There are plenty of things to do in Bologna to warrant spending a long weekend in this Northern Italian city. The cultured Emilia Romagna capital may well just be one of the most picturesque cities in Italia.
Medieval terracotta structures, porticoed streets, cobbled piazzas combine to give Bologna its signature charm. The ancient city’s graffiti-laden squares and buildings add a layer of grit and personality to an otherwise elegant city.
- 1 A Little History of Bologna
- 2 The Best Things to do in Bologna Italy
- 2.1 Hang Out in Piazza Maggiore
- 2.2 Confess Your Sins to the Whispering Wall at the Palazzo del Podestá
- 2.3 Sample a Charcuterie Board and Wine Pairing
- 2.4 Experience Bologna Like a Local on a Food Tour
- 2.5 Admire the Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda
- 2.6 Get a Bird’s Eye View of the City from Asinelli Tower
- 2.7 Take a Bologna Cooking Class
- 2.8 Join a Boho Crowd at the Eclectic Bars of Via del Pratello
- 2.9 Hang Out at an Ancient Italian Inn
- 2.10 Admire the Works of Local Artists at the National Gallery
- 2.11 See the Hidden Canale di Reno
- 2.12 Wander the Cobbled Streets and Porticoes of Bologna
- 2.13 Visit the San Petronio Basilica
- 2.14 Browse Traditional Stores at the Quadrilatero
- 2.15 Enjoy an Aperitivo at Piazza Santo Stefano
- 2.16 Browse the Boutique Stores of Local Italian Designers
- 2.17 Indulge in Bolognese Delicacies in the City they Were Invented
- 2.18 Marvel at the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
- 2.19 Go Off-the-Beaten-Path to the Oratory of Battuti
- 2.20 Schedule Time to Visit the Museums of Bologna
- 2.21 Haggle Your Way Through La Piazzola Market
- 2.22 Admire the Ornate Architecture of the Palace of Archiginnasio
- 2.23 Climb the Torre Prendiparte for an Alternative View of the City
- 3 Where to Stay in Bologna
- 4 Suggested Bologna Tours
- 5 The Best Day Trips from Bologna
A Little History of Bologna
Over the centuries, Bologna has gained several nicknames. Locals referred to it as “La Rossa” (The red one). This name was awarded on account of the city’s signature rusty-coloured buildings.
Others affectionately donned it as “La Grassa” (the fat one). Various food delicacies originated from Bologna, winning the city international acclaim.
You may also hear reference to Bologna as La Dotta – the learned one. Bologna’s university dates back to 1088. As such, Bologna is Europe’s oldest university town.
The Best Things to do in Bologna Italy
At first glance, Bologna seems like a relatively compact, unassuming city. When you compare it Italian cities such as Milano, Roma, or Firenze, Bologna appears as a small town with few archealogical highlights.
Don’t be deceived. Whether you are embarking on a weekend break to Bologna or exploring the area as part of a wider Italy travel itinerary, rest assured, you won’t be short of things to do in Bologna while in town.
Hang Out in Piazza Maggiore
The graffiti-laden walls of Piazza Maggiore make up Bologna’s main square. Here, dozens of restaurants and coffee shops encompass the cobbled piazza.
A pleasant way to pass the time in the morning is to enjoy your prima colazione (breakfast) at a leisurely pace. Sip a cappuccino, indulge in a sweet Italian pastry, and people watch from beneath one of the cabanas in the square.
Piazza Maggiore is one of the oldest plazas in all of Italy. It has been the heart of the Bolognese social scene since the 13th century.
Take the time to marvel at the ornate exteriors of the historic buildings around the square while you’re here. The Palazzo D’Accursio, the Palazzo del Podestà, the Basilica of San Petronio, and the Palazzo Re Enzo are all worth making a note of.
Today, bustling Piazza Maggiore exudes a charming atmosphere. Well-dressed Italians use the square as a rendezvous point for their meetings, coffee breaks, and dates. Historically, the atmosphere here was much more macabre – the square was used for political announcements and hangings!
