Bologna, Italy will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s the first place I landed on my first-ever European trip. It wasn’t really a trip. I moved to Bologna in the ’80s to study abroad for a year, and it made a lasting impression. So much so, that it was my life’s endeavor to once again live near Italy. And here I am.
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Bologna’s a bit over 6 hrs by train from where I live, and it’s truly home away from home. I still have friends there, which makes returning even more fun. Not only do we reminisce about old times, but I’m amazed with Bologna’s improvements over the years. If you are not familiar with Bologna, here is the ultimate guide of top things to do in Bologna Italy.
Practical Information about Bologna Italy
- 1 Practical Information about Bologna Italy
- 2 Now for the Top Things to do in Bologna Italy
- 2.1 Stroll Via dell’Independenza and Walk the Porticos
- 2.2 Il Parco della Montagnola
- 2.3 Head to Piazza del Nettuno and gaze at Neptune’s Statue
- 2.4 Stroll around Piazza Maggiore
- 2.5 Admire the magnificent Palazzi
- 2.6 Visit the Basilica of San Petronio
- 2.7 Climb up to the Panoramic Terrace of the Basilica of San Petronio
- 2.8 Le Due Torri
- 2.9 Visit the oldest market streets in Bologna, the Quadrilatero
- 2.10 Take the San Luca Express
- 2.11 Visit San Luca’s Sanctuary Sky Terrace
- 2.12 Catch a film at Sotto Le Stelle del Cinema
- 2.13 Visit the Old Jewish Ghetto
- 2.14 Find Little Venice on Via Oberdan
- 2.15 Spend time in the various Piazze of Bologna
- 2.16 Stroll the University of Bologna Area
- 2.17 Check out the Porti or Entrance ‘doors’ to Bologna
- 2.18 Giardini Margherita
- 2.19 Serre dei Giardini Margherita
- 2.20 Visit Bologna’s museums
- 2.21 Sift through the Bologna Market
- 2.22 Spend a day at Fico EatalyWorld
- 2.23 Take a Discover Bologna Walking tour
- 2.24 See Bologna via the Hop-on/off tourist Bus
- 2.25 Rent a City Bike
- 2.26 Fiera
- 2.27 Buy the Bologna Welcome Card
- 2.28 Take a cooking class in Bologna
- 3 Other interesting information about Bologna Italy
- 4 Hotels in Bologna
Bologna has almost 400,000 people, with more than 80,000 students at the University. Bologna is the home of the oldest university in the world, established in 1088! It’s a beautiful old town with a very young, vibrant population.
Map of Bologna
Where is Bologna Italy
Bologna is in the Emilia-Romagna region in central Italy. It’s a little over 1 hour by train from Milan, 1.5 hours to Venice, around 2 hours to Rome, and a mere 40 minutes to Florence. Bologna is overlooked by tourists who’d prefer to visit these cities or do 2 days in Florence instead of give Bologna it’s due. It’s a shame, and Bologna should definitely be part of your Italy bucket list.
How to get to Bologna
Bologna is easy to get to since it’s on the main train artery going through the heart of Italy. Bologna Centrale is the main train station, and once you arrive, you are literally at the base of Via dell’Independenza, the main drag of Bologna.
You can also fly into Bologna’s Marconi International Airport. From the airport, take the Aerobus to central Bologna. Buses leave every 11 minutes throughout the day and take 15-20 minutes to get to either Bologna center or Bologna Centrale Train station. Tickets are $7 and best if you buy online.
Check out the Aerobus Timetable Bologna here.
Now for the Top Things to do in Bologna Italy
There are a variety of top things to do in Bologna; some you need to pay for and several others are free. Here are some of my more favorite top things to do in Bologna Italy.
Stroll Via dell’Independenza and Walk the Porticos
I’m going to start with Via dell’Independenza, because it’s the most important boulevard in Bologna. It’s the main drag heading down to Piazza Nettuno and Piazza Maggiore, the heart of Bologna.
