Bologna is a self-assured city with a medieval history and a young edgy vibe. Linger in moody wine bars, stroll the porticoes and discover the best things to do in Bologna with our guide to the red city.
Bologna is a city that doesn’t feel the need to dress up for tourists; it’s happy just the way it is.
Worn around the edges, slightly scuffed and decorated in various shades of orange, it’s a contrast from nearby Florence. Bold and born of its own individual character, Bologna is a place that locals know better than tourists and it feels like that’s the way it’s always going to be.
None of this, however, means it’s boring. With centuries of history and a population of 85,000 university students, Bologna is old enough to be charming and young enough to be exciting.
During the day the rusty-hued city has a host of fascinating things to do. Stroll through medieval churches oozing with dusty character, climb one of Bologna’s towers for a view to remember, or follow a trail of porticoes to hidden corners of inconspicuous beauty.
But it’s in the evening that the city truly comes alive. Join connoisseurs sampling wines from age-old enoteca’s, tuck into hams and cheeses on tightly packed lanes or join the young and boisterous enjoying aperitivo amongst the hubbub.
We have rounded up our favourite things to do in Bologna, the best bars, the most interesting museums, and our favourite attractions in the city of a thousand porticoes.
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IN THIS GUIDE
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN BOLOGNA
01 – SOAK UP THE GOLDEN VIEWS FROM ASINELLI TOWER
Asinelli Tower is one of the two towers of Bologna which were built to signal the prestige of the family who commissioned them; a trend similar to nearby rival Siena. Marking the entrance to the city, the medieval showpieces have watched over its people since the early 12th century.
As the highest of Bologna’s 24 towers, it’s a heart-pumping 500 steps to reach the viewing platform at the top. But it’s well worth it. The old wooden staircase that spirals up the innards of the tower provides tantalising glimpses of the red-tinged city through intermittent openings originally intended as defensive peepholes.
From the top Bologna glows. Terracotta roofs stretch out in all directions, bouncing golden light back into the lenses of out-of-puff tourists. Although there’s a pesky wireframe to contend with, it’s an enchanting view and an unmissable thing to do in Bologna.
The tower can get fully booked a few days in advance, so book before your trip to Bologna. Aim to be at the top as close to sunset as you can.
02 – WONDER AT THE HALF-FINISHED SAN PETRONIO CHURCH
Bologna still feels like a work in progress and there’s no better way to admire the unadorned character of the city than by visiting San Petronio Church. Much like the city itself, the church is a little undressed.
Construction began in 1388 but after a series of complicated amendments, Pope Pius IV deemed it a pipedream and diverted funds to the university instead. As a result, San Petronio remains unfinished to this day. The façade bears a reminder of what happens when your funding gets cut, with the bottom half decorated in marble and the top half simple old brick.
While the inside is plainly decorated, it contains a meridian line paved into the isle by the astronomer Giovanni Cassini in 1655. With phenomenal precision, the meridian line allowed Cassini to calculate the tilt of the earth axis and the timing of the equinoxes.
03 – EXPLORE PIAZZA MAGGIORE & NEPTUNE’S FOUNTAIN
Piazza Maggiore is the main square in Bologna and the heart of the historic town. Dating back to 1200, and one of the first squares in Italy built after the fall of the Roman Empire, citizens would once congregate to hear new laws and watch public executions.
Today, the Bolognese come here to eat ice cream, listen to concerts and scoff pizza in the arteries that feed of Piazza Maggiore. It’s a great place to hang out and explore the mishmash of architectural styles that have developed over the years around the square.
Don’t miss the Fountain of Neptune. The trident held by the statue of Neptune above the trickling waters was used by the Masserati brothers as the emblem for their cars.
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04 – STROLL THE LANES OF THE QUADRILATERO
The Quadrilatero is the medieval market area of Bologna where ancient alleyways boast a long tradition of commercial success. Stretching from Piazza Maggiore to the two towers, the Quadrilatero is a bustling area with everything from fruit stalls to high-end fashion, fish markets and bakeries.
The area comes alive in the evening with both locals and tourists elbowing in for a perfect position amongst the hustle and bustle. Grab a table at Osteria del Sole – one of the oldest inns in Bologna – where they provide the wine and you bring your own food. If you don’t want to self-cater, pull up at one of the many places packed into this tiny laneway to experience its full clamour.
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05 – SAMPLE THE BEST OF BOLOGNA’S BAR SCENE
Bologna is known as ‘la dotta, la grassa, la rossa’ or ‘the learned, the fat, the red’. The fat owing to the profusion of excellent produce coming from this gastronomic region of Italy.