Confess Your Sins to the Whispering Wall at the Palazzo del Podestá
Many of those who visit Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore will just wander through. Those who enjoy stumbling across lesser-known attractions when they travel will be excited to hear about the secret whispering wall at the Palazzo del Podesta.
Once upon a time, lepers would come here to confess their sins and secrets to the wall – kind of like Jerusalem’s wailing wall. The site in itself is interesting. However, it is also worth having a try yourself and testing out the acoustics.
Stand diagonally across from your travel buddy and have a go at whispering to them or confessing your deepest, darkest secrets. You will be impressed by how well the message carries!
Note that the entrance to the whispering wall is not obvious. Follow the narrow passageway that runs down the side of the Bologna Tourist Office in Piazza Maggiore.
Sample a Charcuterie Board and Wine Pairing
Bologna and the Emilia Romagna region of Italy are both widely regarded as being the foodie capital of Italy. Even Italians from other parts of the country will begrudgingly admit that yes, okay, the Emilia Romagna cuisine is perhaps the best in the country!
In central Bologna, and particularly along Via Drapperie, you will find countless salumerias. These traditional establishments specialise in serving up charcuterie boards.
This way, visitors to Bologna can sample an array of the finest cured meats, wines, and cheeses from the region.
Mortadella is the most well-known cured meat to be found in Bologna. This beloved Bolognese delicacy is essentially ground pork that is mixed with lard and then seasoned. (More delicious than it sounds!)
You will find mortadella practically everywhere you turn in Bologna. However, a charcuterie board offers you a chance to sample some of the lesser-known cold cut delicacies.
Salame rosa and Lyon are two other cold cuts to look out for. La Baita Vecchia Malga, Simoni Laboratorio, and Salumeria Simoni are three local establishments that prepare excellent charcuterie boards.
Experience Bologna Like a Local on a Food Tour
Eating is one of the best things to do in Bologna. That is followed by eating, and.. oh yes… more eating!
Bologna is the birthplace of numerous internationally renowned Italian delicacies. Ragu, tortellini, and tagliatelle all originated here.
As you meander through the narrow streets and cobbled passageways of old Bologna, you will stumble across countless restaurants that serve authentic local dishes.
That said, if you want to ensure that you try the best of the best, consider booking a Bologna food tour. This way you will uncover hidden trattorias that only the Bolognese locals know about.
Admire the Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda
Due torri, the two leaning towers of Bologna are the city’s most iconic landmark. Pisa’s leaning tower may be the most famous leaning tower in the world. However, Bologna’s Garisenda tower actually leans at a greater angle!
The two towers date back to the 1100s. Historically, they were used for military and defensive purposes.
At one point, over 100 similar defensive structures were scattered across the region. Sadly only a handful remain today.
Get a Bird’s Eye View of the City from Asinelli Tower
While it’s not possible to climb to the top of the leaning Garisenda tower, you CAN ascend its neighbour: The Asinelli Tower. The winding narrow staircase provides quite a fitness challenge. There are no less than 498 steps to conquer!
When you arrive at the top though, you can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views over Bologna. It is important to note that you must purchase tickets for the Asinelli Tower in advance.
Entering the tower is just 5 euros per person, but tickets should be bought from the Bologna Tourist Office in Piazza Maggiore. Visitor numbers are limited each day. However you should not have an issue getting hold of a ticket.
Take a Bologna Cooking Class
What better souvenir could you take back from your time in Bologna than traditional Bolognese recipes that you have picked up from an Italian local? I did a cooking class with Maribel from Taste of Italy and it was one of the highlights of my time in the red city.
Cooking classes in Bologna vary between those that you can do in the home of an Italian local (like I did) and those that are completed in the kitchen of a restaurant or a culinary school. I preferred the former as it offered a more personal approach.
Maribel and I explored the fresh food markets at the Quadrilatero to pick up seasonal ingredients. Then we spent the day preparing several local delicacies.
