“La Dotta”, the Savant or Wise, thanks to the world’s first university, “la Grassa”, the Fat, because of its hearty culinary tradition, “la Rossa”, the Red, for its preference to the socialist political ideas, in the capital of the rich Emilia Romagna region, you can breathe culture around every corner. Even though not always included in a classic Italy itinerary or in the best escorted Italy tours, there are so many things to do in Bologna that you can stay busy for a week and more.
The streets of the historic center are covered with porticoes, which makes it great for walking in both summer and winter. Historical buildings, beautiful squares, majestic churches and charming stores and cafes are the ingredients for a fantastic trip and all included in our easy Bologna guide.
Find the top things to see and do in Bologna
Walk around the “Quadrilatero”
This is the city’s historic center and one of the first things to see in Bologna. The Quadrilatero, Italian for quadrangle, is a square-shaped area delimited by four roads, all capped with covered arches, the 40-km Portici Bologna is famous for that cover most of the city center.
The pulsing heart of medieval Bologna, this area is also known as Mercato di Mezzo, Middle Market, because of its original purpose and exclusive location. The shops, workshops, restaurants, ancient pharmacies and tiny alleys that form the Quadrilatero are contained within the square shaped by these roads: Via Rizzoli, Piazza della Mercanzia, Via Castiglione, Via Farini, Piazza Galvani and Via dell’Archiginnasio.
Step in medieval times at Mercato di Mezzo
Translating into Middle Market, Mercato di Mezzo is the medieval market of the city located right behind Piazza Maggiore. Between ancient workshops still operative, stalls serving street food as well as gourmet dishes and modern trendy stores, a walk around Mercato di Mezzo will give you a sensory overload of medieval times.
While the area is home to a very different range of shops, it’s the culinary tradition the real star. You can find much of the local excellence to try right there or to buy as a souvenir.
Address: Via Clavature 12.
Opening hours: Daily 9 am-12 am.
See Bologna’s towers and climb the Torre degli Asinelli
Bologna is the city of towers and the 12th-century Torre degli Asinelli is the tallest (97.20 meters) and most famous. Located in the historic center next to the Quadrilatero and not far from Piazza Maggiore, it stands right next to the other, shorter, Garisenda tower.
When it’s possible to climb it, it’s a great experience because you can see part of the defensive history of the city as well as a breathtaking view all around, especially on clear days. You can check the official tourism board website to make sure visits to the tower are open to the public and to book.
Visit Piazza Maggiore
Known also as Piazza Grande as famous late Italian songwriter Lucio Dalla called it in a song, Piazza Maggiore is Bologna’s most historical and central square. Surrounded by important buildings, Piazza Maggiore is the pulsing hub of the city and the main hub for its residents from medieval times up to now.
Among the buildings around the 13th-century square are San Petronio Basilica, the municipality seat Palazzo d’Accursio, Palazzo dei Notai, Palazzo del Podestà and Palazzo dei Banchi. Just adjacent is Piazza del Nettuno with its famous Neptune sculpture.
Duck into San Petronio Basilica
If you’ve made it to Piazza Maggiore, it would be a pity if you didn’t enter San Petronio Basilica, the large church that dominates the local view. Even though still to a great extent unfinished, it’s Bologna’s largest church and one of the largest in Italy and in Europe.
Devoted to San Petronio, the saint patron of the city, its construction kicked off in 1390 as the last late-Gothic building in Italy. The interior appears grand and majestic. The large dark red pillars frame the central nave and the side chapels are decorated with stained glass windows and paintings. It won’t take you long to visit, but it will certainly add value to your cultural trip to Bologna.
- Address: Piazza Maggiore.
- Opening hours: Weekdays: 8.30 am-1 pm and 3-5.30 pm. Holidays: 8.30 am-1.30 pm and 3-6.30 pm.
- Ticket: Free entrance, 2 € for photo/video ticket.
Stroll around Bologna’s Portici
Covering some 40 km, the covered arches are one of the reasons that make Bologna famous and a fascinating travel destination in Italy. Turin, too, boasts covered galleries as a royal city where kings and queens liked to walk around without getting wet or too much sun. But Bologna has literally almost all streets of the city center covered with carved and decorated vaults.
To such extent that one of the favorite things to do in Bologna by locals as well as tourists is to simply walk around the street within and out the Quadrilatero to admire the mysterious charm and architecture of its Portici, sip a coffee in a nice cafe, enjoy a traditional meal, go window shopping and snap plenty of pictures.
Pay a Visit to the Complex of the Seven Churches
One of my favorite places to visit in Bologna has been Santo Stefano Basilica, also known as the complex of the seven churches. Wanted by San Petronio himself as a tribute to Jerusalem Holy Sepulcher, this complex includes several worship places such as the 8th-century church of the Holy Crucifix, the church of the Holy Sepulcher, the 13th-century church of the Trinity and Pilate’s Courtyard.