Nearby Parma is famous for prosciutto di Parma the most celebrated of all Italian cured meats; Modena for its Balsamic Vinegar; and the entire Emilia Romagna area for Parmigiano Reggiano. There are endless wines to try as well, either from local vineyards or further afield at Chianti and Montalcino.
Here are our favourite spots to enjoy the tastes of Bologna.
ENOTECA STORICA FACCIOLI
Literally translated as “wine library” an enoteca is a wine shop where you can sit and enjoy a long and well-crafted list of wines in a bar bursting with atmosphere. One of the most passionate and knowledgeable is Enoteca Storica Faccioli. Open since 1924, they know their stuff and it’s a great place to find your next favourite tipple. The accompanying flatbreads are excellent.
Just north of the historic centre of Bologna, La Prosciutteria is a rustic, welcoming restaurant where tourists and students mingle on old fruit crates sampling some of the best produce available in Bologna. They have a great selection of cold cuts and sandwiches which are prepared for you on the spot and delivered on cutting boards. Vegan and vegetarian options are available.
Just opposite La Prosciuterria, Medulla Vini specialises in organic and biodynamic wines from Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. Occupying a cosy position with tables under the porticoes, it’s a great place to enjoy a quality wine while watching the world go by.
Caffè Rubik is a bohemian bar in the university district with a pop-art vibe set under one of the cities ancient porticoes. They have a great wine list and staff who know their stuff. But it’s the extensive selection of amaro – the hard-hitting liquor made from herbs and roots – that keeps people sitting on tiny stools late into the night.
For a more serious affair, Enoteca Italiana is a more traditional wine shop in a large space with several tables dotted amongst the shelves offering a vast global selection of wines. Wander through the aisles before snatching a table to enjoy their extensive list of wines by the glass while you nibble on cheese and hams.
06 – RETURN TO THE MIDDLE AGES AT ATMOSPHERIC SANTO STEFANO
The complex of Basilica di Santo Stefano dates back to the 5th century and at one time comprised 7 churches. Today, only 4 remain in an interlocking series of ancient architectural elements.
Entry is via the 13th-century Chiesa del Crocifisso, a barren building with high domes and arches in worn brick. A door to the left at the back leads into the remarkable Church of the Santo Sepolcro. A claustrophobic and evocative space it was designed to look like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s strange octagonal walls rise to a starred dome and a dramatic crucifixion hangs forbiddingly over the altar.
Next is the pleasingly simple and unadorned 11th century Santi Vitale e Agricola. With bare stone walls and small high windows filling the space with shards of light, it’s a step back into another time.
There’s a cloister and courtyard to discover before grabbing a wine or a coffee on the square outside. It’s a little overpriced but the triangular space leading towards the old church is lovely compensation.
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07 – GO OLD SCHOOL AT THE TEATRO ANATOMICO OF THE ARCHIGINNASIO
The Teatro Anatomico is an ornate wooden lecture theatre that was used by the medical school in Bologna to perform public dissections of human bodies. In its centre sits a marble table surrounded by tiered seating and watched over by Apollo (the God of medicine) peering down from the sunken panels in the ceiling.
Carved wooden statues of famous physicians adorn the walls, including a local doctor who was the first to attempt plastic surgery, a milestone indicated by a nose he is holding in his hand. But the highlights are the two wax statues of skinned human bodies that hold aloft the university chair.
Entrance is via the Palace of the Archiginnasio where colourful frescoes adorn the passageways and ceilings.
08 – DINE OUT AROUND MERCATO DELLE ERBE
Mercato delle Erbe is a traditional covered market with fruit stalls, cheeses and traditional Italian cured meats. It’s a good place to potter during the day but the entire area comes alive at night.
Start the evening with aperitivo at Rush. This corner bar has a great position overlooking the hubbub and their quality drinks mix with moody music wafting out the windows and into the street.
For an upmarket dinner head to Oltre, well-renowned for trendy Italian cooking that respects tradition while trying modern techniques. Just around the corner, innovative Ahimé has a minimalist design and a small regularly changing menu which can be a great choice if you’re happy to try a diversion from traditional Italian cooking.
09 – SEE GRAND MASTERS AT THE PINOTECA
The National Art Gallery of Bologna was born from the need to rehouse works of art that were suppressed by either the church or Napoleon. Today the excellent selection of 13th to 18th-century art demonstrates the progression from Byzantine to Renaissance styles over a very manageable collection.
