In spite of being only the seventh most populous city in Italy, Bologna is still one of the most popular destinations in the country, dazzling visitors with numerous attractions such as Piazza Maggiore and its arched colonnades, the remarkable Basilica di San Petronio, and the 16th-century Fountain of Neptune. Located in northern Italy, the vibrant capital of the Emilia-Romagna region is a city of competing and coalescing identities – where the modern, high-tech, affluent half belonging to the 21st century meets refined theatres, ancient facades, and politically-charged halls of the oldest university in the world. Bologna’s numerous historical monikers substantiate that fact. The city has alternatingly been known as La Grassa (the fat one; referring to its rich culinary legacy), La Dotta (the learned one, referring to the university), and La Rossa (the red one, alluding to the ever-present medieval terracotta buildings). Only by visiting Bologna can you truly experience each of the city’s many identities – and fully immerse yourself in the one that suits you best.
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT BOLOGNA?
When it comes to the world’s most popular destinations, Bologna is kind of the odd one out. Unlike many other places, where summer is the peak tourism season, in Bologna it is almost the other way around. In August in particular, most of the shops and hotels are closed due to the holidays (Ferragosto), not to mention the near-unbearable heat made worse by the paved city streets. Apart from that, the period between March and October certainly is the best time to visit Bologna, what with the numerous outdoor drinking and dining options, what with the warm weather.
If you want to skip the crowds, avoid early fall, when most tourists visit the city – making it hard to find a hotel room unless you book months in advance. Other tricky/expensive periods include the Cosmoprof week (March 15th – 21st), the Cersaie week (September 24th – 30th), and the Trade Fair week (October 15th – 23rd). If you have a choice, visit Bologna in early spring (March and later) or in winter, for example around Christmas time.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT BOLOGNA
First off, what is Bologna known for? There are several things, but the University of Bologna takes the cake as number one. It is the oldest university in Europe, founded in 1088, older both than Cambridge and Oxford, with world renowned alumni such as Dante Alighieri, Albrecht Durer, Petrarch, Copernicus, Pope Alexander VI, and many others. Another thing Bologna is famous for are its arcades. At 38 kilometers in the city center alone, Bologna has more arcades than any other city in the world. They give the city a unique character, but also serve a practical purpose: pedestrians can walk under the arcades and never get wet, no matter the weather.
Bologna sausage (obviously) gets its name from the city of Bologna. The sausage is derived from mortadella, which is protected under European Union law by its Protected Geographical Indication status. One of the earliest known sausages of its type, mortadella can be traced back to the 15th century, with one document potentially mentioning it as early as 1376. The Romans ate a similar sausage called farcimen mirtatum (myrtle sausage).
The city center of Bologna is 100% pedestrian on weekends, with the city’s three major streets closed to traffic. Few people know of the fact that Bologna is full of small canals, which were used by merchants to transport goods. A good place to see the canals is the famous Piella street.
ONE DAY IN BOLOGNA ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Bologna.
Keep This in Mind Before Starting Your Trip
Bologna is filled with breathtaking attractions and historic landmarks, and all of them are pretty close together. A lot of the information that can be found online deals with the city’s rich history, but you need to actually be there to figure out what to do in Bologna and decide on which attractions you want to visit. Start your day early, around 8 AM, and allow yourself a flexible schedule in case something catches your eye. The sheer number of attractions can seem confusing, but it is all manageable as long as you accept that and just focus on having a great time.
Go to Piazza Maggiore First
Surrounded by gorgeous Medieval and Renaissance buildings, Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square, is a perfect example of the city’s varied and interesting architecture. Located in the very heart of Bologna, the eclectic square has been the focal point of Bologna’s social and political life since the 13th century, which makes it one of the oldest squares in the country.
