Bologna might not have the canals of Venice, nor the ancient ruins of Rome, but that certainly hasn’t held the city back from being one of Italy’s most unique, beautiful, and underrated places to visit.
Bologna remains almost undiscovered by the masses of foreign tourists that flock elsewhere in Italy, which makes for a beautifully authentic, immersive local experience as you wander the streets shoulder to shoulder with locals, not flag-waving tour groups. Here are some local tips if you’re a first-timer to Bologna that will help you blend in with the locals and explore all the hidden gems.
Bologna is small enough to walk almost everywhere
The first local tip has to do with how to get around. One of the best ways to explore Bologna is on foot as it’s fairly compact and easily walkable even if the weather isn’t great. There are hundreds of kilometers of historic porticoes to keep you out of the sun, wind, and rain as you meander through the city.
The starting point of all your walking adventures should be Piazza Maggiore. From here you’ll be able to follow the winding roads east to Quadrilatero and the Asinelli towers, north to Ghetto Ebraico and the secret canals, or south to Piazza Cavour and park Giardina Margherita.
It’s neither cheap nor expensive in Bologna
You’ll find most food and drinks to be on a par, sometimes cheaper, compared to other European cities but accommodation is quite expensive. But compared to Rome, Florence, Venice, or Milan, Bologna is still a very budget-friendly city.
For the most part, food is relatively affordable, especially if you go for the regional produce. You can expect to pay around €15 - €20 for a two-course meal and if you’re looking for a sweet treat, gelato will set you back around €2-€3. The majority of hotels cost around €100 per night but there are other options such as Airbnb that may be cheaper.
What out for sneaky fees
In most restaurants throughout Italy, you’ll be required to pay a little fee called “coperto” which is basically a per-person cover charge. Its origins stem from the Middle Ages when travelers used to stop at inns but they would bring their own food to save money. The innkeepers would miss out on earnings from food sales so they decided to charge customers for the space they occupied and things they used.
You can expect to pay between €2-€3 for the coperto charge, which will need to be paid regardless of whether you eat the supplied bread or not. While coperto may be completely foreign to you, it’s custom in Bologna so you’ll need to take it into account when dining out. It does however relieve you of the need to tip, so there’s a silver lining to this strange ancient tradition.
Book restaurants in advance and carry cash just in case
Try not to leave deciding where to eat to the last minute as you may end up disappointed, especially if you want to eat at a popular restaurant. Bologna runs on restaurant bookings and forward planning so try to make your reservations a few days in advance.
Most restaurants, cafes, bars, and businesses accept card payments throughout the city but always carry some Euros for those “just in case” moments where card facilities aren’t available.
Consider a Bologna Welcome Card
Many cities have cards like these that help you discover the city in a more cost-effective way. You can buy it online or at tourist info-points. The Bologna Welcome Cards are valid for 15 days from the activation date you can only use the Card once per service.
With the Bologna Welcome Card you’ll have discounted or free entrances to various attractions and exhibitions as well as bus services and a guided tour. Make sure you check the opening times for the museums and attractions so you can make the most of your time in Bologna.
Get ready to eat
Italy is a country known for its cuisine and Bologna remains the gastronomic capital of the country so eating here is quite simply one of the best things to do in Bologna. Bologna is the birthplace of bolognese, or tagliatelle al ragù, the delightful flat-ribboned pasta with subtle meat sauce.
The broader region, Emilia Romagna, has gifted the world glorious Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan, tortellini, tortelloni, mortadella, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, and many other delicacies so you’ll never run out of delicious foods to try.
You’ll be able to find all the delicious food along the streets of Quadrilatero, just off Piazza Maggiore. Be sure to try tagliatelle al ragù, tortellini in brodo, and butter and sage Tortellini if you’re looking for delicious local dishes. For some of the best gelato in Bologna (and possibly all of Italy) head to Cremeria Cavour.
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