Bologna 101: a guide to places, food and other attractions to visit in a weekend
In all this time I have been collecting and sharing experiences and travel advice made in various parts of Italy and the rest of the world. I never realised, however, that I had never said anything about one of my favorite places on this planet - Bologna, the city that now almost 12 years ago welcomed me with open arms and, still today, I love deeply.
With this post (even if another hundred would not be enough to express all its beauty) I try to write down a humble guide for those who have never been to Bologna before and want to experience it to the fullest, even just for a weekend.
In this article, therefore, you will find some suggestions based on personal experience and on various advice collected here and there (thanks to all the people who helped me in this!).
Tour of the center of Bologna: a tour of the city center that can be done on foot and which, my opinion (and taste), it collects all the places not to be missed
Food and conviviality: a collection of the best places for breakfast, brunch and snack, aperitif, lunch and dinner or after-dinner for all tastes
Other places worth visiting: all my other favorite places in the city, worth visiting if you have a few more days
A map full of tips that I hope you find useful
Bologna is a city in the 'Pianura Padana', famous for its very long arcades ('portici'), for medieval art, for excellent food and for its very ancient university, which feeds a lively cosmopolitan culture throughout the year.
Bologna is surrounded by hills, the famous 'Colli Bolognesi', and is full of parks and greenery all around; this helps a lot during the hottest summers.
It is called the 'Rossa' (red) - for its colour, as most of the structures in the historic center (inside the walls) are reddish in color, the 'Dotta' (learned) - in reference to the Alma Mater Studiorum, one of the oldest universities in the world, the 'Ghiotta' (greedy) - for its extensive culinary culture, and the 'Turrita' (towered) - for the presence of almost 180 towers present in the medieval period (of which 24 remain today).
Why visit? I am clearly biased and I think it is the most beautiful city in Italy! 😊 But I'll try to give you 5 good reasons why it is really worth spending at least a weekend there:
The wonderful views, especially during the blue hour: the moment immediately after sunset, when the sky is deep blue and contrasts with the red color of the city
The imposing churches and cathedrals scattered throughout the center (and beyond!)
Incredible food, with so many different options including vegetarian and vegan
The feeling of 'home' that Bologna offers, even if you visit it as a tourist: it is very easy to get around on foot and there is no risk of getting lost ("not a single child is lost in the center of Bologna" sang Lucio Dalla, one of the best songwriters in Italian history)
The secrets that this city hides, from the most famous to the least known (I'll tell you some in this post)
Which is the best period? Many suggest visiting Bologna all year round. For me, the winter climate can be very harsh, as well as the summer climate which is decidedly unpleasant, if not unbearable at times. For this reason I always suggest to visit it in spring or autumn, May/June or mid-September/October are the best months!
CENTER OF BOLOGNA TOUR
It took several reflections before arriving at the final version of this map. In fact, it was not at all easy to reconcile all the most characteristic places in a single tour, through an easy and comfortable route. Here you won't find, for logistical reasons, all my favorite places, but this tour should be able to give you a satisfactory idea of the Bologna that I love and that I hope will make you fall in love with it too (you will find other suggestions below, in case you have a few more days available)!
The tour is designed in a circle, i.e. it opens and closes in the same place. Depending on your interest and the time spent in the various suggested spots (for example, if you decide to enter all the churches mentioned or climb the Torre degli Asinelli), it can be done in one or two days.
Start from Piazza del Nettuno (J), place where you can admire the recently restored statue of Nettuno, dating back to the mid-16th century. On one side of the square is the Sala Borsa, since 2001 the Civic Multimedia Library, on the other, next to Palazzo del Podestà, overlooks Palazzo Re Enzo. Secret: right under the vault of the Palazzo del Podestà it is possible to experience the architectural curiosity of the wireless telephone, originally created to allow lepers to confess, reducing the risk of infecting the friars. Just be in pairs, stand at opposite corners of the vault with your face turned to the wall and talk normally.The bounce of the voice will make it seem like you have the other person one step away!
