Last updated 20 April 2020
Despite having travelled around Italy quite extensively, Bologna had always eluded us. It always seemed to be just that little bit too far away from wherever we were to include in our itinerary. It’s always tempting for us to stretch more and include more, but still, it remained on the “to-do” list.
Bologna should never be treated like we have treated it. It deserves attention! Located in the heart of Emilia Romagna, it is indeed a heady mix of culture, history, stunning architecture and of course food. It is its reputation for food that earns it the “food valley” of Italy tag, known worldwide for its commitment and traditions to creating authentic food dictated by centuries-old regulations, restaurants and street food.
There’s so much to do in Bologna and its surrounding areas that it needs time to be fully appreciated. One thing we have learned is that you can never, ever truly see everything in Bologna. Whilst some things stay the same, this lively city is constantly evolving and for this reason alone, I know we will return over and over again. Without question, it is one of the best places to visit in Italy.
Whilst this article contains a huge list of what to see in Bologna, what to eat and drink and where to stay, it is by no means an exhaustive list. However, if you are planning a trip to Bologna and the Emilia Romagna region, this detailed guide of things to do in Bologna will be a good starting point.
Is Bologna worth visiting? Absolutely it is. It’s a city worthy of staying at least a few days but it will reward you if you are able to stay even longer. We hope you love Bologna as much as we do.
Where is Bologna?
Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. Bologna is famous for amazing food and fresh produce. It lies at the base of the Apennines, a mountain range that extends approximately 1,200 kilometres from the north to the south of Italy. It is a large university town with a population of around 366,000. Despite being such an awesome city, with access to some of the best cities in northern Italy, it remains a city that is very much under the radar.
Bologna also has an unusual set of nicknames.
La Dotta – meaning “the learned”, it is a direct link to the city’s prestigious university. Established in 1088, it is the oldest university in the world.
La Grassa – meaning “the fat”. Bologna lies at the heart of the Emilia Romagna region, a region known as the food valley of Italy. Whilst the famous foods of Parmigiano Reggiano, Parma and Modena Balsamic Vinegar are more broadly known as originating from this region, each town has its own local speciality. It is a region proud of their culinary traditions and history and much is done here to preserve it.
La Rossa – meaning “the red”, a dominant colour across the city’s terracotta lined rooftops. Significantly, however, the name is aligned with its political origins and its left-wing alliances. During the world wars, it was a stronghold of the Renaissance movement and connected to the Italian Communist Party. As a town full of university students, protests are a common theme.
Things to do in Bologna Italy
Walk around the old city
The best thing you can do in the centre of the Old Town is to put on your most comfortable walking shoes and traverse the streets and narrow, cobbled laneways. It’s hard to get lost here as the two towers that mark the centre of the town can be seen from almost everywhere. I loved getting up early and walking through the streets, long before the rest of Bologna had risen for the day. The streets are mostly silent.
The whizzing and beeping of the Vespas haven’t begun for the day, and the hustle of the cars and buses as they fight for road space is absent. Instead, the sounds of steam effusing from the coffee machines, as the early risers head to the cafe for their morning espresso makes me smile. I shout out my best “Buongiorno” to anyone who passes, making them smile as I look for my next passerby.
If you can’t get up early, never fear, there’s still plenty of great times to be had.
Tip: When you first arrive in Bologna it’s a good idea to head into the Bologna Welcome Visitors Bureau, located right on the main Piazza Maggiore Square. Here you can pick up a good map, showing all the key attractions and ensures that if you don’t use mapping apps on your smartphone then you at least have some help with direction. Tours, cooking classes and various other activities may be booked here or you can purchase the Bologna Welcome Card (more on that later).
Visit a museum or a library
Bologna is well known for its cultural appreciation and this can be seen no more fervently than in the collection of museums. Depending on the museum, I can sometimes manage seeing one (or two if they are right up my alley), but Bologna is a museum lovers dream. At least 22 museums are located in Bologna, covering everything from music, industrial heritage, Jewish heritage, art, archaeology, tapestry and the world-famous Ducati motorcycle. It will come as no surprise that the museum I enjoyed the most was the gelato museum in Bologna.
Just off Piazza Maggiore, the oldest library in Bologna (Libreria Annani) sells hard to find and rare books.
Learn about the history
Bologna is a medieval city, with so much hidden beneath it and within the walls of the beautiful buildings. Bologna is a place where doing some research ahead of your visit will expose so much more than if you just read the popular guides or winged it. On one side of Piazza Maggiore sits the imposing building of the Salaborsa Library. Previously the city’s economic lifeblood, today it houses an incredible library. As one of the key meeting points in Bologna, its multi-stories are always abuzz with people.
Enter through the front doors and look up. You will be welcomed by one of the most amazing art nouveau ceilings and arches you will ever see. The other surprise in this building lies under the glass bricks on the floor. Here, it is possible to see the archaeological remains of the city. You can do it in style with an array of free reading material and a coffee shop right next to it.
We did a local walking tour with a guide around the streets of Bologna so we could understand more about the major landmarks in the city. There are some very unusual stories and legends about the city.
Visit a Basilica
San Petronio Basilica
Like museums, there are also many incredible basilicas to visit, many of them located in the centre of the city. The San Petronio Basilica, pictured below is the main church of Bologna, located right on the Piazza Maggiore. Inside a painting caused quite a drama many years ago from a religious point of view.
