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City

Bologna: young, cultured and welcoming

Young, lively, cultured and welcoming: As charming and multifaceted a city as Bologna undoubtedly deserves no fewer than three nicknames.

24 June 2022

It is 'the learned', because in 1088 it saw the birth of the first university in the western world, which still today attracts students from around the world. 

It is 'the red' because of the characteristic colour of its roofs, visible from the top of its medieval towers.
And it is 'the fat' – you just try to resist the temptation of a sandwich stuffed with fresh mortadella or a dish of piping hot lasagna!

1. The history and magic of Bologna

When studying the history of Bologna, which began with a small Umbrian settlement before being conquered by the Etruscans, Celts and Romans, it is worth recognising the splendour of the Middle Ages, traces of which remain in the city today.

Struggles between the pro-imperial and pro-papal factions led the imperial government to construct the renowned medieval Bologna towers, to defend and monitor the city.

Between the 14th and 18th centuries, the medieval city was transformed into a Renaissance and Baroque hub, leading to a boom in magnificent homes, art and culture. The 16th and 17th centuries saw further architectural revolutions, with the creation of striking new squares.

Bologna saw its significance as a historical and cultural centre consolidated even further after the unification of Italy and it continues to hold its own today. 

2. What to see in Bologna: 11 unmissable sites

Young yet wise, full of historic attractions yet never predictable: it is difficult to narrow down what to see in Bologna! We’ve got you covered.

  • Art and history: where better to start than the Asinelli Tower, soaring above the city at 97.20 metres? From the top, you can enjoy fabulous panoramic views and plan your route to your next adventure! Piazza Maggiore, the beating heart of Bologna and muse of singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla, is home to the Cathedral of San Petronio, the fifth largest church in the world. Then we have Archiginnasio, Bologna's most exquisite building with a long portico boasting 30 ornate arches.
  • Porticoes and museums: if you are not already in love with Bologna's renowned porticos, you soon will be. The most famous stretch is almost 4 km long, from the city centre to the Church of San Luca. The city has two must-see museums: the Archaeological Civic Museum, home to one of the most important local archaeological collections in Italy, and the MAMbo, the Museum of Modern Art of Bologna, which lets visitors retrace the history of Italian art since the Second World War.
  • Parks and neighbourhoods: you can't say you have enjoyed every aspect of the city without diving into the natural beauty of the Margherita Park in Bologna, with its relaxing colours and scents. Via del Pratello is another must when it comes to experiencing the city's charm. In the heart of the historic centre, it represents the city's most bohemian district, brimming with taverns and bars that flirt with transgression. 

3. What to do in Bologna: 3 tips for experiencing the city

The historic centre is not all the city has to offer. Sports enthusiasts are in for a treat: there are more than 20 Bologna walking and trekking routes of varying intensities to choose from around the city.

Another way to appreciate local nature is to go horse riding in Bologna and its surroundings: the various riding schools in the area organise fantastic equestrian tours with qualified instructors.

Shopaholics should check out Bologna’s Montagnola Market, where you can while away the hours buying leather goods, clothes, shoes, household goods, and second-hand and vintage goods. 

4. What to eat in Bologna: 8 unmissable delicacies

Bologna’s cuisine needs no introduction. It is delicious and unparalleled, so set aside any good intentions about diets and detoxes and get ready to chow down!

  • What should you eat in Bologna if not cotoletta alla bolognese? Be wary of fake imitations: the real deal is made with veal fried in lard, doused in meat stock and garnished with prosciutto, Parmesan cheese and tomato sauce.
  • If you prefer first courses, you have the impossible choice between lasagna Bolognese, tortellini soup, passatelli in broth or tagliatelle alla bolognese.

But, let’s be honest, sometimes you just can’t beat a mortadella bologna sandwich! 

5. 4 unusual places in Bologna to explore

The Finestrella di Bologna canal window – our favourite among the many unusual places in Bologna – offers a romantic view from Via Piella over a small canal of water that flows among the old buildings of the city,  like in Venice.

The less squeamish might enjoy the Bologna anatomical theatre, a room in the Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio that historically hosted anatomy lessons, or the three arrows piercing the ceiling of Corte Isolani, the covered passageway connecting Strada Maggiore with Via Santo Stefano. Legend tells of three brigands who were about to kill a Bolognese gentlemen, but got distracted by a naked girl at the window. Enthralled, they shot their arrows at the roof by mistake. Also worth a visit (or several) is the fascinating Bologna underground.