When you arrive by train, exit the station, head left and you find this large Via or boulevard. Via dell’Independenza dates from 1890 when Bologna became a popular railway hub in Italy.
The first thing you see when you start walking, are Bologna’s covered walkways, called Porticos. Bologna has nearly 25 miles of Porticos, which provide shelter from the sun and rain. Some are more intricate than others, but you can walk most of the city underneath them.
Numerous shops, cafés and hotels line Via dell’Independenza, and it’s where the Bolognesi stroll in the evenings to meet their friends.
Via dell’Independenza is a great place to stop for a beverage and watch the world go by. On Sundays, it’s even better because the street is closed to traffic, so you walk down the middle of the road.
Il Parco della Montagnola
La Montagnola Park is Bologna’s huge green lung that is not far from the train station. You can’t miss the magnificent double staircase as you walk up Via dell’Independenza. It’s on your left.
The park was built on the ruins of the Galliera Castle, and you can still see remains of the Medieval walls next to the stairs.
La Montagnola is a great place to wander around and escape Bologna’s summer heat. You find decorative fountains, animal statues, a child’s play area and some cafes where you can grab a soda or a beer. This should be on your list of top things to do in Bologna Italy
In the evenings, there is music and other events. The park has their own website, so check their activities.
Head to Piazza del Nettuno and gaze at Neptune’s Statue
Once you finish walking up Via dell’Independenza, you need to decide: Do I go right up Via Ugo Bassi, left on Via Rizzoli, or straight ahead to Piazza Nettuno? I suggest you go straight onto Piazza Nettuno.
The Piazza di Nettuno was enlarged in the 1560s, and is named after the famous Neptune Statue that is the centerpiece. We can thank Sicilian, Tomasso Laurenti, and Flemish sculptor, Jean de Boulonge, also called, Giambologna, for creating this work of art.
It’s a lovely statue well worth examining from all angles. And speaking of erecting the statue, rumor has it, the sculptors wanted to make Neptune’s manhood bigger than it is, but the city wasn’t happy about that. So instead, his thumb is sculpted in such a way, that if you look at him from the back and right side, it appears he has a huge package! Check it out. Well done, boys!
Stroll around Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is the heart of Bologna. It’s the main piazza in the center of town, and is a central meeting point for the Bolognesi. This is probably thee top thing to do in Bologna as it’s simply the center of town.
The piazza was originally a grassy area in the 1200s, and over the years was improved and flanked by some of Bologna’s most impressive Palazzi.
Admire the magnificent Palazzi
You find the Basilica di San Petronio, the Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo d’Accursio and the Palazzo dei Notai all around the main piazza.
It wasn’t until 1945 that the piazza was renamed, Piazza Maggiore. For several centuries they called it Vittorio Emanuele II after Italy’s king. Lots of events happen in Bologna’s main square, Piazza Maggiore.
Bologna’s tourist office, Bologna Welcome, is located under the portico of the Palazzo del Podestà . More about them below.
Visit the Basilica of San Petronio
The Basilica of San Petronio is the Duomo in Bologna, and is in Piazza Maggiore. It is not, however, the main Cathedral of Bologna. The Cathedral of San Pietro is just down the street on Via dell’Independenza. They sound similar, I know.
The Duomo is an interesting structure, in part that the facade is incomplete. You immediately notice the bottom is in white and rose/red marble and the upper part is in plain old brick! It’s really a bit of a kill-joy, but there you have it.
Construction started in 1390, and by the early 1500s they had grandiose ideas to make the Duomo even larger than St Peter’s in Rome!
Needless to say, the Catholic Church put the kibash to that, and had the Archiginnasio, the first seat of the University of Bologna, built next door. They were stuck, because there was no more land for expansion. The money they had was spent on the inside, rather than the outside. Entrance to the Basilica is free, but it costs $2.20 to take photos.
It is, however, one of the largest Basilicas in the world, being the 6th largest. It is grandiose inside with interesting and ornate chapels, and you’ll find the longest indoor Meridien line in the world wedged into the floor!