Like many European squares, Piazza Maggiore was initially nothing more than a gathering place with a market, a so-called “platea communis”. As the city grew in importance and became an administrative center, building a proper square became an important urban project, intended to reflect the power and influence of the seat of city government. Expect to spend 1 to 2 hours here, admiring the numerous landmarks lining Piazza Maggiore, including the Basilica of San Petronio and the fountain of Neptune, an important symbol of Bologna.
Visit the Basilica di San Petronio
The Basilica di San Petronio is a large Gothic basilica overlooking Piazza Maggiore. The basilica’s brick and marble façade is still unfinished, even though construction began in 1390. The basilica remained unconsecrated for more than five-and-a-half centuries, until 1954. The basilica’s monumental size is one of the reasons why building the basilica took so long. By volume, it is the tenth-largest church in the world at 132 meters long and 66 wide. It is the largest brick church in the world with a volume of 258,000 m³. The basilica is dedicated to Saint Petronius, the patron saint of Bologna.
However, the relics of the saint were transferred to Basilica di San Petronio only in 2000, having been preserved in the Santo Stefano church until then. After spending some time exploring the church, don’t forget to also check out Neptune’s Fountain, facing Piazza Maggiore from Piazza del Nettuno (Neptune’s Square). The fountain, made of marble and bronze, was built between 1563 and 1566 and symbolizes the power of the pope ruling the world like Neptune rules the oceans.
Pay a Visit to Basilica of San Domenico
There are several museums that you can check out in Bologna, but most of them open at 10, so try to squeeze in a couple of the more prominent nearby Bologna attractions first. A lot of them are churches, such as Sanctury of Santa Maria della Vita (late-Baroque church, 2 minutes from Piazza Maggiore), Basilica Santa Maria dei Servi (imposing Gothic structure from the 1300s), and Basilica of St. Francis (French Gothic basilica dating back to 1263).
The other attractions are Renaissance palaces, primarily Palazzo d’Accursio (a city hall/government building from the 14th century with a fine art museum & self-guided tours), Palazzo dei Banchi, and Palazzo del Podesta, all three of which are located on Piazza Maggiore.
So, start with the palaces and then make your way south. About 500 meters south of Piazza Maggiore and Basilica di San Petronio (7 minutes on foot), you will come across Basilica of San Domenico, an impressive historic basilica with a gorgeous Romanesque façade. Since it’s open for all to visit, you can go inside and admire the numerous sculptures, paintings and the remains of Saint Dominic.
Spend an Hour or Two Exploring the Museo Civico Archeologico
After admiring the palaces surrounding Piazza Maggiore or exploring the Basilica of San Domenico, return to Via dell’Archiginnasio near Basilica di San Petronio to visit Museo Civico Archeologico. The Civic Archaeological Museum is one of the most prestigious institutions in Bologna, housing priceless Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts in a gorgeous palace from the 1400s. Located just off Piazza Maggiore, the museum has been open to the public since the late 19th century.
Most of the artifacts come from a series of excavations in Bologna and its surroundings, as well as a generous donation by Pelagio Palagi, a notable Italian painter. The museum’s collection is very representative of local history, and the information boards are written in English as well as Italian, making for an easy, informative tour.
Check Out Bologna’s Two Towers
Although considerably less famous than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Bologna’s two leaning towers are widely recognized as the main symbol of the city. One of the towers is called Torre Garisenda, and the other one Torre degli Asinelli. The latter is the taller one, almost 100 meters tall (97.2). While the tower is open to the public, the climb can be challenging. There is also a local legend stipulating that students who climb the tower will never graduate.
Torre Garisenda is two times shorter than its neighbor (at 47 m), although it is more tilted, leaning by 3.2 meters compared to Torre degli Asinelli’s 2.2 m. If you intend to climb the tower, you will have to purchase tickets in advance at the tourist information center (Bologna Welcome) on Piazza Maggiore or from the official website. It will set you back 5 EUR. The towers are surrounded by a complex of Medieval religious buildings from the 8th century, which you should also take the time to check out after you’re done enjoying the beautiful panoramic view of the city.