Following the September 11 attacks in New York City, several attacks were also attempted here as a result of the painting. Now, as a precaution against future attacks, the church is guarded by members of the military at all times.
The basilica is also known for two other reasons. Firstly, it is still incomplete. From the outside this is obvious with the lower half in marble and the upper part, still only brickwork. The church became a pawn between the church and the city of Bologna. The city wanted to build a church that was bigger than Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but the Pope of the time didn’t agree.
In response, they poured funds into the nearby university, allowing it to expand, and stymying the growth of the church. Eventually, after all the lost time and fighting, the money dried up and the church was never completed. Perhaps they achieved their wish after all, with the church still one of the largest in the world.
This church is also famous for having the world’s longest sundial. The 67-metre sundial dates back to the 1600s. Inside the church, under the left nave, the sundial is inset into the tiles on the floor. It was designed and implemented by a professor with a love of astronomy. This sundial replaced one that had been in-situ many years earlier but had been destroyed.
A hole exists in the ceiling, enough to let the light through. Look for a drawing of that resembles the sun and you will find the hole. When the sun comes through the hole, it hits the sundial and various time events can then be noted. The sun is meant to hit the dial at midday but I’m told that it isn’t always accurate.
St Stephen’s Basilica
St Stephen’s Basilica sits on one of the nicest squares in Bologna. Not as well known or frequented as the main Piazza Maggiore, Stefano Square is special because it looks as though there are seven churches here. In actual fact, there are only three.
Tell your secrets to the Whispering Wall
Don’t make the mistake of just wandering through and around the Piazza Maggiore. Whilst the square itself is always full of life, late into the evening, there’s plenty of hidden gems too. Directly opposite the San Petronio Basilico is the Palazzo del Podestá. The building dates back centuries. Just to the right of the Bologna Welcome Tourism Office, an entry will take you inside and under the arched ceiling vaults. Long ago the markets operated here too.
The walls here have some magical acoustic features and was said to allow lepers to come here to confess their sins. In later years, important city public servants would also come here to share confidential information. How is this possible? I can’t answer this scientifically, but if you go to one corner, and have someone else go to a corner diagonally opposite and whisper something into the wall, the person on the other side will hear it. It’s amazing.
Visit the Bologna markets
Nothing sets the scene for a city more than its central market, and in Bologna, the centre of the Italian food universe, you’d expect the market to be great. Whilst I am the first to admit it wasn’t as large as I thought it might have been, the quality of the fresh produce and other Italian foods at the Mercato Delle Erbe more than makes up for its lack of enormity.
As I mentioned earlier, getting here as the market is just waking up is one of the best times to see it. It’s when the vendors are at their most active, unpacking their food and getting ready for the thrust of locals that will arrive soon. We took the time to savour the lack of people, hovering over bright red, vine-ripened tomatoes that my husband raves about.
Soon after we find the tastiest of strawberries and grapes, then oranges to tuck our teeth into. Trying to buy one or two items in our best Italian is always challenging, but when the fruit makes its way into a brown paper bag and is handed to us, we know we’ve done ok. Buying food at a market is one of our favourite things to do if for nothing else, the smiles we get when we interact with them.
Someone in the market is always willing to give you something to try. A little fruit, some bread, maybe some cheese. Try it all, the flavours are a sensation.
In the old Quadrilatero, there are many gourmet food stores, small grocery stores and fresh fruit, vegetable and fish vendors. You’ll also find Eataly, a three-story haven for all things food, including a casual dining restaurant as well.
Nearby the Mercato di Mezzo has a wide range of casual eating places too. They are particularly great for a quick bite to eat that doesn’t cost the earth or a cheeky glass of wine.
With so many different food markets in Bologna, we recommend taking a market food tour where all the most important streets and food areas are uncovered.
Mercato Delle Erbe can be accessed from Via Ugo Bassi and is open every day except Sunday.
Mercato di Mezzo: Via Clavature, 12, 40124 Bologna
Eataly: Via degli Orefici, 19, 40126 Bologna
Admire the porticos
To make the most out of your time in Bologna city it is essential to look up. So much is going on around you and above you that to not look up will mean you will miss so much.
In a city, so blessed with such a rich variety of offerings, it seems unfair that it could also be home to the most beautiful porticos in the world. They were built back in the Middle Ages to cater for a city bursting at the seams with people particularly academics and students. Initially built to extend the room of the house or apartment, clever people soon worked out that the covered area underneath could also be used.
Whilst the explosion of porticos in other cities eventually lead to their demise through changes in town planning, those in Bologna not only survived but became a compulsory part of the new building code. Today, porticos in Bologna cover a length of nearly 40 kilometres.
The portico that leads up the hill from the city walls to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is almost four kilometres. The porticos are so much more than just a covered walkway. Not only are they great at protecting you from the blistering summer heat and the rain, but all of them are decorated and built differently, adding a uniqueness not found in most other cities.
Climb the Asinelli Tower
When you are finished looking up, climb the Asinelli Tower to look down and out. Providing one of the best views over the rooftops of Bologna, the Asinelli Tower is one of the twin towers of Bologna.
The Garisenda and Asinelli Towers were once part of 100 towers that dotted the skyline of Bologna. Centuries after they were built, ruined, burned and left to crumble, only around 20 remain.
The Asinelli Tower was built in the early 1100s. At over 97 metres high, it is easy to spot from many locations within the city, and from viewing points on the hills that surround Bologna. Inside, 498 winding, sometimes narrow timber steps will take you to the top. When you are nearby, you will also be able to see that it has quite a lean. The Garisenda Tower adjacent to it is much smaller. Sinking foundations required the tower to be lowered in order to preserve it.
