With miles of beautiful porticoes and delicious cuisine, Bologna is a fantastic city to add to your Italy itinerary. Here, you can visit the oldest university in the world, climb its leaning tower for stunning views, and taste the rich dishes for which Bologna is famous. Though, perhaps avoid going during a summer heat wave. In this article, I'll take you through our three days visiting Bologna to inspire your next trip.
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A Bit about Bologna
The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, Bologna is a city rich in history, medieval architecture, and rich cuisine. Its three nicknames give you the perfect idea of what you can expect from the city:
As you explore the city, soak in the historical charm while walking under gorgeous porticoes. Enjoy some of the delicious dishes that originated in Bologna, such as tagliatelle al ragù, lasagne alla bolognese and tortellini stuffed with various yummy fillings. Then, wander over to the east side of the city to experience the "university town" vibe and rowdy nightlife.
When to Visit Bologna
Since I've only visited Bologna once, I'm not an expert on when the best time to visit is. I suspect it's in spring or fall - the shoulder seasons - which are typically the best months to travel in Europe. If you plan to visit Bologna in the summer, however, be prepared for it to be HOT.
During our three-week trip to Italy in July 2022, Bologna was probably the most uncomfortable city (temperature-wise) that we visited. I'm not sure if Bologna is usually hotter than other cities in Italy. But during our visit, a heat wave struck which had temperatures soaring as high as 109°F (43°C). As a result, we did not do as much as we might have if we'd visited during a cooler time of year.
How to Get to Bologna
Getting to Bologna is quite easy and you can do so a number of ways. Although we'd rented a car to drive around Tuscany, we dropped it off in Florence and took the high-speed train to Bologna instead of driving.
Flying to Bologna
If you're visiting Bologna from other cities in Europe, flying might be your best option. The Guglielmo Marconi Bologna Airport primarily caters to flights from various European cities, but flights from further destinations, such as Tel Aviv or Dubai, are also available.
The Bologna airport is 6 kilometers from the center of town and is a quick 7-minute monorail train ride to Bologna Central train station.
Getting to Bologna by Train
On our trip, we found that getting to Bologna via train was quite easy. As a major rail hub in Italy, many high-speed trains to Bologna are available from other cities. Our train from Florence only took 1.5 hours and was a pleasant ride.
Bologna Central Station is just north of the old section of the city and it's an easy walk into town if you don't have much luggage.
Booking Train Tickets: On Rail Europe, I found it easy to check out train schedules, pre-book tickets, and choose seats for our train travel around Italy.
Driving to Bologna
Although getting to Bologna by car is easy since it's well-connected via motorways, I wouldn't recommend trying to drive around Bologna's old town. Many of the streets are prohibited areas and you'll probably end up driving into one and getting a hefty ticket mailed to you later. You can find more information on accessing Bologna by car here. It seems quite complicated and since the train is so easy - that's what I would recommend!
Where to Stay in Bologna
Bologna's old town is quite compact and has a variety of places to stay, including a wide range of hotel and apartment rental options. If possible, I recommend staying in the old town so that you can easily walk to the sights. However, Bologna has an efficient bus transportation system that you can use if you prefer not to walk everywhere.
Recommendation - Hotel Metropolitan
During our visit to Bologna, we stayed at the Hotel Metropolitan, a 4-star hotel in the old town with a gorgeous rooftop bar. Only a 15-minute walk from Bologna Central Station and a 5-minute walk from the Piazza Maggiore, the location couldn't have been more convenient.
The rooms were a decent size for a city hotel and were comfortable. Located on a narrow alley, the view from our room wasn't spectacular as we basically looked into Zara. However, the view from the hotel's rooftop made up for it.
Although we did not have breakfast included, we ate at Rivoli Cafè (in the alley just across from the hotel) each morning. It was a convenient and delicious way to start the day.
Start Searching for a Place to Stay in Bologna
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Day-by-Day Bologna Itinerary
Since we visited Bologna during July, it was hot. Then, the heat wave came and it was worse. So even though we managed to see many of Bologna's beautiful attractions, we did retreat inside during the heat of the day.
In this section, I'll share our full itinerary, complete with the restaurants where we ate each day. Hopefully, it will inspire you to visit Bologna and help you to plan your trip.
Day 1 - Arriving in Bologna
On our first day in Bologna, we arrived in the early afternoon. Then, we spent the afternoon exploring the town a bit on foot.
