There are plenty of things to do in Bologna to warrant spending a long weekend in the cultured Emilia Romagna capital.
With its medieval terracotta structures, its porticoed streets, and its cobbled piazzas, Bologna may well just be one of the most picturesque cities in Italy. The ancient city’s graffiti-laden squares and buildings add a layer of grit and personality to an otherwise elegant city.
Over the centuries, Bologna has gained several nicknames. Locals referred to it as “La Rossa” (The red one) on account of the city’s signature rusty-coloured buildings. Others affectionately donned it as “La Grassa” (the fat one) due to the various food delicacies that originated from Bologna. You may also hear reference to Bologna as La Dotta – the learned one. Bologna’s university dates back to 1088 making the city Europe’s oldest university town.
- 1 The Best Things to do in Bologna Italy
- 1.1 Hang Out in Piazza Maggiore
- 1.2 Confess Your Sins to the Whispering Wall at the Palazzo del Podestá
- 1.3 Sample a Charcuterie Board and Wine Pairing
- 1.4 Experience Bologna Like a Local on a Food Tour
- 1.5 Admire the Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda
- 1.6 Get a Bird’s Eye View of the City from Asinelli Tower
- 1.7 Take a Bologna Cooking Class
- 1.8 Join a Boho Crowd at the Eclectic Bars of Via del Pratello
- 1.9 Hang Out at an Ancient Italian Inn
- 1.10 Admire the Works of Local Artists at the National Gallery
- 1.11 See the Hidden Canale di Reno
- 1.12 Wander the Cobbled Streets and Porticoes of Bologna
- 1.13 Visit the San Petronio Basilica
- 1.14 Browse Traditional Stores at the Quadrilatero
- 1.15 Enjoy an Aperitivo at Piazza Santo Stefano
- 1.16 Browse the Boutique Stores of Local Italian Designers
- 1.17 Indulge in Bolognese Delicacies in the City They Were Invented
- 1.18 Marvel at the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
- 1.19 Go Off-the-Beaten-Path to the Oratory of Battuti
- 1.20 Schedule Time to Visit the Museums of Bologna
- 1.21 Haggle Your Way Through La Piazzola Market
- 1.22 Admire the Ornate Architecture of the Palace of Archiginnasio
- 1.23 Climb the Torre Prendiparte for an Alternative View of the City
- 2 The Best Day Trips from Bologna
The Best Things to do in Bologna Italy
At first glance, Bologna seems like a relatively compact, unassuming city when compared to Italian cities such as Milano, Roma, or Firenze. Don’t be deceived though. 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 main square. A pleasant way to pass the time in the morning is to enjoy your prima colazione while sipping a cappuccino, indulging in a sweet Italian pastry, and people watching from beneath one of the cabanas in the square.
Piazza Maggiore is one of the oldest plazas in all of Italy and 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 – the Palazzo D’Accursio, the Palazzo del Podestà, the Basilica of San Petronio, and the Palazzo Re Enzo.
Today, bustling Piazza Maggiore exudes a charming atmosphere as well-dressed Italians use the square as a rendezvous point for their meetings, coffee breaks and dates. Historically though, 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, but 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 so that 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. You will find mortadella practically everywhere you turn in Bologna, but 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 such as ragu (as the name spaghetti bolognese suggests!), tortellini, and tagliatelle.
Of course, as you meander through the narrow streets, and cobbled passageways of old Bologna, you will stumble across plenty of restaurants that serve authentic local dishes. There will be plenty of time to stuff yourself silly with Bolognese food. That said, if you want to ensure that you try the best of the best, and dine at restaurants that only the locals know about, you could consider booking a Bologna food tour like this one.
Admire the Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda
Due torri, the two leaning towers of Bologna are the city’s most iconic landmark. Although Pisa’s tower may be the most famous leaning tower in the world, Bologna’s Garisenda tower actually leans at a greater angle!
Bologna’s towers date back to the 1100s and were historically used for military and defensive purposes. At one point, over 100 similar defensive structures were scattered across the region, however, 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 as you have 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.