A professor of Astronomy at the University designed it in 1656, and it still accurately tells the passing of the days and the seasons with the sun light shining in the Duomo’s window.
The Duomo was actually a public space and only became part of the Catholic Diocese in 1937. It was finally consecrated in 1954.
Climb up to the Panoramic Terrace of the Basilica of San Petronio
The facade of the Basilica was renovated a few years ago, and during the renovation, they added a makeshift terrace on the scaffolding. Today, the terrace is a permanent fixture of the Basilica, which is fabulous. For $3.50, you get some of the best views over the rooftops of Bologna.
Le Due Torri
In the 1200s and 1300s, Bologna had more than 100 towers dotting her skyline. They even speculate there were nearly 180 towers. They compared the skyline to a more early version of Manhattan.
Families built these towers as a sign of wealth, as well as for protection. And they were great look out points during the wars.
Today, only 22 still stand, and most of the others were damaged by fire and war. The two most famous of those towers are right down town at the end of Via Rizzoli and Via Emilia. You can’t miss them.
The taller tower is the Torre degli Asinelli, and the shorter tower, that is leaning, is the Torre Garisenda.
The Garisenda leans more than 10 ft from upright, and you cannot visit the inside. It actually leans 1.2 degrees more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Yes, Pisa’s tower is prettier, but Bologna’s leans more!
Walk up the nearly 500 stairs to reach the top of Torre degli Asinelli. The stairs are from the 1600’s, and once you reach the top, you get spectacular views over the city. Tickets cost $5.25 and it is definitely one of the top things to do in Bologna.
Unfortunately, it’s still a favorite spot for failing university students, and the desperate, who have a habit of climbing up and jumping off to their death. In fact, I was there just last month and the firemen and ambulances came because someone threatened to throw themselves off.
Visit the oldest market streets in Bologna, the Quadrilatero
This is my favorite part of Bologna. I love walking the Quadrilatero, or 4 sides. It’s where the old historic market of Bologna is. It’s on Via Rizzoli, Via dell’Archiginnasio, Via Farini e Via Castiglione, just east of Piazza Maggiore.
It’s a great place to buy fresh vegetables, local pasta, hunks of mortadella and prosciutto. Otherwise, sit down and have lunch, but get there early because it fills up fast.
Here you still find fishmongers, fruit and vegetable sellers, and buzzing activity like there was in the old days. Locals and tourists flock here to buy their groceries or have an apero on the street later in the afternoon. This is one of the best things to do in Bologna to get a feel for the history of this area.
Take the San Luca Express
The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is simply referred to as San Luca by the locals. The Monastery is an iconic structure built in the 1600s and finished in the mid-1700s. But who’s in a rush!
It was the first thing I saw when I arrived in Bologna back in the ’80s. It had a rather eerie feel back then, never having seen anything that old, large and so monumental! The Monastery is almost 1000 ft above Bologna in the hills to the southwest of the city.
Or walk up to the Sanctuary of San Luca
You can also walk to the Sanctuary, but it’s more than 2 miles. You walk under the porticos all the way up there, and you can count more than 600 arches along the way! Start from Porta Saragozza and follow the portico up to San Luca.
If that’s not your cup of tea, take the San Luca Express. This is the little tourist train leaves from Piazza Maggiore and winds through the streets of Bologna. You’ll hear interesting, historical commentary as you wind your way up to San Luca. It costs $11 round trip, and you can buy tickets onboard or at the tourist office in Piazza Maggiore.
I suggest you take the train up, take your time and visit the Monastery, which is free. Then go visit San Luca’s Dome Terrace, which is $6. You have lovely views over the countryside and Bologna, and it’s well worth the entrance price.
Then, walk a bit further up the same road until you come to Vito San Luca Restaurant. They serve up some tasty salad starters and typical Bolognese dishes. You can relax in the countryside and breathe the fresh air. It’s beautiful up there.
Then work off your lunch by walking back down under the porticos. You won’t get lost and it will be a beautiful walk. Visiting the Sanctuary is one of the most important things to see in Bologna.
