Despite long being one of Italy’s most important cities, Bologna is oft overlooked in comparison to Florence, Rome and Venice. The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, the well-preserved yet slightly rundown university town has a rich history and culture for you to delve into. This is exemplified by its three rather unusual nicknames: ‘the fat’, ‘the towered’ and ‘the learned’.
Home to the oldest university in Europe, Bologna flourished for centuries as a center of culture, trade and learning. Its wealth and influence saw refined palazzi and richly decorated churches spring up all around its lively piazze. Dozens of tall towers and lengthy porticos were also erected alongside all its university buildings. While most are still in very good condition, lots of graffiti does cover some more gritty parts of town.
Although this and its sizeable student population do make the city feel more authentic and lived-in than either Venice or Florence. What with all the stupendous historic attractions, renowned culinary traditions and fun things to do in Bologna, you really can’t go wrong visiting this city.
Map of Bologna
In this post, we'll cover:
17. Bologna Cathedral
Often overlooked, the beautiful baroque Bologna Cathedral is located in a rather strange spot just off Piazza Maggiore. As most people confuse it with the huge basilica lining its central square, relatively few visitors explore its art-filled interior.
Sandwiched between buildings down a narrow, cramped alley, its simple, understated facade doesn’t immediately catch the eye. Once inside however, you are greeted with soaring ceilings overlooking a very impressive nave. Adorning the cathedral’s walls are fantastic old paintings and statues with its elegant altar being the standout sight.
While an earlier version already stood here in 1028, most of the current cathedral dates to around the seventeenth century. From atop its tall campanile, you can enjoy divine views over the city’s rooftops and towers stretching away before you.
16. Hidden Canals
Although Bologna is not usually associated with canals, you can still find some of them hidden away here and there. At one point, over sixty kilometers of the scenic waterways turned the landlocked city into a major center of trade and transport.
From the twelfth century onwards, an extensive system of canals was constructed between the Reno and Savena rivers. These not only improved sanitation but powered its many mills and connected up the city’s factories, warehouses and shipyards. Nowadays, many have sadly been bricked over or are concealed beneath buildings and behind blocks of houses.
If you keep an eye out, you can still come across a couple of canals, not far from the center. Arguably the best view is from the Finestrella di Via Piella which overlooks the old buildings flanking the Reno canal. From Via Capo di Lucca, you can also snap some fabulous photos of the Moline canal running between two towering rows of colourful houses.
15. Mercato di Mezzo
Loads of fun to explore, Mercato di Mezzo’s countless stands and stalls can be found just off Piazza Maggiore. Here you can stop for tasty snacks, sip sumptuous wines and pick up specialties from all around the Emilia-Romagna region.
Part of the Quadrilatero, the lively covered food market has remarkably been around since the Middle Ages. Recently restored after decades of disrepair, its three floors are crammed with friendly vendors and excellent local eateries. They sell everything from fresh pasta and pastries to flavorful cheeses, cool craft beers and piping hot coffees.
Although not as large as Florence’s Mercato Centrale, it is still worth stopping by if you have the time. After grabbing some seafood platters or sparkling wine, you can take a break from sightseeing at its communal seating area.
14. Quadrilatero Neighborhood
Humming with life, the claustrophobic alleys of the Quadrilatero Neighborhood are a treat to get lost in. Tucked away between Piazza Maggiore and the Two Towers, the bustling area contains hundreds of traditional shops and restaurants.
Since medieval times, locals have flocked here to either hawk their wares or shop for fresh fruit and vegetables. As such, innumerable cafes and bars now occupy all the amazing old buildings that dot the area. While wandering around, you’ll come across popular places like the Mercato di Mezzo and the infamous Osteria del Sole. The oldest tavern in town, it has been serving superb wines, beers and spritzs since the fifteenth century.
One of our favorite parts of Bologna, its warren of atmospheric streets lie just a stone’s throw from most of its other main sights.
13. Torre Prendiparte
One of the city’s tallest towers, Torre Prendiparte rises up dramatically above the red rooftops far, far below. Standing sixty meters in height, its floors, windows and outdoor terrace all boast unbelievable panoramas of Bologna and its surroundings.