Piazza Maggiore (A) is located a stone's throw from Piazza del Nettuno, is the heart of the city and is the result of centuries-old transformations that gradually enriched it with important buildings, starting from 1200: the Basilica of San Petronio (enter if you can, there is the longest sundial in the world; you can also access a terrace at the back of the building from where you can admire an amazing landscape of the city), the Palazzo dei Notai, the Palazzo d'Accursio, the Palazzo del Podestà and the Palazzo dei Banchi . Secret: the Basilica of San Petronio is said to have remained unfinished because the original plan (under request from the Municipality) wanted it to be the largest church in existence; when the Vatican discovered this, it prevented the work from proceeding, as the existence of a more imposing church than St. Peter's in Rome was not acceptable. Some others say that the church didn't get finished because of a lack of fundings.
From Piazza Maggiore head towards the Portico of Via Farini (B), walking along Via d'Azeglio (where you will find Lucio Dalla's house), once under the portico, look up and let yourself be enchanted by the wonderful blue-shaded frescoes that lead up to Piazza Cavour (D) - which I just discovered is the famous 'Piazza Grande' of which Dalla spoke in his songs.
If you have time, go back slightly towards Piazza Galvani and go and explore the Archiginnasio (C) - please check the opening hours - one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, which preserves the Anatomic Theater, built in carved wood in the first half of the 1600s for the teaching of anatomy.
If you crave gelato, this is the right time to get one from Cremeria Cavour (there's always a line but it's worth it!).
Every time I have an ice cream in Cremeria Cavour, I usually walk towards my favorite square in Bologna, Piazza San Domenico (E) - which still leaves me speechless after years. The basilica preserves one of the most important examples of art in the city, the Ark of San Domenico, a sepulchral monument dedicated to Domenico di Guzmàn (who died in Bologna in 1221) and was built by various hands have succeeded over time, including Nicola Pisano, Niccolò dall'Arca and Michelangelo.
From San Domenico (SanDo in Bolognese slang) go back towards Via Farini and move to another marvellous (perhaps the most beautiful) basilica in the city - yes , there are so many! - Santo Stefano (F), also known as The Seven Churches. A visit here is truly essential, you will surely be captivated by the succession of different styles within the complex, which in fact contains seven different structures, all built in different historical periods.
The Mercato dell'Antiquariato is held in Piazza Santo Stefano on the second Saturday and the second Sunday of each month, where you can buy antiques and vintage items.
Alternative option (suggested by my friend Panfilo): if you feel like taking a walk along the porticoes, before reaching Le Sette Chiese, from Via Farini continue towards Via Santo Stefano to Piazza del Baraccano, a civil and religious monumental complex worth visiting.
A visit to Two Towers (G), the historical-cultural symbol of Bologna. The Torre degli Asinelli can be visited up to the top (arm yourself with comfortable shoes), where you can enjoy a wonderful panorama of the city from above. Reservations are required and you can purchase tickets here. Don't forget, if you're undergraduates you can't go up - it's bad luck (or so they say)!
From the Two Towers head towards the university area and walk Via Zamboni (H), where you will meet (especially if you are visiting during spring or autumn) hundreds of students and a very lively environment from early morning to late evening. Here in the area, there is also the Jewish Ghetto of Bologna, which I always recommend visiting if you want to take a different kind of walk.
In the university area there is also Palazzo Poggi, at number 33 of Via Zamboni, whose museum houses a very famous anatomical collection. Secret: Palazzo Poggi also hides another of Bologna's secrets - legend has it that one of the chairs in this seat bears the inscription panum resis, but no one has ever been able to locate it. The meaning of this inscription, literally 'the bread of resistance', would indicate knowledge as the basic source for every decision.
Secret: another famous secret of Bologna, known by the nickname of Little Venice, is the window Via Piella (I), from which you can admire a suggestive glimpse of the Canale delle Moline, one of the many canals that flow underground in Bologna and emerge on the surface here. For some years now there seems to be a lot of queues just to take pictures. If this were the case, don't waste too much time queuing, on the opposite side of the road there is a small bridge from which you can see an equally beautiful glimpse.
