Bologna is one of my favourite cities in Italy and absolutely deserves a spot on your holiday itinerary. Nestled in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, it is a city for food fanatics, for art lovers, for historians and for those who enjoy wandering and exploring. Whether you want a jampacked sightseeing schedule or to spend hours people-watching in piazzas, Bologna is the place for you. In this post, I share some favourite things to see and do while you’re in this charming city.
Walk along the porticoes to Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
Bologna has the highest number of porticoes in the world; the arches cover more than 24 miles (38 kilometres) in the historic centre and 33 miles (53 kilometres), if you factor in those outside the historic city walls. You can follow a popular walking route from Bologna city centre to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, or take the San Luca Express (a mini-train which runs to/from Bologna city centre). The porticoes themselves were beautifully picturesque; a network of roofed arcades which gradually rise until you are 300 metres above the city, on the top of Colle della Guardia hill. Built between the 17th and 18th century, there are 666 arches in the porticoes. The number is, of course, synonymous with the devil, and the twisting, winding nature of the porticoes represent a serpent. The final, 666th arch ending at the Sanctuary signifies the Madonna’s triumph over both villains.
You feel like part of history as you remember that people have been walking up the same steps since the 12th century. Once you reach the top, you are rewarded by stunning views across Bologna and the countryside. There are no toilets, shops or water taps along the way, but you can find toilets and drinking water taps next to the Sanctuary. You can also pay €5 to climb the Dome of San Luca for the San Luca Sky Experience. The splendid panoramic views of Bologna’s skyline and the rolling hills of Emilia-Romagna are a real treat. There is a member of staff at the top of the dome to explain the visible buildings and landmarks (in English and Italian).
Eat iconic, regional Italian dishes
Bologna is seriously like a foodie Mecca! So many amazing Italian dishes originated or rose to fame here – Tagliatelle al Ragù Bolognese, Lasagne, Prosciutto, Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic Vinegar, Lambrusco wine, Tortellini, Piadina to name a few. You can find classic Bolognese dishes in traditional trattorias such as Trattoria dal Biassanot, Sfoglia Rina and Trattoria di Via Serra and Trattoria Bertozzi. There are also countless delis in the city where you can buy high-quality ingredients and have them vacuum-packed to take home with you.
As a general rule in Italy, the most authentic, affordable restaurants (where locals actually eat) can be found by walking away from the city’s main tourist attractions and piazzas. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the eateries in Bologna’s city centre. For example, Salumeria Simoni Laboratorio. This central restaurant/deli serves up sandwiches, charcuterie boards and cheese platters highlighting the best that the Emilia-Romagna region has to offer. You can also do a cheese tasting here to try different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and enjoy locally-produced wine. The staff are friendly, polite and happy to explain their menu in English.
If you want something a bit lighter, Piadineria la Piadeina has a wide variety of piadine (Bolognese sandwiches – like a tortilla wrap, stuffed with different ingredients and folded in half). Popular fillings include mortadella ham, ricotta, squacquerone cheese, prosciutto, caramelised fig and sundried tomatoes. There are some vegetarian and vegan options.
Visit the city’s churches
Whether you’re religious or not, the beauty and elegance of Bologna’s churches is undeniable. I love to visit churches on hot, summer days to marvel at their beauty and take advantage of the cooler temperatures within. Remember to dress appropriately by covering your shoulders, chest, and knees or you won’t be allowed inside.
The most visited church in Bologna is Basilica di San Petronio. The moment you see it, you will notice that its façade is incomplete. Work began in 1390, but due to some political drama (involving the Pope!), the work was never finished. Inside you can find impressive paintings, frescos, statues, and ornate chapels, showcasing Gothic and Baroque styles. Interestingly, it is also home to the world’s longest interior meridian line. This line was instrumental in discovering the anomalies of the Julian calendar and led to the creation of the leap year. Every day, a ray of sunshine enters the basilica through a 27-metre high hole and intersects the line, marking the slow passing of days and seasons. There is also an observation terrace which you can climb, which costs €5 per person.