Only the Asinelli Tower may be climbed. Tickets may be bought online or at the Bologna Welcome Tourism Office located on the Piazza Maggiore. For accurate opening times, check the Bologna Welcome website. Alternatively, if you have purchased the Bologna Welcome Card Plus, then the entry is free.
Tip: In peak visitor season, if you don’t like climbing stairs behind a pile of other people, I recommend getting to the tower ahead of your ticketed time to get into the queue early. On the other side, if you think that climbing the stairs might take you a while, hang back so that you can take your time without others trying to get past. The stairs are narrow in parts and winding but there are landings where you can take a break if required. It gets really hot in there, hotter in summer, so it’s also a good idea to take some water with you if you can.
It can get very busy on the top during peak times but the views are worth it.
Visit the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
If you don’t want to walk the 4 kilometres (uphill) via the portico up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, you can catch the San Luca Express bus that is available every day. Either way, make sure you get there. The building alone is fantastic, both for its design and its washed pink colour. We tucked ourselves up under one of the covered areas to escape from the sun and to take in the view over the familiar red rooflines and the forested areas.
Take a ride on the City Red Bus
Bologna is a city meant to be walked. It’s flat in the city (the hills are surrounding it) so we rarely used public transport. It was only when we did the day trips that we needed buses and trains. However, if the summer heat gets too much, you have mobility issues, you have time restrictions, or you’re just plain tired, the City Red Bus will take you on a tour of all the key sights in Bologna. The bus operates like many of the “hop on hop off” buses all over the world and here you can do this as much as you like all day for the one ticket price. Audio guides are also available in eight different languages.
Take a cooking class in Bologna
Where else would taking a cooking class be such a cool thing to do? In the heart of the food valley, learn how to make perfect pasta, gelato or even pizza. If you can’t take a class, be sure to pop by any of the fresh pasta making stores to view the pasta being made.
Read our article on a cooking class we did with a local in Bologna. We did this cooking class through Le Cesarine and truly loved it all.
You can book the same coooking class we did here.
Unusual places to see in Bologna
For all the main attractions that are well-known, there are also some lesser-known sights to see in Bologna.
Canale di Reno
As is always the case with us, we love to see all the main areas in a new town but we love to find the not so common ones too. Bologna was once a canal city, with open canals visible up until about two centuries ago. Time has seen them built over or at least covered from view. We found one of the sneaky holes cut into the walls in a back laneway opening up the secret world of the canals.
Where: From Via Samboni, towards Via Independenza go to the arcade of Via Piella. Look for a bright orange wall, with a round blue sign noting that you have found the Canale di Reno. Here you will see a square cut into the wall and when you look through it, the view below is what you will see.
Parco della Montagnola
Near the main train station you can also see old Roman ruins.
Church of San Michel in Bosco
Now whilst a church might not sound so different, I’ve included this one in here because of its location. In Bologna, there are two main places where everyone migrates to for a great view. As already mentioned, they are the top of the Asinelli Tower or the Sanctuary of the Madonna San Luca.
For a different perspective, head to San Michele in Bosco. On a perfect day, you will get a great terracotta filled view. Ours was a little hazy but the view was still great. Can you see the Two Towers? The church up here is also worthy of a visit.
Where: Located about a 15-minute walk uphill from the centre of the city. Alternatively, catch a bus from the centre (Via Rizzoli) that takes about 10 minutes.
Day trips from Bologna
Bologna is so well placed and supported by excellent roads and public transport (especially trains) that taking day trips to other towns close by is very easy and something that should be considered to ensure you make the most of the Emilia Romagna region.
Hire a Vespa in Bologna
Italy is so full of cliches that it sometimes feels hard to escape. But when the cliches mean eating great food and having an amazing time, who am I to get caught up in the details. Italy and Vespas are a combination like no other. Sure, you can ride scooters elsewhere, but there’s nothing quite like the thrill of being in a busy Italian city with Vespas scooting past you at often break-neck speeds.
Whizzing in and out of cars, bikes and people, they are people on a mission and fully skilled having probably ridden on the back of one since they were children. In a university town such as Bologna, riding a scooter is the transport of choice.
As a visitor, you don’t have to let the locals have all the fun. Hiring one is easy, or if you don’t feel up to it yourself, there are plenty of tours to tag along on.
We went on an all-day vintage Vespa tour in Bologna, taking the bikes up into the surrounding hills. With the wind in your hair and some great stops along the way, it’s a day trip we highly recommend.
Where: Hire your Vespa or organise a Vespa tour in Bologna through the team at TravelHoo – Via Caduti di Cefalonia, 4, 40125 Bologna BO, Italy
About one and a half hours from Bologna is the town of Brisighella, known as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Whoever came up with this classification was right, with this ancient medieval city overlooked by the fortress known as “Rocca”, a church sitting aloft another hill and a 19th-century clock tower that you can climb. Along with beautiful buildings, some incredible history, cute restaurants and amazing views over the valley, it’s definitely a town worthy of a stopover.
There are many wonderful places to eat within Brisighella itself. However, if you are looking to add to your experience here, we wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the DonnaLivia Agriturismo. Here you can visit the olive production facility, wander through the vineyards, see farm animals, have an amazing lunch prepared with their own fresh produce and even stay the night if you wish.
