A guide for first time travelers to Bologna, Italy , sightseeing, food, shopping and more.
When my cousin told me he’d be in Bologna for business, I jumped at the chance to get on a train and visit. I hadn’t been to Bologna for years and could hardly remember anything about it so, going back this time was as if it was the first time.
Bologna is a one hour train ride from Milan and a 35 minute train ride from Florence. It was easy to get to and I had booked the Star Hotels Excelsior which is conveniently located across the street from the station and a 15 minute walk to the historical center.
We had a fantastic visit and discovered the elegant city of Bologna.
An Elegant City
The Porticoes of Bologna
The most striking thing about Bologna are its porticoes. Marble paved walkways with high arched vaults and columns create and indoor-outdoor gallery throughout the city. Each street and building has it’s own character, elegant and grand in some districts or simple and bare in others, yet the passageways are continuous and guide you through the city. There are 37 km of porticoes in the city center and up to 58 outside the center (in all, that’s two and a quarter marathons!).
The city dates back to ancient times and much of the architecture we see today dates back to medieval times. The tall wooden doors with iron fixtures announce the entrance of once upon a time important palaces.
There are many theories as to why Bologna has all these porticoes. I did a tour of the city with Welcome Bologna, the city tourist office and the guide explained that there is only one theory that has proven to be plausible and well accepted. One of the dismissed theories is that the porticoes protected the vendors of the street market. Another is that they were built in preparation of a royal visit from the King and the porticoes would protect the royalty from the rain or hot sun. But the one theory that is most accepted is that because of the university, extensions were built onto the houses. The University of Bologna opened in 1088 and is considered to be the oldest in the world. Only families of nobility could afford to send their sons to the university, which meant that if you had an extra room to rent, you could ask a pretty penny.
A University Town
The university campus of today is spread through the city and it is not uncommon to see young people hanging out on the steps between classes or meeting for an afternoon coffee before hitting the books. You may see a student wearing a green laurel wreath on his or her head, this means they have just graduated. You can say “Auguri!” (pronounced ow-GOO-ree) to congratulate them.
Halls of Wisdom
The Archiginnasio, in Piazza Galvani, is the original building of the university which today still holds a library and the Anatomical Theater. Walking into the Archiginnasio is like walking into a palace. There is a large open courtyard. The stone walls are covered in family coats of arms of the students that had attended the university. Although impressive to see the many shields of honor, a faint sense of sadness came over me thinking of the lonely, begrudged young men that attended the school just because it was an obligation to fulfill a family tradition. (It wasn’t until 1732, that the first woman, Laura Bassi, graduated with a doctoral degree in physics.) Many of the Italian tourists scanned the wall attentively looking for their family name.
The Anatomical theater is not a stage theater, it’s the antique lecture hall used to teach anatomy which dates back to 1636. It has been restored and rebuilt after being damaged during WWII.
The Anatomical Theater
As part of the tour, we entered into an antique, lecture hall. The room is set up very much like a theater-in-the-round with tiered level wooden benches around a large marble autopsy table. The walls, furnishings and sculptures are all wood, giving an oddly warm feeling to a room where such apathetic, scientific observation took place. The guide explained that the professor would stand at the raised podium while two assistants would be at the table, one to demonstrate the cutting methods while the other would display the organs on a tray and walk around the circle so each student could see the subject. As a keen, crime novel lover, I found this part of the tour particularly intriguing.
More Things to See in Bologna
The best thing to do in my opinion, is to walk around. The Quadrilateral is the historical city center of Bologna. Piazza Maggiore is the main square where you’ll find the Basilica San Patronio, City Hall, and Piazza Re Enzo where you’ll find the Fountain of Neptune. (Sadly, I did not see it as it was covered for renovation). You should also seek out the leaning towers of Bologna, roam the streets and see the market, the specialty food shops and do a little shopping. It’s also great to explore outside the city center, there is history and culture everywhere, and no matter what kind of weather you get, you will be protected by the porticoes. Another option is explore Bologna by bike. There are several bike rental places and tours available.
Basilica San Patronio
The people of Bologna aspired to building the biggest church outside the Vatican, and nearly succeeded. The huge cathedral looms over Piazza Maggiore with an unfinished facade. They either ran out of money or were pressured by higher political powers (or both) to discontinue the work, and the outside remains unfinished. Half brick, half marble you can clearly see where the work was abandoned. There are other churches in Bologna that have unfinished facades as well. Every major church in Italy has a relic, here you will find the head of San Patronio, patron saint of Bologna.
From Hell to the Sun
Inside one of the many elaborate shrines of the Basilica San Patronio is the gruesome, gothic depiction of Dante’s Judgement Day painted in 1410 by Giovanni Da Modena. Although both heaven and hell are depicted, it is Hell that remains etched in my mind: a hideous demon swallowing a human, head first. Photos of the frescoes are not allowed, so I will leave it to your imagination- or you can google the image. There is also the largest sun dial on the planet; 67 meters long. On the top of the dome 27 meters above, a small hole lets in rays of sunlight highlighted by floating dust. I can’t help but imagine myself in a scene out of Dan Brown’s novel.
