These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Food, food and more food – Bologna’s role as Italy’s gastronomic capital is very much in evidence with markets, delis and eateries every which way you turn. Raise your eyes from the goodies, however, and you’re rewarded with one of Italy’s best preserved medieval centres with a wealth of majestic palazzi and towers, including the distinctive pair that is the city’s most iconic symbol. Another feature that characterises Bologna are its porticos, nearly 40km altogether (including the world’s longest), ensuring protection from the rain and snow as well as from the hot summer sun.
Climb a medieval tower for a bird’s eye view of the city
A couple of dozen of the 100 or so towers that defined Bologna’s medieval skyline, built both for defence and prestige, are still standing. The pair known as Due Torri are an iconic city symbol and while the shorter, Garisenda tower leans wildly, the 100m Asinelli tower also has a slight tilt: climb the 498 steps for wide open views.
Insider’s tip: For more tower-top panoramas go up the San Pietro cathedral bell tower, the clock tower of Palazzo d’Accursio in Piazza Maggiore and Torre Prendiparte (open the second and fourth Sunday of each month).
Tuck into tasty market treats
Bologna’s colourful food markets are more than just for buying supplies, they’re ripe with atmosphere and flavour. Just off Piazza Maggiore the knot of alleys of the Quadrilatero has sold foods since medieval times; nowadays the delis, butchers and fishmongers serve their specialities too. The more spacious Mercato delle Erbe, where produce stalls take centre stage and eateries occupy the wings, is the locals’ choice.
Insider’s tip: If you’re around on a Saturday morning (Monday evening in summer) don’t miss Mercato Ritrovato, a farmers’ market with more, including cookery and craft classes, children’s activities and streetfood that’s anything but run-of-the-mill.
Absorb the history of Bologna with a multi-sensorial experience
Housed in the imposing Palazzo Pepoli, medieval home to the Pepoli family, former local rulers, the innovative Museum of the History of Bologna provides an engaging and immersive experience into local culture and history from Etruscan times to the present day and beyond. There’s no room for boredom with interactive, multimedia and virtual reality displays; the city of water room is spectacular.
Insider’s tip: The interior of the palazzo itself is attractive with original decorations and frescoes. One area is dedicated to mortadella, Bologna’s famous aromatic sausage, that’s been made here since ancient times, with production first regulated in 1661.
Contact: 00 39 051 19 93 63 70; genusbononiae.it
Discover world-class art and history
Often overlooked despite its exceptional art and history, the Basilica of San Domenico was built by the Dominicans over the smaller church where their founder died. Artworks include the ‘Mystical Marriage of St Catherine’ painted by Filippino Lippi and the tomb of St Dominic richly sculpted by Nicola Pisano with three sculptures by Michelangelo added later. The young Mozart played the organ still present in the Rosary Chapel.
Insider’s tip: The church’s magnificent inlaid wooden choir by Renaissance friar Damiano da Bergamo depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments was described by contemporaries as the eighth wonder of the world.
Contact: Piazza San Domenico; 00 39 051 64 00 411
Opening times: Mon-Fri 9am-12pm & 3.30pm-6pm; Sat 9am-12pm & 3.30-5pm; Sun 3.30-5pm
Learn pasta perfection
What better souvenir than a new skill? Bologna’s deeply engrained passion for fresh pasta is thriving, with more professional pasta makers than ever before – many locals continue to make their own at least for special occasions. An abundance of courses are available in private homes, cookery schools and professional kitchens; the CIBO school shares a premises with the historic Trattoria del min central Bologna.
Insider’s tip: The official versions of more than 30 traditional recipes, including tortellini and green lasagne, are registered at Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce; there’s even a strip of gold showing the ideal dimensions of tagliatelle (8mm wide after cooking).
Contact: 00 39 370 36 98 230; cookingclassesinbologna.com
From piazza to piazza
Piazza Maggiore is the hub of city life as in Roman times when the forum was here. The huge San Petronio basilica dominates, while Palazzo d’Accursio houses the city hall and municipal art collection. Opposite the church, the arches of Palazzo del Podestà host whispering corners and link to Piazza Nettuno with its grand 16th-century Neptune fountain and Salaborsa library, which has an underground archaeological site.
Insider’s tip: While Neptune’s trident provided inspiration for the Maserati sports car logo, the dialect name for the giant statue, Zigant, has been adopted by local winery Lodi Corazza for their Pignoletto Superiore DOCG.
Contact: 00 39 051 65 83 111; bolognawelcome.com
Explore the Seven Churches
Legend has it that San Petronio, the city patron, built the oldest (4th century) of the succession of adjoining churches that makes up the Santo Stefano, or Sette Chiese, complex. Features include a two-tier Romanesque cloister, supposedly a favourite spot of Dante’s when in Bologna, the octagonal Basilica del Sepolcro and the curious tomb of a tailor, bearing real scissors, in the courtyard.
Insider’s tip: From the cobbled, triangular Piazza Santo Stefano, where a popular antiques market is held the second weekend of each month, walk through the elegant Corte Isolani arcade of smart shops, cafés and galleries to Strada Maggiore.
Contact: 00 39 051 32 09 065 699; abbaziasstefano.wixsite.com
Take the pilgrim’s trail
A city symbol and beacon to homecoming Bolognese, the round baroque basilica of San Luca stands proud on a hill south-west of the city. If you have the time and energy walk (or run!) the steep, three-mile route from the centre which includes the world’s longest portico, with 666 arches; alternatively take the land train from Piazza Maggiore.
Insider’s tip: Just beyond the church the Vito bar and pizzeria is the perfect place to relax and refuel at the top while the Mia Cantina wine bar is ideal for rewarding yourself on your way back, once you’re down the hill.
Contact: 00 39 051 61 42 339; santuariobeataverginesanluca.it
Speed and style: go behind the scenes at the Ducati factory
Italy’s most stylish and powerful motorcycles have always been made at this factory founded by the Ducati brothers nearly a century ago. Book in advance for a factory tour to see the bikes being put together (it’s all done by hand) and learn some intriguing insights – fascinating even if engines aren’t your thing. The on-site museum hosts winning bikes from the 1940s to the present.
Insider’s tip:Although the historic motorcycles on display at the museum are no-go, there are also four of the latest Ducati models at the museum reception for visitors to get on and try for size.
Contact: 00 39 051 64 13 111; ducati.com
Make your own gelato
Carpigiani, the Bologna-based producer of ice-cream dispenser machines used all over the world, has an on-site museum on the history of ice-cream. Book a tour combined with a tasting and making session to learn the difference between gelato and ice-cream, find out how tastes and techniques have changed over history, make your own gelato and enjoy the results. There are fun family experiences too.
Insider’s tip: The site’s café-gelateria serves fresh flavours made daily, including savoury gourmet gelato; excess is donated to charity. The Gelato University where professionals from all over the world train and perfect their skills, is here too.
Contact: 00 39 051 65 05 306; gelatomuseum.com