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 before preparing the local delicacies of handmade tortellini, handmade tagliatelle, stuffed zucchini flowers, and pannacotta. 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 and is home to dozens of cheap and cheerful pubs while 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 and 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. In fact, it’s a BYOF (“bring your own food”) kind of place where locals prepare their own pasta, lunches, and snacks, and bring them inside the Osteria to enjoy with locally sourced wines and Italian aperitif.
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, and the National Gallery in Bologna offers insight into historical life in Emilia Romagna. Unlike most art museums which 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 – 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 Bologna old town at a relaxed pace. Using 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 where 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. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that the porticoed areas 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, 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, in addition to some religious paintings 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, 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 – i.e. 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 (a popular choice is the Aperol spritz), and be served an array of complementary light snacks and bruschettas to tide you over until dinner time. 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, an exquisite mall that 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.
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!) so most restaurants in Bologna do 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 but well worth the journey to get to. 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 (hence its name), however, the piece de resistance of visiting this place really 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 every passageway and whose interiors are adorned with vivid, vibrant frescoes that depict scenes from the bible. However, one of the most beguiling, yet frequently overlooked chapels in the city is the Oratory of Battuti, a small chapel that is nestled inside the church of Santa Maria della Vita.
Dating back to the 1600s, the interiors of the chapel 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, and guidebooks do not list the chapel as one of the recommended things to do in Bologna. In that way, admiring its frescoes and carvings, beneath a haze of incense and candles becomes even more magical.
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 which display artifacts from various civilisations and time periods – from the ancient Greeks and the Roman empire to the modern era.
The Museum for the memory of Ustica is a thought-provoking place dedicated to Italy’s biggest conspiracy theory: the “Ustica massacre” (Strage di Ustica) which saw a domestic Italian flight from Bologna to Palermo mysteriously explode, causing all of those on-board to lose their lives.
A number of theories surround the Ustica massacre, each of which is discussed at the museum. The wreckage of the plane is on display at the museum.
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 that sell an array of clothing and food products. Equally beloved by locals and tourists, the market has been operating in the square for hundreds of years.
This 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. Although the building was heavily damaged during a bombing in World War II, it has been well reconstructed and is still worth a visit. In particular, you should carve time out of your Bologna itinerary to visit the palace’s municipal library and anatomical theatre.
Climb the Torre Prendiparte for an Alternative View of the City
I already mentioned that Bologna was once home to hundreds of defensive towers beside the Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda, and the Torre Prendiparte is one such example. Hidden away among an entangled maze of narrow streets and cobbled passageways, the tower is one of the lesser known things to do in Bologna.
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!
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 and worth taking the time to see.
From the red city, you have numerous medieval settlements and cultural sites right on your 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 and one that I had the pleasure of trying out while I was in Bologna. The concept of agriturismo is for travellers to get back to nature by opting to stay on farms, or in country homes in rural locations – 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 which was certainly one of my best foodie experiences in Bologna.
Head to the Pastel-Coloured Medieval Town of Brisighella
Perched on a hilltop an hour away from Bologna Italy, the pastel-coloured medieval town of Brisighella is a lovely alternative day trip from the Emilia Romagna capital. This may well just be one of the most beautiful towns in all of Italy and better yet: 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, or 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
Modena, the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti and Balsamic Vinegar 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 this main square 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 – perhaps 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.
While in town, those who are interested 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.
Soak up the Summer Sun in Rimini
If you are looking for things to do in Bologna during the summer months that enable you to enjoy a little respite from the heat and humidity, consider venturing out to the coast. Situated on the Adriatic Coast, Rimini is a popular beach getaway spot for Italians. Aside from the beaches and miles of sprawling pristine coastline, Rimini boasts ancient castle, Roman ruins, and beautiful hiking trails.
Have any further questions about things to do in Bologna Italy, planning a trip to Italy, or exploring this beautiful Mediterranean country in general? I used to live in Italy (Naples) and have travelled the country 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