The Leaning Towers of Bologna
The Asinelli Tower and the Garisenda Tower, named after the families they belonged to stand precariously in the center of town. As the lime and pebble gap filling between layers of the foundation deteriorated, the towers started leaning. The main foundation is selenite stone and is very sturdy. You can climb the steps to the top and see a great panoramic view of the city. Call me a coward…I did not venture up myself, but I did buy a postcard!
“Il Compianto” (Grief) by Niccolò dell Arca
The Santa Maria della Vita church on Via Clavature, holds the sculpture the “Compianto” by Niccolò dell Arca, made in 1463, one of the world’s best preserved terracotta sculptures. Life-size sculptures depicting the biblical scene just after Jesus has been taken down from the cross. He is mourned by loved ones who have dramatic, lifelike suffering on their faces and in their body language.
There is an Italian expression “Ho fatto il giro delle sette chiese”, which literally means, “I have visited the seven churches”. Italians use it to refer to taking on a difficult task that takes a long time to complete. The origins of the saying refers to a long and tiring pilgrimage done during the Easter period. In Bologna the Basilica Santo Stefano is also known as the Sette Chiese (seven churches), it’s a large church divided into seven smaller churches representing the Passion of Christ.
Museums and Art Galleries
If you like museums, don’t miss: The Civic Archaeological Museum Via dell’Archiginnasio, 2, Pinocateca National Gallery Via delle Belle Arti 56, and be sure to visit the latest art exhibit at the Palazzo Fava gallery Via Manzoni, 2.
There is also a Jewish heritage museum, Museo Ebraico Via Valdonica, 1/5 and so many other interesting museums.
Fashion & Shopping
Bologna offers both high-end luxury shopping as well as Main Street shopping. Luxury and designer boutiques can be found in the Galleria Cavour, an elegant glass top shopping center in the heart of the historical center on Via Farini. Go here if you are looking for designer boutiques like Prada, Michael Kors, Falconieri, Emporio Armmani, Church’s, Gucci, Luis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Miu Miu.
For new designers and something original, I found two lovely boutiques; one for men and one for women. The woman’s shop is called G. Zinelli on Via Caprarie, a Bolognese company once a fabric manufacturer, now offering designer clothing for the young, fashionable professional. For men, Lanieri on Via San Vitale 42A is a small bespoke shop for men where you can get measured for a custom-made shirt or suit and they will ship it anywhere in the world! On their website, they offer a $100 discount.
Via dell’Indipendenza has all the Main Street fashion stores like Zara, H&M, Promod, Sisley, Douglas, Carpisa and many more.
If you are looking for designer discounts, The Barberino Designer Outlet (McArthurGlen) is located between Bologna and Florence, just a 45 minute drive from Bologna (30 minutes from Florence).
What to Eat in Bologna
You can’t go to Bologna without trying three things: Tortellini, Tagliatelle Bolognese and Mortadella (Bologna).
Via Caprarie and Via Drapperie are smack in the center of town and are lined with gourmet food shops and grocers, some of which have been there for over 100 years! For someone like me, who has two left thumbs in the kitchen, seeing the perfectly shaped, hand-made pasta was as fascinating as seeing a precious piece of artwork. Generations of tradition and knowledge has been passed down in every single noodle. Book a Food Walking Tour of Bologna or go to the market and cook with a local who will teach you how to cook like an Italian.
I had a lovely dish of Tortellini in Brodo at Fondente Cafe by Eataly at the Star Hotels Excelsior where I was staying.
I had asked a friend for restaurant recommendations and he told me to check out: Alice on Via Azeglio, Cesari or Cantina Bentivoglio (dinner and jazz). I wasn’t there long enough to try them but I will certainly go back.
More recommendations and food facts about Bologna can be found online at Bologna for Connoisseurs Magazine.
Bologna By Bike
Another nice way to see the city is by bike. I came across Dynomo, they do bike rentals, tours, bike parking and repairs. There is also a very cool hangout lounge-bar where you can even ride up to the bar on your bike! Dynomo Via dell’Indipendenza 71/z (near the Steps of Del Pincio).
The Steps of Del Pincio
The Steps of Del Pincio is a grandiose marble staircase at the beginning of Via Indipendenza which leads up to a park. At the base of the staircase is a fountain with a Liberty era sculpture of a goddess. She is Neptune’s wife and surrounded by by beasts of both land and sea. Neptune is found in Piazza del Nettuno at the end of the road in the center of town.
I highly encourage walking around the city- you are sure to find unusual architecture, shopping and curious little corners everywhere.
I found this little plaza near the station, Piazza 2 Agosto 1980. I love the colored brick pattern.
Hotels in Bologna
Here’s a quick overview video of less than 2 minutes: video walk-through of the Star Hotels Excelsior
I stayed at the Star Hotels Excelsior which is conveniently located across the street from the station and a 15 minute walk to the historical center. I had a very comfortable stay. I was able to check in early and at check out I was able to leave my bags in storage and pick them up later in the afternoon. The hotel was clean and the staff were courteous. The restaurant was very good and the room was a comfortable size with a spacious bathroom. (see more on my video channel)
See more hotels in Bologna on Booking.com
Enjoy your visit to Bologna!
This is an independent guide, I did not receive any freebies.