Traveling from Tuscany to Bologna
We began our day in Montalcino - a beautiful medieval town in Tuscany. Since we'd rented a car to explore Tuscany, we drove back to Florence that morning (~2-hr drive) to return the car. Then, we caught the high-speed train from Florence to Bologna at 12:25 PM.
Although we'd worried about the timing, we made it in plenty of time. Impressive considering that we got slightly lost when trying to return the rental car to the downtown office near the Florence Central train station. Luckily, we managed to avoid the prohibited roads and my dad (who was driving) didn't get a ticket!
The train ride from Florence to Bologna was a quick 1.5 hours. Our only mishap was exiting the Bologna Central Station from the north side, which meant we had to walk around the front of the building to go south towards our hotel. Otherwise, the walk to the hotel would have been ~10-15 minutes.
Lunch at Trattoria Osteria Buca Manzoni
After checking in at our hotel, we quickly tried to find lunch before places closed for the afternoon. Right around the corner from our hotel, we found Trattoria Osteria Buca Manzoni. The food was delicious, the service friendly, and the air-conditioning worked! A great first meal in Bologna.
Exploring Bologna's Porticoes
After lunch, it was a bit warm for my parents, so they returned to the hotel while Jeremy and I ventured out for a walk. One of the things for which Bologna is famous - the porticoes - provided some much needed shade from the hot afternoon sun.
In the historic center of Bologna alone, the porticoes cover more than 38 kilometers (24 miles) and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021. The Portico of San Luca is the city's (and the world's) longest portico at 3.8 kilometers (~2.4 mi) and has roughly 666 archways. It connects the Sanctuary of San Luca to the city center.
Walking under the porticoes is an activity in itself in Bologna. Many of them have beautiful paintings to admire in addition to appreciating their architecture beauty.
Basilica di Santo Stefano
As we wandered under the porticoes, we stumbled upon a very unusual church in the Piazza Santo Stefano. Turns out, it was the Basilica di Santo Stefano and is one of Bologna's top sights to see. This complex of religious buildings spans centuries and incorporates various architectural styles (i.e., Romanesque, Lombard, and Roman elements).
The basilica is also known as Sette Chiese or seven churches, though only four remain today. As you make your way through the maze of buildings, you'll feel like you're entering different periods of history.
The fourth church - Santi Vitale e Agricola - is the city's oldest church and dates from the 11th century.
University of Bologna
My first job when I graduated university was working at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) campus in Washington, DC. This 2-year program is ranked one of the top graduate school programs for international relations in the world. The school also has a campus in Bologna at which some of the students can choose to complete their first year.
After working at SAIS for three years and hearing from students how great Bologna is, I knew I had to visit Bologna while in Italy. But I was also curious to see the actual SAIS building. So, we trekked over in the hot afternoon heat to eastern side of the city where the University of Bologna is located.
Since we could only gawk at the building from the outside, the trip was fairly underwhelming. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see the neighborhood surrounding the university. Despite Jeremy earning his master's degree from SAIS, he completed both years in DC since I couldn't go with him abroad. While we walked around, it was fun to imagine spending his first year in Bologna instead.
Aperitivo at Hotel Metropolitan Rooftop
As I mentioned, one of the great things about our hotel in Bologna was its rooftop. We took full advantage of that and went up for an aperitivo a couple of the nights we stayed in Bologna.
Dinner at Osteria dell'Orsa (Jukebox Cafe)
Afterwards, we went out to find dinner. Since we hadn't made reservations (a common theme), we couldn't get in to Osteria dell'Orsa. However, the Jukebox Cafe is their laidback counterpart next door and serves the same menu. I ordered the traditional Tagliatelle al Ragù and it was good.
If I'm being honest though, I discovered during my stay in Bologna that the traditional ragù sauce isn't my favorite. I enjoyed it well enough, but out of the various dishes I tried in Italy, it didn't wow me the way some of the other dishes did. After reading rave reviews from so many people, I think I'm in the minority with that feeling though!
Day 2 in Bologna
On our second day in Bologna, we tried to get an early start before it got too hot. Since the afternoons were predicted to reach ~105°F (40°C), we knew it was going to be sweltering. We started with a quick breakfast at a café next to our hotel (Bar Igea), then made our way to the Piazza Maggiore.
Basilica di San Petronio
Dominating the Piazza Maggiore is the Gothic-style Basilica di San Petronio. Construction on this basilica began in 1360, but it was never finished and the facade still remains unfinished today.
Pro Tip: If you're planning to go inside the churches, be sure to wear long pants or a dress and cover your shoulders. Following this dress code is not only respectful of local customs, but some churches have staff at the door that will not let you inside if you aren't dressed appropriately.
