The Insider's Guide to Bologna
Food & Wine
Arts & Culture
Bologna is the lively, historic capital of Emilia-Romagna. It is a city of the perfect size, just small enough to be able to walk or bike everywhere but big enough so that one is never bored. Walking around is especially fun as there are 62 kilometers of porticos in Bologna, lending it a unique look and ensuring that you’re almost always under an arcade. Most of the buildings are a beautiful ocher color with deep burgundy window awnings. A beautifully preserved Renaissance city and a thriving cultural center today, Bologna does not disappoint.
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Where to stay in Bologna
Grand Hotel Majestic già Baglioni
A timeless gem in the heart of Bologna that combines sophistication, charm, exceptional hospitality and a rich history dating back to the 18th century.
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NH Hotel Bologna de la Gare
Enjoy contemporary comfort and convenience at NH Hotel Bologna de la Gare, where stylish accommodations, modern amenities, and a prime location near Bologna's central train station offer a delightful stay in the vibrant city of Italy.
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Things to do in Bologna
Start in the Piazza Maggiore, the heart of Bologna, where you will find Renaissance buildings like the City Hall, the Basilica of San Petronio, its facade still unfinished, and just adjacent in the Piazza Nettuno, a larger-than-life statue of Neptune. Note carefully, Neptune’s trident has been adopted as the symbol for Maserati cars, produced nearby in what is known as Italy’s Motor Valley. Ducato, Ferrari and Lamborghini all hail from this area. The very helpful tourist office is also located in the Piazza. In the evening, the al fresco tables of the surrounding bars are a popular destination for an aperitivo and people watching. Just beyond the Piazza down the Via Rizzoli you will see the two leaning towers, the 11th Century Torre Asinelli and the Garisenda.
Bologna is known as “The Fat” for its well-known love of food. Emilia-Romagna is home to Prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar from Modena and some of the best mortadella on the planet. The famous bolognese ragù hails from this area. s does tortellini in brodo and parmigiana reggiano cheese. The Mercato di Mezzo market is a lively, indoor food market where you can sample many of the regional specialties. Try a charcuterie board piled high with local salumis, prosciutto, mortadella, porchetta, fresh cheeses and tigelli bread. Aperol spritzes are popular here and microbrewed beers are having their day.
Bologna is also known as “The Red” for its terra-cotta colored buildings and red awnings but also for its liberal-leaning politics. As far back as the Holy Roman Empire, Bologna was a free commune. Since the 12th Century, as it has expanded as an industrial hub, Bologna has given rise to a workers’ rights movement. During WWII, it was at the heart of the Resistance movement and was a stronghold for Italy’s Communist Party for a long time afterwards. That history is reflected in the street art. Almost every metal gate and set of doors has been turned into a mural. Many pay homage to Bologna’s political past. You can spend an entire day walking around and looking at these creative pieces all over the city. Emilia-Romagna also happens to be one of the wealthiest and most developed regions of Italy and Europe.
Bologna is called “The Learned” as the University was founded in 1088 and continues to attract students from all over Europe. Their presence ensures a lively atmosphere, inexpensive food options and lots of fun nightlife. Don’t be surprised should you walk out into the Piazza-Maggiore after dinner to find a free concert by Simple Minds going on in the piazza. It’s happened to me! The Via del Pratello is where you will find the latest bars and hip eateries. Note the incredibly beautiful and interesting murals painted on the security gates of every storefront.
To get ready for a busy day, start with a visit to the classic Café Pasticceria Gamberini. Coffee is an art form here and the assortment of sweet and savory pastries is amazing. They also serve good sandwiches for a quick lunch. Order at the counter and then grab one of the outdoor tables to enjoy some people watching while you wait to be served. These Bolognese dress extremely well.
For your dose of culture, the Bologna Welcome Card provides a discounted admission to most museums in Bologna over a set number of days for a single price. The Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna contains a seemingly never-ending assortment of historical and archeological artifacts and remains. The Museum d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMBO) has a huge Morandi collection and many contemporary Italian works. The Pinacoteca Nazionale features Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque works. There are museums about the history of Bologna, about industry, even about gelato.
When you’re ready for a break, head over to FICO Bologna - basically a theme park that revolves around food! Demonstrations, cooking classes, tastings, and a plethora of local products available for purchase and consumption. This is every foodie’s idea of heaven.
A trip to Bologna would not be complete without some shopping. The city is teeming with everything from chic designer boutiques on the Via Indipendenza and Via Rizzoli to affordable vintage shops near the university buildings. There are some wonderful places to buy cookware and kitchen implements. Of course, there is nothing like Italian gold and jewelry design.
Places to eat & drink in Bologna
Restaurant Diana: Since the 1920’s, Diana has been the go-to place for a quintessential tortellini in brodo and other Bolognese classics. The lasagna is heavenly.
Mò Mortadella Lab: The place to go for an amazing mortadella sandwich. My favorite is mortadella topped with pomodorini (little tomatoes) and rucola (arugula).
Ahimè: If you would like to try a creative approach to Bolognese cuisine, focusing on farm-to-table inspired dishes, this is the place.
Need to Know
Looking for more travel tips? Check out my guide to Pesaro & Urbino, Italy's Secret Gems.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Italy.