Unusual Things To Do In Bologna That Are Not In Your Guidebook

By Stefania Borghi An eccentric and cheerful Bologna resident who loves exploring, ancient history and theatre.

|Edited by Holly Stark

Bologna doesn’t always get as much attention as its well-visited neighbours’ - creative Florence to the south and beautiful Venice to the northeast - do. But Bologna is certainly worth a closer look; from its vibrant history and medieval grid of red-roofed buildings to its edgier side of counter-culture, the city is one-of-a-kind. For me, Bologna is like a mother cuddling her son; full of comfort, love and the joy of life. Besides the most touristy things to do in Bologna, such as exploring the lively centre of towers and domes and wandering through sun-lit squares, there are plenty of other things to do and see in secret Bologna. Known for gastronomy and delicious local produce, Bologna is full of unusual experiences and cool places to see; many of which also happen to be free. So here’s my handpicked list of unique and unusual things to do in Bologna; including some of the top local foodie favourites. You can’t really visit Bologna without enjoying some of its delicious food, so explore Bologna off the beaten path and uncover the city’s secrets, in its food, architecture and hidden local spots. 

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Peep Through the Via Piella

Tucked away, about a ten minute walk from Piazza Maggiore, is a small window which provides a view that seems more like Venice than Bologna. The small window allows a glimpse into secret Bologna’s long-lost canal network. Like many other Italian cities, Bologna was crossed by a network of canals, which used to carry both goods and people before the emergence of road and rail transport. Many of the city’s canals were covered over in the early 20th century and very few remain today. One of the best free things to do in Bologna hides under the city; don’t miss seeing these canals and streams that still flow today. The hidden gem of Canale delle Moline connects two rivers of Bologna with an intricate lock system dating back to the 12th century. One of the coolest viewpoints and a great attraction worth checking out with only 24 hours in Bologna, the Via Piella window, which sits over the city’s canals, is a must-see when seeking quirky things to do in Bologna. 

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Eat Pork the Local Way

In Bologna, food is life. It honestly defines the region. Whether it's your first time visiting Bologna or you've been many times, be prepared to pace yourself so you don’t overdo it and get full too quickly. Bologna really seems to have perfected the art of curing and using the best of its meat; using blood in buristo, boiled pork rinds in must-try local delicacy chicoli, and pieces of meat picked off the caracas in sopressata. Meat-lovers should try lardo; pieces of fat with hints of walnuts, rosemary, butter and black pepper. Perhaps also try the more traditional salame da vino which is made by fermenting meat with a tasty red wine. Making and finding pork products with the highest standards of quality, taste, and ethical production is not easy, but some argue in Bologna it is achievable. One of the most unique things to do in Bologna, although not one for vegans and veggies in Bologna, meat-eaters must eat like a local in Bologna and enjoy pork in its various forms, as well as learn about how it is preserved; whether salt cured, air dried, fermented or boiled.

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Discover the Whispering Corners of Palazzo del Podestà

Bologna is full of hidden gems and, like many impressive cities, is home to some secret corners. At the intersection of Palazzo del Podestà, you can talk to a friend with no one ear-wigging by whispering into one of the corners. From Piazza Maggiore, turn your back to San Petronio, and weave your way into the archway in the middle of Palazzo del Podestà. Once inside the arch, go to the right side corner, and send your friend to the diagonally opposite corner. The architecture is constructed so only people who are in diagonally opposite corners can talk to each other, and so no one else can hear the conversation. One of the most fun and unusual things to do in Bologna, don’t miss whispering into the walls amidst the hustle and bustle of Bologna city life and hearing your friend clear as day. Tradition says that this was a place which allowed lepers to confess their sins during the middle ages. Steeped in history and beauty, this is one of the top secret and free things to do in Bologna on your trip. 

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Visit the Oldest Market in Bologna

Every Italian foodie's dream and one of the best kept secrets of Bologna, the ancient mercantile center of Bologna gets its name Quadrilatero from the word Quadrilateral which refers to a defensive fortress or system from the Middle Ages and is a must-visit for food, culture and history lovers in Bologna. Remaining relatively unchanged over time, the main craft guilds of the city such as fishermen, butchers, salaroli (workers who salted meat to cure it), goldsmiths, barbers and the society of painters all had their headquarters in this area. If you're looking for fun things to do in Bologna to give you a true sense of the medieval city, wander your way through the hidden Quadrilatero; soak up the smells and sounds and shop for local foods. A vibrant hub of activity in the historic city center, the Quadrilatero should not be overlooked on your Bologna alternative guide. Weave your way through the eclectic local enclave and feel the medieval history shadowing your every step.

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Experience the Enduring Beauty of Teatro Anatomico

Situated in Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, the fascinating 17th-century Teatro Anatomico is where public body dissections were held under the sinister gaze of an Inquisition priest, who was ready to interfere if proceedings ever became too spiritual. Imagine being a student viewing a dissection, a scholar witnessing human anatomy for the first time, or a surgeon exploring new techniques of treatment. Check out Bologna off the beaten path and experience the enduring beauty of a strangely unique place, notice the designed natural light which, pre- electricity times, presented the human body as a thing of wonder. Wander through cedar-wood tiered seats and see a central marble-topped table with a sculptured Apollo gazing down from the ceiling. The canopy above the lecturer’s chair is supported by two skinless figures carved into the wood. If you’re seeking quirky things to do in Bologna that are not in your guidebook, be sure to add Teatro Anatomico to your list. 

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