Handmade tortellini, fresh tagliatelle, stuffed zucchini flowers, and pannacotta were on our menu. Delizioso!
Join a Boho Crowd at the Eclectic Bars of Via del Pratello
When night falls, Bologna offers a very vibrant and varied party scene. Via Zamboni has long been heralded as the city’s student district.
The street is is home to dozens of cheap and cheerful pubs. Meanwhile. Via del Pratello is its quirky, bohemian counterpart.
The bars and along Via del Pratello range from craft breweries to bars-cum-art galleries and live music spots. Local favourites include Macondo, Buwowsky, and Bar De’ Marchi.
Hang Out at an Ancient Italian Inn
Bologna’s Osteria del Sole provides a glimpse into what the Northern Italian social scene was like when people frequented ancient inns. The Osteria dates all the way back to 1465. Its simple, original style remains unchanged.
The concept of Osteria del Sole is different from what you may expect when you hear the phrase “Osteria”. This place is certainly not a restaurant and does not even serve food.
This is a BYOF (“bring your own food”) kind of place. Locals prepare their own pasta, lunches, and snacks, and bring them to the Osteria. Once inside, they enjoy their meals with locally sourced wines and Italian aperitifs.
Osteria del Sole is not signposted so it may be tricky to find at first. The establishment is a hole in the wall that brings literal meaning to the phrase “hole in the wall”.
It is located on Via Ranocchi, a short walk away from Piazza Maggiore. This is one of the best things to do in Bologna if you want to experience authentic Bolognese nightlife without breaking the bank.
Admire the Works of Local Artists at the National Gallery
Art and creativity contribute a lot to modern Italian culture. The National Gallery in Bologna offers insight into life in Emilia Romagna through the centuries.
Unlike most art museums that display a diverse collection of works from various artists, the pieces on display at the National Gallery are all somehow linked to Emilia Romagna and Bologna.
The exhibitions at the National Gallery feature both Byzantine paintings and fine art pieces. The works date from the 13th century to the 18th century.
See the Hidden Canale di Reno
Venice may well be the Italian city that is known for its canals. However, Bologna is also home to an intricate network of waterways.
Sadly, the vast majority of Bologna’s canals have now been covered up with construction or hidden from view. That said, if you know where to look, you can find incredibly photogenic waterways that most tourists don’t realise exist.
A glimpse of one of the last remaining portions of Bologna’s canals can be enjoyed at Via Piella. This is a narrow street nestled between Via Augusto Righi and Via Bertiera.
Wander the Cobbled Streets and Porticoes of Bologna
Allocate some of your Bologna itinerary to simply allowing yourself the time to wander along the narrow cobbled passageways of the old town. If you use Piazza Maggiore and the two towers as landmarks, you can never really get lost.
Part of the charm of this vibrant Italian city is its quaint backstreets. Here, Vespas whizz by, ladies cook pasta at the side of the road, and locals sell fresh produce.
Outside of the cobbled old town, you will notice one of the most famous sites of Bologna – the city’s porticoes. Porticoes are enclosed walkways and they are present on the majority of Bologna’s streets and roads.
It is estimated that the porticoed areas of the city add up to 40km in length! Some of the most detailed walkways are situated close to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, and at the Bonaccorsi Arch.
Visit the San Petronio Basilica
The San Petronio Basilica is Bologna’s largest and most important church. However, on arrival, you will note that the structure was never completed.
At the time of San Petronio’s construction, Bologna hoped that the grand church would become the largest and grandest in Italy. This was much to the dismay of the Pope who refused to fund the project.
Even though The San Petronio Basilica is incomplete, it is still one of the largest churches in the world. Within the basilica’s grounds is the world’s largest sundial.
Additionally, you will find some religious paintings here that have caused controversy. San Petronio Basilica sits in the charming Stefano Square, surrounded by two other churches.