Visit San Luca’s Sanctuary Sky Terrace
As I mentioned above, you can’t go all the way up to San Luca and not go up to the Monastery’s Sky Terrace to see the magnificent views over Bologna. You climb the original stairs inside the Monastery to arrive at the Sky Terrace. And there you have a view from the highest Cupola, or dome, in Europe. It’s $6 and well worth the view.
Catch a film at Sotto Le Stelle del Cinema
From mid June to mid August in Piazza Maggiore, there is Sotto Le Stelle, or Under the Stars. This is Bologna’s free open-air summer cinema. I’ve mentioned there’s similar in this post about Rome’s summer festival, Lungo Il Tevere.
Piazza Maggiore is filled with hundreds of chairs, and a massive screen is on the east side of the piazza.
For more than 50 nights during the summer, you can enjoy Italian films, English films or other foreign language films. This summer they’re showing Rocky, Apocalypse Now and The Doors …just to name a few. And the films start with an introduction by famous directors, like Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and Quinten Tarantino.
Films are free to attend, and they start around 9 pm, but get there early if you want a seat.
Visit the Old Jewish Ghetto
Bologna, like many cities in Italy, had a Jewish ghetto. This ghetto was active in the mid 1500s, when the the Church confined Bologna’s Jews to a certain area of the city from 1556 to 1593. Then they were expelled from Bologna for more than 2 centuries. Jews had to live within this closed off area of Bologna. Doors were opened in the morning and closed at night, and they were continually watched.
Now, it’s a lovely area to stroll around and learn about the community’s historical past. Walk around these streets: Via De’ Giudei, Via del Carro, Via Zamboni, and Via Oberdan, where an arch looks onto Vicolo Mandria. This is one of the top sights to see in Bologna.
Find Little Venice on Via Oberdan
Most people don’t know this about Bologna, but in the Jewish Ghetto, you also find the hidden canal tucked behind some houses. This canal is one of the only stretches of running water left that flowed from the Canale di Reno. The other sections of canal were covered over. This area is called Little Venice, and when you stroll down Via Oberdan, you find a little square porthole where you can see the canal. This is something you absolutely must see in Bologna.
Spend time in the various Piazze of Bologna
Check out the numerous Piazze in Bologna. These Piazze, or open places/spaces, were the central congregational points in towns, and they still are today. Often times there were events, the occasional public hanging and other public displays.
Bologna has a ton of piazze, and a few of the more popular ones are:
Piazza Maggiore is the central heart of Bologna.
Then, Piazza Nettuno, attached to Piazza Maggiore is where the famous statue of Nepture is the center piece.
Bologna’s Piazza Santo Stefano– which is where you find the ancient road to Tuscany. It’s not really a square, but is significant for the 7 holy buildings built around this space. It’s a frequent place for city cultural events.
Piazza Verdi is the main piazza for university students from the University of Bologna.
Walk down Via Zamboni, and Piazza Verdi is on the right. You are now in the center of the University of Bologna area.
Stroll the University of Bologna Area
The University of Bologna received the Best University in Italy award in 2019, and I love coming back to where I studied.
The university area is buzzing day and night. In the evenings, you often find music or events, but you certainly see university students en masse, many of whom are just lingering around the piazza, talking politics and enjoying life.
This area is a bit grungy since there’s quite a bit of graffiti these days, but you should walk by and see it, anyway.
Check out the Porti or Entrance ‘doors’ to Bologna
Bologna was once a completely walled city with 12 doorways. Most of the walls were torn down in the 1900s, but many of the doorways, or porti, still exit. They are a beautiful testament to Bologna’s force as an important, powerful city.
Some of the easier ones to see are Porto Santo Stefano, Porta Maggiora, Porto San Vitale and Porto San Donato. Some of the most impressive ones are Porta Castiglione (below), Porta Sarragoza and Porta Galliera.
Bologna is surrounded by a ring road and if you cross the ring road at Porto Santo Stefano, you arrive at the gates of lovely Giardini Margherita.
