of those nicknames tells us, “The Red One” also refers to Bologna’s left-wing love. The town has been a center of 60s counterculture and 70s political activism. A lot of movements and cultural initiatives sprang from here.
Another thing I learned in Bologna quickly is that it has a lively student vibe. Bologna is home to Alma Mater Studiorum which is the oldest Western university.
Art, Culture, Music Mecca
My first night I was thrilled to see an English-language opera called Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. It took place at the beautiful Teatro Comunale di Bologna. The experience was part of a cultural package Night at the Theatre Tour through Bologna Welcome. You can reserve your seats here.
Bologna is also home to 50 museums. When it comes to music, UNESCO declared Bologna a “City of Music” in 2006. In fact, the Culture Trip cites Bologna is one of the best cities in the world for music lovers. If I had more time, I would have loved to see a concert too.
City of Amazing Arcades
Strolling under the city’s historic 25 miles of arcaded streets is the ideal way get a lay of the land and come upon its various historic sights. These fantastic never-ending porticoes are beautiful and add a certain charm to the city.
Two Leaning Towers
It’s not a J.R.R. Tolkein novel. Bologna, in fact, has two leaning towers at its core. Forget what you know, Pisa’s tower isn’t the tallest. The 11th-century Torre Asinelli is the tallest leaning tower in the world. Head to Piazza di Porta Ravegnana to climb nearly 500 steps for a panoramic photo.
Locals say anyone who climbs the tower before graduating will not get their degree. The shorter but still very leaning Garisenda Tower juts up next to it.
I also learned in Bologna that the city is very walkable. Everything was within a half hour walk really.
Also, lots of Bolognians speed around on bicycles, swerving in between and besides the traffic. I’m jealous Athens likely will never adopt this way of getting about.
Another thing I learned in Bologna is that on weekends, the historic center is closed off to vehicle traffic. Experiencing a long walk on Saturday is a must! Everyone seems to be out. There’s a lovely and lively community vibe.
Italy’s Food Capital
In “The Fat One” you can eat the best Italian food with none of the crowds. Perfect tortellini and tagliatelle al ragu. I never really liked mortadella before and that’s because I never had it in Bologna. Oh, I loved it here.
The street food of Bologna? That’s a whole other story. There are so many amazing quick and tasty bites to choose from and all so very good. Head to the end of the post for suggestions on where to eat in Bologna.
Another thing I learned in Bologna is that the wines are a must. I loved Pignoletto, the local sparkling white. We also enjoyed sipping red Lambrusco and Sangiovese.
Bologna’s Hipster Vibe
Yep, this is vibe-ing in several pockets of Bologna, a very creative and artsy kinda place.
Check out Via del Pratello, which birthed Bologna’s political movements and cultural initiatives. The district has its gritty but historic kind of charm with quaint streets lined by cafes and beer bars situated under old world porticoes.
Bolognina is the other hipster pocket. There I stumbled into Centro Sociale XM, a super cool outdoor market and community center in one. Swathed in fantastic street art, the market features local goods, organic fruits, vegetables, tons of homemade Italian specialties, vintage clothes and old books.
Down the road in Bolognina’s Mercato Albani, small mom-and-pop market stalls sell local goods by day. By night, the shuttered garage-style doors are pulled down to reveal a kind of street art museum.
Tons of Market Love
With all that amazing Bolognese food to try, there are very convenient places to tick off your “must eat” list – the Bolognese markets. Turns out, Bolognians love them and there are fantastic ones to check out. Mercato Delle Erbe is a vibrant indoor deli market dotted with tiny restaurants, artisan food stands and a communal cafeteria that’s abuzz by day or night with locals. I headed here while on a City of Food Tour with Bologna Welcome.
Another stop I discovered on the tour was the Quadrilatero district, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Right off Piazza Maggiore, the market is known for pricier but quality Italian goods, fresh produce stalls and specialty shops.
Also check out those hipster markets mentioned above: Centro Sociale XM and Mercato Albani.
For more about the local markets head to this blog post by Taste Bologna.
A Love of Cinema
Bologna is home to Cineteca di Bologna, a prominent archive of more than 40,000 films, covering silent films, amateur films to long lost B-movies. Located close to Via Del Pratello, the Cineteca also is behind the Chaplin Project which is a big initiative to bring restore Chaplin’s great films.
Stop by! You may even be in time to sit down for a film screening among local film lovers.
I love a Euro town that offers a fun vibe under the night time skies. Hanging out at night in Bologna felt like I had an invitation to a huge open-air block party. All the squares and streets are swarming with seniors, teens and families pushing strollers between them all. Being in the center of that is part of the night life fun.
I noticed the buzz around Piazza del Nettuno and Piazza Maggiore. Fancier revelers head to the champagne bars under the portico in Via de Musei.
Via del Pratello has awesome beer bars. Via Rialto is also lively and steps away from the oldest theater of Bologna called Teatro Duse.
Bolognina has a cool bar called Fermento, recommended by locals. For an Italian wine night go to Enoteca Risanamento or Acca Winery.
There’s a Gelato University
Now, who wouldn’t want to be a student here? I was for a day, taking along my traveling companion and one of my best friends, Timi. It was a success. We both earned a Master’s in pineapple sorbet. 😉
The Carpigiani Gelato University is a special place for artisan gelato makers. Carpigiani, which produces the best gelato making equipment, also leads the way in teaching artisans from around the globe how to perfect one of the world’s most favorite desserts! Stay tuned on a post about the special formula I learned to make gelato myself. Yes, it turned out pretty darn good – for a first timer. He he.
The Land of Lamborghini
Cars are not a hobby of mine. I can say that I love learning about the inventions in this world that have derived from absolute vision and passion. The Lamborghini brand is one of them and, wow, these fast cars are absolute pieces of art.
Stay tuned for a future post about the impressive factory tour. No photos were allowed inside but I can tell you all about it. The Lamborghini Museum was well worth a look too.
It doesn’t just end with Lamborghini in Bologna. Ducati and Ferrari also have factories in this region. This is an experience that can be booked through Bologna Welcome’s City of Motors Tours.
How to Get to Bologna
Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport is the international airport here. It is 6 kilometres northwest of the town center. You can easily take the Aerobus (6 euro/one way) to get to town. For the best flight deals for your travel to Bologna check out the airline ticket prices on Vayama.
The train is a good option if you’re planning to travel from cities around Italy. Bologna is about a 1.5 hours from Venice, 30 minutes from Florence, one hour from Milan and a little over two hours from Rome via train.
If you plan to rent a car, check out the best deals with Avis Europe.
Where to Eat in Bologna
Good news for fellow foodies… Another thing I learned in Bologna -from Bolognians- is that they are all about quality food so most restaurants have to be good. Some local favorites are Le Stanze. I headed here after the opera and the food was good but I was also glad I went for sheer atmosphere.
Locals also suggest meat and pasta dishes at Osteria Broccaindosso. Osteria dell’Orsa is famous for the tigella bread.
For an excellent trattoria in Bolognina, head to Trattoria di Via Serra.
Where to Stay in Bologna
For a five-star hotel, there’s only one in town and it is the Grand Hotel Magestic Baglioni. Located right in the very heart of the city on Via dell’Indipendenza. For a mid-range stay, consider the Albergo Al Capello Rosso, steps from Piazza Maggiore. The hotel dates back to the 14th century.
Off the pedestrianized Via Ugo Bassi you can book a simple, clean stay at the Albergo Panorama pensione where old town views can be appreciated.
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Isn’t it great to learn new things when you travel?
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