Staying in Bologna for three weeks allowed us to truly experience Italy like a local. Located in the heart of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, Bologna is an ideal city to base yourself when travelling around the central region of the country. It rivals Florence or Pisa and there are so many things to do in Bologna, you'll be surprised!
It has that authentic feel that you may not find in places like Venice or Florence. A university town filled with history, this is one hopping destination with so much to do, you'll want to make sure that your Italy itinerary includes a couple of days to properly explore this ancient yown. What makes Bologna even more appealing is how affordable it is. This is a place that doesn't charge you more if you decide to sit down for your coffee. Bologna welcomes you into it's heart and you will feel warm and welcome during your entire stay.
Bologna is part of the top 20 things to do in Italy according to the Lonely Planet Travel Guide
Things to do in Bologna
So what should you do when you visit Bologna? Oh boy, let me tell you. Or you could just book a 3-hour tour with Get Your Guide and have someone guide you through Bologna.
1. Climb Italy's tallest leaning tower
Move over Pisa, Bologna has a great leaning tower of its own. When you visit Asinelli Tower in the heart of the city, you won't feel like you have stepped into a tourist trap. This tower is old, it's leaning and while walking up it's teetering stairs, you'll definitely feel like you're on an adventure. The wooden stairs are narrow and all that separates you from a tumble below is a thin wooden railing. But the climb is worth it because you'll come out to an extraordinary view of the ancient city's rooftops.
2. Try Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
Traditional balsamic vinegar can sell for €50-€100 a bottle and after learning about how it's made and I can understand why. It takes a minimum 7-years to age traditional balsamic with most batches sitting in barrels up to 15 years. Some is even aged for 45 years. This isn't the balsamic vinegar that we buy at the grocery store at home and put on salads, traditional balsamic is thick and delicious. You only need a few drops to drizzle over anything you want including pasta, strawberries and cheese.
Read all about Balsamic Vinegar at our Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, 150 Years in the Making
Cost: Eat it at a restaurant or during Aperitvo, then you won't feel the sting of €100 per bottle
3. Eat Parmigiano Regianno
Speaking of Cheese, Parma is just a short train ride away from Bologna and you must eat Parmesan cheese when visiting. Italians will tell you it is very good for you and you must eat it every day. (Twist my arm, I'm game to give it a try) We did end up eating parmesan every day, all day. After a run, before dinner, after dinner with prosecco...you name the time of day, we ate the incredible Parmesan Reggiano. Like traditional balsamic, tender loving care goes into making parmesan cheese. It is aged for two years and hand rotated on a daily basis to evenly distribute the flavour. It's a small fortune to buy here in Canada, but I've got a bottle of balsamic just itching to be eaten with a little Parmigiano Regianno.
You can take guided tours from Bologna of cheese factories in Parma, a short train ride from Bologna.
4. Autopsy at the Western World's Oldest University
Bologna was a progressive town and home to the oldest university in the Western world founded in 1088. The anatomical theatre or Teatro Anatomico, was built in 1636 replacing the original dating back to 1595. This was where autopsies took place to teach university students about human anatomy. There weren't coolers in those days so bodies were freshly dissected as students watched on from the wooden tiers. Nicholas of the Emilia Romagna Tourism board tells us that the seats were made to be uncomfortable and erect so that the students couldn't fall asleep. They'd be in there for hours on end as the autopsy had to be completed in one session. The university is a fascinating tour. Bologna was modern and embraced science, much to the chagrine of the church. A bishop had to overlook all autoposies to make sure that the professor didn't go against anything that the church believed.
6. Stroll the Porticoes
Because Bologna was booming due to its thriving university, extra housing was needed for students. The university was located downtown and instead of building outside the city, Bologna built facades on the front of their buildings into the streets. These student housings were built on the front of already existing buildings with a stipulation that they must be wide and high enough to allow horse carts to pass. Thus, giant archways were built throughout the city. Today, there are 45 km of archways left standing and allow for pedestrians to stroll under the beautiful structures sheltered from bad weather including rain and hot sun. It makes for a pleasant afternoon of shopping.
7. Piazza Maggiore
The main plaza of Bologna is Piazza Maggiore and there is a lot to see here including the Basilica of San Petronio. This church was meant to be the largest church in the world, but when the Vatican caught wind of the construction, they put a halt to that. Bologna was a city that didn't go gaga over the church like other Italian cities and the Basilica of San Petronio was a communal project as opposed to being run by the Bishops. This Basilica isn't Bologna's main church contrary to popular belief. The actual main church of Bologna is located on the main street of dell’Indipendenza, Cattedrale di San Pietro. It doesn't stand on a grand square like other churches in Italy. This Cattedrale is easily missed as it is located on the sidewalk of the street!
5. Have an Aperitivo
One of our favourite nightly events was finding a place to have aperitivo, an Italian Tradition. Many restaurants and bars opened their doors at 6:00 pm for patrons to order a drink. Most people order a Spritz, Prosecco (white sparkling wine) or lambrusco (red sparkling wine) What makes aperitivo so special? Well, when you order a drink, you automatically are allowed to eat for free. Bars range from having a few snacks like pizza and sliders to full on buffets with pasta, cheese, risottos and meats. As long as you kept a full glass, you could keep on eating.
Cost: €4-€8 per drink
8. Eat Gelato
Bologna is home to the foremost Gelato Machine company in the world and they offer courses for a €900 that you will get back after you buy their €21,000 machine. Don't have €21,000 to spare? That's ok, tasting gelato is much more fun. Bologna has many authentic gelato shops where you'll become addicted to the rich and creamy taste. The rule of gelato in Italy...eat it at least twice a day.
9. Meet the Locals
In Bologna, everyone is friendly. It was common for us to get a hug or two while we shopped. I'd never think of entering a store just to say hello in Rome or in Venice, but in Bologna, we'd see people hanging out in a barber shop or shoe repair and instead of walking by, we'd pop in to say hello. Everyone always had big smiles on their faces and got a kick out of us taking the time to say "what's up?"
10. Go to the Markets
Bologna is a market city and there are different ones from clothing, antiques and most definitely food. There is a pedestrian street filled with fruit, meat and cheese markets that we shopped at regularly. You'll find traditional balsamic, cured meats, parmigianno reggiano and fresh fruits and vegetables. It's all quality food for a small price. We noticed the clothing market had great deals too. As we said at the beginning, Bologna isn't only an amazing destination, it's also affordable and a must do city for anyone visiting Italy.
Traveling to Italy? Get the Rick Steves Travel Guide
Bologna is all about food: Book a food producers tour where you can see where Parmesean Cheese, Balsamic Vinegar and have lunch at an Osteria for a true Emilia Romagna experience.
Have you been to Bologna? What are your favourite things to do there? There is so much to see, I'm sure that we missed a few.
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