Bologna Welcome - Buying Tickets
After visiting the basilica, we stopped in the Bologna Welcome Tourist Office - also in the Piazza Maggiore - to purchase tickets for some of the sights. You can also pre-purchase your tickets online. We bought tickets for the Torre dell'Orologio (immediate entry) and the Torre degli Asinelli (for the next day).
Climb Torre dell'Orologio
Once we had our tickets, we climbed the Torre dell'Orologio (Clock Tower) in the Palazzo d'Accursio. This impressive mechanical clock is 6.4 meters (21 ft) in diameter - one of the largest in Italy. It's been marking time in Bologna's main square since the 13th century.
The climb up through the clock tower was not too bad and the 360-degree view from the top of the Piazza Maggiore was worth the effort!
Wander through the Quadrilatero
Starting to get hungry, we wandered through the Quadrilatero district to find a place for lunch. The Quadrilatero district, east of the Piazza Maggiore, is a great place to wander to see lots of markets, cafes, and delis where you can grab a bite to eat.
Lunch at Roberto Bistrot
We found Roberto Bistrot in the Quadrilatero district. We chose to sit inside and the air-conditioning felt amazing! My tuna carpaccio and scialatielli with shrimp and veggies paired with a local Pignoletto white wine was a light and delicious lunch on a hot day.
Pro Tip: When in the Emilia-Romagna region, be sure to try Pignoletto. Pignoletto DOC is an Italian appellation for white wines made in Emilia-Romagna from Grechetto di Todi. It's a delicious white wine, which is very affordable in Bologna and refreshing on a hot summer's day!
After lunch, we returned to the Palazzo d'Accursio to explore the rest of the palace, including the Municipal Art Collections. Located in the former apartments of the Cardinal Legates, this collection includes a plethora of paintings, sculptures, and other exhibits ranging from the Middle Ages to the present age.
Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro
Located just off the Piazza Maggiore on the Via dell'Indipendenza is Bologna's impressive cathedral - the Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro (Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Peter). Although the building dates back to the 10th century, its current appearance reflects the restoration in the early 1600s.
The interior of the cathedral is in the Baroque-style, which is quite grand, and houses several magnificent works of art.
The cathedral's bell tower is the second tallest in Bologna, after the Asinelli Tower. Its bell, known as "La Nonna" is the largest bell that can be rung using the Bologna method of bell-ringing, which entails swinging bells to develop rhythmic patterns.
Anatomical Theater and Archiginnasio Library
Our next stop was the Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio. Constructed in the 16th century as part of the University of Bologna, this palace was home to various lecture halls. Its corridors are adorned with over 6,000 heraldic coats of arms. Since 1838, it's been the home of the Municipal Library.
However, the most unusual lecture hall has to be the 17th-century Teatro Anatomico, which was designed for anatomical lessons. In this beautiful room, instructors dissected bodies as pupils sat in the amphitheater-like seats surrounding the table. Not one for gore, it's a bit nauseating for me to picture.
Luckily, today no autopsies are taking place so you're free to admire the beautiful spruce wood and statues depicting 12 famous physicians. At the front, the Lecturer's desk is flanked by two statues called Spellati or Skinned Men, sculpted by Ercole Lelli.
Although heavily damaged during WWII bombings, this room was immediately rebuilt using the original wooden sculptures which were recovered from the ruins.
Aperitivo at La Prosciutteria
Deciding to try a new place for aperitivi, we stopped at a busy and charming spot called La Prosciutteria. Again, I opted to get an Aperol Spritz and it was delicious and refreshing. Since we were planning to get dinner right afterwards, we only ordered drinks, but it looked like their charcuterie boards would be amazing here.
Dinner at Trattoria del Tempo Buono
For dinner, we chose Trattoria del Tempo Buono after reading so many glowing reviews. We all ordered the Lasange alla Bolognese with mixed reviews. Personally, I found it to be dry and not overly flavorful. Jeremy enjoyed it though. I think my lack of enthusiasm for the ragu/bolognese sauce, or the fact that I was sweltering, might have negatively impacted my opinion though.
Since we didn't have reservations, only inside seating was available. This would have been fine, except the "air-conditioning" was not enough to keep up with the heat. With it not working well and no air flow, it was like sitting in an oven. Not the best to enjoy a heavy meal with red wine and probably tainted the experience for me.