The highlights for us were Christ and the Good Thief by Titian, The Visitation by Tintoretto and Madonna of the sparrow by Guercino. But the collection also includes high-quality pieces by Raphael and Reni.
The gallery is well laid out with information panels in English and a handy map to help navigate the space. It’s a wonderful thing to do in Bologna which, unlike the museums in Florence and Venice, you may have entirely to yourself.
10 – ADMIRE THE INTERIOR OF CHIESA MADONNA GALLIERA
The Church of the Madonna di Galliera is something of a hidden gem in Bologna. From the outside, the concrete façade gives no clues as to the ornate details waiting on the inside.
Originally founded in 1304, the interiors were refurbished in the 17th century to an opulent effect. Lavishly painted frescoes adorn the cupola ceiling with artwork hanging from intricately carved niches. Cascading light streams from high windows create an ethereal effect in the beautiful space.
Opposite the church is Caffè Letterario – Sebastiano Caridi, offering a range of handcrafted chocolates and delicious pastries. Although hot chocolate is their speciality drink, their coffee was one of the best we had in Bologna. Take your pick from the selection inside and sit out on the portico in front of the church.
11 – HIKE THE PORTICOS OF VIA DI SAN LUCA
In the early 12th century, the wealthy of Bologna expanded their upper floors to increase living space. Soon, columns were required to support them, creating the signature landmark of Bologna. Today, there are around 38 kilometres of porticoes stretching across the city.
The Portico di San Luca is the longest in the world (and the city) and walking it is a wonderful thing to do in Bologna. It starts at Porta Saragozza and continues for 4 kilometres up a hill to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, passing over 600 vaults.
The first part runs along via Saragozza before crossing the road on a beautifully ornate bridge. Just after the bridge, the most picturesque section with a long sweep or arches curves off into the distance.
From here it’s a hefty climb to reach the Church of San Luca. There are nice views from its panorama terrace, but we wouldn’t recommend spending the £5 to go up the dome.
Walking to San Luca Sanctuary through the 4 kilometres of porticos takes around 1 hour and 15 minutes and the path is uphill all the way. A less exhausting option is to get a taxi to the top and walk back downhill.
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12 – VIA DEL PRATELLO
There are plenty of places to enjoy the delightful tradition of aperitivo in Bologna, but our favourite spot was the cool strip along the lively Via del Pratello. Between the hours of 6:30pm and 8:30pm, hubbub rises above the clinking of Aperol Spritz and the chatter of the local crowd.
There are plenty of places to try – just walk along the street and stop at one that takes your fancy. For dinner, we highly recommend Il Rovescio for the decidedly good pizza (especially for vegetarians).
However, the choices along via del Pratello include hole-in-the wall street food joints churning out pizza to lingering crowds; lively bars with just enough bread and cheese to keep you going; or traditional sit-down trattorias and osterias.
According to our waiter, Friday and Saturday “can be a bit of a mess.”
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN BOLOGNA
Bologna is a lovely city with a delightfully local vibe, which we thoroughly enjoyed. But not all the attractions of the red city could make it on to our list. If you have more time, here are some other things to do in Bologna.
CANALE DI RENO
It’s not Venice, but the small stretch of canal at Canale di Reno is worth a pit stop to grab a quick photo.
MUSEO DELLA STORIA DI BOLOGNA
The History of Bologna Museum is a whistle-stop tour through Bologna’s backstory. There is no English on the information boards, but you can pick up an audio guide to help explain what you are looking at. There is very little to actually see in the museum (except for the information boards) so it’s a bit like reading the Wikipedia entry for Bologna.
MUSEI DI PALAZZO POGGI
There are several rooms making up the museums at Palazzo Poggi including a Human Anatomy Museum, Natural History Museum and a Museum of Ships and Geographical Maps. They could all be interesting; however, none were set up well for non-Italian speakers. The collection of waxwork foetuses used for the medical school of Bologna in a rather graphic exhibition that needs no English.
MUSEO INTERNAZIONALE E BIBLIOTECA DELLA MUSICA
The International Music Museum and Library has an interesting collection of old instruments in a lavishly decorated house. Their key item is the original score of Rossini’s Barber of Seville in Room 7 complete with the old leather binding.
MERCANTINO BASILICA SAN FRANCESCO
The Basilica di San Francesco is a lovely under-discovered church in a variety of different styles including Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance. Periodically there is a flea market in the cloisters with a range of well-worn goods on sale to support the churches various charities. If it coincides with your trip, looking for bargains under the towering spire is a great thing to do in Bologna.
