Edited by Emma White.
Bologna is one of the most beautiful, exciting, and culturally rich cities in Italy and yet probably the most underrated. Visitors to Italy are immediately drawn to the more popular Italian destinations such as Rome, Venice, and Florence, and miss out on the historical treasures, culinary delights and homely local culture waiting to be uncovered in Bologna. There are so many amazing things to do in Bologna and so many memories to be made, so why not go against the grain and choose Bologna for your next city-break destination? To kickstart your trip and help you work out what to do in Bologna, I’ve put together this useful guide of top 10 things to do in Bologna, crammed full of information on top Bologna attractions, Bologna food experiences, hidden gems, local secrets and many, many more reasons to visit Bologna.
Le Due Torri
One of the most important Bologna attractions to be visited by tourists is the Torre Asinelli. The Asinelli Tower, along with its twin, the Garisenda Tower, form together Le Due Torri, two towers built in the 12th century at the old entrance to the city. They have guarded the city ever since and are cherished by the city’s locals. Climbing the Asinelli tower is a quintessential Bologna experience and one that mustn’t be missed by visitors to city, especially first-timers. Reaching the top of the tower means climbing 498 steps which sounds like a lot of effort, but I can promise you it’s well worth it and you will be rewarded with jaw-dropping views over the city below and its maze of medieval of streets and squares.
Complesso di Santo Stefano
Locally known as Sette Chiese (seven churches), Santuario di Santo Stefano is a complex made up of seven different churches built at various times according to different architectural styles. Each one is unique and has its own specific purpose, but they all fit together to form this grand building. This is one of my favorite Bologna tours and although entry is free, there is a box to leave donations. Take some time to explore this unique Bologna attraction and leisurely follow the path through each of the churches whilst admiring the ornate interiors and peaceful ambiance.
Visiting the city’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, is another one of the top things to do in Bologna. This lively square, surrounded by gorgeous Renaissance-style buildings and filled with both locals and tourists going about their day, is the perfect place to wander around and get a feel for the local culture. The Basilica di San Petronio is the square’s most important and most visited attraction and happens to be one of the biggest Catholic churches in the entire world. From the outside, admire the basilica’s architectural beauty then venture inside to see the stunning interior and learn about the history of the building and its surrounding area. If you’re only in town for a weekend and wondering what to see in Bologna in 2 days, Piazza Maggiore should be amongst the top things on your list. I recommend spending a significant part your first day wandering around this area, exploring the narrow streets leading into the square and seeing what treasures you can find tucked away that many would miss if they weren’t paying attention. There’s really no better way to discover the city than by creating your very own Bologna walking tour!
Archiginnasio di Bologna
Another one of my favourite things to do in Bologna is to visit the Archiginnasio di Bologna. This magnificent building once housed the oldest university in Europe and is now home to the Archiginnasio Municipal Library and Anatomical Theatre. Beautiful, intricate drawings and painted coats of arms sweep along the surface of the Archiginnasio’s walls and ceilings along with old inscriptions which help to narrate the building's history as well as Bologna’s literary heritage. The highlight of your visit will be seeing the old Anatomical theatre and its famous wooden carvings.
The historic Quadrilatero market is a square of little lanes off Piazza Maggiore crammed with food shops, artisan stores, busy restaurants, charming cafés and even clothing boutiques. Quadrilatero is one of the best places to eat in Bologna for a taste of the local territory; the food shops sell an impressive array of the best of Bologna food including colourful displays of fresh fish, delis meats, cheeses, fresh pasta and balsamico along with many other Emilia-Romagna specialities. This market area has existed since the Middle Ages and has retained some of its medieval characteristics. As you walk through the narrow streets and listen to the vendors calling out, you will be able to imagine what local life might have looked like all those centuries ago! Although this is perhaps the most touristic part of the city, and can therefore be extremely busy, it is still well worth coming here to walk around the small lanes, sample the local produce and let local Bolognese life engulf you. The sights, smells, sounds and flavours will create a sensory overload that can’t be experienced elsewhere in the city.
Santuario di Madonna di San Luca
Another must-see Bologna attraction is Santuario di San Luca, a monumental basilica perched high on top of the Monte della Guardia and visible from a number of vantage points across the city. The church can be accessed on foot via the world's longest portico (4km in length), which includes a series of steps during the second half of the walk. It can be quite challenging so for those who don’t want to walk it, you can take the San Luca Express train from Piazza Maggiore at a price of €10 which will take you up to the basilica and provide you with a mini Bologna tour on the way up. Whichever mode of transport you choose, you’ll be met with some breathtaking views of Bologna and the surrounding landscape when you reach the top of the hill and stand at the base of the Santuario. You can then visit the inside of the magnificent Santuario, learn about its history and even climb to the top of the dome for extra special views of the beautiful Bologna below.
Enjoy an Italian Aperitivo
Aperitivo is a typical evening activity enjoyed daily by most Italians. It consists of one or two drinks enjoyed amongst friends or family along with snacks and nibbles such as meats, cheeses, and other antipasti components. When evening comes around, locals will gather together to catch up over aperitivo before heading off to a late evening dinner. One of the best places for aperitivo in Bologna is Osteria del Sole. This historic bar is the oldest osteria in the whole of Bologna and is loved dearly by the city’s locals. Inside you’ll find long communal wooden tables, mismatched chairs and an old-style bar surrounded by walls adorned with photographs and old knick-knacks reminiscent of a past life. Del Sole oozes authentic Italian charm and is a must for anyone wanting to experience aperitivo like a local in Bologna. Although they don’t serve food, customers are welcome to bring any food they want to enjoy alongside their drinks. Those in the know will usually turn up with a selection of meats, cheeses and other antipasti snacks purchased from local delis and supermarkets. Some even bring pizzas or pastas purchased from nearby takeaway joints! So grab some snacks and join locals here for a really special Italian aperitivo.
To experience the best of Bologna’s art scene, check out Bologna’s Modern Art Museum known as MAMbo or Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna. MAMbo is a purpose-designed museum of modern and experimental art, showcasing a variety of different works displayed in interesting ways. The museum prides itself on offering a range of works created by artists local to Bologna and the surrounding region. The museum is praised for having a good balance between permanent collections and rotating exhibitions which keep visitors surprised and intrigued. MAMbo currently houses the temporary Museo Morandi which displays a large collection of works by Giorgio Morandi that are a must-see for anyone who appreciates modern art.
Dinner at Al Sangiovese
No trip to Bologna would be complete without a having sampled a traditional Bolognese dinner. After all, let’s not forget that the city is known as Italy’s culinary capital! Just south of Piazza Maggiore, you will find this casual neighbourhood restaurant serving delicious traditional Bologna food, made and presented with all the love and respect that we expect from Italian cooking. Al Sangiovese (Vicolo del Falcone, 2) is one of the best restaurants in Bologna where you are guaranteed an exceptional dining experience each and every time you come here. My advice is to ask the owner (who is probably your waiter too) what he recommends and trust his judgement - whatever he brings you will be outstanding. He is passionate about his food and likes to cater to people’s foodie preferences. Pay close attention to the specials as they tend to be the best and most popular choices amongst diners. The Risotto al Sangiovese with chunks of Lardo della Colonnata is a personal favourite - if they have it on the menu when you go, order it without hesitation!
If visiting during the warmer months, you will notice that many locals like to sit outdoors in the evenings and watch the sun go down with a glass of wine or cold beer. One of the places that people tend to flock to as the sun begins to show signs of setting is Giardini Margherita, Bologna’s largest and most popular park. For me, the best way to end a full day of sightseeing in Bologna is to find a spot in this pretty park and settle down to watch the sky transform from a brilliant blue to a warm, sunset orange before the sun fades on the horizon and gives way to the night stars. Take a blanket if you can, and maybe some nibbles to enjoy alongside your wine, and just soak up the warm and calm atmosphere of a perfect Bolognese evening.
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