Also only just over an hour away (except for weekends when everyone from Bologna flocks to the seaside), is Rimini. Built right on the Adriatic Sea, it is a beachside resort packed in the summertime with umbrellas, lounges and of course people. To many, it can appear sometimes tacky, but for those who are simply wanting to break away from their city life and catch some sun, this is just the place.
As an Australian, we are blessed with many beautiful beaches but they are never dressed up like they are in Europe and South America for example. Our beaches are just the sand and the people, perhaps with their own makeshift tents and umbrellas. Seeing beaches like this always seems like something out of a fairytale to me!
There’s plenty to see in the Old Town and if you are a fan of the film director Federico Fellini, there’s a strong presence of him here. We’d never heard of him but that’s not surprising.
If there is one place that we think you should definitely try to see when you are either based in Bologna, or in its surrounds, it would be the tiny country of San Marino. Completely landlocked by Italy, it is one of the smallest countries in the world and packed full of things to see and do.
Unfortunately, because of its location and because it really is a place where you only need to spend two days maximum, visitors don’t tend to go here for this country alone.
Have lunch and wine tasting at an agriturismo
Agriturismos can be found all over Italy, but Fienile Fluò sets itself apart from the usual agricultural flavour of most of them. Built on a vineyard, wine tasting is a common activity, but owner Elizabeth has built this business into so much more.
With an intimate dining setting outside overlooking the surrounding countryside, partaking in some of their fresh produce and local wines is just the start. Take a walk through their property, stay in their accommodation and be sure to check out their monthly calendar that offers outdoor movies and other food events.
Where: Via di Paderno 9 – 40136 Bologna
Visit FICO World Eataly
FICO World Eataly is the largest agripark in Europe covering 12 hectares. Whilst it might sound like a strange thing to list as a day trip from Bologna if you are a serious foodie, or just love to eat, you can keep yourself occupied all day here. Whilst some locals and true food lovers might argue that this is over-commercialised, it is still the largest offering and showing of major brands and producers in Italy under one roof.
For visitors, this is perfect, especially if you are short on time. You can taste your way around the huge area, learning about traditional and authentic Italian foods. you can buy products to take home with you, and it’s an awesome place to bar hop and try different foods. Should you need some help getting around, there are bikes (Bianchi of course) to help you traverse this extensive place.
you can book tours for FICO Bologna but personally, I think this is one of those occasions when it is best to just wander around on your own and take as much time as you want.
Where: Via Paolo Canali, 8, 40127 Bologna
Only a little over an hour away from Bologna is an area that scored the jackpot when it comes to authentic Italian produce. In and around the city of Parma, three undeniably Italian products are made according to the strictest of standards. It is here that you can learn, once and for all, that parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar and prosciutto are not made equally.
So many people are unknowingly ignorant to the secrets of eating “the real deal”, buying lookalikes and representations that taste ok, but never coming close to the true product. It is only when you watch and learn the process, and then taste the authentic products that you can truly understand the difference.
More reading on the activities and food tours available in Parma
These are our articles written with our first-hand experience of the Balsamic Vinegar, Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano food tours we took in Parma.
- The secrets of Italy’s famous Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- Italy’s famous Parma ham and why eating aged ham tastes so good
- Why traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar is the best in the world
- My top three amazing food tours in Parma Italy
See the Bologna Tours below for one of the best food tours from Bologna that cover all three of the famous foods in Parma and Modena.
Catch the train to Ferrara
I can’t believe that so few people know about Ferrara. Only a short train ride from Bologna, it’s perfect for a day trip. Rich in history, beautiful buildings and more great food, it’s one of the best cities in the Emilia Romagna region to visit.
Stay at the seaside in Cesenatico
If you are visiting San Marino or Rimini, why not make a stopover in Cesenatico too. An old fishing town, it’s one of the most popular seaside towns in Italy. If you are visiting in late October or early November, be sure to check out the annual fish festival, il Pesce fa Festa. It’s awesome.
Food in Bologna
The top 10 questions asked about Bologna food
Visiting Bologna is all about the food! It’s a rite of passage and it’s one of the major reasons for coming here. The food is regional, it’s delicious and it’s made with so many traditional processes that you just know you are getting the very best on offer. So what should you try here? First, let’s discuss some of Bologna’s food facts.
- If you are American, one of the first questions you will probably ask is “is Bologna really from Bologna“? Bologna sausage or baloney is not from Bologna. Mortadella is the cooked and cured pork product that is produced only in Italy and is protected by DOP regulations. Whilst in other countries, there is a similar type of processed meat, it is not the same. as mortadella. Mortadella is eaten as a snack of with an aperitivo, usually served as a chunk on a toothpick.
- Is spaghetti bolognese from Bologna? No it isn’t and this is probably one of the best facts to learn before you arrive in Bologna so you don’t make the mistake of asking a local. The people of Bologna are called Bolognese. Instead, the local speciality that many think is spaghetti bolognese is actually called Tagliatelle al Ragu.
- Can you call any ham in Italy Parma? No you can’t. Only Parma ham made in Parma under the DOP regulations can be called Prosciutto di Parma.
- Is Parmigiano Reggiano the same as Parmesan cheese? Whilst the term Parmesan cheese is widely used for cheese that looks similar to Parmigiano Reggiano, once again, only cheese made in Parma under the DOP guidelines can actually be called this term. Grana Padano is another similar cheese and there are various other imitations also.
