When I first decided to add Bologna to my Italy itinerary, Bologna made the list solely for its culinary offerings. I wasn’t sure if there was going to a ton of things to do in Bologna. But the longer we spent there, the more I discovered there was to explore, the longer I wanted to stay!
Where to Stay in Bologna
Bologna is a super walkable city, so as long as you get yourself a hotel or Airbnb within the city limits, you’ll be easily able to get around to explore all of the best sites.
We stayed at a fantastic Airbnb, which you can find here. It was a private studio apartment with a full kitchen, a private bathroom, and a huge comfortable bed. Each morning, our host would roll in a huge trolly of coffee, a boiled kettle with a selection of teas, and several sweet breakfast options (which seems to be the norm for breakfast around this part of Italy).
We were right next door to a large supermarket and were only a few minutes from Piazza Maggiore, the main plaza of the city. It was about halfway between the train station and the city center, making it perfect for exploring and then heading back on our way to Florence.
We paid $65 a night and I would definitely pay that again for this place. Read more about it here.
If you have never used Airbnb before, you can sign up with this link to get up to $35 off of your first booking.
Not a big Airbnb fan or prefer a bit more luxury with a hotel? These are some of the hotels that I checked out while I was planning our trip. They are really well located and reasonably priced. I prefer boutique or family-run places rather than big chain hotels, so that’s what you’ll find on this list.
- Hotel Touring – Family run, located in the southern part of the city, free breakfast, and a rooftop bar. Rooms start at $180 per night. Book here.
- Art Hotel Orologio – A fun, beautifully decorated hotel right near the center of the city. Complimentary breakfast buffet and bikes to rent. Rooms start at $200 per night. Book here.
- Al Centro di Bologna – A very well-priced hotel right in the center of the city. Ask for a room with a view of the Two Towers. Rooms start at $50 per night. Book here.
What is Bologna Known For?
Like I mentioned earlier, Bologna has quickly become known as one of the culinary capitals of Italy. Italians have even nicknamed the city La Grassa, the fat one. Who doesn’t want to visit a place like that?
Another thing that the city is known for is the University of Bologna. It is the oldest University in the Western World. Another of the city’s nicknames is La Dotta, the learned one. Be sure to check out some of the old university buildings and the beautiful library.
The final nickname that Bologna has earned is La Rossa, the red one. The nickname was first earned thanks to the city’s red-roofed buildings. Head up to any viewpoint around the city and you’ll see it for yourself. I’ve also read that the city continued to use this nickname during WWII when it became highly political. It was a stronghold against the Nazis for much of the war.
Things to Do in Bologna
There are so many awesome things to do in Bologna. I highly recommend spending some time just getting lost in the streets. It is a city with tons of little backstreets and cool boutiques. There are cafes down little alleys, restaurants with outdoor seating under random porticos, and discovering these little-hidden gems is one of the best things to do in Bologna.
Climb Asinelli Tower
The Asinelli Tower is one of Le Due Torri, the two towers, in Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. Both are leaning much like the famous leaning tower of Pisa. The one that is leaning the most is actually pretty scary to stand beneath!
Luckily, the one that you can climb is the one that isn’t leaning quite as much. In order to go up the tower, you have to pre-book your tickets on their website here. Simply select a slot, pay for the ticket and then show the confirmation email to the guard when it’s time. There is usually a line that snakes around the piazza when it’s time for a new group to go to the top.
It’s really cool to climb up those steps but be warned, it’s not easy! Especially if you’ve been eating pasta and drinking wine for a few days beforehand. It takes roughly 15 minutes to get all the way to the top of the tower, leaving you about 20 minutes to take in the view from the top before you have to make the trek back down the steep staircase.
Explore the Inside of San Petronio Basilica
The city’s main basilica is pretty impressive inside. Named after the city’s patron saint, San Petronio was the city’s Bishop during the 5th century.
It’s completely free to enter, but you’ll need to cover up. They outright turn women away if you’re wearing low-cut or sleeveless tank tops or shorts above the knee. You can wrap a scarf around your shoulders or waist, but just be sure to cover up.
This is actually the case in a lot of churches around Italy, but it’s not always strictly enforced. At San Petronio it is. I usually found that even on hot days, I could wear a midi-length dress (at the knee or just below) and then I would carry a t-shirt in my purse that I could put on over the top of my dress if it was sleeveless. This worked all over Italy.
The Basilica is the 10th largest in the entire world by volume and once you’re inside you’ll really understand it. It’s one of the widest and most open churches I’ve been inside. Take note of the unfinished exterior and the floor of the interior.
Stand in Awe of the Archiginnasio
This was probably one of my favorite things to do in Bologna. The Archiginnasio was one of the main buildings used for the University of Bologna. Inside you’ll now find crests and shields from some of the university’s first students. It houses the largest collection og 17th and 18th century books in the country, making it one of the most important research libraries in all of Italy.
The main draw though is the anatomical theater. For €3, you get access to all of the rooms (you can wander around for free, but you can’t go into the anatomical theater or library area). The anatomical theater was where some of the first human biological experiments on cadavers in the Western world took place for research purposes.
Part of the building was bombed in WWII, so this side of the building was rebuilt, but it was reconstructed to look almost exactly as it did during those 16th-century experiments. I found it endlessly fascinating.
Enjoy Art at the Bologna National Gallery
If you like European art, especially paintings, you should get yourself to the Bologna National Gallery. One of the things that really drew me to the gallery was that the curators have focused on filling the walls with pieces that are in some way connected to the Emilio Reggiano region.
Some of the paintings date as far back as the 13th century. It’s located in the old university complex, making it doubly worth a visit so you can see some more of the university’s older buildings.
