Home to the oldest university in the western hemisphere, a cathedral that was designed to be larger than St. Peter’s in Rome, and what many consider Italy’s finest cuisine, Bologna is a mash-up of delights for both the flesh and spirit.
Famous for a cuisine so rich that the city is known affectionately as “La Grassa”, or The Fat Lady;, home of the prestigious Università di Bologna, earning it a second nickname of “La Dotta”, or The Learned Lady; and boasting one of Italy’s best-preserved Medieval centers with kilometers of portico-covered shops and a number of historic sights that mark its secular academic and religious Catholic roots—Bologna is uniquely alluring.
Though it’s perfectly positioned to be a convenient stopover for those travelling between Florence and Venice, this vibrant university town—the largest in Emilia-Romagna—is just far enough off of the Grand Tour to give you a taste of an authentic Italian city and should be considered a destination itself. If you are planning to visit, go all-in and spend an overnight (or two!) to really savour this formidable foodie mecca before moving on either north or south.
When to Visit:
The best times of year to visit are in June and July, when the city holds its annual vintage film festival and jazz festival; during the month of August, the city virtually closes down as residents escape to the seaside and many of the shops and restaurants close.
Where to Stay
A city of contrasts, Bologna has elegant Grand Dame hotels, funky backpacker hostels, and everything in between. The historic center is conveniently compact, making any choice within its confines a pleasant stroll from the main Piazza Maggiore and surrounding sights.
Grand Hotel Majestic: If you’re looking for a historic, Old-World elegance, you’ll love the sumptuous rooms in this Grand Tour beauty, with its ornate antiques and perfect location right in the heart of the center. Stroll to all the city’s main sights and shopping districts during the day, and unwind with the view from the hotel’s lovely terrace as the sun sets.
I Portici: Those who favor chic over sheik, the ultra-swish minimalism in this design hotel in the historic Maccaferri Palace will hit the spot. The soaring white space has a stripped-down, cosmopolitan style that makes it a hip hangout for the urbane traveler, and it also offers a Michelin-starred restaurant in the renovated 19th-century theatre.
Where to Eat
It’s easy to wax on for hours about the culinary delights of Emilia Romagna in general and Bologna specifically, where luscious ribbons of fresh pasta are tossed in rich ragùs (or, as it is known in the rest of the world, Bolognese sauce), tortellini and tortelloni burst with fresh ricotta or spiced ground meat, and pistachio-spiked mortadella and aged culatello reign supreme. Wash it down with a Pignoletto or Albana from the surrounding Colli Bolognesi hillsides, and your epiphany is complete. You would be hard-pressed to get a disappointing meal in Bologna, but here are a few stellar spots in the city center.
Drogheria della Rosa: This is a favourite among locals and visitors, all of whom love the authentic trattoria feel, with café tables set below one of Bologna’s iconic porticoed walk. The menù sticks to straightforward local classics, though they are served just enough modern flair to hold your attention. Chef Emanuele Addone has been at the helm since 1994, but even his megawatt charisma and friendly tableside manner isn’t enough to overshadow the fabulous food. If you were forced to choose one favourite restaurant in Italy, Drogheria della Rosa may turn out to be it.
Pappagallo: A city landmark, this favourite of Bologna’s high society and international celebrities is located in a 14th-century palazzo and serves traditional Bolognese cuisine, considered by many to be the city’s best, and the lasagne al forno has become a thing of legend.
Tamburini: If you’d like to sample the city’s famous cuisine but don’t want to sit down for a full meal, stop at this gourmet deli and sample this region’s excellent charcuterie in the wine bar or let yourself be tempted by the cafeteria-style dining room in the former butcher shop section of the deli, serving memorable fresh pasta at lunch.
La Sorbetteria Castiglione: There’s a reason that this is the most famous gelateria in Bologna, with its serious attention to quality ingredients and bold experimentation.
Caffè Zanarini: Grab a table at this café/pasticceria in Piazza Galvani, for drinks paired with elegant finger food at the sunset aperitivo hour, and watch chic Bolognese stroll elbow-to-elbow with radical students and international residents in the city’s delightful melting-pot mix.
Where to Shop
Bologna’s city center has miles of porticoed palazzi and elegant piazzas given over to shopping, offering everything from high end designer boutiques to hip home decor. The city is especially known for its quality shoe stores, which you may want to browse or steer clear of, depending upon the space in your luggage.
The city also has a number of food markets where you can watch local residents and restaurateurs go about their daily shopping; the best are Pescherie Vecchie (Old Fishery), Mercato Centrale (Central Market,) and Mercato di Mezzo.
Where to Go
Bologna is a delightfully walkable city, with endless porticoes and wide squares connecting its most interesting sights, all of which are easily reached by foot.
Basilica of Santo Stefano: Stoll through the four connecting churches (the only that remain of the original seven) of this complex to witness the evolution of religious architecture over the centuries. Visitors enter from the Piazza di Santo Stefano and walk first through the 11th-century Chiesa del Crocifisso before continuing through a maze of courtyards and passageways to the Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro, Chiesa della Trinitá, and Chiesa Santi Vitale e Agricola. Be sure to notice the fragments of Roman flooring and stonework pilfered from previous buildings and reused during construction of the church.
The Basilica di San Petronio: Dominating Bologna’s main Piazza Maggiore, the city’s unfinished cathedral would dwarf Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, had the original design been completed. Taken as a slight to the Vatican, construction on the basilica was halted by Pope Pius IV two centuries after it had begun, and the church was the object of contention for centuries—deeply secular spirit of Bologna, which held its independence dear and funded construction of the building from city coffers, was at odds with the religious power of Rome, which spent centuries attempting to assert its power. The church was only transferred from the city to the diocese in 1929, and consecrated in 1954; the rough, unfinished façade has become a symbol of the city.
The remains of Bologna’s patron saint, St. Petronius, were housed in the Chiesa del Crocifisso (part of the Basilica di Santo Stefano complex) until 2000, when they were finally moved to the consecrated Basilica di San Petronio.
The Cathedral is home to a striking 15th-century fresco by Giovanni da Modena, depicting the scene from Dante’s Inferno in which the prophet Muhammad is devoured by demons and the largest sundial in the world. Calculated and designed by the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini in 1655, the sundial was surprisingly precise when it was built, and symbolizes the uneasy coexistence between the holy and secular throughout Bologna’s history.
Le Due Torri: Bologna’s skyline was pierced by around 100 towers during the height of power in the 12th and 13th centuries, though today fewer than 20 are still standing. The most famous are Le Due Torre (The Two Towers)—Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda—named after the families who built them in 1100. Climb to the top of Torre degli Asinelli, the taller of the two, using the internal wooden staircase for a well-earned view over the city.
The Anatomical Theater of the Archiginnasio: As home to western civilization’s oldest university, Bologna is also home to a fascinating 18th-century anatomical theatre, where students of medicine once sat in on dissections and medical procedures. Decorated with wooden panelling, inlays, and statues of Ancient and medieval luminaries, the theatre was heavily damaged by bombing during World War II but rebuilt from the original fragments recovered from the rubble after the war.
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