Bologna is an old university city with lavish porticoed walkways and squares, fine historic buildings, and a storied medieval center. The city is known for its beauty, great cuisine, and left-wing politics—home to the former Italian communist party and its newspaper, L'Unita. Because it's in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna and widely considered the greatest food-producing region of Italy, Bologna is nicknamed La Grassa—the fat one—which is also a play on the city's prosperous economy.
Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. It's less than an hour inland from the east coast and about halfway between Florence and Milan. Bologna can be visited any time of the year although it may be pretty cold in winter and very hot in summer. The city is a transportation hub for several train lines with easy access to Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, and both coasts.
Try the Local Specialties
The cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region is some of the best in Italy and Bologna is one of the best places to sample its range. There is so much more to try beyond just spaghetti bolognese, and at many restaurants, you can find other handmade stuffed pasta like tortellini, plus classics like lasagna and tagliatelle drenched in ragu, a slow-cooked meat sauce. The city is also known for its salami and mortadella. If you're looking for a fine restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, the city is home to Michelin-starred restaurants like Restaurant I Caracci and Bottega Portici.
Seek Out Architecture
Bologna's compact medieval center has several beautiful churches, monuments, and civic buildings. As you explore the city you can also enjoy its many porticoed sidewalks, which make window shopping all the more pleasant. The must-visit churches are the hilltop Santuario di Madonna di San Lucca and the Chiesa di San Giacomo Maggiore, which has renaissance and baroque influences. Other notable buildings include the Archginassio of Bologna, which was once the university's main building and houses the Teatro Anatomica, where the academics used to dissect human corpses for study.
Explore the Main Squares
In Bologna, you can square-hop from the beautiful central squares like Piazza Maggiore, which is surrounded by the Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Notai, and the Archaeological Museum. Or, Piazza del Nettuno has an ornate 16th-century fountain in the center and is surrounded by medieval civic buildings. Make sure you go inside the Salaborsa Library to admire the interior.
Try New Flavors Along Via Clavatura
East of Piazza Maggiore, the area along Via Clavatura has a several small, interesting food stalls, where you'll find a number of small markets along this street on side streets. For example, Pescharia Brunelli is the oldest fish market in town and worth a visit. If you're short on time and looking for a quick bite, head inside Mercato di Mezzo. This covered market is a great place to pick up some edible or drinkable souvenirs and sit down at a casual restaurant.
Explore the Underground Ruins
In Piazza Santo Stefano, also called Sette Chiese, you will find an unusual cluster of interlocking Romanesque churches. The oldest, the church of Santi Vitale e Agricola, has parts of Roman temples and columns. The church is named after two saints who became martyrs in Bologna during the era of Roman Emperor Diocletian, who are believed to have died on this site. There is also an interesting courtyard with a maze of little chapels.
See Art at Pinacoteca Nazionale
The Pinacoteca Nazionale is one of Italy's best galleries with several important works of art. The museum is housed in a former Jesuit building, where you can also find the Academy of Fine Arts. The museum has a large collection of oil paintings dating back to the 13th century and has numerous pieces by artists like Raphael and El Greco.
Visit the World's Oldest University
The University of Bologna was founded in 1086 and is the world's oldest university. In the university, you'll find the Palazzo Poggi, which is a museum filled with interesting exhibits on military architecture, ancient maps, natural history, physics, and human anatomy. You can look for a tour if you want to take a deeper dive into the university's history, but a simple stroll through the campus and a visit to the botanical garden in addition to the museums is also a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Throughout Italy, the aperitivo, or the time to have a drink before dinner, starts sometime between 6:30 and 7 p.m. The best place to go in Bologna for an Aperol Spritz or Negroni is Via Pescherie Vecchie, just off Piazza Maggiore. The street is lined with bars and restaurants offering outdoor seating, wines by the bottle or glass, tasty appetizers, and great people-watching. Mercato Delle Erbe, a foodstuffs market by day, becomes a lively nightlife destination after dark, with a bevy of restaurants and food stalls, surrounding a central dining hall.
Climb Asinelli Tower
After helping yourself to a big meal, you can get your exercise in by walking up the 498 steps to the top of Asinelli Tower, which is over 3,000 feet tall. The tower was built by the Asinelli family in the twelfth century. From here, you'll find some of the best views from the highest point in the city. You'll be able to see each of the city's major landmarks plus the surrounding countryside. The tower stands next to the Garisenda tower, which is much shorter and is slightly leaning. You can buy tickets in advance to climb both towers on the official website.
Find the City's Hidden Canals
Venice might be the most famous city in Italy for canals, but maybe that's because Bolognas' are hidden away behind the buildings. You can get a peek into some of these canals by visiting the window on Via Piella, which allows viewers to look out over the Canal delle Molline. Or, consider booking a hotel or vacation rental that offer views looking down into the water.