- Are balsamic vinegars all the same? No, only those vinegars made in Modena according to the DOP regulations can be called Modena Balsamic vinegars. All others are industrially made and trust me, once you’ve tasted the real vinegar, you’ll never want to use anything else again.
- Are tortellini and tortelloni the same thing? Whilst they are very similar, they are in fact a different dish in Bologna. Made from fresh pasta, both are filled with meats and cheese but the tortelloni are larger. Tortellini are usually served “en brodo” (in a broth)
- Does it matter what kind of gelato I eat? Yes! Gelato is not created equal. There’s the type that is packed full of artificial flavours and colours and isn’t really gelato at all, even though it will be called this. Real artisanal gelato is made with only natural ingredients. If you see a bright blue gelato, run. It’s not real! When in Italy, you should only ever try to eat real gelato.
- What are the local cheeses made in Bologna? Parmigiano Reggiano and Grano Padano are made in the Emilia Romagna region, close by Bologna. Fossa di Sogliano is the sheep’s milk cheese made out in the Romagna hills. Our favourite, Squacquerone di Romagna is also made in the Emilia Romagna region and is absolutely delicious.
- Is Lambrusco as bad as it used to be? Unfortunately, Lambrusco has a bit of a reputation in the world as being a very ordinary wine. Here in Emilia Romagna, it is considered one of the best wines to drink. Pop a bottle of locally made Lambrusco in the fridge and have it as an aperitivo.
- What are tigelle? Tigelle are a local bread, usually served with plates of charcuterie. They closely resemble an English muffin that would be usually eaten for breakfast.
Where to eat in Bologna
It just wouldn’t be right if you didn’t eat pizza at least once during a visit to Italy. I’m always happy to argue on this one, but my position has and always will be that the best pizzas in the world come from this country. Sure, like anywhere, you can get bad ones here, but in general, they are outstanding.
Equally, of course, we’ve eaten some good pizzas in other locations all over the world, but I’m holding firm on my opinion. The very best pizzas in Italy, of course, are those that are made with a few simple ingredients and a thin crispy base cooked courtesy of a traditional wood-fired oven.
It’s always hard to make recommendations for good pizza places. We found our eating spot by taking to the streets and hidden laneways, looking for pizzerias that were busy and frequented by locals. It’s even better if there isn’t an English menu or photo of the food plastered on the windows, a sure sign that this is the real Italian food.
Note: We visited this pizzeria again on our second visit and it still didn’t disappoint. Fast service, cheap pizzas and plenty of nighttime activity in the laneway.
Where: Scalinatella Ristorante Pizzeria – Via Caduti di Cefalonia, 5 / e, 40125 Bologna BO, Italy
Cost: €31.50 for two people (includes cover charge, carafe wine, salad, two pizzas)
Ok, so there’s not really many words needed to explain this. Suffice to say, not all pasta is created equal, and in Bologna, there are certain kinds of pasta that you won’t find anywhere else outside the city or the region.
Tortellini en brodo is one of their special pasta dishes. A simple mix of meat, mortadella and ham usually fills the freshly made pasta and it is served with a light chicken broth.
Where: Trattoria Del Rosso – Via Augusto Righi, 30, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy
Cost: €24 ( Two pasta dishes and a carafe of wine)
We hunted down a traditional lasagne verde, made with lasagne sheets coloured with spinach. The Bolognese are very particular about their lasagne too, paying close attention to a recipe that sees layers and layers of soft pasta sheets, rolled very thin, layered with the meat and not lashings of sauce, ricotta or mozzarella.
The paccheri pasta (large tubes) covered with fresh tomato, prosciutto and smoked ricotta cheese was amazing. I, however, was very happy with my oh so soft lasagne.
Where: San Pietro Trattoria Pizzeria – Via Dè Gessi, 5, 40121 Bologna BO, Italy
Cost: €37 (cover for two people, 3 beers, 2 pasta meals)
Just when you think you can’t possibly eat more pasta, the city of gastronomy offers up more regional delights. This time we took time out in a small shop hidden away just out of the main city areas, but still easy enough to walk to. La Bottega was one of our favourites as it was not only a place to eat but a place to buy Italian food products. At night, the small bar inside plays hosts to a small group of visitors who come to eat quality antipasto and have a drink.
Here we tried two more meals unique to the area, made up by Nonna who was working hard out the back to prepare our meals.
The famous ragù alla Bolognese, of course, comes from Bologna. A simple meat sauce full of fresh ingredients and cooked low and slow for many hours. It’s a great example of how pasta doesn’t need to have multiple ingredients to be tasty. I had this with tagliatelle.
Another local pasta is Gramigna with ragù di salsiccia, a locally made sausage.
Trattoria Tony is also a must visit if you want to eat where the locals eat. But, be warned, Tony’s is popular, so be sure to book in advance.
Where: Via Augusto Righi, 1b, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy
La Montanara, another traditional trattoria is also close by, but the service there was a little on the rude side. If you walk just a few more metres, you’ll find La Montanara Bistro which is cute, funky and the service is so much better. Note however it does not have pasta.
Where: Via Augusto Righi, 15/A, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy
Across the road, Swine serves up good Italian food, cheap house wine (but it’s not on the menu so you have to ask for it) and has a nice cosy feel inside.
Where: Via Augusto Righi, 24/A, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy
If there’s one thing that I love when I’m in Bologna, it’s piadina. A thin flatbread is served up with simple fillings. For some great takeaway, head to La Piadeina.