FOOD AND CONVIVIAL
And here we are at my favorite part: food and conviviality. Convivivial ('convivio') because, in my opinion, everything that revolves around eating, drinking and being together in Bologna has a completely different flavour, more convivial to be precise.
In this section I would like to recommend you my favorite places (some even tested more than once) for every occasion, from early morning with breakfast or brunch, until late in the evening, with some places where you can have a great drink .
Below are collected only some of the places that I particularly like (the best!), but in the map at the end of the article there are many other ideas.
🥞 Breakfast, Brunch and Snack
Zoo €€, in Strada Maggiore it is certainly the place that offers the most variety in terms of both brunch and snack, with a wide choice of cakes and main courses. The format has recently changed and is now only à la carte (there are no longer fixed menus), but it's still an excellent choice. With the excuse, take a walk under the Portico Dei Servi.
Another option in the center is Lampadina €€, very small place but with an excellent choice of brunches and other dishes for lunch or snack e tables outside.
In the center you will also find Papparè €€, usually always very crowded but with different snack options and many types of coffee.
Last option, this time out of town, but my favorite in Bologna, is Double Civic €€, in the Barca area. Excellent dishes, lots of choice!
If you are looking for a super Bolognese aperitif, then just go to Via Pescherie Vecchie €€, where you will find dozens of places with tables outdoors where you can sip a glass of wine and eat excellent traditional platters. In the area you will also find the famous I'Osteria del Sole € , where drinks are served but not food (you can bring your own or buy a sandwich and enjoy it with a good wine).
If you want beer, I have two suggestions: Cerqua Brewery €€, in via Broccaindosso (right next to the Osteria Broccaindosso), with ever-changing craft beers and diverse food offerings; the Boteco €€, another place where I spent a lot of time, in Via San Vitale, very chilled but with excellent beers (and gin!).
Camera a Sud €€, in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto, one of my favorite places both for aperitifs ( with excellent cocktails) and for dinner - but actually also after dinner, with light and healthy options - the desserts are very good.
Mercato delle Erbe € - other option for drinking and eating. In a decidedly particular location: what is a market during the day indoors, it turns into a wonderful meeting place for friends in the evening, full of bars and restaurants. All you have to do is choose one of the many places available for your aperitif.
The latest mixed proposal between aperitif and dinner is Tricheco €€, a modern tavern with many vegetarian options (and a space hummus!).
🍝 Lunch or Dinner
Traditional - my favorite Osterie where to eat typical Bolognese food (in no particular order):
Osteria dell'Orsa €€ - a classic in the centre, where you don't have to book but queue up with holy patience. Cheap, quaint and good!
Another option (quite touristy) if you want to eat a plate of handmade pasta on the go is Bottega Portici €, with view directly on the Two Towers
My personal recommendation in the center is il Passatello €€ (reservation recommended), where you can eat typical, there are many options and you spend the right
If, on the other hand, you fancy a quick lunch, I suggest Mirò sandwiches €, in the square Aldrovandi, where you can find sandwiches and wraps with fresh, high-quality ingredients
We finish with a beautiful pearl, the Trattoria di Via Serra €€ - €€€, slightly out of the center but probably the best that I've never tried Bologna. To be booked at least 2 / 3 weeks in advance, with a kind service, great care for customers and exquisite food
PS: find more suggestions in the map at the end of the article!
Sophisticated or a little 'alternative' - other places where you don't eat typical food, but which I recommend if you want to try something different
I repeat the option Tricheco €€, veggie friendly 🌱
Il Rovescio, a traditional yet innovative restaurant in the Pratello area
Clorofilla €€, another cheap option to eat vegetarian (and vegan on request) 🌱, their tarts are AMAZING
Botanica Lab €€€, vegan restaurant 🌱 in the centre, rather chic atmosphere and excellent food
Oltre €€€€, the only 'coolest' place I've tried in Bologna, they serve more refined food (good!!) accompanied by cocktails
QB - Quanto Basta €€-€€€, Roman restaurant in Bologna - their Cacio e Pepe is fantastic. If you want a reserved table, book in the 'cantinetta'.