Just one of many built in the city during the Middle Ages, the tall, narrow, stone structure is visible for many kilometers around. Very well-preserved and maintained, it towers above a small, quiet square, not far from Piazza Maggiore and Mercato di Mezzo.
After clambering up a seemingly endless flight of stairs, you’re rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the city below. Only open on Sundays, it is definitely well worth heading up if you have the chance. This is because it offers arguably the best views of the iconic Two Towers off in the distance.
12. Lamborghini Museum
A nice change from all the city’s centuries-old attractions is the Lamborghini Museum and all its sparkling classic cars. At its site, some forty minutes’ drive northwest of town, you can learn about the luxury automobile company’s history and take tours around the factory.
Since 1963 when it was set up to compete with Ferrari, Lamborghini has produced sleek sports cars at Sant’Agata Bolognese. In 2001, it opened the two-story museum to tell its story and display rare models, old engines and historic photos.
For car aficionados, it is a fascinating place to visit, only bettered by the factory tours. On these, you amble along by the assembly line and actually see how the expensive Italian cars are made. Besides seeing all its iconic supercars, there is also a fun driving simulator for you to have a go on.
11. Santa Maria della Vita
Back in the center of Bologna is another of its incredible churches: the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vita. Part of the Quadrilatero neighborhood, it is most known for housing the awe-inspiring Oratory of Battuti. Its six terracotta figures are sure to take you aback with all the dramatic emotions expertly etched on their faces.
While its rather plain facade was only added in 1905, the rest of the ornately-decorated church dates to the late 1600s. Beneath its lofty dome you can see elegant alcoves full of magnificent murals and sculptures. One of its main highlights though is its immense altar flanked by pretty pillars and finely detailed frescos.
Not to be missed too is the Lamentation of Christ by Niccolo dell’Arca. Created in 1463, it masterfully depicts a small group of figures clustered around the recently deceased Christ. The incredibly lifelike grief and torment they display is even a little unsettling such is the sculptor’s skill. The Transit of the Virgin upstairs is another of the baroque church’s most arresting artworks.
10. Walk Bologna’s Porticos
Stretching over fifty kilometers in length, Bologna’s porticos are one of its most distinctive features along with its numerous towers. Found all around the center, the covered walkways’ almost endless arched ceilings and columns make it truly special to explore.
Erected in the early Middle Ages, the wooden arcades were initially used to house temporary visitors to town. Over the centuries, the system was extended considerably with each street’s brick or stone porticos exhibiting their own unique design and architectural features. Lined by shops, eateries and bars, the historic walkways provide shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.
Asides from ambling under them and admiring their beauty, make sure to head to the Portico of San Luca. The longest in the world, its 666 porticos take you to the top of Monte della Guardia. From the hilltop’s basilica, you can bask in breath-taking views of Bologna before you.
9. Basilica di San Domenico
Venture just a short distance south of the center and you’ll come across the stunning Basilica di San Domenico. One of the city’s most important religious sites, it houses the remains of the revered saint who founded the Dominican Order.
Since 1238, the prominent basilica has been enlarged several times with elaborate artworks, frescos and altars now decorating its chapels. In comparison, its bright white baroque-style nave looks quite simple though lovely paintings lie above the large columns lining it. Alongside all its terrific transepts and monument choir, you can see the simple marble shrine that contains Saint Dominic’s remains.
The basilica and its adjoining museum also display a number of masterpieces by Michelangelo and Niccolo dell’Arca among many others. Although it does get a bit tiresome seeing so many churches in quick succession, we still found San Domenico delightful. In addition, its charming cobbled square outside is also home to some cool tombs, columns and striking facades.
8. Ducati Museum
Even if you’re not all that into motorbikes, the Ducati Museum’s sleek showroom and factory tour are still worth visiting. Set on the northwestern outskirts of the city, its countless bikes, exhibitions and artifacts cover the manufacturing company’s interesting past.
Opened in 1998, the well-designed transport museum now has over forty remarkable road and racing bikes for visitors to peruse. Accompanying them are informative displays and engine parts as well as helmets and protective suits worn by champion racers. Old adverts and a timeline of the company’s many milestones also feature alongside first edition and historic MotoGP winning bikes.
