12 Top Things to Do in Bologna, Italy

Bologna, Italy

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Located about halfway between Florence and Milan, Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. An old university city with lavish porticoed walkways and squares, fine historic buildings, and a storied medieval center, Bologna is well-known for its beauty. But it's also famous for its left-wing politics, as it's home to the former Italian communist party and its newspaper, "L'Unita." Of course, most people come here for the city's food scene. Because it's in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna, 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 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.

01 of 12

Try the Local Specialties

Young woman chef preparing handmade tortellini stuffed with ricotta and cheese.

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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 classics such as lasagna and tagliatelle drenched in ragu—a slow-cooked meat sauce—as well as handmade stuffed pasta like tortellini. The city is also known for its salami and mortadella. There are tons of excellent restaurants in Bologna, but if you're looking to celebrate a special occasion, book a reservation at I Portici, the city's (surprisingly) only Michelin-star restaurant.

02 of 12

Seek Out Architecture

An old world architecture court yard in Bologna

Tripsavvy / Michaela Sieman

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 Luca (Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca) and the Basilica di San Giacomo Maggiore (Basilica of San San Giacomo Maggiore), the latter of which has both Renaissance and Baroque influences. Other notable buildings include the Archginnasio of Bologna, which was once the University of Bologna's main building; today, it houses the Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio (Archinnasio Municipal Library) and the Teatro Anatomica (Anatomical Theater), where the academics used to dissect human corpses for study.

03 of 12

Explore the Main Squares

Public Square in Bologna

TripSavvy / Michaela Sieman

While visiting Bologna, you can square-hop between the beautiful central squares like Piazza Maggiore, which houses the Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Notai, and the Archaeological Museum. In Piazza del Nettuno, you'll find an ornate 16th-century fountain in the center that is surrounded by medieval civic buildings. Make sure you go inside the Salaborsa Library to admire the interior.

04 of 12

Try New Flavors Along Via Clavature

Via Clavature

TripSavvy / Michaela Sieman

Address
Via Clavature, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy

East of Piazza Maggiore, the area along Via Clavature has several small, interesting food stalls, where you'll find a number of small markets on side streets. For example, Pescheria Brunelli is the oldest fish market in town and is well 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.

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05 of 12

Wander Around the Piazza Santo Stefano

Bologna, Emilia-Romagna - Italy, St. Stephen's Basilica
emicristea / Getty Images
Address
Piazza Santo Stefano, 40125 Bologna BO, Italy

In Piazza Santo Stefano, also called Piazza delle Sette Chiese (The Square of Seven Churches), you will find an unusual cluster of interlocking Romanesque churches. The oldest, the church of Santi Vitale e Agricola, is said to have been built on the ruins of Roman temples and columns. The church is named after two saints who became martyrs in Bologna during the era of Roman Emperor Diocletian, and are believed to have died on this site. There is also an interesting courtyard with a maze of little chapels.

06 of 12

See Art at Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna

The opening of the exhibition "Luciano De Vita" during Art City at Pinacoteca Nazionale on January 21, 2020 in Bologna, Italy.
Address
Via delle Belle Arti, 56, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy
Phone +39 051 420 9442

The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna (National Art Gallery of Bologna) is one of Italy's best galleries. Housed in a former 17th-century Jesuit building, the museum has been open to the public since 1885. It contains a large collection of oil paintings dating back to the 13th century, with several important works of art spanning the Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque periods. See paintings by Italian artists such as Raphael, Titian, and the Carracis, before making your way to the art gallery's temporary exhibitions. After your visit, consider paying a visit to the Academy of Fine Arts, located within the same building.

07 of 12

Visit the World's Oldest University

General view of the Universitary Museum and the Anatomic Waxworks Collection at Palazzo Poggi

Roberto Serra / Getty Images

Address
Via Guglielmo Marconi, 40122 Bologna BO, Italy

Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is the world's oldest university. You don't have to be a student to visit the Museum of Palazzo Poggi, which is filled with interesting exhibits on military architecture, ancient maps, natural history, physics, and human anatomy. Or, you can wander around the Botanic Garden and Herbarium; founded in 1568, it is one of the oldest botanic gardens in Italy. You can sign up for a tour if you want to take a deeper dive into the university's history, but a simple stroll through the campus is also a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

08 of 12

Enjoy Aperitivo

Negroni

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Throughout Italy, the aperitivo, or the time to have a drink before dinner, starts sometime between 6:30 p.m. 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.

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09 of 12

Climb Asinelli Tower

Bologna, Italy - Skyline of medieval Two Towers (Due Torri), Asinelli and Garisenda.

Getty Images

Address
P.za di Porta Ravegnana, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy

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 stands at 97.2 meters (319 feet) tall. Built by the Asinelli family in the 12th century, it is the world's tallest leaning medieval tower and the highest point in Bologna. From the top, you'll be able to see each of the city's major landmarks in addition to the surrounding countryside. Nearby is the Garisenda Tower, which is much shorter at 47 meters (154 feet) and, like its sister, leans slightly. Together, the two comprise Bologna's "Two Towers." Due to its steep incline, Garisenda Tower does not allow visitors. You can buy tickets in advance to climb Asinelli Tower on its official website.

10 of 12

Find the City's Hidden Canals

Canal Seen Through Window In The Wall

Fabrizio Tavaroli / Getty Images

Venice might be the most famous city in Italy for canals, but maybe that's because Bologna's 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 Canale delle Moline. Or, consider booking a hotel or vacation rental that offers views looking down into the water.

11 of 12

Step Inside the Basilica di San Petronio

General view of San Petronio basilica on a sunny winter day
Craig Hastings / Getty Images
Address
Piazza Galvani, 5, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy
Phone +39 346 576 8400

The Basilica di San Petronio, located off of Piazza Maggiore, is the city's oldest church. Dedicated to Bologna's patron saint, Saint Petronius, it was built starting in 1390, although it wasn't until 1954 when the basilica was officially consecrated. Within its walls, pay attention to the Music Chapel of San Petronia, the city's oldest musical institution, which features a 552-year-old organ that is still in use today. The basilica also houses the world's longest sundial, a 67.27-meter instrument built by the astronomer Cassini, as well as the Cappella Bolognini (Chapel of the Three Kings), whose walls display frescos by Giovanni da Modena.

12 of 12

Walk the World's Longest Portico

Portico di San Luca, Bologna, Italy: the porch that connects the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca to the city, a long (3.5 km) monumental roofed arcade consisting of 666 arches
minoandriani / Getty Images
Address
Via di San Luca, 16-22, 40135 Bologna BO, Italy

The Portico di San Luca, which runs for 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) and bears 666 arches, is the longest portico in the world. Constructed between the 17th and 18th centuries, it travels from Porta Saragozza up the Colle della Guardia hill, ending at the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca. It was built so as to protect the sanctuary's icon from rain during the annual Feast of the Ascension, with the 666 arches—a number that is usually associated with "the beast"—intended to symbolize the Madonna's victory over the devil. While you can drive up to the church today, walking the route is a quintessential Bolognese experience.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is Bolgona, Italy part of Tuscany?

    No, Bologna is part of the Emilia Romagna region, which borders Tuscany.

  • What is Bologna, Italy known for?

    The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, Bologna is one of the world's top food cities and serves as a great jumping-off point to explore the culinary delights of the surrounding area. It's also home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088.

  • When is the best time to visit Bologna?

    Spring and fall are the best times to visit Bologna, when the weather is mild and pleasant and you can find great deals on hotels and airfare.

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The 12 Top Things to Do in Bologna, Italy