Bologna, the capital city of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna province, is a city that I think often gets overlooked by foreign visitors. As most first-time visitors to Italy tend to visit places like Venice, Rome, Florence, and Milan, cities like Bologna tend to fly under the radar. Personally, I think Bologna is one of the best cities to visit in Italy, and this post will explain why.
There is no shortage of reasons to visit Bologna. From the oldest university in the western world and stunning architecture, to a buzzing population, to being considered the gastronomic capital of Italy, Bologna is quite the enticing place to check out. After all, everyone knows how globally popular Italian food is; how could you not visit Italy’s gastronomic capital?
Bologna has been a force in Northern Italy since the Middle Ages, and its relevance has hardly diminished to this day. The whole city center is practically a UNESCO World Heritage Site! The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region is a place you certainly don’t want to miss, and this post will help to make sure your visit is as enjoyable as possible.
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Best Things to Do in Bologna
Bologna is a pretty large city, and its history is incredibly interesting. With both the University of Bologna, which is the oldest university in the western world, and the title of the gastronomic capital of Italy, Bologna’s reputation is strong.
After all, Bologna’s nicknames in Italian are La Dotta, La Grassa, and La Rossa, which translate to the learned, the fat, and the red. Here are the best things to do in Bologna.
1. Get Lost in Bologna’s Porticos and Alleyways
Bologna is nothing short of beautiful, and between its big and famous buildings and its smaller quaint alleyways, there is a lot to see and take in. Known for its Portico archways, Bologna is truly one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. One of the best things to do in Bologna is just wandering around and absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells that the city has to offer. From street performers to herb markets, Bologna’s city centre is a sensory overload.
The Piazza Maggiore is one of the best places to go to catch some live entertainment, and as the main public square of Bologna, you can always count on something to be going on. Heading here right before dinner time is one of the best times to catch some action, as everyone is out having an aperitivo! If you’re unsure how to participate in Aperitivo, or what it even is, be sure to read my post about aperitivo in Italy.
2. Eat Up in the Quadrilatero
I have previously mentioned that Bologna is the culinary capital of Italy, as the city and its surrounding areas provide some of the most important foods in all of Italian cuisine. The Quadrilatero is a foodie paradise right in the heart of Bologna.
This district of the city, located right off of the Piazza Maggiore, is lined with incredible restaurants, butchers, food markets, and grocers. It is essentially a market district right in the heart of Bologna. Located just off of the main square, the Quadrilatero is a great place to try all of the most iconic ingredients of the Emilia Romagna region.
While there are incredible restaurants all throughout the city, the Quadrilatero is absolutely the best place to go if you want to try the freshest, highest-quality ingredients that the city has to offer. From freshly shaven prosciutto to handmade pasta, this part of the city is a place you don’t want to miss.
3. Go on a Bologna Food Tour
I mentioned earlier that Bologna is the gastronomic capital of Italy. If you are in Bologna, this means you absolutely must go on a food tour! The wide range of Italian cuisines offered in Bologna is extraordinary, and going on a tour ensures that you get to taste the best of what the city has to offer.
If you do not feel like spending the time or money on an organized tour, at least plan in advance to find the best Italian restaurants in the city so that you can get a good, authentic taste of some of the best Italian foods out there! One of Bologna’s staples is tagliatelle al ragu, or Bolognese, which is a special meat sauce served over pasta. You’ve probably seen it on menus before, but nowhere does it better than its namesake city of Bologna!
4. See Bologna from Above in the Torre degli Asinelli
The Torre degli Asinelli is the tallest point in Bologna, and the views from the top of the tower are absolutely magnificent. Bologna, like many other Italian cities, is known for its Terracotta roofs, and the best views from the top of the Torre degli Asinelli include a panoramic view of long stretches of the Terracotta roofs, sweeping hills in the distance, and other iconic buildings of the Bologna skyline. Tickets must be bought in advance and can be purchased for about €5 here.
5. Take a Day Trip to Modena
Taking a day trip to Modena is an absolute must if you are visiting Bologna. Located under an hour west of Bologna, Modena is a city with a few very important things to check out.
Modena is the home of authentic balsamic vinegar! Balsamic vinegar is one of Italy’s prized possessions, and to be truly considered balsamic vinegar it must be made in a special way specifically in Modena. Visiting a balsamic vinegar maker is a really unique experience to have on your Italian trip, and I highly recommend taking the time to do it. Make sure you try it on vanilla ice cream!