Before or after exploring the museum, you can take a tour of Ducati’s state-of-the-art production line. With an expert guide on-hand, you’ll see how the sophisticated red bikes are assembled and ask any questions you want about the iconic brand.
7. Santuario di Madonna di San Luca
Perched atop a small hill overlooking Bologna is the scenic and serene Santuario di Madonna di San Luca. Another of our favorite places in the city, its phenomenal viewpoint can be reached by walking through the 666 ornate arches of its 3.8 kilometer-long portico.
While a church has now stood here for around a thousand years, the current sanctuary ‘only’ dates to 1723. Aside from exhibiting some exquisite baroque architecture, its pinky orange basilica also hosts an important icon of the Virgin Mary. The rest of its interior is just as impressive as fabulous frescoes and finely detailed religious scenes decorate the church.
Besides snapping some photos of the sanctuary’s distinctive cupola and unusual layout, guests can stroll around the gorgeous grounds outside. From here, you can gaze out over the picturesque rolling hills, forests and countryside all around you.
6. San Petronio
Dominating the center of Piazza Maggiore is one of the city’s main sights: the absolutely enormous San Petronio. Oddly unfinished, work on the colossal cathedral was halted once the Vatican heard it was going to be the biggest basilica in the world.
Still the sixth largest church in Europe, the hulking great Gothic edifice was slowly erected between 1388 and 1479. Never completely finished, it is instantly recognized by its staggering size and shiny facade that coats only its lower half. Inside, there are 22 art-filled side chapels to explore, each more intricately decorated than the last.
Other than marveling at its many glittering treasures, you can examine bas-reliefs in its museum and see Cassini’s amazing Meridian Line. Inlaid in marble paving on the nave floor, the 1655 instrument allowed astonishingly accurate astronomical measurements to be taken.
5. Fountain of Neptune
Right next to the cathedral is the famous Fountain of Neptune which makes for some fantastic pics, what with Piazza Maggiore’s pretty buildings in the background. Another of Bologna’s main symbols, it is topped by a stupendous sculpture of the Roman god of water himself.
Designed by Flemish sculptor Giambologna, the three-tiered fountain was completed in 1566 in the popular Mannerist style of the times. Adorning it are playful cherubs, dolphins and nereids with some inscriptions also paying tribute to various political powers.
Every part of the monumental fountain means something with Neptune symbolizing the power of the recently elected Pope Pius IV. As allegorical representations of the Ganges, Amazon, Danube and Nile also lie at his foot, this made the pope master of the whole world. We’re very glad we took a tour as we wouldn’t have understood half as much about the fountain otherwise!
On the other side of the basilica from the fountain is one of the most important buildings in Bologna. Lining Piazza Galvani, the heart-achingly beautiful Archiginnasio is an architectural masterpiece, full of gorgeously done rooms, stairways and corridors. What’s striking is that more than 6,000 colourful coats of arms are painted across all their walls.
Once the University of Bologna’s main building, the sixteenth century palace now houses a municipal library and the Anatomical Theater. Although all its fine courtyards, classrooms and study rooms are impressive, the latter is really its standout sight.
Carved completely out of wood, the 1636 hall features an elaborate seat for teachers, two statues of ‘spelatti’ (skinned men) with symbols of constellations coating its ceiling. Painstakingly rebuilt after being destroyed in the Second World War, it alone is already well worth the admission fee.
3. Santo Stefano
Just a short stroll away is another of the city’s charming cobbled squares and yet more centuries-old churches. Lively yet laidback, the popular Santo Stefano is bordered by lots of great little local cafes, restaurants and bars.
Triangular in shape, the pedestrianized piazza is lined by photogenic palaces and porticos that once belonged to powerful medieval families. Over the course of the year, countless concerts, community events and flea markets are held out on its old cobbles.
The main reason people visit though is for its big red brick basilica and the Seven Churches complex. Now only numbering four in total, they each exhibit some exceptional architecture with various parts having been constructed between the fourth and thirteenth centuries. A must-visit, these include the Courtyard of Pilate, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Church of Saint Stephen. As each has their own unique design, artworks and ambience, wandering around the complex really is a treat.