When you enter, you can start wandering through the different areas of the complex from church to church and also visit Pilate’s Courtyard also known as Santo Giardino. it’s in the very city center, less than 10 minutes walk from Piazza Maggiore, so pretty easy to add to your Bologna to-do-list!
- Address: Via Santo Stefano 24.
- Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday: 9.30 am-12.30 pm and 2.30-7 pm (6 pm in winter). Closed on Monday.
- Ticket: Free donation.
Shop and Eat at Mercato delle Erbe
Designed in 1910, Bologna’s traditional Mercato delle Erbe is located in Via Ugo Bassi, the continuation of Via Rizzoli, some 5 minutes walk from Piazza Maggiore. This is the perfect spot for souvenir shopping in Bologna since you can find both fresh goods as well as packaged local foods such as Parmigiano and aceto balsamico vinegar.
But here you can also have a snack or a meal since there are also a few restaurants or you can just order something on the go or to cook in your home if you have decided to rent an apartment in Bologna. And if you are not interested in eating or shopping, you can just enjoy a stroll around its stalls and shops.
- Address: Via Ugo Bassi 23.
- Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 7 am-7.30 pm. Restaurants: Daily 12-2.30 pm and 7 pm-12 am, Sunday 11 am-3 pm.
Try the local food
Ever heard of Parmigiano? What about Lasagna? And what about Tortellini? Prosciutto di Parma and Aceto Balsamico, anyone? All these world-famous goodies of the Italian cuisine originate from the same region, Emilia Romagna, of which Bologna is the capital.
It goes without saying that if you are visiting Bologna, one of the most rewarding things to do is to try its local food. From street foods like piadina to restaurant meals, in Bologna, you are likely to cheat on your diet. A restaurant that we particularly enjoyed in Bologna? Ca’ Pelletti (Via Altabella 15 C/D) for traditional dishes served in a scenic way and cozy ambiance. More options down below at the end of the article!
Take a food tour
If you don’t feel like discovering the local restaurants and foods by yourself, why don’t you rely on a local expert? This might be your best bet towards a deeper understanding and complete food tasting of several delicacies. And when it comes to Bologna and Emilia Romagna, trust us, there is plenty to taste.
As a matter of fact especially if you are staying only one or even two days in Bologna, you probably won’t manage to taste everything on your own, so a guided food tour is your best chance to dig into the local gastronomy and plenty of tasting of different foods. And if you are into wine, a wine tasting tour is what you need since you will also have some food bites.
Soak in art at Palazzo Pepoli History Museum
The museum of Bologna’s history, Palazzo Pepoli is located some 15 minutes walk from Piazza Maggiore. If you are a history buff, you will definitely enjoy the place not only for the actual exhibition but because it’s set in a historical building.
The exhibition includes objects, tools, images and multimedia elements. Since 2019, there is also an area devoted to the Mortadella cold cuts. That’s right, in the Emilia Romagna region they are so proud of their food that it somehow becomes a landmark to visit.
- Address: Via Castiglione 8.
- Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10 am-7 pm. Closed on Monday and on August 8th-24th.
- Ticket: 6€ or free if you have Bologna Welcome Card or Card Cultura.
Discover the hidden canals
Here we haven’t been lucky enough because when we visited Bologna its fascinating hidden canals were dry. But we did manage to find the small window from where you can see them, and if you are sightseeing Bologna in the right season, meaning after winter, around Spring or beginning of summer, you can enjoy the quirky and historical view of the underground canals crossing the city.
You can find the small window in Via Piella 2 off the main road Via dell’Indipendenza.
Whisper to your friend from the opposite side of the building
Without using your smartphone, that is. This is one of the quirky and unusual things to do in Bologna especially if you are traveling in a group. When you are in Piazza Grande, make your way to 13th-century Renaissance Palazzo del Podestà. The big vault of the building stands on top of four large pillars that form four corners.
Under this vault is where this bizarre acoustic effect happens. To try it, stand in one of the corners, face to the wall, your friend in the corner of the opposite pillar, and start whispering: you will hear each other as if you were standing next to one another. This happens because of the shape of the vault which is also the base of the Arengo tower.
Visit San Domenico Basilica
Less than 10 minutes away from Piazza Maggiore and some 5 minutes from Palazzo Pepoli, San Domenico Basilica is worth a stop in case you have some time left and are still wondering what to do in Bologna.
This is one of the richest churches in Bologna for art and history. Built by the Dominican Friars as the place to keep the remains of the order’s founder Domenico da Guzman, the basilica is embellished by masterpieces of artists of the likes of Guercino, Filippino Lippi and Ludovico Carracci. The ark of San Domenico chapel is decorated with sculptures by Michelangelo, Nicola Pisano, Alfonso Lombardi and Niccolò da Puglia.