6. Take a Day Trip to Maranello
Modena isn’t the only important day trip from Bologna! Maranello, located just a bit south of Modena and still under an hour from Bologna, is the current home of Ferrari, one of the world’s most esteemed luxury car manufacturers. The Ferrari headquarters, museum, and automobile factories are all located in Maranello.
A visit to the Ferrari museum is a really educational and enjoyable experience, and if you enjoy cars, visiting it is absolutely necessary. Tickets can be bought online here. If you are feeling like spending a little money, some agencies in the area let you take Ferraris and Lamborghinis out for a spin on the racetrack.
Either of these day trips is bound to enhance any Bologna itinerary, and highly I recommend doing at least one of them.
7. Go Sightseeing in the City Center
Bologna is filled with great things to do, but it is just as full of things to see. From iconic churches like the Basilica di San Petronio to broad squares like the Piazza Santo Stefano, I recommend just exploring the old town and admiring its 12th century architecture.
Bologna is known for Le Due Torri, or the two towers, which are the Torre degli Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda. Other popular sites to check out are the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza Nettuno, the Basilica of San Petronio, the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, the Palazzo del Podestà, and the Palazzo Comunale. Some of the most important buildings in Bologna are over 800 years old, and simply walking around and admiring them is one of my favorite activities.
How to Get to Bologna
Bologna is a major city, and its airport is one of the busier mid-sized airports in Italy. Flying into Bologna Guglielmo Marconi International Airport (BLQ) is a great option if you can find an affordable or doable flight route, and it is certainly the easiest and best way to get to Bologna.
If you can’t find a great flight option into Bologna, another place that you can consider flying into is Milan. Milan is one of Italy’s biggest cities, and it also is home to three of Italy’s biggest airports. Flying into Milan likely provides you with more flight options, and Milan is only 75 minutes away from Bologna by train.
In either case, for tips on finding affordable airfare be sure to check out my guide to finding cheap flights.
From both Bologna’s airport and Milan’s airports, you can arrive at the center of Bologna by train. Bologna’s train station is located within walking distance of the city’s central areas. Tickets can be purchased at the train stop in either airport.
Italy has one of the best-connected train systems of any country I have ever visited. In fact, I wrote an entire post about how to use Trenitalia. If you have the time, getting around Italy by train is always a great choice. You get to see great views of the countryside while riding in very high-quality train cars.
Bologna is very centrally located between Florence and Venice, making it very accessible from either of these cities. The trains from Florence can be as short as 50 minutes if you pick the high speed train, and as short as an hour and a half from Venice if you pick the fastest route. Other major cities that are relatively convenient by train are Milan at 75 minutes, Rome at 2 hours, and Turin at 2.5 hours.
How to Get Around Bologna
BUS | TAXI | BIKESHARE
Bologna has very few shortcomings, but one of them is its public transportation system. For a city of its size, its public transportation offerings are few.
While the city has a good bus network, that is about it. There is no metro and no tram. If you aren’t comfortable figuring out the bus network in Italian, your best bet may be to either use the bike-share or simply call a taxi.
Unfortunately, Uber is not a thing in Italy. In some select places, like Rome and Milan, you can use Uber Black, which is a luxury service offered on the Uber app, but no UberX or UberXL. Uber Black is often more expensive than regular taxis, making a traditional cab the better option.
In my experience, taxis in Italy have always been safe and trustworthy. Just be sure to talk about pricing before you agree to ride!
How Many Days Do You Need in Bologna?
Bologna has a lot going on, and you need a significant amount of time to truly experience Bologna to the fullest. However, at the bare minimum, I would say you need at least 3 days to really experience Bologna.
This gives you time to go to Modena, spend a day exploring downtown Bologna, and a day to dedicate to trying some of the best foods that the city has to offer. If you can only afford three days in Bologna, that is okay. Bologna makes a great weekend trip!
What Is the Best Time to Visit Bologna?
Bologna is the largest city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, which is in the northern-central part of the country. As such, the weather fluctuates greatly based on the time of year. While the weather in Bologna is beautiful during the summer, this is when the crowds are the largest. If you want to visit the popular sites within the historic center, you are bound to experience lines.
Meanwhile, the winter weather in Bologna is quite cold, and you will certainly need to bundle up. I recommend visiting Bologna in the spring, early summer, or early fall. Any time between April and May is ideal, as is September through October. The weather will be comfortable, the crowds will be smaller, and the city will be buzzing with local activity.