Make Time for Lunch
You will probably be famished after climbing the 500 steps to the top of Torre degli Asinelli. Once you’re back on solid ground, it may be a good idea to take a lunch break to regain your energy. Pizzeria Due Torri is the closest eatery, directly across Str. Maggiore from the towers. In spite of the location, the prices are very affordable and it’s not a tourist trap. The pizza slices are delicious and huge and cost only 2 euro each. It’s a great place for a quick bite.
If you’d like to sit down for a proper meal, consider Cluricaune Irish Pub, also very casual and affordable, and perfect if you don’t speak a word of Italian since the staff speak pretty good English. Located north of the towers on Via Zamboni, Cluricaune Irish Pub is like a large sports bar with TVs, great bear, and typical pub grub like burgers, sausage with coleslaw, fish and chips, and so on. Perfect if you are tired of pasta & pizza. Grab a quick bite before moving on and save more time and money for a proper fancy dinner.
Take the Time to Visit Palazzo Poggi Museum
After lunch, continue on Via Zamboni until you reach the gorgeous arches of the Legal Library Antonio Cicu and the Accademia Delle Scienze. Palazzo Poggi Museum is right next door, a gorgeous 16th-century palace with science exhibits against the backdrop of breathtaking frescoes adorning the walls.
There are several extraordinary collections there, such as the Ferdinando Cospi Collection, the Ulisse Aldrovandi Museum, and the Luigi Ferdinando Marsili collection. The unique instruments and furnishings on display belonged to Istituto delle Scienze in the 18th century, during a period of numerous scientific discoveries and breakthroughs that gave rise to modern scientific culture.
Take the Bus or Taxi to Al Parco Giardini Margherita
For a break from dusty old museum and monumental buildings, visit one of Bologna’s most popular public parks, Al Parco Giardini Margherita, with a beautiful little lake, large open lawns, and lush trees. To get there, you can get a taxi/Uber, or hop aboard bus 32 at the Porta San Donato station behind the University. Exit at Porta Santo Stefano (4 stops total) and take a short walk south.
The park is at its most beautiful in spring and early summer, when the trees are in bloom and everything is green and peaceful. The summer heat does take its toll on the greenery, but it is still a great place to relax and spend an hour or two with friends or family. The little lake is filled with fish and turtles that you can watch from the shore as you enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet.
Visit Palazzo Albergati on Via Saragozza
While there are many things to do in Bologna other than touring museums, galleries, and old churches, people don’t visit old Italian cities for their fishing or mountaineering. As soon as you recharge your batteries in Al Parco Giardini Margherita, it’s time to visit another museum/art venue. Catch a bus (32 again) from Giardini Margherita to Aldini (4 stops), then take a short 3-minute walk north on Via Malpertuso until you reach Palazzo Albergati, located on the street corner.
The place is worth a visit for its large exhibition of Andy Warhol’s works, as well as for the palace itself, with its remarkable structure, beautiful ceilings, amazing wall paintings, and kitschy baroque stucco. Construction on the palace, belonging to one of Bologna’s most important families, began in 1519. If you’re into contemporary art, you will love seeing the famous portraits of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe in this uniquely historic setting only 20 minutes away from the city’s shopping district.
Stop at a Nearby Restaurant for Dinner
When you are in Bologna, one of the culinary capitals of the world, known for its Bolognese sauce and numerous other dishes, you want to experience the best that the city has to offer. For that, you’ll need to get off the beaten track and check out the small unassuming taverns in modest surroundings. In short, you’ll have to eat like the locals. There are several great places like that within two to three minutes of Palazzo Albergati.
One of them is Osteria Bottega, an amazing place facing a long red-brick wall on Via Santa Caterina. It is a very casual place, with focus on excellent food and great atmosphere. Since the place can get busy, consider making a reservation. They serve outstanding local food such as Tortellini al brodo and Tagliatelle al ragù. While small, All’Osteria Bottega is among the very best places to eat in Bologna.
