Bologna is one of my favourite cities in Italy. Mostly because I met Andrea from Taste Bologna here and he showed me the best things to do in Bologna.
Yet most people never even consider the city because they are so busy with Rome, Florence and Venice. But Bologna is a city for food lovers. It’s the largest city in the Emilia Romagna region, one of the most prolific food regions in the world producing products like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Modena balsamic vinegar, prosciutto.
Bologna is also a university town. In fact, it houses the world’s oldest university and is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. Today it has the energy and relaxed nightlife of a university town with so many inexpensive things to do in Bologna. Yet as it’s not as high on the radar for first-time travelers to Italy, you won’t have any of the crowds.
If you need just one reason to visit Bologna it is for its nickname La Grassa – who doesn’t want to visit a city called The Fat?
Things to Do in Bologna: Walk Off Lunch
Bologna is also known as La Rossa or the red, for its terra cotta rooftops, it’s a medieval city so you will find beautiful cathedrals and historic buildings but it’s also a left-leaning progressive city with modern art exhibits. There’s no shortage of culture in Bologna.
Asinelli Tower is the city’s largest tower and you can climb to the top to get a great view. It slightly leans, and is actually taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the 498 steps to the top will surely work off the extra pasta calories.
Piazza Maggiore is the main plaza in the city with lots going on from movies in the square to art fairs. To get here travel up Bologna’s main street – Via dell’Indipendenza and you’ll arrive at the famous Neptune Fountain in Piazza Nettuno which is just around the corner.
Piazza Maggiore is also home to the Basilica of San Petronio which is an odd looking church as the bottom is pink marble but the top is brick. While it may not be the most beautiful, it is one of the more interesting as it was once supposed to be the largest church in the world until the Vatican discovered the plans and suddenly funds disappeared and were given to the university. Perhaps a better investment anyway.
Stroll the 666 portici in Bologna, or covered terracotta arcades. With an influx of university students it needed to expand rapidly. No one wanted to expand outside the city so they build on top of the streets, student houses were created in front of existing storefronts with the portices below. They needed to be high enough to allow horse carts through and today over 45km remain, which are fantastic for the hot Italian sun or rainy days.
What to Eat in Bologna
If you are heartbroken that spaghetti bolognese does not exist in Bologna, have no fear and order the tagliatelle with ragu or order one of many traditional food in Bologna.
Everywhere else in the world we know it as bologna, but here it’s called mortadella and it’s fantastic. Mortadella is an Italian sausage made from ground pork and pork fat. It’s decadent and amazing with a glass of prosecco.
Once you’ve had your fill of mortadella, try its lesser known cousin – salame rosa, which means pink salami. If a cooked ham and mortadella had a child it would be salame rosa as it is a cooked sausage made from pork shoulder.
In Bologna you will find neapolitan pizza, so think thicker, softer crust. It’s not my favourite but if you’re on the go it’s a perfect snack.
Tortellini in brodo
Delicate parcels of pasta filled with minced pork in broth.
Italian flatbreads stuffed with cheese and meat.
Torta di Riso
A sweet rice cake.
There are some fantastic gelato shops in Bologna; however, I learned early on how to distinguish the difference from those that tourists eat at and gelato shops for locals – real gelato isn’t piled high to draw people in, it’s hidden in canisters beneath a counter so gelato needs to be cold. Makes you wonder how those piles of tempting gelato-like shops keep it cold. When in doubt go to Cremeria Santo Stefano.
Also don’t miss out on Lambrusco, gorgeous sparkling red wine, that pairs fantastically with cured meat.
Markets in Bologna
Mercato di Mezzo is the oldest market in Bologna just off Piazza Maggiore, and runs 6 days a week, only closing for Sunday. Located in the Quadrilatero, it’s the most famous market and a bit more touristy than others so the prices are a big higher than other markets.
Mercato della Terra is an open air market run by Slow Food Italy and it’s a great way to find local products from the region.
At Mercato delle Erbe there’s an opportunity to shop for food but it’s also home to what North American’s would call a food court. Although this doesn’t really give it justice. In the evenings you’ll find locals eating and drinking from stalls. This is a modern local experience and one of the best things to do in Bologna.
Food Tours in Bologna
One of the best things to do in Bologna is to take a food tour. Hands down one of the best food tours I’ve taken anywhere in the world has been with Taste Bologna. A local from Bologna, Andrea runs tours on the side and has a classic Bologna as well as Gelato and Pizza tour, soon he’ll have a pasta making class. He has such a passion for food and it feels like hanging out with friends. So much so we’ve become friends and we visited his parents to experience the classic Italian lunch.
Helena is originally from London but has lived in Italy long enough to know the best places to go and all the best things to do in Bologna. She has a number of great food tours, and we had a great time learning how to make pasta with her.
One of her signature tours will be the balsamic tasting as no one does this in Italy but she takes you to a great aceteria to learn about how it is made and then sit for a tasting, trying balsamic of different ages. We tried one that was 100 years old and realized it wasn’t that much different than the 50 year old balsamic. You’ll never look at vinegar the same way again.
Where to Drink in Bologna
Osteria del Sole has been around since 1465 and is the oldest Osteria in Italy. You can bring your own food and drink alongside old Italian men playing cards. Keep in mind you go to the bar to order a drink, no one is coming by your table to take your order.
Piazza del Maggiore you’ll find lots of cafes and bars around the city square, if you’re on a budget you can bring your own food and wine and join the group.
Le Stanze is a former chapel that is very popular with reasonable prices and an interesting decor. It gets busy at night but it’s also open during the day for coffee.
Want to hang out with students, it’s definitely one of the cheapest things to do in Bologna? In Piazza Verdi you’ll find crowds of people drinking in the streets and the faint smell of illegal substances in the air. Drop into a bottega to get some beer and you’ll meet plenty of people in the square.
Where to Shop in Bologna
Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo first opened in 1783 and at first look it seems like a cooking shop for tourists. It’s true there are some whimsical overpriced items for tourists but behind the trinkets you’ll find a serious cookware shop. One that I had to drag Dave out of, but only after we bought a fish knife and pasta stamps.
Tamburini – this deli is also a wine bar and perfect place to stop for a drink and some salumi.
Where to Stay in Bologna
I Portici – I Portici hosted us for a few nights and it was a great experience. The rooms are so spacious you wouldn’t believe you were in Europe and the service is superb. The hotel is also home to a Michelin star restaurant with amazing mortadella macarons. If you’re looking for something more low key there is also a tortellini shop, La Bottega dei Portici, where you can watch staff expertly crafting these tiny pasta. We walked in off the street and they were happy to have us watch and take photos.
Albergo Rossini – We found this for the bargain price of $80/night on Hotwire including breakfast and absolutely loved it. The only downside is that it’s in the student district so on the weekends it is very loud.
How to Get to Bologna
We traveled with Eurail passes so it was easy to hop on the train. Bologna is less than 3 hours from Rome and only half an hour from Florence. Bologna is also home to an international airport and there are numerous flights to Bologna from London and other major European cities.