Ling's Ravioleria Migrante €€, out door but if you happen to be in the area definitely worth trying - a small and minimal place that experiments with Asian cuisine that is decidedly different from the usual
🍸 After dinner and Drinks
Short but effective list of all my favorite places to have a great after dinner drink:
Volare €€ - with their signature cocktails and retro style
L'Ora d'Aria €€ - not very far from Volare, with a very nice and a large selection of gins
Blue Hush €€ - another very nice place in the Pratello area, excellent cocktails, good beers and super friendly staff
Finally, a special mention goes to my three neighborhood bars - in the Cyrenaica area (❤️), Bar Edera €, Blue Lou € e Tito Bar €. In case you are in the area, you can't go wrong with them; they are open until 11pm.
Legend: € inexpensive, €€€€ very expensive
Another very important and deeply felt theme in Bologna is good gelato. In no other Italian city have I had the opportunity to try so many exceptional gelaterias. Here are my favorites (always in no particular order):
Cremeria Mascarella, in Via Mascarella (*fave*)
Sablé, in Via dei Mille
Cremeria Santo Stefano, in Via Santo Stefano
Cremeria Cavour, in Piazza Cavour
Other places worth visiting (if you have more time)
I'll give you other random tips on nice places that I think are worth visiting if you have a few more days available.
Neighbourhoods to discover
The Pratello area (Via del Pratello and surroundings) is well known for being more than a neighbourhood, a state of mind in Bologna. Pratello is the opposite of chic Bologna, made up of intersecting alleys, pubs, beer gardens, ethnic restaurants and old Bolognese taverns. During the day it seems like a small village in itself, while in the evening it turns into a hangout for students and friends looking for a meeting point for a chat and some fun.
If you want a drink and like lively areas, Pratello is definitely for you.
Bar Piratello is the place to have a great coffee and taste a delicious focaccia Pugliese (thanks Antonio for the tip!); Blue Hush is the place to have a great drink; Babilonia is the place to taste the best pita in Bologna (a MUST!). But there are nice places scattered all along the street, just spot one and go in.
Panoramic points and trips out of town
First of all, the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca - to be reached, according to tradition, rigorously a feet. A walk (uphill) through a portico that starts from the city center and reaches the sanctuary. Here you can find other alternative ways to reach it.
Another panoramic point of Bologna, as well as another basilica, is San Michele in Bosco, which can also be reached on foot or by bus. The view of the city from here at night is truly spectacular (Montmartre what?).
Speaking of parks, in case you want to spend a relaxing afternoon on the grass, I mention the best known (and easiest / fastest to reach on foot), the Margherita Gardens, but also Villa Spada and Villa Ghigi.
Vintage markets and shops
The Mercato Ritrovato, which opens every Wednesday and offers several stands where local producers sell their products directly to the public ; it is also possible to dine there. The market is located right inside the complex of the Cineteca di Bologna, one of the most important European film libraries.
The Montagnola market, which you can find every Friday and Saturday and includes many stalls with different products - from products for the home to products for the person, vintage clothes and much more.
Finally, among my favorite vintage shops I would absolutely like to mention Friperie, Armadi con vista (both very cute and with super selected items!) and, above all, Fondazione ANT, a vintage shop run entirely by volunteers. ANT is the largest non-profit organisation in Italy for free home healthcare assistance to cancer patients and all proceeds from sales are donated to charity, if you want to know more I invite you to read here.
And here is the map with all the places of interest, restaurants, bars, gelaterias and much more. Take a look at it, I'm sure it will be very useful!
And with this I think I'm done 😄 Thanks to all the people who gave me suggestions for this article and I really hope it can be useful for you, I really care.
PS: if you have any recommendations or come up with places that you think should be in this article, write to me!!!