Browse Traditional Stores at the Quadrilatero
Wander down the narrow street that leads away from Piazza Maggiore and you will find yourself at the Quadrilatero. This held the title of beng Bologna’s most important shopping district for centuries. Today, the Quadrilatero is at a juxtaposition of ancient tradition meets modern culture.
Explore the traditional medieval market here, and check out the stalls at via Pescherie and via Drapperie. Bolognese locals still frequent these stores and markets in order to obtain the freshest ingredients for their home cooking.
Don’t be shy to venture inside the various delicatessens, cheese shops, and patisseries. The store owners are typically very accommodating and will allow you to sample regional produce.
You will be able to sample different types of aged parmesan, various blends of balsamic vinegar from Modena, etc. The Quadrilatero is a good place to pick up foodie souvenirs or to buy high-quality ingredients from the markets if you are staying in self-catered accommodation.
Enjoy an Aperitivo at Piazza Santo Stefano
The Piazza Santo Stefano is best known for being home to the infamous San Petronio Basilica. However, this little square is also a great place to enjoy an aperitivo as the sun goes down. An aperitivo is a Northern Italian tradition that typically occurs between 6 and 8 pm.
Order a drink during this time period and you will be served an array of complimentary light snacks and bruschettas to tide you over until dinner time. A popular drink choice is Aperol spritz.
Camera con Vista is an upscale bar and bistro just off the Piazza Santo Stefano that is renowned for its excellent aperitivo.
Browse the Boutique Stores of Local Italian Designers
A short walk away from the Quadrilatero is the Cavour Gallery. This exquisite mall is dedicated to some of the most exclusive Italian and international brands.
Nearby Via Clavature is filled with Independent boutique stores and is the best place to shop for unique pieces. Whether you are looking for beautifully crafted handmade Italian leather shoes, or bespoke tailored garments, you will find it all here. Roberta Biaggi, Liviana Conti and Liu Jo are all Italian Designers worth having on your radar.
Indulge in Bolognese Delicacies in the City they Were Invented
Emilia Romagna and Bologna are not considered the foodie capital of Italy for nothing. Some of the most prominent Italian culinary classics were founded here.
When in Rome, or when in Bologna as it were, you must sample the city’s namesake dish: Spaghetti Bolognese (aka tagliatelle al ragù). Italians pride themselves on their cuisine – it is UNESCO protected after all!
Most restaurants in Bologna serve a very good ragu. That said, some of the eateries that are locally famed for their spaghetti Bolognese are Ristorante Diana, Trattoria Anna Maria, and Osteria dell’ Orsa.
Bologna is the home of egg-pasta and houses some of the best sfogline (pasta makers) in Italy. Meat-stuffed tortellini is another Bolognese food classic that should not be missed.
To enjoy tortellini the local way, head into a local deli and buy a box of handmade pasta to cook and enjoy at your accommodation. Le Sfogline, Bottega Dei Portici, and Salumeria Simoni are among the best-regarded pasta makers in town.
Marvel at the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is situated 3 miles south of Bologna centre. However it is but well worth the journey.
The basilica’s hilltop location offers phenomenal views over the city of Bologna, its delicate terracotta buildings, its ornate belfries and towers, and the beautiful greenery and rolling hills that surround it.
A blackened statue of the Virgin Mary is held inside the basilica. It is this statue which gives the place its name.
The “piece de resistance” of visiting this place is the view. A train runs between Piazza Maggiore and the Sanctuary every 30 minutes.
Go Off-the-Beaten-Path to the Oratory of Battuti
Bologna is filled with ancient churches that await down practically every passageway. Their interiors are adorned with vivid, vibrant frescoes that depict scenes from the bible.
One of the most beguiling, yet frequently overlooked chapels in the city is the Oratory of Battuti. This small chapel is nestled inside the church of Santa Maria Della Vita.
The chapel dates back to the 1600s. Its interiors are filled with incredibly detailed baroque structures that were created by Michelangelo, including figures of St. Petronius, and St. Proculus.
