Staying in Bologna for an extended period of time 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 make a base when traveling around the central region of the country.
20 Things to Do in Bologna
Bologna has that authentic feel that you may not find in places like Venice or Florence.
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 and accommodation is far more reasonable than the other big tourist draws in Italy.
Bologna welcomes you into its heart and you will feel warm and welcome during your entire stay.
Fast Tips: Bologna
Bologna is definitely worth visiting. It is considered the gastronomical capital of Italy, it has a better leaning tower than Pisa and its porticoes and historic structures are a must-see.
Bologna is famous for its food. It is one of the best places to eat in Italy. It also houses the oldest university in the world and it has the tallest leaning tower in Italy. The famous porticoes are a top attraction as well.
Bologna is located in the Emilia Romagna Region of Northern Italy. It is situated between Venice and Florence and is easily accessed by train.
1. Climb Italy's Tallest Leaning Tower – Asinelli 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 its 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. 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, cheese and even ice cream!
Read all about Balsamic Vinegar at our Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, 150 Years in the Making
Cost: Eat balsamic vinegar it at a restaurant or during Aperitvo, then you won't feel the sting of €100 per bottle
3. Eat Parmigiano Reggiano
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.
Parma is just a a short train ride from Bologna.
4. The Western World's Oldest University – Teatro Anatomico
Bologna was a progressive town in the Middle Ages and it is 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.
Our guide Nicolas told 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 chagrin of the church.
A bishop had to overlook all autopsies to make sure that the professor didn't go against anything that the church believed.
5. Stroll the Porticoes
Because Bologna was booming due to its thriving university, extra housing was needed for students.
The university was located downtown,
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 is 45 km of archways (aka Porticoes) left standing that allow for pedestrians to stroll under the beautiful structures sheltered from bad weather including rain and hot sun.
Getting lost in the porticoes makes for a pleasant afternoon of shopping.
6. Longest Portico to Monte della Guardia
Take an afternoon and walk from downtown Bologna to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.
This hours' walk takes you through the longest portico in the world. It is actually a connection of many covered walkways that leads tup to Monte della Guardia, the highest point in Bologna.
At the top is the Church and wonderful panoramic views of Bologna.
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 Cathedral is easily missed as it is located on the sidewalk of the street!
8. Neptune's Fountain
Located next to Piazza Maggiore is Piazza del Nettuno that centres around the sculpture of Neptune's Fountain.
The fountain is an imposing sight with the God Neptune standing atop a three-tiered fountain consisting of Nereids and Cherubs.
Construction dates back to 1567.
9. Basilica of San Petronio
This beautiful church located in Piazza Maggiore is one of the largest in the world!
Construction began in 1390 and to this day it has yet to be finished.
The church is filled with art and sculptures portraying the old and new testaments, but the most notable work of art is the Meridian Line.
Designed in 1655 by astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini to meaure time.
With the university being so prominent in Bologna, many scholar taught here and Cassini (who taught at the school) created one of the largest astronomical instruments in the world!
Each day at noon, the sun falls on the meridian line where one can determine things like the timing of the equinox and solstice.
10. San Petronio’s Terrace
When visiting the church be sure to go to the back for access to the rooftop.
Access is from outside the building where an elevator will take you to the top for one of the best views of Bologna.
The city is beautiful to view from above and the surrounding hills of Emilia Romagna is breathtaking.
11. Eat Gelato
Bologna is home to the foremost Gelato Machine company in the world. So the shops that sell Gelato are second to none!
Unlike places in Rome and Florence where there are several gelato shops that sell the cheap stuff.
You can be certain to always have quality gelato in Bologna.
Carbigiani Gelato University offers 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.
Cremeria Santo Stefano
The best spot to go for Gelato in Bologna is Cremeria Santo Stefano. It considered to have the best gelato in all of Italy!
12. Basilica di Santo Stefano
While you are searching for Gelato at the Cremeria Santo Stefano, be sure to peruse the square of Piazza Santo Stefano.
It is here that you will find the Basilica is known as the Seven Churches. (Sette Chiese). Today only four remain.
You can visit the four churches Crocefisso, Santo Sepolcro, Santi Vitale e Agricola, and Chiesa della Trinità to see historic sites dating back to the 8th century.
13. Go to Gelato University
Located just 30 minutes outside of Bologna, Carpigiani Gelato not only offers courses to the people who buy them but there is also a Gelato Museum that runs visitors through the history of Ice Cream.
