When I was trying to decide where to spend two weeks studying Italian, I narrowed it down to either Lucca or Bologna. While I eventually decided on spending two weeks studying in Lucca, a few hours in Bologna the previous year had left me intrigued. All those archways, so much red, so many students everywhere, a ginormous piazza with a half finished cathedral …
Then I found out that Bologna is known as the Food Capital of Italy and I knew I had to visit. Since I was going to have a weekend free in the middle of my two weeks in Lucca, I knew right away that I would spend it eating in Bologna!
The Fat One (one of Bologna’s nicknames along with the Red and the Learned) is strategically placed in the middle of Northern Italy. It’s easily reached by taking a 35 minute fast train from Florence or an hour long fast train from Milan. Sitting on the Milan to Naples train line makes it a transport hub and a great base for exploring the Emilia-Romanga region.
While food was the main draw card for yours truly, Bologna is also known for having the oldest university in the world (it opened in the 11th century), two huge 11th century towers (including a leaning tower – yes Pisa is the only city with one) and an extensive network of porticos (about 40km worth of them).
While Bologna may not be on the typical three city tour de Italy (i.e. Rome – Florence – Venice), for a more Italian experience (where you’ll hear people speaking Italian), Bologna is worth at least a couple days.
What can you see and do in Bologna in a weekend?
While it’s tough to ‘do’ a city as big as Bologna in two days, I planned my time between eating, walking off the food I’d eaten, with some leftover time to take in some history. Fortunately with plenty of food options, a 5km trek to visit a church on the top of a fairly large hill and the oldest university in the Western World, it was going to be easy to tick all the boxes.
While I tend to be a bit go go go while I’m sightseeing, I spent the weekend fairly relaxed. So this is what I took in at my version of a medium pace:
- Soaked up some sun and people watched in the massive, L-shaped Piazza Maggiore, flanked by the half-finished Basilica di San Petronio and the huge Fountain of Neptune.
- Walked from the city centre to the Sanctuary of San Luca (about 4.5km each way) under the longest series of porticos in the world.
- Walked through Giardini Margherita and up a pretty sizeable hill to visit San Michele in Bosco.
- Congratulated myself for all the walking with some of the best gelato I’ve ever had at Gelateria Ganni.
- Stumbled across La Strada Del Jazz festival and got pleasantly lost in the Quadrilatero district.
- Ate one of the dishes Bologna is known for – Tagliatelle alla Bolognese.
- Climbed to the top of Torre Asinelli with panoramic views of Bologna.
- Stepped back in time visiting the Archiginnasio to visit its library and the Anatomy Room, both part of the oldest university in the world.
People Watch in Piazza Maggiore
Located in the centre of Bologna’s historic centre, many roads lead to Piazza Maggiore, so you’d be hard pressed not to stumble upon it at least once. Besides its size, the other thing you’ll notice about Piazza Maggiore is its striking Basilica di San Petronio and its half finished facade. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t able to go inside one of the biggest church in the world, since I was wearing a singlet and they have a strict policy of “no uncovered shoulders”. Lesson learned – always have a way to cover your shoulders if visiting religious sites!
Other than the cathedral, the piazza was hosting an exhibits of the history of bicycles during my visit, and the piazza is a general meeting area for lots of people. For a solo traveller, I found myself gravitating to the piazza, sitting on the steps of the cathedral and soaking in the Bologna charm.
Walk as the pilgrims did from the town centre to San Luca
If you want to visit the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca set up on top of a fairly large hill, there are a few ways to get there. The easiest way would be to use a taxi or to take a bus at least part of the way from the city centre. But to work off one too many gelatos, and to visit the church the same way pilgrims have done so for centuries, I decided to walk up the 4.5km of portico covered walkways (and lots of steps – the elevation gain is about 200m) starting in Piazza Maggiore.
While it’s a decent walk and it involves a lot of steps, the Sanctuary at the top is definitely worth the hike. Walking under the 600+ archways is really a unique experience. And remember after the hike up the hill, it’s all downhill on the walk back down! Try not to be too smug while you’re coasting down the hill while the people heading up the hill are in struggle town 🙂
Tip – Make sure to carry water on you or at least a water bottle. There’s a water fountain outside the church for a refill.