Like any good modern art museum, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna or MAMbo, has colour and movement, wrestles with social commentary and political power, and is a little indecipherable. Don’t miss History of the 21st Century by Italian artist, Renato Guttuso.
MAP / THINGS TO DO IN BOLOGNA
We have included our list of the best things to do in Bologna on the below map so you can plot your course for your time visiting the red capital of Emilia-Romagna.
BOLOGNA WELCOME CARD
Bologna has a Welcome Card which provides access to various museums, the Asinelli Tower, plus a guided walking tour for €25 per person. Book it online before you arrive or pick it up from the Bologna Tourist Office in Piazza Maggiore.
If you only visit our top 12 things to do in Bologna, then the Welcome Card isn’t worth it. But, if you stay for a bit longer, include the History Museum, the International Music Museum and do the walking tour, it will pay for itself.
BOLOGNA ATTRACTIONS OPENING HOURS
Pick up a guide with the opening times for all Bologna’s attractions from the Tourist Information Office in Piazza Maggiore when you first arrive as hours vary considerably.
Generally, most museums shut Monday and most churches shut over lunchtime for two to three hours. The Pinoteca closes at 2:30pm and the MAMbo doesn’t open till 2pm Tuesdays to Thursdays.
WHERE TO STAY IN BOLOGNA
Bologna is quite a large city of around 400,000 people, but almost all the sights are in a compact area in the centre of town. If you stay central, you can easily explore this golden gem on foot. Here’s our pick of the best places to stay to enjoy the city.
GOOD VALUE B&B
This very clean and modern redecorated B&B in an old resident’s block is a short walk from Bologna Central and 20 minutes to the main square. Overlooking the train tracks, double glazing does its job excellently, leaving you to enjoy the cosy space and good breakfast.
Super cool apartments lovingly decorated in a buzzy part of town, only ten minutes from the central square. Some rooms come with living room, others with a terrace. All come with a sense of style and class.
QUIRKY & RETRO
On a quiet alley just off the main square, this quirky hotel makes a great base for exploring all the sights. Set in the former town hall, individually styled rooms mix original features with modern additions. Book the limited parking in advance.
For a splurge, this elegant hotel in an 18th-century palace is a good choice. Sumptuously furnished with rare antiques and gorgeous furniture, some of the rooms come with their own frescoes. It’s the top address in town, just don’t look at the bill.
BEST TIME TO GO TO BOLOGNA
The best time to visit Bologna is during the shoulder seasons of April to June and mid-September to November. The temperatures are generally comfortable, there are less tourists competing for the best things to do in Bologna, and the population swells by about 100,000 students giving it a fun and buzzing atmosphere.
As with most European destinations, summer is the peak season when both the temperature and visitor numbers are high, although nowhere near as high as nearby Florence and Venice. In winter it can be wet and cold with temperatures dropping to near freezing.
Most importantly keep your eye out (and avoid whenever possible) Bologna’s many trade fairs when prices for rooms can double or even treble. The fairs range from stationery and office supplies, through to beauty products and the automotive industry. We visited during the last day of the Ceramics Trade Fair in late September and the accommodation prices were through the roof.
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HOW LONG DO YOU NEED IN BOLOGNA?
Most of the best things to do in Bologna could be seen in 2 days. It’s a relatively compact city that can easily be explored on foot. However much of the attraction is savouring the energy of the city in the early evening so it’s worth taking your time.
There are also many great day trips just a short train journey away. The towns of Modena and Ferrara are only half an hour; the old streets of Parma one hour; and the frescoes of Ravenna 80 minutes.
We recommend staying 3 days in Bologna; 2 days to see the sights and one for a day trip of your choice.
For some excellent day trips in the area, read our guide to the best day trips from Florence.
HOW TO GET TO BOLOGNA
Bologna has its own international airport (Airport G.Marconi) just a short distance from town. Taxis to the centre of the city cost €25 to €30 and take only 20 minutes. There is also a train service from the airport to the city called the Marconi Express. The journey takes 7 minutes with one stop at Lazzaretto, before terminating at Bologna Centrale. Tickets cost €8.70.
Bologna Centrale is the major train station in the area with direct lines to many other Italian cities in the area. If you are doing a tour of Italy, it’s very easy to connect Bologna with your other destinations.
TRAINS TO BOLOGNA
From 34 minutes | 76 services per day
from 1 hour, 4 minutes | 71 services per day
from 1 hour, 15 minutes |45 services per day
from 2 hours | 93 services per day
Located in the north of Italy between Florence and Venice, Bologna is an excellent base for exploring more of the country. With some exceptional hiking and exquisite lakes, here are some more of our guides from the region.
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