People Watch in Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is the main piazza in Bologna. Take a peek at the enormous Neptune statue. There’s a water fountain right next to him where you can refill your water bottle (I love this about Italy! Free water everywhere!). You can wander through some of the other surrounding buildings, but my favorite thing to do in Piazza Maggiore was to sit on the steps of the cathedral and just watch people go about their days.
Wander the Cobbled Streets of Quadrilatero
The Quadrilatero is the area of the city from the Basilica to the east. It’s where you really get to see the medieval side of the city with the older brick buildings that feel like they’re leaning into the narrow, cobbled streets. During the Middle Ages, this area of the city was home to the fisherman, butchers, meat curers (called Salaroli), furriers, goldsmiths, and barbers.
If you stroll through the streets now you’ll see that not much has changed. It’s one of the best places in the city to head for a glass of wine and platters of meat and cheese before dinner. There are boutique shops selling leather and fur and jewelry. You can smell the fish stalls and hear the butchers shouting out the day’s specials. It really feels like you’re transported back in time.
Climb the Stairs Under Covered Porticos to Santuario di Madonna di San Luca
Another of the must-see things to do in Bologna is to take in the views from the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca. The hardest part? Getting there. There are basically two options.
You can walk from the city center, which takes about an hour and a half each way. This was the option we chose because the path to the sanctuary takes you along the longest covered walkway in the world. It’s totally shaded, so even on a hot day it stays relatively cool. Also, we were eating A LOT of pasta and drinking perhaps too much wine, so it was a good way to get some exercise in.
Just know that although it feels a bit difficult on the way up, the way back down to the city is much easier and quicker. Be sure to pack plenty of water. Once you get to the sanctuary, there are water fountains where you can refill, but bring enough to last you on the way up. Packing snacks isn’t a bad idea either.
The other way to get up and back is to take the tourist train called the San Luca Express. It’s €10 each way, so not cheap. You can opt to walk up one way and take the express on the way back (or vice versa of course). Just be sure to check the timetable before setting off so that you aren’t waiting an hour for the express to show up.
Explore the Seven Churches Inside Santo Stefano
The Church of Santo Stefano doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once you get inside, you’ll be amazed at the history. Knowing a little bit about it before visiting makes it slightly more interesting as well.
The church, which is classed as a minor basilica, was first built by San Petronio when he was the Bishop of Bologna. He built the church over the temple of the Goddess Isis, the goddess who helped bring people across to the underworld. The Bishop wanted the church to have a building that recalled the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (there is an entire room dedicated to this inside the church).
There are seven different buildings in the complex which include:
the Church of Saint Stephen, which was built in the 8th century; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built in the 5th century; Church of the Saints Vitale and Agricola, for the martyrs persecuted in Bologna by the Romans and built in the 4th century; the Courtyard of Pilate built in the 13th century; Church of the Trinity or of the Martyrium built in the 13th century; and Chapel of the Bandage which honors the strip of bandage worn by the virgin mary in mourning.
Take a Cooking Class
If you’re going to take a cooking class in Italy, shouldn’t it be in the country’s culinary capital? There are plenty of different places that offer cooking classes depending on what it is you’d like to learn how to cook.
If you want to take a cooking class that shows you the basics of Bolognese cooking and includes a stop at the local market, this tour is the best option. It’s a doozy of a day – a five and a half hour class that starts by taking you through one of Bologna’s historical markets. This is a nice option if you want to learn more about the history of the city while also learning to cook.
Once you pick up everything that you need from the market, you’ll go back to the cooking school and help prepare an entire meal including a pasta dish, a meat course, and a dessert. Then, of course, you get to eat it along with some wine! You get to go home with a recipe book. The tour costs $280 and you can book into it here.
If you want something shorter that focuses mostly on the food, this is the better option for you. It’s a cheaper tour at only $75 per person and only lasts about three hours. You can choose to take the tour at either lunch or dinnertime and you will help to prepare a three-course Bolognese-style meal.
You’ll learn how to make perfectly al dente pasta and it also includes a wine tasting of regional wines. Book onto that tour here.
Take in the Views from San Michele in Bosco
For another great view of Bologna, get yourself up to San Michele in Bosco. You can take bus 30 from the southern part of the city center, or you can walk. The walk takes about 35 minutes on the way there and about 25 minutes on the way back (it’s easier to go downhill).
If you’ve got the energy I highly recommend walking. There is a park at the base of the hill and there are plenty of places to sit and relax in the shade. It’s only steep at the very end of the walk as you wind your way to the lookout point. There is a little plaque at the top that tells you what different buildings you’re looking at.
Go to a Bologna Football Match
Do you like soccer? Why not check the home-game schedule and enjoy a Seria-A league game. Bologna is a pretty big club in the Italian league and while they may not be doing so great this season, the fans do not mess around. It’s a great atmosphere and a fun way to spend the afternoon if you’re a sports fan.
You can book tickets to the football matches here. Alternatively, you can try to buy them at the door, but you may be left with pretty expensive options on the day.
Eat All the Food
It should really go without saying, but one of the absolute best things to do in Bologna is the eat ALL THE FOOD. I didn’t have one bad meal in Bologna. Check out my post on where to eat in Bologna where I tell you all about the best meals I had in the city and a few places that I wish I could have visited (all the more reason to come back!).
A few of the city’s best-known dishes that you should keep your eyes peeled for are tagliatelle in ragu, tortelloni in sage and butter sauce, tortellini in broth, squacquerone cheese, gramigna alla salsiccia (pasta with sausage ragu), tigelle bread, and mortadella (the original Bologna meat).
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