Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region and one of the most historic cities in the country and an underrated place to visit. It is also known as the gastronomical capital of Italy and is famous for its red roofs. I’ve covered what to eat in Bologna in great details, here are some top sights you don’t want to miss in the city as well as some cool activities you can do from Bologna:
- 1 Things to see in Bologna
- 1.1 Fontana del Nettuno
- 1.2 Piazza Maggiore
- 1.3 Finestrella
- 1.4 San Pietro Church
- 1.5 Santo Stefano Bascilica
- 1.6 Basilica di San Petronio
- 1.7 Anatomical theater
- 1.8 The Two Towers of Bologna
- 1.9 Palazzo della Mercanzia
- 1.10 San Michele in Bosco
- 1.11 Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
- 1.12 Walk around the beautiful covered walkways
- 1.13 Via Pescherie Vecchie
- 2 Parmigiano Reggiano Factory visit
- 3 Balsamic Vinegar Factory (Acetato) visit
- 4 Fico Eatly
- 5 Carpigiani Gelato University
- 6 Where to stay in Bologna
Things to see in Bologna
Fontana del Nettuno
An iconic part of the city, the Fountain of Neptune was erected in the 16th century and represents the height of Renaissance art in Italy. Made of bronze and stone, it sat in a square adjacent to Piazza Maggiore with Neptune holding a trident surrounded by cherubs and nereids under.
The central piazza of Bologna, Piazza Maggiore is a 20 minutes walk from the train station, directly through the north gate of the city along Via dell’Indipendenza. It is a local chill spot and many sits on the square or the nearby outdoor restaurants in the evening.
A small canal at the northern part of the old town, the Finestrella is easy to miss if you don’t know what you are looking for. Made famous by photos of a window opening to a picturesque canal, the reality is far simpler and arguably uninspiring. However, it represents a significant part of the city’s history and the other hidden canals, which were important in powering mills and spun silk. Most of the canals were built over and hidden, so this is one of the few that are still visible. Since it is only a short detour along the route between the train station and town center, it is worth a peek!
San Pietro Church
A looming church on the narrow road close to the entrance to Piazza Maggiore, San Pietro is the Cathedral of Bologna and distinctive with its pink facade. It is larger than it looks, since much of it is hidden by buildings of similar height and narrow streets, with only the tower prominent.
The current Baroque style was the result of rebuilding in the 16th century, with an ornate interior with white walls, statues adorning, and the side navels have beautiful fresco. A church had existed on the site since the 11th century, and it was elevated to a cathedral in 16th century.
You can climb up the tower, which was built in the late 15th century, for a view of Bologna
Opening times: 7:00 – 19:00
Admission fee: Free entry, tower 5 euros.
Santo Stefano Bascilica
The rustic church set in a picturesque square surrounded by lowrise building is deceptively small. Why? Because this church isn’t just one church, it is a church within a church within a church – with a total of seven churches! The oldest dates back to the 4th century and the youngest the 13th century, and from Piazza Santo Stefano the complex looks like an odd collection of brick buildings of various heights and shapes. It’s difficult to keep track of which one is which, but here is me trying my best:
Church of the Crucifix
The first church that is also the entry point for the Santo Stefano complex
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
It has an octagonal shape and is to the left of the cluster when facing it. Inside it houses the Holy Sepulchre with a cross atop it and the relic of Saint Petronio inside.
Church of the Saints Vitale and Agricola
On the other side of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the oldest part of the complex. It has a brick interior and is the last building on the left viewing from outside.
The pretty courtyard is behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre retain some of the features of a Roman temple that once stood in its place. The complex is built atop of a temple dedicated to Isis, hence the Greek columns.
Church of the Trinity
Behind the courtyard is a small, rectangular church,
Chapel of the Bandage
The various chapels that makes up the rest of the seven churches are behind the Cloister and also house the church/museum shop.
