Bologna is one of Italy’s most underrated cities, with many overlooking its charms in favor of the big three – Venice, Florence, and Rome (and increasingly, Milan). But Emilia-Romagna’s capital is a fantastic place for a city break, with plenty to see, do and eat! This list of the best things to do in Bologna is a great start.
Heading to Italy and want to make a pit stop in Bologna? With its magnificent arcades, its tall and imposing towers, charming squares, magnificent palaces, fresco-adorned churches, and the foods for which the city is justly famous, Bologna is a wonderful destination that we often add to our custom Italy itineraries.
Must See Italy Bologna
For centuries, Bologna has acquired many nicknames: “la dotta” (the learned), “la rossa” (the red), “la grassa” (the fat) and “la turrita” (the city with many towers). The first is because Bologna is home to the oldest university in the Western world (founded in 1088). The red is due to the terracotta color of its ancient buildings, ‘the fat’ refers to the goodness of its cuisine. And lastly the city with many towers because it’s estimated that in the Middle Ages Bologna had more than 200 towers symbolizing the wealth and power of its families.
This celebrated Italian city hides amid its porches at the shade of its towers its mysterious charm. Let's find it out visiting the building telling us about a very ancient history, amid museums and works of art, unveiling a century-old wealth, and its cuisine, popular all over the world. Bologna, the exuberant city shows itself little by little. From people-watching in pretty piazzas to exploring beautiful churches, not to mention great food shops and restaurants, here are some of the best things to do in Bologna that you don’t want to miss on your trip to Italy.
Tried & True Local Things To Do In Bologna
The Food in Bologna
Bologna's popularity as a destination has risen sharply recently. Not surprising really; everybody who goes to Bologna comes away an enthusiast for the sophisticated charms of Italy's most food-mad city. The city's delis and food markets, which overflow with gourmet treats, are Bologna's other unmissable shop-op.
Sample local specialties at Tamburini, a gourmet deli and shrine to Bologna's full-on local cuisine. This spot has pretty much all the Italian salumi you could possibly want, from humble mortadella to prized culatello di Zibello. There are cheeses, too (including huge wheels of Parmesan); moist, aromatic torta di riso cake; and a vast selection of fine wines. At the back of the shop, a self-service lunchtime bistro called VeloCibò occupies the former salumeria workshop, where pigs were transformed into tasty treats—if you glance up, you can still see the butchers' hooks on their iron rails.
Explore Piazza Maggiore
Elegant Piazza Maggiore is Bologna’s beating heart, and the perfect place to get your bearings. This huge pedestrian square is the center of Bolognese life. It's a great place for people-watching (locals on their daily strolls, well-dressed workers sitting at café tables sipping their cappuccinos, children squealing at street performers) or for starting a guided tour as most major attractions and historical monuments are within walking distance.
The piazza is also flanked by several architectural gems: the Palazzo d'Accursio (whose clock tower is Bologna's Big Ben), Palazzo Podesta (the city's law court in the 14th century), and the imposing Basilica di San Petronio with its rugged, unfinished facade (which you can read more about below). A smaller square just off the Piazza Maggiore is home to the famous Fountain of Neptune, one of the symbols of the city. Once you’ve had a wander around, take a seat on the steps in front of the basilica and watch the world go by.
Top Tip: During July, an open-air film festival takes place in Piazza Maggiore, with free film screenings each evening. It makes a wonderfully atmospheric setting!
Browse the Food Shops & Stalls of the Quadrilatero
Just east of Piazza Maggiore is a little grid of narrow streets called the Quadrilatero. These cobbled passageways have hosted a market since Roman times, and you’ll still find dozens of specialty food shops, stalls and delicatessens here. Stroll through the streets and you’ll see stacks of mortadella, hand-made pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano, as well as bottle upon bottle of delicious local wine.
Discover the Basilica of Santo Stefano
The Basilica of Santo Stefano was once made up of seven churches, hence its nickname, le Sette Chiese. Nowadays there are just four, but the site is still one of the city’s highlights, with its remaining churches showcasing a variety of architectural styles. The piazza leading up to it is one of Bologna’s prettiest, and there is a beautiful two-floored Benedictine cloister behind the churches that’s a great spot to spend a few peaceful moments.
Visit Europe’s Oldest University
The University of Bologna’s history has been traced back to the 11th century. It has seen many famous faces pass through its halls, from former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus to fashion designer Giorgio Armani. It’s also home to the Orto Botanico, one of the oldest botanical gardens in Italy, and an impressive library with more than a million books and manuscripts and a collection of portraits and 16th-century frescoes – both of which are free to visit.
Tour the Basilica di San Petronio
Bologna's unfinished cathedral is one of Italy's finest and largest Gothic buildings. Of particular note, the main entrance contains a striking collection of bas-relief panels of Old Testament scenes by 15th-century sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. Inside, treasures include the country's oldest organ, an ancient sundial (a small hole in the roof provides the beam of sunlight), archways, historic glass windows, a canopy above the high altar by Vignola, and frescoes by Giovanni de Modena with scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy. The church was originally designed to be larger than St. Peter's in Rome, but the Pope called a halt to construction several centuries after work began. Today, the Basilica's wide steps are a great place to take in the everyday street theater of Piazza Maggiore.
Wander through the Portici
As you walk through Bologna, you’ll notice that many of its buildings are edged with porticoes. These porticoes (portici in Italian), cover almost 40 kilometers and have received World Heritage status from UNESCO. The network is so extensive that you will rarely need to use an umbrella, even in the pouring rain, and if the weather’s hot, they provide welcome respite from the sun!
The portici go back to the flourishing Middle Ages, when merchants began building extensions onto the facades of their palazzos, propped up by wooden pillars; with time, these became the stone arcades we see today downtown. There are more to discover outside the city walls, too. Leading four kilometers up a hillside to the Sanctuary of San Luca is the longest portico in the world, with more than 650 arches. It’s a lovely walk to do and the views from the top are well worth the uphill climb.
Climb the Torre degli Asinelli
More than 200 towers, built by the aristocracy as symbols of wealth and power, once pierced Bologna's skyline. Thirty remain today, many incorporated into later palazzi. Two of them—skewed,157-foot Garisenda and its more upright companion, 321-foot Asinelli—are the city's iconic towers. You can climb Asinelli's worn wooden staircase for a bird's-eye view of the city's medieval ground plan; the 498 steps are a lung-busting workout. But there's a payoff: One of Bologna's best photo ops awaits up top.
When to Go
Bologna, like much of Italy, is best avoided in July and August when the weather is extremely hot and sticky. Spring and autumn are the best times, but the city is atmospheric in winter, too, if you don't mind the cold. And all those protective arcades provide shelter from even the most torrential downpours.
Most of the Old Town is off limits to vehicles. Walking is the best way to get around, and most attractions are near Piazza Maggiore. Visitors intending to drive into the center of town to hotel parking lots should call ahead to their hotel for instructions. Note that daily hotel parking fees can be steep—as high as €50.
In fall and spring, visitors compete with trade fair attendees for the best rooms and tables in town. Check the list of Bologna trade fairs before planning a trip.