- Address: Piazza San Domenico 13.
- Opening hours: Daily 8.30 am-12 pm and 3.30-6 pm. On Sunday and holidays: 3.30 pm-5 pm.
- Ticket: Free entrance.
Take a day trip
Much of the Emilia Romagna region is an easy day trip from Bologna. Unfortunately, we stayed only two days in Bologna, so we didn’t get the chance to plan a day trip. But I find the region very fascinating so we are definitely planning a second visit, maybe when our son is older so he can appreciate more his trip.
One of the very first cities I would visit from Bologna is Ravenna, home to several gorgeous sacred mosaics enlisted as UNESCO heritage sites. Although Ravenna is often a day trip from Bologna, I would probably stay longer to see more historical landmarks.
If you are interested in sports cars, what’s a better day trip than to the Ferrari, Ducati and Lamborghini museum and factory to learn everything about the history and craft of these famous cars? Click here for more info and to book. Or here if you’d rather make it a whole Ferrari-day with a visit to the Ferrari museum in Maranello, Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena and also get to test-drive one as well as come back home with a gadget.
To merge all the experiences the Emilia Romagna region is famous for, you can also take a tour that merges food tradition, sports cars, and Italy’s most famous Opera singer, late Luciano Pavarotti in a day trip to Modena.
How to get to Bologna
- By train. The easiest way to get to Bologna from many major Italian cities is definitely by train. We took the train from Florence to Bologna and then we got back home also by train from Bologna to Rome. Bologna Centrale train station is well-connected to both northern and southern Italy making the city an easy stop to include in your itinerary.
- By car. If you are driving to Bologna, you can reach the city via highway easily as it’s surrounded by its ring road (tangenziale) which connects to several motorways. The Autostrade (highway) A1, A13 and A14 connect the city with other major Italian hubs including Milan, Florence, Rome, Venice, Rimini and Ravenna. However, once in Bologna, you need to be careful as it has a pretty large ZTL (Limited Traffic Zone), so you either book your hotel far from the historic center or you enquire where are the parking lots and anyway you prefer getting around by local transport.
- By bus. It’s also possible to reach Bologna by bus from many Italian and European cities and the main bus station is close to the train station Bologna Centrale.
- By plane. The Guglielmo Marconi International Airport is the only one in Bologna and is pretty close to the city center. From the airport, it’s also easy to reach Bologna by car, taxi, and BLQ shuttle bus that connects to Bologna Centrale train station as well as two other stops in the city. BLQ shuttle bus is very handy as the whole journey takes less than half an hour and there are one every 11 minutes starting from 5 am to 11.35 pm. Ticket is 6€.
Where to stay in Bologna – A hotel for every need
- High-end: Grand Hotel Majestic già Baglioni.
- Mid-range: Best Western Plus Tower Hotel Bologna.
- Budget: B&B Mercurio.
Where to eat in Bologna
- Mercato delle Erbe: As mentioned earlier, here you can both sit and relax or grab something on the go. A nice place to stop as it’s also one of Bologna landmarks to visit.
- Ca’ Pelletti: Cozy and delicious restaurant in the city center serving traditional local dishes with a modern twist. We loved its sweets too. Via Altabella 15 C/D.
- Kabulàgna: Afghan restaurant founded by a former refugee serving traditional Afghan cuisine. Via Aurelio Saffi 81/C.
- Bottega Portici: A chain of local-style fast food serving different pasta dishes as well as main courses of meat. Not the most delicious restaurant you can find, but still a favorite among locals because of their very affordable and genuine offers. There are many scattered in the city, so you are likely to end up in one even without looking for it! Via
Tips for a great Bologna trip
- Buy Bologna Welcome Card or Card Cultura. You will have free or discounted access to museums, exhibitions as well as shops and restaurants. Check on their websites all the benefits.
- Book a hotel near the city center. Bologna public transport is pretty efficient, but if you are in the city center you will avoid traffic from the morning and you can just reach your sights walking. Ours was close to the train station so handy and easy to reach from the historic town.
- Plan your itinerary. Bologna historic center is pretty compact, but the many things to see are scattered around so without a plan, you might end up either missing something or wasting time because you find more spots along the way. Check the top things to do in Bologna beforehand and see what’s more interesting to you to optimize your time.
- Book your hotel in advance. Bologna might not be Florence or Venice, but we didn’t find its hotel offer very cheap. In fact, sometimes we even found better offers in Florence. I suggest searching and booking your hotel with some time in advance to find more option location and price-wise.
Rome-based travel writer, blogger and photographer.