Where: Via Calzolerie, 1, 40125 Bologna BO, Italy
Where you can buy fresh pasta to take away
Pasta Fresca Naldi, run by longtime Bolognese resident Valeria has some of the best fresh pasta in the city. In a small, nondescript shop, they work tirelessly preparing fresh pasta for the crowd that comes to buy it and take it home to cook.
Where: Via del Pratello, 69, 40122 Bologna BO, Italy
In the centre of the city, Le Sfogline is a trendier version but nonetheless produces good quality pasta for takeaway.
Where: via Belvedere 7/b, 40121, Bologna
For a mix of restaurant and takeaway, try Sfoglia Rina.
If the crowds are anything to go by, then it should also be on your eating list. More chain-looking restaurant than old-school trattoria, it serves pasta that it makes in house. You can also buy pasta and take home.
Where: Sfoglia Rina – Via Castiglione, 5/b, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy
Note: Many of the restaurants and cafes in Bologna city don’t open till at least midday and it is always advisable to book, especially the traditional trattorias, to avoid disappointment.
There are so many great cafes selling equally good pastries around Bologna and there is no end to the amount of coffee and espresso bars you can find. Two of our favourites are the Gran Bar and Impero Bar. Make sure you try the bombolone and the cornetti. Both come filled with various fillings like chocolate and Nutella. My favourite is the custard.
Where: Gran Bar – Via D’Azeglio, 7, 40123 Bologna BO, Italy and Impero Bar – Via dell’Indipendenza, 39, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy
Prosciutto and porchetta
Two of our great loves in this wonderful city of Bologna. Sitting in a busy alleyway, eating prosciutto, salami and cheese whilst sipping a glass of wine or indulging in an Aperol spritzer is one of life’s great pleasures. Fortunately, in Bologna, there are plenty of places and opportunities to do this. Porchetta, the rolled, roasted loin of pork with intense crackling is another offering you should not miss. We found a great place to combine all three treats of wine, prosciutto and porchetta.
At La Prosciutteria, you can sit inside the small space, sharing tables and quite possibly food with your neighbours.
As you line up inside to place your own order I can guarantee that you will change your mind on more than one occasion as you see the fantastic food coming from behind the counter.
Outside, a few tables and chairs that look more like they are for children than adults provide the perfect spot to attack a large focaccia that is overloaded with porchetta. For €5, this lunch will keep you going for the rest of the day.
For a fun vibe and awesome antipasti head to Simoni in a laneway off Piazza Maggiore. The whole laneway here buzzes, especially at night. Trust me, we stayed in an apartment right near here and the noise at nighttime is unbelievable. The Simoni family have been involved in the production of traditional smallgoods since the 1960s. Today, they operate a manufacturing business in the Quadrilatero, once the medieval market in Bologna.
They also operate a booming business nearby, serving the finest meat and cheese. On the numerous occasions that we either ate here or walked past, there were never too many seats sitting idle. Whilst sitting outside is my preference, you can sometimes find seats hidden inside. It’s always a good idea to check. We had excellent service here and they were only too happy to talk to us about what we were eating and to give us some samples to try.
Do it yourself food in Bologna
Whilst there is no shortage of places to eat in Bologna, it is also very easy to self-cater. Whether you are trying to save money, or just downsize the amount you are eating, there is so much wonderful food on offer. Prosciutto, salami, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, bread and fresh fruit and vegetables are in abundance. See above for some of the best places to buy fresh food.
It’s simple. You must do this. You must eat as much as you can. There is no gelato anywhere else like it in the world. Be sure though to eat artisanal gelato if you can. You can identify it very simply. There will be no brightly coloured, artificial looking mounds of product on display. Instead, you will see stainless steel cylinders with their lids on and a menu board. You buy by choosing from the flavours not by looking with your eyes. Artisanal gelato is more natural looking as well, given its lack of artificial colours and flavours.
Eat here for some of the best gelato in Bologna:
- Galleria49 – via Galliera, 49/B
- Sorbetteria Castiglione – Via Castiglione, 44 d/e, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy
- Stephino – Via S. Vitale, 37, 40125 Bologna BO, Italy
- Venchi – Via degli Orefici, 23, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy
- Cremeria Funiva – Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour, 1/d/e
One of the best is the small shop run by four young men at Forno Brisa. Be sure to check it out.
Where: via Galliera 34d, Bologna, Italy
Where to drink in Bologna
The Italians love to have a drink with all meals, but it is the aperitivo hour that draws out the crowds. In the summertime, with daylight lasting well into the evening, the mood turns into a happy vibe as locals and visitors alike swamp the bars for an afternoon drink. For some, it’s a chance to unwind after a long day at work and for others, it’s the gentle slide into dinner.
In Bologna, they do aperitivo time in style, adding a buffet of tapas-like finger foods to the cost of your first drink, for anywhere between €5-8. We pulled up a high chair at Bar Igea just off the main Via Indipendenza under the light mist of the water being pushed out from overhead fans designed to keep their guests cool.
Our favourite spots are in the laneways off the Piazza Maggiore where the bar culture is alive and well. Try heading down Via Pescherie Vecchie for some great bars.
Drinking espressos is part of everyday life in Italy. Pop into one of the many bars, cafes and holes in the wall for a €1 stand up espresso.