2. Piazza Maggiore
The heart and soul of life in town, the phenomenal Piazza Maggiore boasts many of Bologna’s most important buildings and monuments. Set slap bang in the city center, it is hemmed in on all sides by amazing medieval and Renaissance buildings. Majestically lit up at night, these include San Petronio, Palazzo d’Accursio and Palazzo del Podesta.
One of Italy’s oldest squares, it was laid out in the early 1200s before being radically redesigned in the sixteenth century. This was when numerous buildings were knocked down due to papal will and the fabulous Fountain of Neptune was added.
Ambling about taking in its magnificent facades and vibrant atmosphere is a wonderful way to spend some time in Bologna. Always packed with people, the piazza is a place you’ll come back to time and time again when exploring the city’s historic center.
1. Climb the Asinelli Tower
For the best views imaginable over Bologna, pant your way to the top of its enormous Asinelli Tower. From up high, you can enjoy unparalleled panoramas over all the city’s terracotta tiled roofs, soaring church spires and bustling piazze full of people down below.
One of its most iconic and unmissable landmarks, the spectacular twelfth century tower lies a short walk from Piazza Maggiore. Used as a prison and stronghold, it stands a huge 97.2 meters in height, leaning slightly to one side. To reach the top, you have to climb an interminable flight of 498 narrow, winding wooden stairs.
Together with the much smaller Garisenda next to it, it is known as the Two Towers. Thought to have been built as a competition between two families, they are not to be missed when in town. Although the climb was exhausting, the epic view was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Bologna.
Where to Stay in Bologna
As almost all its main sites lie within walking distance of Piazza Maggiore, you are best off staying in or around Bologna’s historic center. Within its walls, towards the train station is a good idea if you’re looking to visit some other nearby cities.
In this part of town, you can find the Hotel Metropolitan which is ideally located for a comfy stay. As well as chic, spacious rooms, the 4-star hotel has a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy fine views over Bologna. Many suites also have a relaxing whirlpool tub and access to a tranquil indoor garden.
Even closer to the center is the three-star Hotel Cavour. A popular budget option with travelers, it lies a stone’s throw from countless restaurants and cafes. Its central location, simple but spacious rooms and excellent buffet breakfast often leave guests raving about their stay.
How to get there
Very well-connected to the outside world, the city is home to Guglielmo Marconi International Airport; one of Italy’s busiest. Every day, flights arrive here from all around Europe, North Africa and even the Middle East.
Bologna Centrale also acts as one of northern Italy’s most important train hubs. In less than an hour, high-speed trains can whisk you to both the fancy Florence and Milan. Rome and Venice can also be reached in just over two hours.
Once you arrive, almost all of its well-preserved historic center can be explored on foot.
Approximate travel times:
- Florence – 1.5 hours by car, 30 minutes by train
- Modena – 30 minutes by car, 20 minutes by train
- Ravenna – 1 hour by car, 1 hour by train
- Verona – 1.5 hours by car, 50 minutes by train
- Venice – 2 hours by car, 1 hour 30 minutes by train
- Milan – 2 hours by car, 1 hour by train
- Bergamo – 2 hours by car, 1 hour 30 minutes by train
- Pisa – 2.5 hours by car, 2 hours by train
Best Time to Visit Bologna
As with much of Italy, you’re best off avoiding Bologna in the summer unless you don’t mind its high humidity and heat. The city is also busier then with the prices of course being higher as a result. While June is great due to the blue skies and warm weather, July and August see average temperatures reach the mid-30s (around 95°F).
Either side of summer, Bologna is calmer and cooler with many considering April and May or September and October the best months to visit. As it is still warm and sunny, visitors enjoy ambling about the centre or al fresco dining in historic squares.
Autumn, however, is also the busiest time of year with many people arriving for the fabulous food festivals both in the city and surrounding countryside.
As relatively few people visit between December and February, you can usually come across some great deals. While the weather is colder and the days are shorter, all the Christmas decorations do brighten up the centre. During these months, the temperature fluctuates between 1°C and 10°C (33 – 50°F) with snow sometimes falling. The darker days and illuminated facades of its old buildings do create quite a magical atmosphere though.