We walked through the museum, learned about the origins of ice cream in the hills of Greece and the Roman Empire and then learned how gelato is made.
When it was all said and done, we were sent home with tubs of gelato of our choice!
How can we go wrong?
14. 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.
15. Museo per la Memoria di Ustica
This museum is a memorial to a flight that was shot down on June 27th, 1980.
There are 81 blinking lights and 81 darkened mirrors representing the 81 people that died in the tragedy.
The flight originated in Bologna and was heading to Palermo. It is believed that the plane was targeted by mistake by a missile from NATO forces.
Cost: €4-€8 per drink
16. 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?”
17. Via Drapperie
Heading out from Piazza Maggiore, we take you to an old medieval market of alleyways.
Via Drapperie is a pedestrian street filled with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, breads and cheeses.
It is the heart of the historic centre of Bologna and is a must to stop in and grab everything you need for a picnic.
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, Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh fruits and vegetables. It's all quality food for a small price.
Other Bologna Markets
Markets pop up all around Bologna, and we spent many a day browsing the colour and energetic communities.
- We noticed the clothing market had great deals too that I cannot remember the name of, but it was near the train station.
- There is Mercato delle Erbe a great place to shop for food and lunch.
- Mercato Ritrovato – A good weekend market to pick up cheese and wine
- Merctato di Mezzo – it's Bologna's original market and the oldest surviving market
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.
18. Bologna Food Tours
We ate until our heart's content in Bologna, and the best way to get acquainted with Bologna cuisine is to take a food tour.
You will find some of the best Italian food in Bologna and the way to experience it is with a food tour.
There are some suggested food tours to take.
The best way to visit Bologna is through your stomach. We use Get Your Guide to book tours around the world.
Most tours have free cancellation within 24 hours of the activity and they take last minute bookings also.
Bologna 3- Hour Secret Food Tour – Starting in the Quadrilatero area of Bologna, this tour takes you through a gastronomy tour of balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano, and other cheeses and charcuterie samples. You'll also visit Bologna's oldest tavern.
3.5 hour food and walking tour – This is a good orientation to Bologna with a food twist. Starting at the Fountain of Neptune near Piazza Maggiore you will continue on to 5 tasting experiences including tasting torta di riso (rice cake) in Bologna's oldest bakery
Traditional Guided Food Tour – This unique food tour gives you the chance to learn of Italian food in the traditional sense.
FICO Eataly Food Tour – FICO Eataly is the largest food park in the world! Here you will learn about Italian agro-food diversity.
Start in the fields to learn about the Italian crops and then head to FICO Eataly to talk to artisans and farmers.
Finally finish off by tasting at 3 different food kiosks
What to Eat in Bologna
- Aged Balsamic Vinegar – Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is made in Emilia Romagna and aged up 24 months!
- Parmesan Cheese – Parmigiano Reggiano is made to perfection here and aged up to 7 years!
- Mortadella – Mortadella is the original Bologna. Yep, that's where our luncheon meats came from as kids. Only in Bologna, it is called Mortadella.
- Gelato – the best gelaterias in Italy can be found here and the gelato museum and gelato school is in Bologna. This is the best place to try it in the country.
- prosciutto di parma – Great care goes into this cured ham. Pigs are fed a special diet of cheese whey from Parmigiano Reggiano and after slaughter, their legs are sent where it is immediately salted and stored. For cured meats, this is the creme de la creme.
- Pastas – Bologna is the birthplace of many kinds of pasta including tagliatelle, cappelletti, taglioni, tortellini, and lasagne.
- Tortellini – Bologna is famous for its handmade pasta and Tortellini stuffed with meat is its specialty.
- Tagliatelle al Ragu – Bolognese sauce was invented in Bologna. And tagliatelle al Ragu is a fancy name for spaghetti bolognese. But in Bologna they don't use spaghetti which isn't really a part of their cuisine, instead, they use tagliatelle.
Day Trips from Bologna
Bologna is central to many amazing places. Its easy to travel by train anywhere from Central Train Station.
We took many day trips from Bologna to nearby towns and into the countryside.
Therea re a few of our favorite day trips around Bologna.
There are many things to do in Modena including the cathedral and museums. Learning of Balsamic vinegar and visiting the birthplace of Luciano Pavoratti.
But its the Ferrari Museums that really caught our attention.
Modena is famous for Ferrari and here you can visit the Ferrari museums. Ferrari is such a huge part of the culture that there are actually 2 ferrari museums. One in Modena and one in Marinello.
