Bologna's nickname “The fat, the red, the learned” pretty much summarises the charm and spirit of this middle-sized Italian city, where culture meets joie de vivre and foodies walk around with a constant smile on their face. Conveniently located between Florence and Milan, “south of the North”, Bologna has been for quite long time a hidden gem: a favourite among Italians, all in love with its free spirit and rich nightlife, yet little known abroad. But the latest years have seen a shift in this trend, and the hometown of tortellini is now a hip international destination. And, given its ancient history, delicious food and effervescent student's life, it’s really no surprise. Here are our five top reasons to plan a little escape to Bologna.
It Has Medieval Charm
With its tiny streets, endless porticoes and facades in all shades of red, Bologna is a joy for the eye. Be ready to fall in love with the magnificent Piazza Santo Stefano, a quiet, triangular square where the facades seem to come straight from the set of a theatre production. Pay a visit to the church that gives it its name, Chiesa di Santo Stefano, which is also known as “the seven churches” because it is an harmonious ensemble of several little temples (the oldest originally was an actual pagan temple devoted to the female goddess Isis). Also unmissable is the main square, Piazza Maggiore, with the big San Petronio church, and the adjacent Piazza del Nettuno with the freshly restored, sexy statue of Neptune.
There's Food, Food and More Food
Bologna has been labelled “city of food” and not by accident. The birthplace of tortellini, lasagne and tagliatelle al ragù takes its fresh pasta quite seriously. One of the latest tourists' attractions are the floury live performances of sfogline (fresh pasta makers) on display in the windows of restaurant Bottega Portici, while more and more people come to Bologna to enrol in a cooking course or take a food tour. The tiny streets of Quadrilatero, full of market stalls and little delis, are also the temple of the late afternoon aperitif, and its bars and osterie are a triumph of mortadella slices, parmisan cubes, piping hot crescentine (diamond-shaped fried breads made of flour, water and lard) and platters of charcuterie with tigelle (little round breads). If the city centre wasn't foodie enough, the suburban district of Pilastro recently welcomed FiCo, a massive theme park dedicated to food and the food chain.
Its Got Its Own Pisa
Bologna has its own leaning tower, the very central Torre Garisenda, right next to its cooler sister, the Torre degli Asinelli. Together they form “The Two Towers”, one of the most iconic landmarks of the city, which is ironic considering that originally there was ferocious competition between the two rich families behind each tower, whose height was supposed to represent power. Garisenda was actually winning the “mine is longer” competition, but it started leaning and couldn't be built any further. It has been estimated that medieval Bologna used to have more than 100 towers (think Gotham City); most of them collapsed of were later demolished, but about 30 still survive in some form. Torre Prendiparte has been turned into a restaurant and b&b while the precious Torre della Specola is part of the Palazzo Poggi Museum and hosts regular visits to its ancient and beautiful astronomy rooms.
It Has The Oldest University in Europe
According to a Times Higher Education survey, the University of Bologna is one of the most beautiful in Europe. And it's certainly the oldest. Officially founded in 1088, Alma Mater Studiorum aka University of Bologna is also a crucial part of the life in town. Students still have the privilege to study and attend classes in beautiful ancient buildings with solemn statues and fresco ceilings: have a look at the faculties of Foreign Languages, Law and the Conservatory, or lose yourself in the magnificent Archiginnasio. The constant stream of students also guarantees a bustling and vivacious nightlife. While the actual heart of the Uni area (Piazza Verdi and Via Petroni) may become a little hardcore at night, most of the student's movida happens around the bars and porticoes of neighbouring Via Mascarella and Via Delle Moline, as well as in the effervescent Via del Pratello.
It's The Perfect Size For a City Break
The most abused but rather appropriate attribution to Bologna's size and shape is a misura d'uomo, meaning that it's neither gigantic, stressful and chaotic nor minuscule, boring and predictable. Just the right size for everything to be walking distance and for spending a long weekend - or even a week - never needing to hop on a bus or cab. The ubiquitous porticoes, that run for an impressive 38 kilometres, allow you to stroll around no matter the weather conditions. If you want a special portico, go to Porta Saragozza and start walking up towards the hill hosting the San Luca Sanctuary. What used to be a pilgrim's route is now mostly a local tradition and an occasion to work out, especially on week-end mornings, when most people feel guilty for what they ate and drank the night before. Once you're up, you will be repaid by the magnificent view of the green hillsides and a lovely perspective of the city centre down below.
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