Bologna is a cute food-filled town in northern Italy that we visited in the wintertime. It is a city packed full of things to do that you should totally include on your trip to Italy.
Bologna should be called the town of food, because it seems that all of the most popular Italian foods come from Bologna and the surrounding area. We spent a day exploring Bologna, the history, and food.
Bologna is one of the last major cities in Italy that I hadn’t visited, so I was really excited when we were able to visit.
Fun fact: Bologna is NOT pronounced in the way that in English we tend to pronounce the meat called Bologna. It’s pronounced “bo-lone-yah”
Personal story about Bologna: When I was teaching English in Italy in 2016, one of my host families was excited to share a local meat with me, telling me how it was a local meat originating from a city near them. I asked the name. “Bologna” was the name. so yes, Italians eat bologna from Bologna.
About Bologna, Italy
Bologna is located in the region of Emilia-Romagna and is known for multiple things including their delicious food and for having the oldest university in the world. The city of Bologna has a deep and lengthy history over the past 1000 years.
What is Bologna known for?
Bologna is most known for their meat sauce (ragu Bolognese), tortellini in broth, preserved meats, and balsamic vinegar.
Does bologna actually come from Bologna?
Yes! While the bologna meat we know in the United States does not exactly exist in city of Bologna, the meat mortadella from Bologna is essentially the grandfather of our American bologna.
Getting To Bologna, Italy
Since Bologna is one of the larger cities in Italy, there are multiple ways to get there.
I am a big fan of car travel since it allows you to have flexibility in where and when you can stop. There’s a ton of stuff off the beaten track that you can essentially only stop at if you are driving a car. The best way to drive to Bologna would be to start your trip at either Milan or Venice.
I would recommend researching where to park before arriving to Bologna as many of the streets near the city center are very tiny or for pedestrians only. We parked at the Garage San Pietro, which is pretty close to the main square. Your accommodation may also have parking, so be sure to check with where you are staying.
Note: flying to Milan and renting a car is usually one of the cheapest ways to get to most places in northern Italy.
If you are in any major city prior to getting to Bologna, you can take a train to arrive to Bologna. The most popular train route is likely Milan to Bologna as there are the fast Italian trains (frecciarossa) running this route. You could also take a train from Venice, Florence, or even Rome.
Book your tickets through TrenItalia’s website. I don’t recommend booking your ticket through any other external site as it is usually more expensive and can cause problems if the train time is changed or other changes occur.
Note: Often Italian trains can be a little unpredictable with times and are often delayed. Keep this in mind if you are booking a train journey directly before a flight (like you’re returning to Milan by train from Bologna and your flight leaves from Milan that evening). Allow some extra time with train journeys in case your journey is delayed or changed.
Bologna does have an airport. Strangely, sometimes flying to Bologna can be one of the cheapest flights into Italy at certain times of year (but this is not common, I have only seen it a few times over the last ten years). The Bologna airport is Airport G. Marconi Bologna BLQ. You could also fly a small regional flight from Milan or Rome to arrive in Bologna if you prefer flying.
If you’re wanting to fly to Bologna, I recommend looking on Google Flights to find the days and times with the best prices, but then booking directly on the airline’s website. Flying to Bologna will usually always be more expensive than flying to Milan and taking a train, but it doesn’t hurt to check Google flights, just in case there’s a cheap fare to Bologna.
Things to See in Bologna, Italy
All of these places in Bologna are within walking distance and can be seen in the order that they are listed.
The main piazza (aka square) Bologna is Piazza Maggiore. Here are most of the most popular attractions in Bologna. The square is surrounded by historical and government buildings. The Piazza Maggiore makes a great place to start your tour of Bologna since it has many of the places that you will want to see close by.
If you have the time, I recommend taking a coffee or pastry from one of the bars in the square, so you can relax, see all of the surrounding buildings, and people watch. Throughout the year, there are often events or concerts held in the square as well.
Basilica San Petronio
The most famous church in Bologna is the Basilica San Petronio. It has an interesting history, as you can imagine from the strange appearance in completely different styles on the front façade. It took centuries to build the cathedral, especially with the corruption of certain leaders throughout time.
Inside the cathedral is filled with ornate frescoes and various features. One of the most interesting things to me was the “meridian line.” There is a meridian line laid in stone on the floor of the cathedral, most visible close to the exit. The line is 219 feet long and tells the time of year and placement of things in the solar system depending on where the sunlight lands on the line when it enters through a hole in the church wall. It is the longest meridian line in the world. You can read more about the meridian line on the cathedral’s website.
