Having studied in Italy and visited the county on a few other occasions, this time I wanted to see some of the non-touristy cities, and Bologna topped my list! So the final stop on my Italy trip in September 2015 was Bologna, also known as La Grassa (the Fat) and La Rossa (the Red). Bologna is the largest city and the capital of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.
The Emilia Romagna region is located in the central-Northern part of the country, just next to Tuscany and a little south of Milan. Emilia Romagna is home to many the GREAT foods of Italy, including prosciutto di parma, basalmic, parmiggiano reggiano, tortellini and more. This area is a must-see for foodies, and I don’t know why it took me so long to get here! Aside from foodies, Bologna is not really on many traveler’s radars, and that’s really not surprising to me. Italy has so many “bucket list” sites, you could spend multiple vacations in the country and not see everything, and Bologna lacks one big “bucket list” site. However, instead of one site to base your visit around, Bologna offers a stunning city with the most delicious food, everywhere. I loved it, and it was refreshing to travel to an Italian city that has not been overrun with tourists.
One of my favorite things about Bologna are its rose-colored buildings. Yes, that’s where it get’s the nickname La Rossa. Almost all of Bologna’s buildings are done painted in a rose/orange/red color scheme, and the city blends right in with the sunset every evening. In addition to this color scheme, Bologna, and its neighboring towns, are also known for their large pedestrian-friendly porticos lining each street. Just gorgeous, and no concerns about rain!
What to do in Bologna?
Bologna is also known as La Grassa due to its great food! True to it (nick)nams, eating should be a big part of any visit to Bologna! Aside from that, Bologna’s main “tourist sites” are located in the center of town, around Piazza Maggiore, and easily accessible by foot. If pressed for time, you really only need a couple hours to quickly “see the sights,” but I recommend staying at least one night to truly enjoy the city. We stayed for three nights and could have spent longer!
San Petronio Basilica – One of the most well-known sites in Bologna (if not THE most well-known) is the San Petronio Basilica. San Petronio is easily recognizable, as it sits in the center of Piazza Maggiore and remains unfinished. That’s right, half of its façade is incomplete, making for some excellent black and white photo opportunities. The interior of the basilica is worth a visit, too. Entry is free, but you have to pay €3,00 for a photo license if you want to take pictures. One of the most interesting things in the basilica is the Chapel of the Magi (addition €3,00 to enter, comes with audio guide, NO PICTURES), which holds the controversial painting “Heaven and Hell” by Giovanni da Modena, depicting Dante’s Heaven and Hell, including Muhammad being devoured by demons in Hell. The Chapel of the Magi was closed for a number of years following the September 11 attacks due to terror threats, but has recently been re-opened to the public.
Le due Torri (the Two Towers) – Way back when (think 12/13th century), the city of Bologna had many towers, some say close to 200. Wealthy families built these towers as a status symbol – the taller the tower the wealthier the family. The towers also worked as look-out points for invaders. Today, only a handful are left in Bologna and two most famous are the Garisenda Tower and the Asinelli Tower. These two towers are very close in proximity and have become a symbol of the city. The Ainselli Tower is the taller of the two and the only one accessible to the public. You can walk up its almost 500 steps for about €3,00. The top offers panoramic views of the city! Fun fact – both are leaning, like the Tower of Pisa!
Fontana di Nettuno – Located just around the corner from the Piazza Maggiore, Neptune’s Fountain is Bologna’s most famous fountain, a symbol of the city and worth a quick peek. The found dates back to 1563.
University of Bologna – Bologna is home to the Università di Bologna, which is the oldest university in the world – dating back to 1088. The University Quarter is not far from Piazza Maggiore and it is worth checking out if you have extra time.
What to eat in Bologna?
Bologna, and Emilia Romagna as a whole, is home to such delicious foods, and Bologna has so many restaurants! We did not have a bad meal during our time in Bologna. Some of my favorite dishes, which are available throughout Bologna, are the following:
Tortellini en Brodo – Local to the area, this dish consist of small tortollini filled with cheese or minced pork meat and served in a light broth. I tried this dish at Trattoria da Gianni in Bologna, but its available in many restaurants. It is very good and very filling, and not so easy to find in other parts of the country.
Tortollini – Tortollini is also a child of Emilia Romagna. Larger than tortellini, tortollini are typically stuffed with cheese and/or meat and served in a cream-based sauce with some type of pork. Nuts are also popular additions to the sauce. I probably ordered a deviation of this dish everyday. When in Rome (or Bologna), right?
Tagliatelle alla Bolgonese – Perfectly made pasta topped with a delicious meat sauce. I tried this dish with beef and lamb. The lamb was exquisite. I also ordered this dish on multiple days. Oops!
Prosciutto di Parma and/or Mortadella di Bologna – Prosciutto di Parma, one of the most famous hams in the world, is made just down the road from Bologna in the town of Parma. Widely available in Emilia-Romagna, you must try it! Similarly, mortadella di Bologna – aka baloney – is from Bologna. Very different that the lunch meat available in the US, mortadella di Bologna is delicious and very well-prepared. I recommend trying both, but I prefer proscuiutto!