Most people bypass the church of Santa Maria Della Vita and the Oratory of Battuti. Guidebooks do not list the chapel as one of the recommended things to do in Bologna.
The distinct lack of tourists in these places makes the ambiance even more magical. You can admire the frescoes and carvings beneath a haze of incense and candles .
Schedule Time to Visit the Museums of Bologna
If you are interested in learning more about Bologna’s history, there are several noteworthy museums in the city that make for an interesting visit. Bologna’s Archaeological museum hosts a number of fascinating exhibitions.
The exhibits which display locally excavated artifacts from various civilisations and time periods. Everything from the Ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire, to the modern era can be found inside.
The Museum for the memory of Ustica is a thought-provoking place. It is dedicated to Italy’s biggest conspiracy theory: the “Ustica massacre” (Strage di Ustica).
This tragic incident saw a domestic Italian flight from Bologna to Palermo mysteriously explode. All of those on board lost thier lives.
A number of theories surround the Ustica massacre, each of which is discussed at the museum. The wreckage of the plane is also on display.
Haggle Your Way Through La Piazzola Market
Traditional markets are as much a part of Bolognese culture today as they were when they were founded centuries ago. La Piazzola market in Bologna’s Piazza dell’Agosto is comprised of over 400 stalls.
The vendors here sell an array of clothing and food products. It has been operating in the square for hundreds of years. Today it is loved by locals and tourists alike.
La Piazzola is just one of several specialty markets in Bologna. Others worth looking out for include the Mercato Delle Erbe food market, and the Fiera del Libro book market.
Admire the Ornate Architecture of the Palace of Archiginnasio
Bologna’s palace of Archiginnasio dates back to the 16th century and exudes grandeur at every turn. The building was heavily damaged during a bombing in World War II. However, it has been well reconstructed.
The palace makes for an interesting visitvisit. In particular, you should carve time out of your Bologna itinerary to visit its municipal library and anatomical theatre.
Climb the Torre Prendiparte for an Alternative View of the City
As mentioned, Bologna was once home to hundreds of defensive towers. The Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda are the most famous towers in the city.
The Torre Prendiparte is another well-preserved tower that remains. Visiting the tower is one of the lesser-known things to do in Bologna.
It awaits, hidden among an entangled maze of narrow streets and cobbled passageways .It is possible to climb to the top of the tower for excellent views over old Bologna. Better yet, some floors of Torre Prendiparte have been renovated into quirky hotel rooms that offer some of the best views in town!
Where to Stay in Bologna
Bologna boasts a diverse range of hotels to suit every travel style and budget. A selection of reputable accommodation properties are discussed below.
Hotel Porta San Mamolo
Where: Vicolo del Falcone, 6, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy
Hotel Porta San Mamolo is an adorable, shabby-chic style hotel in the centre of Bologna. The hotel sits inside an elegant, refined building that boasts beautiful interior courtyards, and picturesque gardens.
Breakfast is served in the hotel’s lovely garden where you are surrounded by fragrant oleanders and pomegranates. Bologna’s two tours can be reached in less than five minutes on foot. You can browse the latest room rates and availability at Hotel Porta San Mamolo here.
Casa Isolani Santo Stefano
Where: Via Santo Stefano, 16, 40125 Bologna BO, Italy
Casa Isolani Santo Stefano is a charming, quaint boutique hotel in the heart of old Bologna. The property is set inside the renovated 18th century Palazzo Isolani.
The location places travellers in the centre of Italy’s red city, in close proximity to many of the main attractions. The furnishings are simply, yet homely.
Guests can enjoy views of the Piazza Santo Stefano from their rooms. You can browse the latest rates and availability at Casa Isolani here.
Suggested Bologna Tours
All of the best things to do in Bologna can be easily explored independently, by foot, or by using Emilia Romagna’s excellent public transport network. That said, there may be instances where you prefer to wander around the city accompanied by a local.