The Best Foods to Try in Bologna
I’ve mentioned now several times that Bologna is the gastronomic capital of Italy, but I haven’t dived deeply into why. The culinary culture of Bologna is so deeply rooted in history, and its central location in the country has led to people from every corner of Italy passing through over the centuries. As a result, Bologna’s investment in cuisine has led to the creation and growing popularity of countless legendary dishes. Here is a short list of the best Italian food you need to try while in Bologna.
1. Tagliatelle al Ragù Bolognese
This dish, whose name is often shortened just to “Bolognese” in the United States, is the crown jewel of Bologna cuisine. It is a combination of hand-cut pasta with slow-cooked meat and tomato sauce. The slow cooking of the sauce is what really brings out the flavors. There is obviously no better place in the world to have Bolognese (considering it is literally named after Bologna) and this is the top dish that you need to try during your trip. In fact, it is my favorite Italian dish of all.
Mortadella is the marquis lunch meat of Bologna. Mortadella is pork-based lunch meat infused with sweet fat, peppers, nuts, and more. As it is slow-roasted and has a high fat content, mortadella is iconically sweet.
The most similar comparison to Mortadella is Bologna (or Baloney) in the United States. This is a product that was actually brought by Germans to the United States, but was fully inspired by Mortadella. That is how it got its name, after all! Mortadella is best eaten on a sandwich, and makes for a great lunch option while you are in Bologna!
3. Prosciutto di Parma
Prosciutto, commonly referred to in English as Parma ham, is one of the most recognized staples of Italian cuisine around the world. Prosciutto is one of the most important products of Bologna, and this dried, cured ham’s reputation has spread to every corner of the globe.
There is a special method to creating prosciutto, and traditionally it must be heavily salted and dried for well over a year before it is ready to serve. This is often found on sandwiches but also is delicious on its own. You probably recognize it from just about every charcuterie board ever.
4. Parmigiano Reggiano
Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the most revered cheeses in all of Italy, rivaling the importance of staples like Mozzarella. Just like Prosciutto and Mortadella, it is a product of Bologna! This is a variation of what we call parmesan cheese, and it is one of my favorite things about Bologna.
This cheese is finely aged and is only made of the absolute best ingredients. It takes several years to truly reach its greatness, and a good Parmigiano Reggiano is probably the best cheese you will ever eat. This is another common find on charcuterie boards!
5. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
I know I mentioned this when I wrote about visiting Modena, but trying true, high-quality balsamic vinegar is life-changing. I always thought of the kind of stuff you try in an Italian restaurant or a pizza shop in the U.S., and that is a far cry from what true balsamic vinegar is.
True balsamic vinegar, when produced in Modena and made locally instead of commercially, is much sweeter than it is bitter. It is made of grapes, after all, and you can actually taste them. It will probably change your life, and you may find yourself taking vinegar home instead of wine!
What Does La Dotta, La Grassa, and La Rossa Mean?
Bologna’s nicknames are La Dotta, La Grassa, and La Rossa. These translate to the learned, the fat, and the red. The city gets these nicknames because it is famous for its university, its cuisine, and its red terra cotta roofs.
The University of Bologna is the oldest University in the western world, and it has existed since the middle ages. Bologna’s cuisine is one of the most popular in all of Italy, and its significance has actually earned the honors of making it the culinary capital of Italy. Finally, its terra cotta roofs are iconic in the area, and almost every historic building has one.
Is Bologna Worth Visiting?
You may or may not have considered visiting Bologna in the past, but hopefully, this post opened your eyes at least a little bit to the wonders that this city has to offer! Bologna is one of my favorite cities in all of Italy. I think it is the best place to go to get a sense of “big city” Italian life that isn’t diluted by tourism. Milan has the fashion industry, Rome has…well, everything, Florence has its art museums, and Venice has its canals.
Bologna, on the other hand, is just a fantastic, authentically cultural place to visit. In Bologna, the devil is in the details. The small things to do around the city are what make it such an awesome place to visit. So is Bologna worth visiting? I would most certainly say yes!
That’s all we have for you about Bologna! Hopefully, this post is helpful as you start planning your journey to the capital of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna Region. I really do think that Bologna is worth visiting, even if only for a few days.
If you’re planning a trip to Bologna, let us know! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have. Otherwise, have a wonderful day and stay present!