Take in the views from San Michele in Bosco
Located outside the city centre, you can reach San Michele in Bosco by walking like I did (and it’s on yet another hill) or by taking the bus from the city centre (bus number 30). I decided to walk there via Giardini Margherita and took the bus back to the city centre (tickets less than 2 euros – purchase from the bus driver).
While the 16th century church is beautiful and has lovely gardens in the back and worth a look, the highlight for me were the views from just outside the church looking back at Bologna.
Have a Gelato Break
After lots of walking, I rewarded myself with some of the best gelato I’ve ever had at Gelateria Ganni.
Now back to sightseeing …
Wander around the Quadrilatero District
Here you’ll find numerous narrow lane ways that in the evening, fill up with eaters and drinkings and lots of atmosphere. I spent awhile wandering aimlessly around this area, peeking at menus to see where I would eat for the evening. In some parts, the tables spilling out of the restaurants are so full with people its a bit difficult to get through.
During my evening stroll, I stumbled upon La Strada Del Jazz festival, a street party with some pretty rocking music. In 2016, the festival was in mid-September.
Fill up on a local specialty
I’m not going to lie – one of items on my to-do list was trying tagliatelle al Ragu Bolognese, one of Bologna’s regional specialties. After roaming around the city at night, I came upon a restaurant called Gessetto with outdoor seating set on Piazza San Martino. The service was fantastic, they had no issue with me taking up one of their coveted outdoor tables as a solo dinner and the food was devine. It’s rated highly on trip advisor (last time I checked it was #24 in all of Bologna).
Climb up the Torre Asinelli
What can I say … I like to walk up a lot of steps! And what better place than up some creaky steps in a 900 year old brick tower?! To give you an idea of what the staircase looks like, I took this picture looking up to the top.
While they may look and feel a big dodgy, the hike up to the top was surprisingly pleasant with a few platforms where you could catch your breath. It’s amazing how many times I politely step aside for those coming down, when I’m walking up. Yes it’s me being polite and not trying to catch my breath! 🙂
After the vertical trek up to the top, you’re rewarded with 360 degree views of the city.
Visit the Archiginnasio
Seeing as Bologna is the home of the world’s oldest operating university, it would be a shame to miss seeing some of the university itself.
Start your visit by wandering through the almost 1,000 year old porticos and hallways. Two of the main sites are the Teatro Anatomico (Anatomy theatre), where human corpses were dissected as part of university studies (for scientific research of course!). Down the hall you’ll find the Sala dello Stabat Mater, full of centuries old books and manuscripts and floor to ceiling frescos and decorations. The walls are covered with the coats of arms of the families and professors that studied and teached in the university.
While a very old library wouldn’t normally be on my to-do list, if you’re going to see one, this should be it. I wandered around in amazement at how old everything was. I believe the entry fee was a bargain at a mere 3 euros.
Loosen up your belt buckle after all the food
While I didn’t list all the food I ate, there are definitely lots of different things to choose from. Besides its namesake Ragu Bolognese, you can feast on a variety of pork products including: parma ham, mortadella and culatello. If you’re a cheese fan like I am, you should have at least one meal with Parmigiano Reggiano, in the birth-region of paramsean cheese. And for pasta, give Tortellini in Brodo (tortellini in broth) a try, filled with one of the yummy things above.
And if none of these things tempt you, I dare you to visit Bologna and leave with an empty stomach!
Where I stayed
I visited Bologna over a weekend in September, arriving by train from Lucca via Florence. I was looking for some cheap but cheery accommodation for a single night and decided on B&B 21, paying about 40 euros for a single room with breakfast included. The B&B is located within a larger apartment complex about 10 minutes walking distance from the train station, located on via Via Irnerio. There are only a handful of rooms and the owners were friendly and put on quite a few options for breakfast. Walking into the older part of the city was easy and only took about 5 minutes before I found myself in the maze of cobble streets.