Parmiggiano Reggiano – My favorite cheese. Hand’s down. A protected DOP, parmigiano reggiano is made just outside of Bologna. We watched the cheese being made on a tour with Emilia Delizia (post here). You should buy some to bring home with you – just make sure its shrink-wrapped!
Local produce – Emilia Romagna is known as the garden of Italy. Everything served in Bologna is fresh and locally sourced. Strolling around Bologna you will find markets selling beautiful vegetables and you should abolsutly try some! Friendly reminder, you cannot bring fresh fruit back to the U.S.
Basalmic di Modena – Another DOP product, real basalmic is made in Modena (20 minute train ride from Bologna Centrale). Take a day trip to Modena to try it or find it in a Bologna restaurant. And take some basalmic home, too.
Eataly Bologna – For those of us obsessed with Mario Batali’s Eatlay in NYC (#guilty), Bologna has its own branch. Eataly Bologna is located in the heart of Bologna, not too far from the Piazza Maggiore. Eataly Bologna is smaller than its NYC counterpart, but it has a similar feel and sells similar products. The highlight of my visit was drinking Dogfish’s My Antonia (a collaboration with an Italian brewery) at the Eataly in Bologna!
Appertivo Hour – A Bologna institution, Appertivo hour is popular throughout the city. Kind of like happy hour, during appertivo hour you purchase one cocktail from a bar (usually around €8,00 – €10,00) and the bar sets up a buffet for free! You just need to buy one cocktail to take part! We went to Appertivo Hour at the Modern Art Museum. It was very popular with locals and a lot of food for the price of one cocktail.
Pizza – Since Bologna is a university town, there are pizza restaurants everywhere. A good, inexpensive option. We found most pizza restaurants to also offer pasta dishes and at least a few non-pizza/non-pasta dishes.
Gelato – Finally, gelato! Like all Italian cities, Bologna has its fair share! Don’t leave without trying some!
As mentioned, I think many people skip over Bologna, because it lacks a big item tourist attraction, but, if you are a foodie or want to visit a low key city for an evening or two, Bologna is the perfect choice. Bologna is located on the fast rail line (the FRECCA trains) and is less than a 1.5 hour ride from Milan, Venice and Florence. Bologna was our final stop on a tour of Italy, which included Cinque Terre, Lucca and Bologna. We took the FRECCA train to Milan Centrale train station and then onward to Milan’s airport on the day of our flight. Very easy. You should consider Bologna for your next trip!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Hotel Accademia – Via delle Belle Arti, 6, 40126 Bologna, Italy. T:+39 051 232318. We stayed at Hotel Accademia, a hotel located in a very young area (lots of students) about a 10 minute walk from Piazza Maggiore and the main train station (Bologna Centrale). We found the hotel to be simple but clean. The hotel offered a free breakfast each morning. Reservations can be made easily online.
TrenItalia – We purchased our FRECCA train tickets on TrenItalia’s website before we left home. Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance and the earlier you purchase, the better the price. I recommend signing up for an account (free) in case you need to change your ticket, etc. You should print your tickets before you leave, but if you forget, the train conductor can look up your ticket via your name and/or the reference code on the ticket. Also, since these trains are for specific times and date, you do not need to validate your ticket prior to boarding.
San Petronio Basilica – Piazza Maggiore – 40124 Bologna (BO). T: +39 051 231415. Open daily between 7:45 and 1:30 and 3:00 to 6:00. Entrance is free, however tourists must pay €3,00 to take pictures (they give you a tag designating that you paid) and €3,00 to visit the Magi chapel. All visitors are subject to search by armed guards. Tip – if you want to view the Heaven and Hell painting without paying and/or take a picture, you can view it for free (and take pictures) by walking down a few chapels past the Magi and then turning back toward the painting. A lot of people were doing this with legit camera equipment.
Le due Torri– Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, 40126 Bologna, Italy. T: +39 051 647 2113. Only the Asinelli Tower is open to the public, an it is open daily from 9:00 – 7:00. €3,00 entrance fee. Not for the claustrobic or physically challenged – there are 500 tiny steps.
Trattoria da Gianni – Via Clavature, 18, 40124 Bologna, Italy. T:+39 051 229434. Traditional restaurant in Bologna. Closed Mondays all day and Sunday evening (but open for Sunday lunch). Generally open 12:30 – 2:00 for lunch and 7:30 to 10:00 for dinner. Call and make a reservation. The restaurant is small.
On A Budget
Bologna is a great choice for budget travelers! Since it is a University town, many of the local businesses offer student discounts and general good deals! Plus, since there are few tourists, the prices are not hiked up for “tourists.” I found food, booze and lodging to be generally cheaper here than in other large Italian cities. If you want the best finds, try the University Quarter.