This lovely park is great if you want to stop in another one of Bologna’s large green spaces. There’s a lake with spouting fountains, and several paths you can walk around or bike. Again, it makes you forget you are in a city of more than 400,000 people.
It’s a great place for a picnic during the day, and there are places you can get a bite to eat or drink. In years gone past, you could use paddleboats on the lake, but no more.
Serre dei Giardini Margherita
Otherwise, come back to Giardini Margherita at night, and enjoy the ‘Serre dei Giardini’ or Nights in the Garden. It’s located in the far west part of the park, and it’s an amazing space where you are sitting among foliage on picnic benches.
This is a fun, open-air, part of the garden that was previously unused. It’s now managed by a group called Kilowatt, who are into social rejuvenation, communication and education projects that benefit the residents and the city.
It’s a bit of an incubator that is a private-public partnership, and also manages the food and drink in this space. You can even work out of their co-working spaces if you want. It’s a very interesting concept.
You can go there during the day or in the evening, but the atmosphere in the evening is quite special. There is the occasional musician and it’s a great place for friends to meet up.
Visit Bologna’s museums
Another of the top things to do in Bologna Italy is to take in the culture. Bologna has dozens of art galleries and museums, and you simply could spend your entire vacation going from one museum to another.
The Pinacoteca di Bologna is considered one of the most modern and significant National Galleries in all of Europe. It is also the headquarters of the Accademia delle Belle Arti (Figurative Arts Academy).
If you want Modern Art, then MAMbo – Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (Modern Art Gallery) is where to go. It’s near the train station.
For archeology, head to the Museo Civico Archeologico where they have one of the most impressive collections of archeology in all of Italy. Their Egyptian collection is one of the best in Europe and second in Italy.
A few others include:
Museo Civico Medievale – Medieval History Museum
Jewish Museum of Bologna – to discover Bologna’s Jewish past
Palazzo Pepoli – for history of Bologna
Sift through the Bologna Market
Like most Italian cities, towns and villages, they have a market. These markets were always an important part of each city. People would meet there, do their food shopping, and furnish much of their house with items they bought at the market. This is a great place to pick up authentic Italian gifts from Italy to take home with you.
Bologna’s major market is on Thursday and Friday in Piazza XX Settembre, just down Via dell’Independenza heading toward the train station. It’s a huge market and you can spend hours snooping around for items. Otherwise, there’s a smaller version every day in Piazza VIII Agosto just adjacent to Piazza XX Settembre.
Spend a day at Fico EatalyWorld
Twenty minutes from town, you find Fico EatalyWorld. This biodiversity park opened in 2017 to much fanfare. It has more than 1 million square feet of farming space where they have cows, sheep, pigs, lambs, and chickens, and you can visit the farms. It’s great to take your kids there, especially if you live in an urban environment.
There are 40 factories producing, and showing you how they produce, the products that they serve in the restaurants. There are numerous opportunities for you and your kids to learn how to make pasta, pizza, mortadella, cheese, sorbets, candy – you name it! The classes are not cheap, but it’s a nice way to spend a day out. Their catalog, which you can down load here is full of experiences to try.
There are bikes and scooters available to travel around the park since it’s so big. You won’t go home hungry with a choice of 40 different restaurants. And the place is run by solar electricity. 44,000 solar panels keep that place humming.
You can catch a free bus from the center of Bologna or from Bologna Centrale Train Station.
Take a Discover Bologna Walking tour
What better way to see Bologna is by taking a 3-hour walking tour. This is one of the top things to do in Bologna Italy. There are tours daily that meet in the heart of the city at Piazza Maggiore and they take you on an historical stroll through the ancient streets of Bologna. Check out tours here:
See Bologna via the Hop-on/off tourist Bus
I’m a big fan of the hop on/off bus because I believe they show you what you should see, and they are better than a taxi for getting around.
Take the full tour one time around and then decide where to get off to further explore. Bologna’s not huge, but it’s nice to be able to sit onboard, listen to commentary in 10 different languages, understand some history, and see the city from the top of the bus.