Here are my other favourite churches in Bolognas:
- Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro – Bologna’s cathedral and the seat of the Archbishop of Bologna. It’s a striking building with significant historical and religious importance.
- Church of Santa Maria della Vita – Here you can find the “Lamentation over the Death Christ” by Niccolò dell’Arca. This terracotta art piece has been in this church since the mid-1400’s and is a dramatic, evocative scene of figures grieving over the body of Jesus. It costs €5 to view.
- Basilica di Santo Stefano – Also known as Sette Chiese (“Seven churches”) because it was once a large complex of seven, conjoined churches. Now, only four remain but they are well worth a visit for the superb frescos, mosaic tiling and tranquil atmosphere.
- Basilica of San Domenico – Here you can find the tomb of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. The tomb is on a raised platform which was made by Niccolò dell’Arca and completed by Michelangelo. Along with the tomb, you can admire a 16th-century choir, a cloister, and beautifully painted baroque ceilings.
Admire the city from above
Bologna is known as the city of towers, offering fantastic views across the city. The most famous towers in the city are le due Torri (the two towers): Garisenda e degli Asinelli. Named after the competitive families who funded the towers’ construction between 1109 and 1119 in attempts to one-up each other, both towers lean to the side and dominate Bologna’s skyline.
You can only climb one of the towers; Torre degli Asinelli. It’s quite tiring; 500 steps, up a crooked, medieval wooden staircase. However, the views from the top are absolutely worth it. There are also interior platforms to stop and rest on the way up and down. It costs €5 and you should book your tickets online, at least a day in advance.
Another option would be the Belltower of St. Peter’s Cathedral (Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro). Visits are usually allowed only on Saturday afternoons/evenings so check opening times in advance. The climb might be too cramped and claustrophobic for some, but if you make it to the top, you can enjoy the view across Bologna, look at the bells and learn about their history from an on-site volunteer, who also gives a live “sound” demonstration. It’s free to enter, but there’s a suggested donation of €5 per person
If you still haven’t had your fix of 360 degrees views of Bologna, visit Prendiparte Tower (Torre dei Prendiparte). At 60 metres high, it’s the second highest tower in Bologna. It was built in the 12th century as a means of defence, and there are 300 steep steps to the top of the tower.
People-watch in Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is the heart of Bologna. It’s where you can find the city’s main tourist attractions, along with the Official Tourist Office if you want to pick up a map or book a tour. During the summer, live concerts and cultural events are hosted in the piazza.
You can also find the Fountain of Neptune (Fontana del Nettuno) in Piazza Maggiore. The fountain was completed in 1566 by architect Tommaso Laureti and Flemish mannerist sculptor Giambologna. You can admire the impressive, imposing figure of Neptune, with his strong thighs and rock hard stomach muscles. There are four saucy sea nymphs, and four cherubs holding dolphins, which represent four of the world’s main rivers; the Ganges, the Nile, the Amazon and the Danube.
In Piazza Maggiore, you can also find Palazzo d’Accursio, which has functioned as Bologna’s City Hall for almost a thousand years. Before entering, try to spot the “Madonna with Child” terracotta sculpture on its façade, created by Niccolò dell’Arca in 1478. Inside you can find frescoes, statues, the Civic Art Collection (with paintings from the Middle Ages to the 19th century), and a 16th-century staircase attributed to Italian architect Donato Bramante. Palazzo d’Accursio is free to enter, but you have to pay to climb its clock tower (Torre d’Accursio).
A short walk from Piazza Maggiore is Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio#, the oldest university of the Western world. While you cannot tour the library itself, there is still lots to see. The decorated hallways contain paintings, murals, coats of arms and frescoes. For €3, you can visit the Teatro Anatomico (the world’s oldest anatomical theatre) and the Stabat Mater Hall.
I hope this blog post has given you lots of ideas about what to do and see in Bologna. If you have any other suggestions, please share them in the comments below.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow