When I mention Bologna, everyone I know who has been to Bologna exclaims, I love Bologna! And I love Bologna! What’s not to love in this city that, for good or for bad, is rarely on the Top 10 lists of places to visit in Italy. So let’s keep it our little secret!
Bologna – Everybody’s Kind of Town
Bologna is so great for so many reasons. It’s not too big and it’s not too small. The City Center, aka Centro, is large and diverse and beautiful and historic and mostly car-free. It’s one of my favorite Centros in Italy, ideal for walking and bike riding. Bologna is ancient, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s chic, it’s old school, it’s energetic, it’s proud and it’s humble.
Bologna is an amazing city for art and art history. Many scholars rank it as the number four art city in Italy. There are more than fifty museums in Bologna with exhibits spanning the sixth century to modern times. The two stand-out museums are the Pinacoteca Nazionale and the Museo Civico Archeologico. You can get more info and gain free admission to many of the City museums with a Bologna Welcome card available at bolognawelcome.com.
It is almost cliche to say the food is amazing. But the food is not only amazing, the food is Bologna and Bologna is the food. The culinary traditions date back centuries and are as important a part of the social fabric as the churches and piazzas, as ciao and arrivederci. Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region known for prosciutto, balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese. Other food specialties include tagliatelle al ragu, mortadella, lasagna alla Bolognese, tortelloni in brodo. And you can wash them all down with the “local” wines which include Sangiovese, Lambrusco and Pignoletto.
Bologna is the kind of city where you will have a great time whether you are spending a long weekend or an entire summer. The people are friendly, the living is fun and sumptuous and easy and there are myriad things to do and see for travelers of all interests and budgets.
Below is a list of some of my favorite things to do, see and eat in Bologna, all of them found within the Centro unless otherwise noted. Let me know some of your favorite things in the comments below!
Things to Do in Bologna
Walk the streets of the Centro, specifically the Quadrilatero, endlessly! There are no cars in the core and everywhere you turn is another enticing cheese or vegetable or pasta or charcuterie shop, another cozy bar or café or interesting restaurant. The choices are almost endless. No need to sign up for a walking tour, you can’t miss the hotspots and it’s hard to get lost as you can see the two towers that mark the center of the Centro from almost anywhere.
Rent a bike – One of the best bike riding cities in all of Italy (Parma being my particular favorite).
Basilica Santuario della Madonna di San Luca – For a beautiful view of the city, climb the many steps of the sanctuary’s 666 porticos, the longest porticoed arcade in the world. Start from the Piazza di Porta Saragozza on the western edge of the Centro. It is a fairly difficult walk and if you bike you may have to get off and walk it part of the way. Or you can take the San Luca Express train and tour that starts at Piazza Maggiore.
Churches –There are so many astounding churches in Bologna, too many to list in one article! Know that any church you walk into in the Centro will be inspirational and you just might run across a Carracci or two.
Stroll the district of San Stefano – An upscale, relaxed neighborhood with grassy parks, casual cafes and elegant restaurants.
Il Cinema Ritrovato – A June and July summer tradition of open-air cinema movies in the main Piazza Maggiore. This festival features restored classics like Once Upon a Time in the West and silent films which are screened with a full orchestra. Fun, fun, fun in one of the most spectacular open-air cinema settings in the world!! festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it
Strada del Jazz – Streets of Jazz festival which takes place in September. It’s free and worth a visit. lastradadeljazz.it
Cioccoshow – A world-class chocolate festival held in November that takes place in the City’s main squares. cioccoshow.it
New Year’s Eve Festival in the Piazza Maggiore – An outdoor festival that attracts thousands of celebrants in a dignified, friendly setting. The night culminates with the bonfire burning of the Vecchione or Old Man.
Basilica di Santo Stefano – A dreamlike labyrinth of interlocking ecclesiastical structures whose architecture spans centuries. Enter at the 11th-century Chiesa del Crocefisso.
Teatro Anatomico and University Biblioteca– A spellbinding wooden room made entirely of spruce, with carvings on the ceiling, walls, railings and surroundings. It is part of the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere founded in 1088. Piazza Galvani 2, phone 051-276-811.
Orto Botanico ed Erbario – Botanical and herb garden with over 1800 plant species. A tranquil place to relax on a lazy afternoon. Via Irnerio, 42, phone 051-209-1325. sma.unibo.it
Restaurants, Cafes, Eating, Drinking
Ristorante Cesarina – A great place to sit and have a glass of wine or aperitivo in the early evening, located in the main piazza of the beautiful San Stefano neighborhood. Via Santo Stefano, 19 / B, 40125. 051-232037. ristorantecesarina.it
Zanarini – IMHO, their stand up counter is one of the best places in Italy to have aperitivo. Elegant, historic and centrally located, you can have your dinner in finger foods for the price of an inexpensive glass of wine in the States ($8ish). Like most Italian cafes that offer aperitivo, this price reflects a surcharge on drinks during aperitivo hours. We highly recommend the Bergamot Martini. Also great for people watching with your morning caffe. Piazza Galvani, 1, 40124. 051-275-0041.
Da Cesari – A lovely, bustling Italian farm-to-table ristorante that offers some of the finest Bolognese food in the city. Lots of seasonal specialties as well with products from its own farm. Located just off the Piazza Maggiore. Via de ‘Carbonesi 8. 051-237710. da-cesari.it
Mercato delle Erbe – An indoor farmer’s market where you will find a beautiful selection of locally grown vegetables and fruits, artisanal meats and cheeses and a few miscellaneous vendors. The market also has two dining areas both offering a wide variety of delicious food stalls and sit-down restaurants. A great spot for meeting friends or people watching. Via Ugo Bassi, 25, 40121.
Osteria del Sole – A bar dating back to 1465, this place attracts a younger crowd and can be fun to visit with a group. Here the wine is inexpensive and patrons bring their own food to enjoy at the indoor and outdoor tables. Vicolo Ranocchi, 1, 40124. 347-968-0171.
Aroma – A coffee shop extraordinaire in this city of coffee. Via Porta Nova, 12/b, 40123. 051-225895.
Gelateria Gianni – For, what else, gelato! Via Monte Grappa, 11/A, 40121. 051-021-7680.
Grand Hotel Majestic Bar – Dress up and indulge a bit by stopping here for a well-chilled, perfectly crafted cocktail. Try the saffron martini. Yum. Pricey. Via dell’Indipendenza, 8, 40121.
Paolo Attti & Figli – Stunning handmade pastas of all types, shapes and sizes with beautiful gift boxes. Usually referred to as just Atti. Via Caprarie, 7, 40124. 051-220425.
Majani Cioccolato – Royal chocolatiers since the 1700s, whose products are now available to all. Via de’ Carbonesi, 5, 40123. 051-234302.
La Prosciutteria and Salumeria Simoni – Two separate stand-out macellerias (butchers) both offer spectacular charcuterie platters. Great for a lazy afternoon indulgence. Via Guglielmo Oberdan, 19/a, 40125 and Via Drapperie, 5/2a, 40100.