Bologna isn’t a common feature on most tourists’ Italian itineraries and for that reason, it is a city that has long been one of the best-kept secrets of northern Italy. When I was planning a little Italian getaway last month because I won a trip to Florence, I was keen to extend my stay an extra couple of days and see another nearby city because, well, who can get enough of Italy, really? Pouring over Google Maps for travel inspiration, I realised that the nearest and largest city to Florence was Bologna to its north and only a one hour train ride away. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Bologna, but when I began looking into it, I knew instantly that this was definitely the city for me. With a reputation of serving the best Italian food in all of Italy, with its young and lively university-town vibe and its noticeable lack of tourists, this was a city I was instantly grateful I visited. Here are 10 reasons I loved Bologna and why you will too.
1. The food
With a nickname like ‘La Grassa’, translating to ‘the fat one’, Bologna is renowned for its cuisine and has one of the richest culinary traditions in all of Italy. This is the hometown of ragù Bolognese, tortellini, tagliatelle and mortadella as well as being one of the best places to sample parmigiano reggiano (produced nearby), cured meats and balsamic vinegars from the wider Emilia-Romagna region. This is definitely the city that will make all of your Italian food dreams a reality .
2. The porticoes
Bologna is famous for its porticoes, the covered medieval passageways that stretch along the arcades all across the city. An impressive 40 kilometres of porticoes protect pedestrians from all manner of weather conditions as they go about their daily lives. This unique architectural feature dates back to the 11th century when the establishment of the first university created the need for additional public housing. These porticoes were built primarily to extend the living space of the dwellings above. The most famous portico is the portico of San Luca, which stretches for almost 4km and is made up of more than 600 arches! Today the porticoes of Bologna are a revered UNESCO World Heritage site.
3. It’s not touristy
With the majority of tourists flocking to the nearby big hitters of Florence and Rome, which are completely overrun, Bologna has retained a distinctly local feel, with some even calling it Italy’s most underrated city. There are markedly fewer tourists in Bologna, giving visitors the sense that this is indeed the ‘real’ Italy.
4. It’s home to Italy’s tallest leaning tower
While the Leaning Tower of Pisa may be Italy’s most famous tilting tower, the tallest leaning tower can be found in Bologna. The Tower of Asinelli is located in the centre of the city was constructed during the 12th century and reaches an impressive 97 m high. The smaller leaning Tower of Garisenda stands next door and leans at an even more precarious angle. While the Leaning Tower of Pisa will set you back an €18 entry fee and can require an advance booking months ahead in peak season, Bologna’s Asinelli tower costs only €3 with no need to book in advance and no waiting time; we just walked straight in. The winding, narrow, wooden staircase of 498 steps will have you working off all those extra calories you have delightfully consumed during your stay too — a bonus!
5. The views
After your workout climbing hundreds of stairs to the top of the Tower of Asinelli, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views across the entire city and Emilia-Romagna region. Seeing the red, terracotta rooftops of Bologna stretch out below immediately helps you to understand partly why another of Bologna’s nicknames is ‘La Rossa’ or ‘the red’ (the nickname also relates to the colour of the ragù sauce as well as Bologna being a stronghold for left-wing politics). With the gently rolling, green hills of the countryside framing the city in the distance, the vista truly is worth the hike!
6. The Archiginnasio
The Archiginnasio (Greek for ‘first school’) is the first seat of the University of Bologna which was established in 1088, making it the oldest university in the western world. Be sure to visit the fascinating Teatro Anatomico, the 17th century anatomical theatre where corpses were dissected for the first scientific studies of the human body. This practice had long been prohibited by the church and it was in this theatre with the first human dissections that our modern understanding of anatomy sprang from. The spruce tiered seats look down to a central marble-topped table where the dissections would take place. Sit for a while and take in the atmosphere of one of the world’s most beautiful anatomical theatres.
7. It’s colourful
Bologna is painted head to toe in warm tones of orange, yellows, pinks and reds. There’s not a dull scene in sight; you’ll have your camera out at every turn!
8. The markets
Being the foodie capital of northern Italy, Bologna’s markets are really something special. No visit to Bologna would be complete without a visit to the markets, of which there are more than one. Famous for its salumerie and spread out amongst a maze of cobblestoned lanes in the medieval Quadrilatero district, the Mercato di Mezzo is the most well known.
9. The parks and gardens
There are many delightful little places to talk a walk through in Bologna. The oldest park in Bologna, the Parco della Montagnola, has been open to the public since 1664 and today is a popular place for performances and outdoor activities. The flights of stairs leading up to the park are impressive.
10. Aperitivo time
End the day with an obligatory aperitivo at one of the many bars dotted all over the historic city centre. Being a city with a large student population, you won’t have any trouble finding one! Order an aperol spritz, a prosecco or a lambrusco, a popular red, sparkling wine in the Emilia Romagna region. Remember that, as is customary in Italy, you will usually be served a plate of snacks to accompany your drink. This will definitely whet your appetite for a delicious dinner ahead!
Looking for somewhere to stay in Bologna? You might like: A Comfortable and Affordable Stay in Bologna: UNA Hotel Bologna.