Where to stay in Bologna
We have stayed in apartments on Via Indipendenza, one of the main streets in the centre of Bologna and Via Clavature, just off Piazza Maggiore. From both locations, there is easy access to the central train station, to the public bus network and within walking distance of all the main attractions in Bologna. We loved staying in apartments here as we got to buy local produce and recreate amazing Italian meals at home.
Alternatively, there are many hotels here to satisfy every budget. We chose these due to a connection to Bologna’s history, or close proximity to all the major attractions, for easy walking access. Of course, we also couldn’t go past adding some apartments in here too.
Grand Hotel Majestic Gia’ Baglioni
- Located right in the centre of one of the main city streets
- 18th-century building and decor and art
- Free wifi
- Easy walking distance to Piazza Maggiore, the Twin Towers and the Bologna train station
- Surrounded by restaurants, cafes and bars
- Public bus network close by
- Shopping all along via Independenza
- Private parking available
Check rates and book your stay at Grand Hotel Majestic Gia’ Baglioni
Astoria Hotel Bologna
- Three-star hotel
- Access to all the main attractions in Bologna
- 600 metres from Bologna Centrale Train Station
- Access to bus network
- Walking distance to main attractions
- For those who are planning on staying longer
- convenient, functional accommodation
- Available in several locations throughout Bologna (eg near train station, university and city centre)
- 30-45 square metres apartments
- Self-contained with mini kitchen
Doing a food tour in Bologna or its surrounding cities is a must-do when in this city. With a wealth of food experiences available in this area, it’s a great thing to do when you are here, even if you are not hugely interested in food.
- Learn how the locals eat
- Visit Bologna’s main food market
- Learn about the Bolognese culture
- Food tastings of local specialities
- 3.5 hours
One of the best types of tours to do in Bologna! These tours sell out well in advance.
- Visit the local factories where these world-famous foods are made
- Taste the products along the way
- Gourmet lunch and paired wines
- Full day tour
- Pickup and drop off in Bologna
If you are looking for something other than food, a visit to the centre of Italy’s fast cars area is a must.
- Full day tour
- Visit the motor museums and the Pagani factory
- See where these famous cars are made and check out the test tracks
- Lunch included
- Pick up and drop off in Bologna
Welcome Bologna Card
If you are planning to stay in Bologna for only one or two days, the Welcome Bologna card might be perfect for you. You can choose from a €25 or €40 card. They provide entry to the most-visited museums in Bologna, a walking tour of the city, tours of the Asinelli Tower, and the City Red Bus, maps and entry to current exhibitions. For more information, check out the Welcome Bologna website.
How to get to Bologna
Bologna by air
Bologna is serviced by Guglielmo Marconi Airport, approximately six kilometres from the city. Many airlines fly here, including low-cost European airlines. We flew from London Gatwick to Bologna in two hours via Easyjet and in a similar time from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on KLM Airlines. There are regular flights from European destinations and also from within Italy.
The Aerobus operates from the airport to the city at regular intervals of 11 minutes. Note however that this is Italy, and public transport schedules can wildly fluctuate. Strikes are also common.
The bus starts from the airport at 5.30 am and runs through to 12.15 am seven days a week. From the Bologna Centrale Train Station, the first pickup is at 5 am and the last at 11.35 pm. There are several drop off locations in between the Centrale Train Station and the airport. These locations, Pontelungo and Ospedale Maggiore are stops only and boarding does not occur here.
Tickets cost €6 one way. At the airport, tickets can be purchased from the machines just outside the arrivals hall. They take credit cards and cash and can be in high demand during busy times. At Bologna Centrale, tickets can be bought from the machines outside the station. The Aerobus departure point is at the front of the station, outside on the road (on a traffic island).
Tickets can also be purchased at the TPER ticket offices at the station and online.
The bus takes about 20 minutes each way but can be particularly impacted by peak hour traffic.
Tip: If you need to connect to more public transport, the Aerobus gives 75 minutes of additional access (from time of validation).
Bologna by train
One of the busiest train stations in Italy, it is extremely well-connected to all part of Italy and beyond. On the fast train service, you can reach Milan in one hour, Florence in 30 minutes and Venice in 90 minutes. Rome is approximately 2.5 hours on the fast train.
Train tickets can be bought online at Omio. Remember to validate your tickets before getting onto the trains. Bologna Centrale Train Station is one of the largest in Bologna and can be a crazy place to navigate. For a good guide to how the station works, read this guide.
Note: Whenever you are planning on travelling on a train in Italy, it pays to check if there are any strikes on. Strikes are common in the Italian train network and when they occur, they wreak havoc on the schedules of many trains, as many of them are inter-connected.
Bologna by bus
Bologna can be reached by bus from many European cities, including Rome, Venice and Milan. The main bus station in Bologna is known as Piazza XX Septembre, which is a bit unusual. It’s not what you might imagine a major bus station to be. Essentially it is just an area in the street, around a small park with many bus stops. It is a short walk from the Bologna Centrale train station.
Flixbus, Ouibus and Eurolines are the main regional bus lines and may be booked on Omio.
Bologna by car
Bologna is well connected with a network of major autoroutes and regional roads, making driving to Italy extremely accessible.From Rome: Bologna is 374 kilometres (4 hours) north of the capital city of Rome.
The A1 and A14 connect the north and south of Italy, making driving to Bologna from anywhere in the country possible.
From Florence: Bologna is 106 kilometres (1 hour 20 minutes) north of Florence.
From Venice: Bologna is 154 kilometres ( 1 hour 40 minutes) south-south-west of Venice.