One is going to Enzo Ferraris home and the futuristic museum next door. And the other is a 30 minute shuttle away to view a huge Formula 1 Museum.
Auto Dromo di Modena
Once you've had your fill of seeing Ferraris, go to the Auto Dromo di Modena to drive a racing Ferrari around the track with a professional driver.
It is awesome!
- Read all about our experience at the museums and on the track here.
Maranello Ferrari Museum
Maranello is home to the Ferrari museum and it's a shame that more people don't stay for a while to see the beauty of the region.
Most pop into town, see the museum and head on to the next tourist stop on the list. But you know what?
This is a rare gem of Italy that calls for a stay of at least a couple of days.
20. Cycling Maranello
Vineyards are everywhere in Emilia Romagna, it's natural for families to have their own fine wine on hand.
This is an excellent place to take a cycling tour of The Apennines
Our cycling tour took us through the countryside were we stopped at a vegetable stand to eat fresh tomatoes and then made our way to Spessano Castle.
We cycled up and down and up and down until we reached sanctuary at the Spessano Castle.
This castle is worth stopping for and should not be rushed. We've been to a lot of castles, but this one was quite special.
We were enthralled with the Sala delle Vedute, a meeting space displaying a panoramic painting of local castles and villages from the Medieval times.
We were surrounded by the view of what it was like in these foothills centuries ago.
The Spezzano Castle dates back to the 1200's and much of the furniture, art and design is as old as the building itself.
21. Little Venice – Commachio
Bologna has its own hidden canals that you can search for.
They are on everyone's “things to do in Bologna lists” but we didn't' find them overly impressive. Venice has the impressive Canals, not Bologna.
But, there is a town called Commachio that is a good day trip from Bologna that is known as the Venice of Emilia Romagna.
It is a town built on 13 different islets connected by waterways and canals.
Sophia Loren filmed a movie here, there is a fishing museum that is fascinating to visit and the town is famous for eel. Try some when you visit!
22. San Marino
San Marino is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a beautiful medieval town that is its own nation.
It is a sovereign nation that is completely surrounded by Italy and it's not too far from Bologna.
San Marino is considered to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita.
It only has about 30,000 citizens within its small radius of 61 square km but they all do very well in tourism, industry, and finance.
It is a great day trip or overnight trip from Bologna.
- Read about our trip to San Marino from Bologna here.
Did you know? Bologna is called the wise the red and the rich.
- The Wise – Housing the oldest university in the world.
- The Red – The city's famous medieval red roofs.
- The Rich – It is known for its rich food and flavours.
- It's name comes from having wisdom – Housing the oldest university in the world.
Bologna is a special place to visit and a great place to base yourself on any trip to Italy. These are the reasons why.
More Information on Bologna Day Trips
For more information on cycling Maranello, visit Trekking Italy
For hotels in Montesa visit Hotel Belvedere
Trains from Bologna to Vignola are one hour and cost about 6 Euro booking can be made at Trenitalia.com
Recommended Bologna Hotels
Grand Hotel Magestic – The only 5 Star hotel in Bologna located right in the heart of downtown free WiFi & breakfast buffet.
Metropolitan Hotel – Modern hotel at affordable prices located downtown with breakfast included.
Traveling to Italy? Get the Rick Steves Travel Guide
Bologna is part of the top 20 things to do in Italy according to the Lonely Planet Travel Guide
Italian Phrase Book – Italian's are some of the friendliest people on earth and love to talk. Learn a bit of their language for a better experience.
How to pack for a European vacation – We give our best tips for packing for Europe from what to bring and how to pack it. With video too!
Universal Power Adapter for all your electronics in one place
How to Get to Bologna
You can fly direct into the Bologna Airport from International and European destinations.
It is also easily accessible by train. We travelled to Bologna by train and took most of our day trips from Bologna by train.
More affordable international flights are probably best served to Florence, Venice or Pisa where you can take the train to Bologna.
Recommended Tours in Bologna
Get your Guide – Great booking site for tours and discounts around Bologna. Here are suggested tours by them.
Ferrari Tour – Emilia Romagna is home to Ferrari, so see it in style like a local wit this full day food and Ferrari.
Airport Transfer – Get to and from the airport with easy for only $57 per group.
Gelato Tasting and Bike Tour – Two of our favourite things. Gelato and cycling. The best gelato is made in Bologna. See the city and sample the treats.
Private Guided Walking Tour – The Best way to see the city is on a guided tour. Customize it yourself on your own private tour. Bologna is an easy city to walk.
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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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