2 days in Bologna and the best food in Italy

When I was trying to decide where to spend two weeks studying Italian, I narrowed it down to 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, a ginormous piazza with a half finished cathedral …

I should also mention that Bologna is known as the Food Capital of Italy.

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. It’s no wonder it makes for an ideal base for exploring the Emilia-Romanga region.

Why’s Bologna so famous?

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 not 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), it deserves a stop in your Italian holiday. This is a city where you’ll actually hear people speaking Italian, and did I mention it’s the food capital of Italy? Bologna is worth at least a couple days.

View from San Michele in Bosco
The view looking back at Bologna from San Michele in Bosco

What can you see and do in Bologna in a weekend?

It’s tough to ‘do’ a city as big as Bologna in two days but that wasn’t going to stop me. I planned my time between eating, walking off the food I’d eaten, and with any leftover time, take in some history. Fortunately with plenty of food options, a 5km trek to visit a church on the top of a huge hill and the oldest university in the Western World, it was going to be easy to tick all the boxes.

I tend to be a bit go go go while I’m sightseeing, but this weekend I spent fairly relaxed. Well relaxed for me. Maybe let’s call this 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. You can take a bus or a taxi, but where’s the fun in that?
  • 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. Do not, I repeat, do not ask for spaghetti Bolognese. It does not exist!
  • Climbed to the top of Torre Asinelli with its 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. You will 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 “no uncovered shoulders” policy. Lesson learned – always have a way to cover your shoulders if visiting religious sites!

San Petronio Basilica and its half finished facade
The San Petronio Basilica located in Piazza Maggiore

Other than the cathedral, the piazza was hosting an exhibit of the history of bicycles during my visit. Besides any temporary exhibits, you’ll find 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 huge hill, there are a few ways to get there. The easiest way is to take a taxi or 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. This option takes in a lot of steps – the elevation gain is about 200m when starting in Piazza Maggiore.

Despite all the steps, the Sanctuary at the top is definitely worth the hike. I have to say, 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 are in struggle town. And I’m not talking about the people using the stairs as running training 🙂

Tip – Make sure to carry water or at least a water bottle. There’s a water fountain outside the church for a refill.

Multi-colour buildings in Bologna and the porticos
Some of the many porticos in Bologna. If walking from Piazza Maggiore, the first 1km to 2 km is on level ground like this.
San Luca Porticos and the many steps to the top of the hill
Some of the many steps on the walk up to San Luca
Close up of the San Luca sanctuary
The brilliantly bronze San Luca
View_San_Luca
The view looking back at the city centre on the way to San Luca

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.

San Michele in Bosco
San Michele in Bosco

Have a Gelato Break

After lots of walking, I rewarded myself with some of the best gelato I’ve ever had at Gelateria Ganni.

Gelateria Ganni Bologna
A gelato from Gelateria Ganni

Now back to sightseeing …

Wander around the Quadrilatero District

Here you’ll find numerous narrow laneways that in the evening, fill up with eaters and drinkings and lots of atmosphere. I spent a fair chunk of my evening wandering aimlessly around this area, peeking at menus to see where I would eat. In some parts the tables spilling out of the restaurants were so full of people that it was 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.

La Strada Del Jazz
La Strada Del Jazz, a street party with some pretty rocking music. The 11th century tower in the background doesn’t hurt when it comes to atmosphere!
laneways in Quadrilatero
Crowded laneways in the Quadrilatero Area of the city

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 #13 in all of Bologna).

Tagliatelle al Ragu Bolognese from Gessetto in Bologna
All for me!!

Climbing 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.

interior staircase in Torre Asinelli
Interior staircase in Torre Asinelli

While they may look and feel a big dodgy, the hike up to the top was surprisingly pleasant with a few platforms where you can catch your breath. It’s amazing how many times I politely step aside for people 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.

360 degree views from the top of the tower in Bologna, including the Basilica of San Petronio
Looking down at the Basilica of San Petronio. The small building on the right third of the photo up on the hill is San Luca.
Looking down from the tower to Bologna's maze of streets
Looking down at the maze of streets

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. Unfortunately I didn’t see my family’s coat-of-arms …

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.

Anatomy Theatre Bologna
Inside the Teatro Anatomico (Anatomy theatre) – where they once dissected human cadavers as part of the curriculum
Civic Library Bologna and a wall of coat of arms
Inside the Civic Library

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 covered in Parmigiano Reggiano, since you’re 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 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.

Have you visited Bologna? What were your favourite sites and things to eat and drink?

If you have any questions or comments about Bologna, leave them in the comments section 🙂

Ciao!

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