Opening times: 9:00 – 12:30, 14: 30 – 19:00
Admission: Free entry, donations welcomed
Basilica di San Petronio
The curious half brick and half pink church by Piazza Maggiore is San Petronio, named after the patron saint of Bologna. The curious exterior of the church was a result of it being unfinished, despite being built in the late 14th century. The pink marble doorway is decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testament, prophets, and Saint Patronio.
It took another century or so for them to finish the interior. It is free to enter, however, you need to a photo license to take photos inside. There is usually high security around the church due to a terrorist attack in 2002, and visitors must enter on the right door and exit on the left facing the church.
Opening times: 7:45 – 13:30, 14:30 – 18:30
Admission: Free entry, photography 2 euros, panoramic terrace 3 euros
Note: on my visit in October 2019 there was a terrace at the back at 54 m that is there due to the renovation going on. It offers a pretty good view of the city and it has the bonus of having an elevator.
Bologna is home to one of the oldest universities in Italy and some of its buildings are works of art themselves. One such architectural gem is the Anatomical Theater. Built in 1636, it was designed by Antonio Levanti and renovated a decade later to its current state. Although this is a reconstruction as the original was destroyed during a WWII air raid. It’s a short walk from Piazza Maggiore and the courtyard itself is a small haven itself with mosaic floors and portico.
Entry to the theater itself costs 3 euros. Do note that the theater is not very large, and while the fresco is beautiful, the room is often crowded.
Opening times: Mon – Fri 9:00 – 19:00; Sat 10:00 – 19:00; Sun 10:00 – 14:00
Admission fee: 3 euros
The Two Towers of Bologna
The most iconic part of Bologna, the two towers consist of the higher Asinelli Tower and the shorter but leaning Garisenda Tower. Bologna in the past were full of towers, built by family to upstage each other in a display of wealth. While the records are unclear, the two towers are attributed to the Asinelli and Garisenda family respectively, who wanted to outdo each other in the 12th century. The Asinelli Tower stands at 97.2m and is the highest building in Bologna; while the Garisenda Tower is 48m high.
Asinelli Tower opening times: 9:30 – 19:30, 5 Euros, 3 Euros for reduced
Palazzo della Mercanzia
A 14th century building that was once the money changers and merchants bank, the red building is to the right of the two towers and easily missed if you are not looking out for it. Nowadays, it is the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Crafts and Agriculture of Bologna.
San Michele in Bosco
A known viewpoint south of the city, San Michele in Bosco was a church and monastery but now a hospital. While it is a historically significant religious site and now a renowned orthopedic hospital, most people come here for the city view. It takes about half an hour to walk from Piazza Maggiore to the viewpoint, which offers a sweeping view of the famed red roofs of Bologna.
Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
While it’s one of the most iconic landmarks in Bologna, San Luca is about an hour’s walk southwest of the old city. It is the longest outdoor portico walkway in the world at almost 3.8km long, starting across the road from the entrance to the old city and ending at the hilltop church.
The walkway was built between the 17th and the 18th century to give cover to a yearly procession that starts from San Pietro to San Luca, carrying the icon of Madonna. The church itself was mentioned in records as far back as the 12th century, though the current circular dark-red building is from the 18th century. It is about an hour plus walk all the way, starting first along the road before turning uphill on stairs.
If you don’t want to walk, there’s the option to take the San Luca Express by Piazza Maggiore which will whiz you up in half an hour with audio commentary on the city along the way.
Opening times: Mon – Sat 7:00 – 18:00
Walk around the beautiful covered walkways
Bologna is full of beautiful covered walkways that makes it possible to go around the city in the rain even without an umbrella. An added bonus is that many of these will have restaurants and outdoor seatings.
Via Pescherie Vecchie
A fan of food and quaint little street? Via Pescherie Vecchie is a narrow lane off Piazza Maggiore that is both home to a variety of restaurants and food stores. It is a good place to eat and people watch, though less good to walk through since it is pretty crowded.
Parmigiano Reggiano Factory visit
Parmigiano Reggiano is a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta – Protected Designation of Origin) cheese that is only produced in the Emilia-Romagna Region region, in particular between River Po and Oglio. You might know its none-DOP version: Parmesan – which cannot be called Parmigiano Reggiano as those are produced outside of the designated area.
