Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, a city with a beautiful historic center and a number of tourist attractions, but it draws far smaller crowds than other (arguably similar) cities. It’s a stop on the high-speed trains that zip across Italy, too, making it easy to add to many an Italy itinerary. Florence, for instance, is only a half-hour from Bologna, and Milan is just over an hour.
The city’s famous university keeps the atmosphere energetic and fun nearly year-round, though, so this is no sleepy village. Still, my favorite thing to do in Bologna is just wander around, in and out of churches or other historic buildings, and eat. Or wait for my next chance to eat. But for those who want a little more guidance as to how to spend time in Bologna (AKA how to occupy the time when you’re waiting to be hungry again), here are some suggestions.
For more help in planning your trip, don’t miss my Bologna travel guide.
Bologna’s Top Attractions
Piazza Maggiore || creative commons photo by Vanni Lazzari
- Food – In a country known for its superlative cuisine, Bologna is still known as a haven for foodies. It’s from this city (and the surrounding region) that we get such staples as tortellini, parmigiano-reggiano, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, mortadella, and the city’s eponymous lasagne alla bolognese. Eat heartily and unapologetically, and browse the copious food markets and stalls in the Quadrilatero for snacks or souvenirs.
- Piazza Maggiore – Bologna’s main square is big and lined with beautiful buildings. Look for the statue of hometown boy Pope Gregory XIII on one palazzo and the unfinished facade of the Basilica of San Petronio. There are outdoor cafe tables that are great for a short break (and people-watching), too.
- Asinelli & Garisenda Towers – Pisa isn’t the only Italian city with an off-kilter tower. In Bologna, two of the city’s historic towers remain standing – and right next to one another. The Garisenda tower, the shorter of the two, is leaning so far that it’s not open to the public. But La Torre Asinelli is. For a few euro you can climb the stairs for a superb view over central Bologna. They’re known collectively as Le Due Torri, or the Two Towers, and are one of Bologna’s symbols.
- Neptune Fountain – Along with the Two Towers, the Neptune statue atop a fountain on one side of the Piazza Maggiore is another symbol of Bologna. It was designed in part by the sculptor Giambologna and went up in the mid-1560s.
- Basilica of San Petronio – This massive church on one side of the Piazza Maggiore is one of the largest in the world. (It was meant to be the biggest, but the Pope decided it would be unseemly for St. Peter’s to be second to anything else.) The church was a work-in-progress for nearly 200 years.
- Basilica of Santo Stefano – While this sounds like one church, it was originally a complex of seven religious buildings (so it’s known locally as the “Sette Chiese,” or Seven Churches). The complex likely dates from the 5th century.
- Museum of the History of Bologna – Head to the historic Palazzo Pepoli to learn all about Bologna’s past through artifacts as well as high-tech interactive exhibits. Note that although the museum’s displays are only in Italian, there are audio guides available in other languages.
- Porticoes – This is where I suggest that covered sidewalks are a thing to notice. In Bologna, they really are. The gorgeous arched porticoes that cover miles of sidewalks throughout the city center are often quite decorative (making them lovely to look at) and they’re practical. They offer shade in summer and dry corridors in the rain. Just be sure to watch your footing, as sometimes the marble beneath your feet can get slick. Bologna is home to the world’s longest portico at a little more than 2.3 miles (3.4 km), which connects to the Basilica of San Luca.
- Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca – This hilltop church (also called the Basilica of San Luca) involves an uphill walk (see the “porticoes” entry), but you’re rewarded with one of the best views overlooking Bologna.
- Gelato Museum & Classes – Sure, you’re eating plenty of great gelato, but you could take it a step further with a class at the Carpigiani Gelato Museum. Even if you prefer to leave the gelato-making to someone else, the museum is a treat.
- Food Museums – There is a collection of four food museums in the Emilia-Romagna region (of which Bologna is the capital), including one for prosciutto and one for parmigiano-reggiano, all near Parma. One or two could be combined in a pretty easy (and delicious – visits usually include samples) day trip from Bologna, provided you’ve got a car. There’s also a museum for balsamic vinegar in Modena, another easy day trip.
- Eataly World (FICO) – About 20 minutes outside central Bologna is what’s being called “the world’s largest food and agricultural park,” Eataly World (also called FICO). In addition to displays and exhibits from which visitors can learn all about food growing and production, there is an orchard, a vineyard, and active grazing fields. You can take classes, dine in one of the restaurants, or do some shopping.
- Automobile & Motorcycle Museums – Whether or not you’re into cars, you’ve no doubt heard the names Ferrari and Lamborghini. The former’s headquarters (including a factory, museum, and test track) are in Modena, not far from Bologna. The latter’s headquarters (also including a factory and museum) are just outside Bologna itself. And if your fancies tend more toward two wheels rather than four, motorcycle maker Ducati’s factory and museum is also in Bologna.
Guided Tours in Bologna
Weird Attractions in Bologna
Teatro Anatomico at Bologna Unviersity || creative commons photo by Paul Baker
- Chiesa della Santa – This church, also known as Corpus Domini, gets the “Church of the Saint” name from the relic it contains – the mummified body of Saint Catherine of Bologna. She’s been sitting in her chapel in the church since she died in the 15th century. To see her, you’ve got to ring a doorbell and get buzzed in.
- Teatro Anatomico at Bologna University – Bologna’s is the oldest continuously-operated university in the world, founded in 1088. The international student population is what gives the city its vibrant and youthful feel to this day. Even if you’re not a student, though, there are reasons to visit the university buildings. Perhaps the most interesting stop is the Teatro Anatomico, a former theater for medical students to watch the dissection of bodies.
- Hidden Canals – You know Venice has canals, and perhaps you know Milan does, too. But did you know canals once criss-crossed Bologna? You have to work a little harder to find them today, but you can. Head for Via Piella and look for a little window in the wall. Peek through and you’ll see one of the few canals that remains in the city today.
- Prendiparte Tower – A Medieval tower in and of itself isn’t unusual in a city like Bologna, but the Prendiparte Tower has the distinction of being one in which you can spend the night. It’s been converted into a unique B&B – there’s only one (very large, covering several floors) suite. Incidentally, the only tower taller than the Prendiparte in Bologna is the famous Asinelli Tower. The good news for most travelers is that you don’t have to book the room to enjoy the view from its rooftop – it’s included on a special guided tour of the city.