Pro Tip: As a result of our experience, I highly recommend making reservations for outside seating during high season for dinners. If you're sitting outside as the night cools down, it's much more pleasant than sitting inside if the aircon isn't sufficient.
Craft Beer at Zapap Taproom
After dinner, Jeremy and I headed over to the university section of town to grab a craft beer and people-watch. Even during July, that area of town had a boisterous and lively vibe.
Day 3 in Bologna
If we thought our first couple days in Bologna were toasty, they had nothing on our last day. With temperatures of ~109°F (43°C), it was just HOT. If you're visiting Bologna during a heat wave, it's important to get an early start to the day when it's cooler, especially if you plan to climb any of the city's many towers.
That being said, we did not get an early start. Knowing I'm not an early riser, we bought tickets to climb the Torre degli Asinelli for the 10:30am time slot.
Climbing the Torre degli Asinelli
The Asinelli Tower and its shorter twin, the Garisenda Tower, are Bologna's iconic leaning towers. At 97.2 m (319 ft) tall, the Torre degli Asinelli is the tallest medieval tower in the world. Built between 1109 and 1119, it leans at 2.2 m off the vertical and you must climb 498 steps to reach the top.
Comparatively, the Torre Garisenda is only 47 m (154 ft) tall but leans at 3.2 m off the vertical. At the time we visited, it wasn't possible to climb this tower. Although it's still not as tilted as the Leaning Tower in Pisa which is 3.9 m off the vertical.
Thoughts about Climbing Asinelli Tower
Bologna's Asinelli Tower was probably the most difficult tower we climbed in Italy that summer. The stairs themselves were fine and not steep. If you have a fear of heights and look over the side, you might have a problem though.
The most difficult part was probably the heat and the feeling of claustrophobia I got on the platforms. Because the tower doesn't have many windows and Bologna was in the midst of a heat wave, the temperature inside the tower was quite toasty. Groups enter the tower at 15-min intervals and leave the top in the same way. In a couple of spots, platforms are set up where one group must stand and wait to allow a group going the opposite direction to pass. It can get a bit cramped during that time and the heat doesn't help.
Views from Asinelli Tower
All that said, the 360-degree views from the top of the Asinelli Tower definitely make up for the discomfort to get up there. The terra cotta city stretches in all directions with smaller towers and church domes jutting up like a medieval skyline.
Basilica di San Francesco
Our next stop that morning was a visit to the Basilica di San Francesco, a 13th-century church dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. This basilica caught my eye when we climbed the Clock Tower due to the Gothic-style flying buttresses. We decided to walk over and get a closer look.
The basilica is collection of styles from Romanesque to late-Gothic and early Renaissance. It is the first example in Italy of the French-Gothic style though and reminds me a bit of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Inside, the marble altarpiece is a standout piece. The nave of the church is fairly stark but the chapels lining the sides are quite beautiful and are more ornate.
Lunch at Il Saraceno
As we wandered back towards our hotel looking for a place to stop for lunch, we found Il Saraceno which specializes in homemade pasta and fish dishes with roots in the Amalfi Coast. The shrimp risotto I had was citrusy and divine and of course, I paired it with a Pignoletto.
Afternoon Relaxing - Too Hot to Go Outside
As temperatures rose, we decided we'd take a bit of a "siesta" (wrong country and language, I know). Our last day in Bologna was the final day my parents were with us on the trip, so we spent the afternoon just relaxing and chatting.
If you're not visiting during a heat wave, this would be an excellent time to continue exploring Bologna's many churches or climbing towers. Or, if you are visiting during summer, you could explore Bologna's shopping scene. The stores near our hotel seemed to have the best air-conditioning in the city!
Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca
One thing we missed on our itinerary was climbing up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca - a hillside basilica church - under the Portico di San Luca which stretches over 3.5 km and boasts over 600 archways. It sounds like an activity that I'd thoroughly enjoy in another season, but it was way too hot for a 260-m (850-ft) climb in July.
Dinner at Ristorante Victoria Pizzeria
Since we were determined to eat outside on our last night, we wandered around the streets and chose a place at random. The tortellini I ordered at Ristorante Victoria Pizzeria was delicious and we enjoyed sitting along the street and watching the evening activity around us.
The next morning, we bid 'ciao' to my parents and headed back to the train station to continue our Italy journey. Next stop - Verona!
Although I wouldn't recommend visiting Bologna during a heat wave, this charming city has so much to see. With plenty of churches to admire, towers to climb, and delicious food to sample, you can easily spend three days exploring this beautiful city.
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