My doorbell rings. I open the door to find a good friend of mine standing there with a big grin on his face and a bag casually slung around his shoulder. Minutes later, he’s settled at my dining table and he reaches into his bag. “We’re going to Bologna!”, he announces. “You’ve been talking so much about it, we decided we should go and see it ourselves”. Now it’s my turn to grin. He pulls out a map, a pen and a notepad. “Ok, what do you recommend?”. My mind starts to race and quickly goes into checklist mode. Gosh, where do I start? There are so many things to do in Bologna, one of my favourite cities in Italy. Thirty minutes later, he’d filled several pages in his notebook and his map was covered with more scribbles. Here’s what I told him:
Ten things to do in Bologna
1. Stroll under the porticoes
I kicked off with one of my favourite things to do in Bologna: stroll along the porticoes. Built from the late-Middle Ages onwards, these porticoes are synonymous with Bologna, offering shelter for pedestrians on the ground level and additional housing space on the upper levels. Wherever you go in Bologna, it’s a treat to walk under these elegant arches. Some of the best examples can be found along Via Marsala (especially the historic porticoes at Palazzo Grassi), Strada Maggiore (Isolani House) and Via Farini (the examples around Piazza Cavour feature striking frescoes on the ceilings).
2. Join a cooking course
Bologna is a culinary paradise. It’s not hard to find a good, authentic ristorante, trattoria or osteria in the historic centre. Just follow your nose. Oh, and on a side note: if you see a restaurant offering Spaghetti Bolognese on the menu and you think it can’t get more authentic than this, think again. Spaghetti Bolognese is only served in tourist restaurants. In Bologna, for the authentic experience, try tagliatelle al ragu. Other Bolognese specialties include tortellini, tortelloni, mortadella and cheeses like stracchino and squaquerone. You’ll learn all about this and much more at a cooking course. One I can recommend is Le Sfogline (7B Via Belvedere; map; tel.: 051 22 05 58), opposite the Mercato delle Erbe (market), where Renata and her two daughters will teach you the finer points of making fresh pasta.
3. Climb the Asinelli Tower
For the best views of Bologna, head for the city’s iconic Two Towers: Asinelli and Garisenda. Constructed in the 12th century, these towers are a sight to behold (the fact that they’re very visibly leaning adds to the suspense). Read about climbing the Asinelli Tower.
The Asinelli Tower has the distinction of being the tallest leaning tower in Italy, surpassing its more famous sister in Pisa. For a few euros, you can embark the climb up 498 steps inside the tower. I don’t recommend it if you’re afraid of heights as the steps are narrow and steep, but once above, the panoramic views of Bologna are truly astounding.
4. Mingle with the locals
Being home to the oldest (continuously-operating) university in Europe, Bologna is awash with 80,000+ students, giving the city a young, vibrant feel despite its grand age. There’s no better way to soak up this atmosphere than to spend an evening strolling around the University District between Via Zamboni (especially Piazza G. Verdi) and Via delle Molline/Via Mentana/Via Marsala) and having a drink at one of the many student watering holes.
Read more about the ultimate Emilia Romagna road trip
In the summer, the little square in Via Belvedere at the steps of the Mercato delle Erbe come alive as locals crowd into this space for fresh food and delicious wine. The atmosphere is very casual and at times boisterous – small stalls sell a variety of pastas, pizzas and wines, and you can sit at one of the rickety tables or on the stairs of the market for a fun evening with the locals.
5. Own the streets on Sunday
Every Sunday, the main avenues in Bologna turn into a pedestrian zone. It’s a special treat to walk down these grand boulevards such as Via dell’Indipendenza free of traffic except for the odd bicycle. Performers take to the streets, making it an entertaining stroll, but the ambiance will make the biggest impression on you.
Make sure to also visit the Sunday flea and antique market in Piazza Santo Stefano, also the location of Basilica of San Stefano (a historic complex of seven churches).
Read more about the Art Cities of Emilia Romagna
6. Get your gelato fix!
You can’t miss the ice-cream! My favourite place for absolutely sublime gelato is the Cremeria Funivia at Piazza Camillo Benso Cavour. There’s almost always a queue but it’s absolutely worth the wait!
Other places to get the best gelato in Bologna include Cremeria Santo Stefano (Via Santo Stefano 70), Galliera 49 (Via Galliera 49) and La Sorbetteria Castglione (Via Castglione 44).
7. Find the canals
Not many visitors know this because they’re so well hidden but Bologna has a 60km network of canals running through and around the city! These channels fuelled Bologna’s textile industries in the 13th century. In Via Piella, look for a little wooden window and open it for a gorgeous view of the Reno Canal.
8. Be merry at Happy Hour!
Another classic way to mingle with the locals is during Happy Hour or Aperitivo. During the late-afternoons/early-evenings, many bars offer canapés that you can enjoy with your wine or cocktail. Some bars have a small surcharge for the food whilst some others include it in the price of the drinks. Either way, you’ll get to taste some local specialties (expect pastas, risotto, mini pizzas, pastries and olives) and it’s a great opportunity to join in the local banter. One place I absolutely love is Le Stanze (Via del Borgo di San Pietro, 1). Friendly bartenders, a wonderful assortment of canapés and the historic interior is absolutely stunning! Another place that’s great for aperitivo is Caffé Zamboni on Via Zamboni. You can also find a lively aperitivo atmosphere in the Via Pescherie Vecchie, just off Piazza Maggiore.
9. Shop for local produce
Once you’ve had your fill of Bologna’s cuisine and tried your hand at making fresh pasta, you’ll be tempted to take some of those ingredients home with you. Head for the Quadrilatero district just off Piazza Maggiore. A maze of little streets and alleys are home to stalls and old shops selling all sorts of delicacies and local wines. One deli you shouldn’t miss is Tamburini (via Caprarie, 1).
10. Venture into the Emilia Romagna region
Bologna is the railway hub between Rome and Milan, making it the perfect base to explore the region and farther afield (Florence and Venice are a short hop away on the new high-speed lines. See Italo trains or TrenItalia for more information). Emilia Romagna has numerous attractions and historic towns which shouldn’t be missed. Towns that should be high on your list include Ravenna, with its UNESCO Heritage mosaics, and Modena in the Motor Valley, home of the world famous balsamic vinegar and motor brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Ducati. You can also head for the beaches of the Adriatic coast (Rimini is the most popular beach town) and from here, inland to one of the smallest countries in the world: San Marino.
Bologna is also a featured destination in the Ultimate Euro Food Trip.
Read about things you must do in Emilia Romagna.
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