Somebody that has lived in the city for decades can help you find your bearings, and uncover places that you may have never otherwise found. A selection of reputable Bologna tours are detailed below for your consideration.
- Bologna walking tour
- Italian food and wine tour of Bologna
- Bologna home cooking experience and walking tour
- Bologna to San Luca basilica tour and food tasting
The Best Day Trips from Bologna
Although there are plenty of things to do in Bologna to keep you occupied for a few days, the wider Emilia Romagna region of Italy is also incredibly beautiful. It is very much worth taking the time to see if your schedule permtis.
There are numerous medieval settlements and cultural sites right on Bologna’s doorstep. The day trips from Bologna detailed below can easily be reached by public transport, or by renting a car in Italy.
Agriturismo is a popular vacation pastime in Italy. The intention is for travellers to get back to nature by opting to stay on farms, or in country homes in rural locations. This a perfect way to escape the hustle and bustle of modern living.
By doing a farm stay, you can experience true Emilia Romagna hospitality amid a quaint hamlet, a medieval village, or on a dairy farm. I stayed at the Podere San Giuliano outside Bologna.
The chefs at the restaurant prepared me a tasting menu of their homegrown vegetables and locally sourced ingredients. This was certainly one of my best foodie experiences in Bologna.
Head to the Pastel-Coloured Medieval Town of Brisighella
The pastel-coloured medieval town of Brisighella is a lovely alternative day trip from the Emilia Romagna capital. It sits perched on a hilltop an hour away from Bologna.
This may well just be one of the most beautiful towns in all of Italy. Better still, it is relatively unknown among international tourists!
Charming Brisighella is quite a sight to behold. Its pastel-coloured houses and shops sit amidst a backdrop of rolling green hills, vineyards, and olive groves that extend as far as the eye can see.
You can enjoy Brisighella as a day trip from Bologna. Alternatively, opt to stay overnight to truly get a feel for a more laid-back Italian way of life.
Take a Day Trip to Pavarotti’s Modena
The underrated city of Modena is the city that gave us Luciano Pavarotti and Balsamic Vinegar. It is well worth visiting on one of your day trips from Bologna.
Start your time in Modena by heading to the city’s main square – Piazza Grande. The little streets that veer off from Piazza Grande decorate their windows with stunning displays of the finest silk scarves, Italian leather handbags, and chic apparel.
Head into a local tavern to sample Modena’s finest delicacies. You can perhaps order a serving of zampone (stuffed pig’s feet) if you are feeling adventurous! At the Enoteca Ducale store, you can try different blends of locally produced Modena balsamic vinegar.
Depending on your interests, you can also admire the finest Italian supercars at the Enzo Ferrari museum, or visit Pavarotti’s former home.
Tour a Parmesan Cheese Factory
Parmigiano Reggiano (aka parmesan) is another Italian delicacy that originated in Emilia Romagna. From Bologna Italy, it is possible to organise a day trip to a local parmesan factory to see how the cheese is produced.
Once created, cheeses are matured for 12, 24, and 36 months, to create different textures and flavours. The cheese is a product of designated origin. There is nowhere else in the world that you would have the opportunity to tour a Parmesan factory!
At the end of the tour, you will have the chance to sample a range of different parmesan products, all paired with local condiments, honeys and jams.
Soak up the Summer Sun in Rimini
If you want to enjoy a little respite from the heat and humidity, consider venturing out to the coast. Rimini is a popular beach getaway spot for Italians. It sits on the Adriatic Coast, bordered by translucent cerulean waters.
Relaxing on the pristine coastlines of Rimini is a major draw of most people. However the area also boasts an Ancient castle, Roman ruins, and beautiful hiking trails.
Do you have any further questions about things to do in Bologna or planning a trip to Italy? I used to live in Naples and have explored the country quite extensively.
I would be happy to answer any queries that you may have so feel free to reach out to me or drop me a comment below. Buon Viaggio! Melissa xo
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