The cows must be native in the region and only feed on grass within 15 km around. Milk can’t be pasteurized and processed twice daily year around and then stored to aged to at least 12 years. There are many factories, in particular around the Parma-Modena region. We visited the Quattro Madonne, who offers guided tours for visitors and even a little tasting at the end.
We were able to learn about how Parmigiano Reggiano is made from the milk being delivered, the congelation, formation, and aging! The highlight is undoubtedly seeing all the different wheels of cheese in storage and visiting their shop!
Balsamic Vinegar Factory (Acetato) visit
Perhaps not as famous as Parma Ham and Parmigiano Reggiano, but the visiting an Acetato where balsamic vinegar is made changed the way I look at vinegar forever.
We visited Acetaia Rossi Barattini near Modena, a family run business that was started by his grandfather with barrels bought from those seized by Napoleon. They grow their own grapes and harvest them once a year to make the balsamic vinegar.
Our visit was just after the harvest season, so we were able to see the grape juice being boiled, as well as the various barrels where the vinegar has been aging up to a century plus!
While balsamic vinegar is potentially a profiting business, DOP demands that only those above 12 years can be bottled. The older the vinegar is, the more viscous it becomes – we were able to taste some in his shop and I have to say that the 50 year vinegar is divine.
You can arrange a visit to the Acetaia Rossi Barattini by calling him or via the website but only in advance.
The Fico Eataly world is a place where the regional specialities come together at a mall about 40 minutes bus ride northeast of the city center. The idea is to be able to gather all the producers in one place for the masses who don’t have time to visit them individually. If you don’t have time to visit the individual places above and want to get a taste of Italy’s cuisine, this is a good place to visit.
The space was an old market turned into an agriculture food park. It covers an area of 8 hectares inside, with 2 hectares of surrounding ground consisting of stables for animals as an effort to show the entire food chain production to the new generation.
More than 40 factories operate here and produce products daily that are sold on site, such as Mortadella and Parmigiano Reggiano. You can also buy a variety of products from the Emilia-Romagna region and beyond or even take classes such as pasta making! You can also take a guided tour and learn more about each products as you make your way across the huge complex.
How to get there: the F bus have stops across the city and takes 30-45 minutes to reach the FICO Center. Tickets can be bought at the local tourism office for 5 euro one way or 7 euro return. If there are more than three of you, I’d recommend a taxi as it is much faster.
Address: Via Paolo Canali, 8, 40127 Bologna BO, Italy
Opening times: Sun – Fri 10:00 – 23:00; Sat 10:00-0:00
Carpigiani Gelato University
I’m sure everyone is no stranger to gelato. Some of you, like me, would have been told that gelato means ice-cream in Italian. But gelato and ice cream are actually very different things. Gelato is cream based, whereas ice-cream is water based, and those who have tried it would know that gelato is an artisan product and usually made fresh every day. One of the best gelato machine producers there is is Carpigiani, and they have a university!
Established in 1946 by two brothers, Carpigiani create gelato machine tailored to the customer. Nowadays, they have customers from around the world and 11 branches.
This university was created in 2003, about 40 minutes west of Bologna city center with a gelateria at the front and a museum on gelato history inside.
Address: Via Emilia, 45, 40011 Anzola dell’Emilia BO, Italy
Opening times: Mon – Fri 9:30 – 17:30
Where to stay in Bologna
L’8 Boutique Apartment
Ideally located midway between the train station and Piazza Maggiore, L’8 Boutique Apartment is on a quiet street that makes it a perfect base for travellers.
The apartments are spacious and check in is easy at the ground level office by the apartment itself. The lovely staff even helped me with my suitcase since my apartment is on the second floor.
Behind the main door there is an inner gate and the door to the apartment has a digital lock, which makes it easy since you won’t need a key or share it. The apartment is completed with a dining room with kitchenette, and there were some simple items for snacking. I also really appreciate the washing machine since the weather was hotter than expected.