The main pick up points are the train station or Piazza Maggiore. The tour is 90 minutes and you’ll pass the major sites, Giardini Margherita, and various palazzi and porti throughout the city. Tickets are $16.
Rent a City Bike
After a few days of indulging in pasta you may want to discover Bologna’s other neighborhoods by bike. The city has a bike share program like many, called MoBike. You can rent bikes on Via dell’Independenza, just to the right of Parco Montagnola’s staircase.
The Fiera is Bologna’s Convention center. It’s not necessarily a tourist attraction unless you are coming here for a conference or a trade event. It’s also Bologna’s business district.
If you are, then great. You’ll be at one of the newest convention centers and one of the largest in Italy. The state of the art facility is more than 4 million square feet in size, there are 18 halls and they have a helicopter pad!
Buy the Bologna Welcome Card
The Bologna Welcome card is an absolute must if you are staying a short amount of time and hope to pack a lot of sightseeing in at once. It’s also great if you plan to come back to Bologna, because the discounts are valid for a year. That’s a fab deal. There are two different cards to choose from:
- Card 1 is $26 and you get free entrance to many of Bologna’s museums, a free walking tour and entrance to Tower Asinelli.
- Card 2 for $42 includes entrances to the sky terraces at San Petronio and San Luca, the ride on the San Luca Express, and the hop-on, hop-off bus tour. This is a great option, and again, you can use it for a year until you’ve seen everything once.
Check out these other activities in Bologna.
Take a cooking class in Bologna
Bologna is called La Grassa or “The Fat” for a reason. People know Bologna because it’s the culinary capital of Italy. There are numerous cooking classes where you can learn how to make artisanal, typical types of pasta by hand. This is one of the top things to do in Bologna Italy to fully understand their culinary history.
Some of the most common Bologna pastas are tagliatella, tortellini, tortelloni, pappardelle, and green lasagna. Learn how to make typical sauces for your pasta, like the famous Ragu.
Other interesting information about Bologna Italy
What is Bologna known for?
Bologna’s nickname in Italian is La Dotta, La Grassa e La Rossa, the Learned, the Fat and the Red.
La Dotta because of the University of Bologna
Bologna is known for its prestigious university, which I mentioned above. Some of it’s famous graduates were: Guglielmo Marconi, who was a physicist, engineer and inventor known for his work in long distance radio transmission; Georgio Armani, the famous fashion designer; Robert Jarvik, who invented the artificial heart; as well as Dante, Petrarca, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and a slew of other brilliant mathematicians, scientists, Popes, inventors and personalities.
La Grassa because of Bologna Food
Bologna and Emilia Romagna are the gastronomic belly of Italy with food history dating back to the 1500’s. You see, all these students coming through brought with them their culinary culture, which makes Bologna’s food what it is today.
You’ll have no shortage of superb, local pastas to try, such as Tortellini in brodo, Lasagna (green or natural), and Tagliatelle al ragu, for starters. The name Ragu is what we typically call spaghetti with meat sauce. Sometimes you call it Bolognese sauce, but the authentic sauce is Ragu, which is not like the stuff we get in a jar!
Bologna is the home of Mortadella, which we call Bologna (boloney) in the States. But theirs is even better. It’s a ground heat-cured pork, with pork fat, spices and pistachios. Serve it on a roll, and you’ve got a great sandwich.
La Rossa because of Bologna’s Communist History
Bologna was an anti-fascist, pro-communist stronghold during WWII, and a hub of the resistance movement. Residents still today have no issue with rising up to protest and revolt. It’s a very politically active city.
There are loads of great quality hotels in the center of Bologna or along Via dell’Independenza. And surprisingly they are not all that expensive. I personally love staying on Via dell’Independenza and there are quite a few 3-5*hotel options.
I suggest staying away from the train station, as train station areas in Italy, as a whole, are not great locations. While the hotels may be fine, the clientele at night may be a bit unsavory. Check Bologna hotels here.
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