Have a Few Drinks Before Calling It a Night
What you want to do next depends on your own tastes and preferences. If you like beer, whiskey, live music, and a charming, chill atmosphere, then Black Cat Live Music Pub is your place. Marino, the pub’s owner/bartender is a minor local celebrity, with a winning, amiable personality. The place is on Via Saragozza, so you can get there on foot from the restaurant.
If you prefer a proper nightclub, dancing and partying, you need to check out Covo Club. It may be a bit out-of-the-way (2 miles from the city center), but when it comes to places to be and things to do in Bologna for young people, Covo Club takes the cake. It is the oldest indie rock venue in Italy, and has even been featured in Rolling Stone magazine.
WHERE TO STAY IN BOLOGNA?
Grand Hotel Majestic gia’ Baglioni
Via Indipendenza 8
If you’re not sure where to stay in Bologna, check out Grand Hotel Majestic gia’ Baglioni and eliminate all doubt. Instead of touring and taking photos of gorgeous palaces, you can stay at one. The exquisite 18th-century palace surroundings of Grand Hotel Majestic gia’ Baglioni cast a spell with their antique furnishings in the very heart of the city, only 250 m from Piazza Maggiore.
Hotel Corona d’Oro
Via Oberdan 12
Hotel Corona d’Oro is Bologna’s golden crown, just down the street from Torre degli Asinelli. It is a historic hotel (dating back to 1890), but equipped with all the modern amenities, including free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs with satellite television, and a minibar in each room. A number of the hotel’s elegant and comfortable rooms offer great views of the two towers. When you stay at the hotel, there are several things you can count on, including free bicycles and a rich complimentary breakfast.
Boutique Hotel Liberty 1904
Via Giuseppe Massarenti 98
Located only a short 10-minute walk from the city’s University district, Boutique Hotel Liberty 1904 has everything you need to make your stay in Bologna as enjoyable as convenient as possible. The spacious air-conditioned rooms are all equipped with a flat-screen TV and a private bathroom with free toiletries and a hairdryer. It is a great value property, with a variety of options for breakfast (complimentary) and friendly, accommodating staff. Several of the hotel’s rooms have a balcony where you can enjoy panoramic views of the city or watch the stars at night.
Via De’ Carracci 69/14, 40129 Bologna
Located only 800 meters from Bologna Train Station, We_Bologna is a modern, charming hostel with a beautifully designed orange and black front facing a large open area filled with trees and tables where you can sit down and relax. The interior is stylish and comfortable, with plenty of activities available in the shared areas. The rooms are all air-conditioned and free Wi-Fi is available throughout the property.
DAY TRIPS FROM BOLOGNA
Food, art, history, higher learning, architecture – that’s primarily what Bologna is famous for. For all the other things to do in Bologna and the Emilia-Romagna region, you may want to consider booking one of the numerous organized tours and day trips from Bologna.
Those who primarily want to try the best food Bologna has to offer will love the Bologna Food Experience, a tour focusing on a behind-the-scenes look at how some of the most famous food products in the world are made. Examples include prosciutto, Modena balsamic vinegar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Alternatively, you may prefer the musical tour of Bologna with a private guide, visiting violin makers, ancient opera halls, and contemporary jazz clubs.
For something completely different, there is the Private Ravenna Tour with Transport from Bologna, exploring the numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites in a city famous world-over for its numerous breathtaking mosaics and unparalleled architectural wealth. Check out these and other offers in our separate article, where the best day trips from Bologna are compared and reviewed.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING BOLOGNA
-You should always carry enough cash in Bologna, mostly for little shops, hole-in-the-wall type establishments, and traditional tavernas.
-If you want to use a taxi, make sure to negotiate your fee in advance. Also, it is considered courteous to leave a generous tip.
-Tips are customary in all bars and restaurants, 10 – 15% is OK.
-The rules of etiquette mean a lot to the locals. Make sure to greet everyone present as you enter a shop or an office.
PIN FOR LATER!
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