From Milan: Bologna is 215 kilometres (2 hours 15 minutes) south-south-east of Milan.
Note: All travel times above are subject to current traffic conditions.
Getting around Bologna
Bologna is a very easy city to walk around. It’s mostly flat, although cobblestoned streets can make it hard going on your feet. We recommend wearing flat, comfortable shoes. The best place for finding Bologna maps are at the tourism office or you can download them here.
The bus service runs all over Bologna and out to the major surrounding cities. Tickets can be bought from the local tabaccheria, which can be found on most corners in the city, or on the bus. Bus tickets must be validated when you get on for the first time.
Tickets cost €1.30 if bought in advance or €1.50 on the bus. They are valid for 75 minutes from the time of validation and may be used on other connecting public transport. Daily bus tickets may be purchased for €5 in advance and are valid for 24 hours from the time of validation.
If you are planning to stay in Bologna for some time, a reloadable TPER card may be purchased and reloaded at tabaccherias or supermarkets.
As mentioned above, the Bologna Centrale Train Station is well connected and you can travel to many different areas within Italy from here.
If you are only staying in Bologna, a car is not necessary and in actual fact, will cause you more headaches than are necessary. During the day, from 7 am until 8 pm, the city is controlled by the ZTL (Limited traffic zone). To enter the city walls, you must have an approved pass, usually given to residents and local businesses who reside in the city area.
For visitors, vehicle passes can be purchased at a TPER location. If you are travelling outside of Bologna and have a hire car, note that you will need to buy a vehicle pass as this will not be included in the hire rate.
There is no free public car parking in Bologna. Parking within the city is also difficult. It’s another reason why not having a car in Bologna is the easiest option. If you are parking on the street in Bologna, pay very close attention to the zone you are in or you will run the risk of both a fine and your car being towed.
The only fail-safe way of parking your car in Bologna is to park at a dedicated parking lot and paying the associated fee.
Bologna also has a car-sharing system whereby owners of cars “share” their vehicles during times when they aren’t using it. You can find out more here.
Looking to be a little more adventurous? Do what the locals do and zip around Bologna on a Vespa. As experienced travellers and road trippers in Italy, riding a Vespa is something we love to do. However, it’s not for everyone so think carefully about whether you want to get in amongst the local traffic before you decide to hire one.If you do want to hire a Vespa, we use and recommend Travelhoo in Bologna city.
The link to our Vespa experience in Bologna can be found in the article above under “Day trips from Bologna”
When to go to Bologna
We all have different reasons for wanting to travel at different times of the year. June through to August is peak tourist season in Bologna. With this comes the associated crowds, higher prices and the heat. If these things don’t bother you, it’s the perfect time to be visiting here, with long days and everything accessible and open.
Note: Europeans go on holidays in August, so the city is likely to be less exciting as it is in June and July.
As the heat comes out of the summer days, the shoulder season of Sept – October is a particularly nice time to visit.
Bologna travel guides
If we haven’t provided you with enough information, the following travel guides might also be of use.
- Rick Steves Italy 2020 (Rick Steves Travel Guide)
- Northern Italy: Emilia-Romagna: including Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, Parma, Ravenna and the Republic of San Marino (Bradt Travel Guide)
- Insight Guides Pocket Bologna (Travel Guide with free eBook) (Insight Pocket Guides)
More reading on Bologna and Emilia Romagna
We have written extensively about the Emilia Romagna region. Many of these articles are noted in the article above. You might like to also read these additional articles whilst planning your trip to Bologna.
- Exploring the hills of Romagna: Off the beaten path in Italy
- Truffle hunting in Emilia Romagna
- A comprehensive guide of what to do in Emilia Romagna
Travelling to Bologna? Our favourite travel resources are listed below. We use all of these when planning and booking our travel.
- Skyscanner and Momondo – When searching for flight availability and price, we use these two flight websites and will often make bookings directly from here as well. They give a good comparison of all airlines flying to your preferred destination, prices and timetables. It’s the best way to find cheap airfares too.
- Dollar Fight Club and Airfare Watchdog are great sites for the US, UK and Canada in particular that offer advance notice of amazing deals on airlines. Their premium service is well worth having if you love to travel and are wanting to nab the best deal. If your travel arrangements are flexible, the savings can be excellent.
- I know the Pilot – Similar to the advance service above, this site is very good for Australian-based travellers. Sign up to receive a free newsletter giving you all the latest deals.
- Omio and Trainline are great sites for booking bus and rail tickets in Europe. We use both regularly. They also work well on mobile and you can get etickets straight to your phone.
- Trip Advisor and Booking.com are our go-to websites when comparing hotel prices, checking availability and booking online.
- We don’t leave home without travel insurance. As Australians, we used and recommend Travel Insurance Direct. World Nomads and Safety Wing are recommended for other nationalities here there is a strong coverage across travel all across the globe.
- Rentalcars.com is our preferred provider when we need to have a car overseas and we also recommend France Motorhome Hire for motorhome hire in France and Europe.
Check out our Travel Resources page for further tips and information to help you plan your travel.
This article is dedicated to our much-loved friend Silvia Gagliardi, who worked tirelessly for the Emilia Romagna Tourism Board. We shall forever remember the last time we saw you, where you were full of life, and so happy to have tasted the Australian Tim Tams, Caramello Koalas and ANZAC biscuits we brought over for you. The world is a lesser place without you in it Silvia, and we are all the better for having been able to spend time with you in your beloved Italy.