You can enter and walk around inside the cathedral for free throughout most of the day.
The University of Bologna and Anatomic Theater
One of the coolest unique things that we did in Bologna was see the University of Bologna and the anatomic theater. The University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world that is still functioning. You can visit the anatomic theater of the University of Bologna.
The anatomic theater is where bodies were dissected for medical students to learn human anatomy almost 500 years ago. While there are no gruesome bodies, there is the marble table in the room that was used. There are a ton of wood carvings of historical figures in medicine and an interesting carving of the “skin-less man” that shows his muscles and anatomy. Since I am interested in medicine, seeing the anatomical theater was really interesting to me.
The ticket for the anatomic theater also allows you to see Stabat Mater Hall of the University of Bologna.
The cost of the ticket is 3 euros. You can make reservations online if you know the date of your visit. As of 2023, it is closed on Sundays, but open all other days of the week. See the University of Bologna’s website for more information on the hours and open dates.
The Quadrilatero is an area of Bologna, not far from the main square, with small streets packed with stores and little markets. It is a bustling area, full of food and people, but definitely worth walking through. Even if you don’t plan on eating, walking through to see the colors is reason enough to visit. I recommend walking the street “Via Pescherie Vecchie” as it is one of the quaintest streets in the Quadriletero.
My favorite shops are the ones with bins of handmade tortellini in the window, giant Parma hams hanging from the ceiling, and bright fresh vegetables in boxes outside. There are many different places to eat and try different foods. We decided to buy a kilo of handmade speck tortellini to eat with broth at home, but I imagine any place you could eat there would be delicious.
Due Torre (the Two Towers)
The Two Towers are tall icons of Bologna, towering over the town. The tallest tower is called Asinelli Tower and the shorter tower is called Garisenda Tower. The towers have had many purposes over the years. From the top of the towers, you can have sweeping views of the whole city.
You can ascend the Asinelli Tower (the taller of the two). It has 498 steps and requires tickets to go to the top. The tickets cost 5 euros and MUST be reserved in advance. We didn’t realize that you have to buy the tickets way in advance, and we were unable to go up on our visit because they were sold out. To book your tickets, check out the Bologna Welcome website.
Bologna used to be full of canals, similar to Venice. However, over the years, the canals have been closed and the remaining ones have been hidden from public view. The “Finestrella” is one of the only places in Bologna to see the canals in the way they were hundreds of years ago.
In Italian “finestrella” means “little window” and that is exactly what it is. It is a window in a wall that opens up to show a canal between colorful houses. It is a popular place, so there may be a line depending on the time of day you visit. Across the street, you can see part of the same canal without the window (and without the line).
The Torre Guidozagni is located not too far from the city center. The tower would make a great stop on your way to or from the Finestrella. It is an old tower located on a small cobblestone street. It is an old historic tower with informational plaques outside. You can walk up to it and around it, but cannot go inside. It is just something to walk by, but is on interesting cobblestone streets and feels away from the crowds.
Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro
Close to the main square and on one of the main streets of stores, you will find the San Pietro Cathedral. The cathedral is full of frescoes and art. Parts of the cathedral have been here since the 1100’s. It is primarily in Baroque style. As most cathedrals throughout Italy, it is free to enter and open throughout most of the day, but you must be quiet and respectful as you walk around.
A portico, which means porch in English, is something you can find all over Bologna. The city is known for its porticoes which are essentially just covered walkways throughout the city, usually along the side of a building. There are so many porticoes in Bologna that they were named an UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 62 kilometers (almost 39 miles) of the porticoes!
If you visit the city center, you will see a ton of porticoes, so you don’t necessarily need to seek out to find the porticoes. We visited Bologna on a rainy day, so it was great to be able to walk under the porticoes and see the city without getting drenched.
Of course these places to see don’t even scratch the surface of all of the places to see in Bologna, but are the main places you must see if you’re in Bologna. I recommend wandering around and don’t be afraid to stop at any place that looks interesting, even if it isn’t on your itinerary! There are so many awesome places to see and you never know, your favorite site may be the one that you didn’t expect to see!
Visiting Italy? Check out some of my other posts about amazing places in Italy:
I hope that this post helps you to plan your trip to Bologna! Let me know if you have any comments or questions below!
Thanks for reading!