There aren’t many places I visit that I think I could live in, but Bologna is definitely one of them. We went for the food and fell in love with the beautiful architecture, stunning churches and relaxed vibe. Even after six nights we weren’t nearly ready to come home and often met people who were envious that we’d decided to stay so long.
Our trip was inspired by Rick Stein’s long weekend, but we decided to make a week of it after realising Bologna is the heart of Emilia Romagna, also known as Italy’s ‘food valley’. All sorts of famous Italian food comes from here including tortellini, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar and parma ham. But there are also lots of local specialities that aren’t as well known but just as delicious – pignoletto wine for one which is Emilia Romagna’s version of prosecco and quickly became the drink of the trip.
Our base for the week was Hotel Touring, a small hotel just far enough from the city centre to the quiet but only a 10 minute walk to Bologna’s main piazza and lots of great restaurants and bars. It also has a lovely roof terrace with great views of the city’s rooftops and our room had its own balcony a couple of floors below.
Walking into the centre the first thing that struck us were the porticoes. Every street is lined with these covered arcades which offer 70km of shade in the summer and shelter from rain in the winter. They date from the 12th century when the city was faced with a housing shortage and property owners were allowed to build onto existing buildings over the streets.
After an early flight we were ready for some food and decided to try a local speciality, tigelle. It’s a type of flatbread made with yeast and lard and baked in a round waffle-iron. They come with all types of fillings and are the perfect light lunch.
Afterwards we walked up to Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square and what we soon learned is the centre of all Bologna life. I think we walked through or spent time in it every day that we were there. Many of Italy’s main piazzas are home to the city’s cathedral, but in Bologna that is elsewhere and instead it’s the Basilica di San Petronio that dominates Piazza Maggiore with its half-finished facade.
By all accounts the money being spent on it was diverted to the university’s Archiginnasio building by Pope Pius 1V. To be honest we quite liked the bare brick facade and the interior is very impressive. Around the nave are four crosses on top of antique columns, the chapels all hold works of art and an astronomy professor traced a meridian on the floor which is the longest in the world in a closed space.
We also really liked sitting on the steps outside the basilica watching Bologna life go by and admiring the Palazzo del Podesta opposite. Previously a theatre the palazzo now has a shopping arcade on the ground floor where you can see the Voltone, a frescoed vault with terractota statues of Bologna’s patron saints. It covers the intersection of what were once two medieval lanes and is famous for an acoustic trick where you can whisper in one corner and hear it loud and clear in the other. It’s true, we tried it!
We also checked out the nearby Fontana de Nettuno, a fountain featuring a sea god, four cherubs representing the winds, and four buxom sirens with water spouting from every nipple. We’d read that a photo of the statue had been banned by Facebook for being sexually explicit. It’s really not that outrageous, though Neptune’s thumb does look interesting if you stand in front of the Sala Borsa with your back to Via Indipendenza!
Later than evening we tried our first tortelloni of the trip at Caffe del Mercato. Tortellini and tortelloni were invented in Bologna so are an absolute must. Mine was stuffed with ricotta cheese and served with a delicious butter and sage sauce. As with many restaurants in Bologna they also offer an apertivo buffet. It was great value at 5 euros but there wasn’t quite enough choice for non-meat eaters like us.
Caffe del Mercato is in Via Pescherie Vecchie, one of the main streets in Il Quadrilatero, the city’s food quarter. The area is a tangle of narrow streets packed with foodie shops, restaurants and bars including our favourite La Baita Vecchia Malga. We often had drinks sitting outside and it was also our lunch spot on a DIY food tour that you can read about in another post, Bologna: following foodie footsteps.
After dinner on that first night we wandered up to Piazza Maggiore and found it was teeming with life. Not least because a vast cinema screen is erected for the summer season along with lots of seating in the centre of the square.
The photo above was taken during the day but the seats were full that night so we had a drink outside Signorvino where we could see the screen was showing an Italian documentary. But a visit to the excellent tourist office in Palazzo del Podesta the next day revealed that The Usual Suspects would be playing that evening – and would either be shown in English or have English sub titles.
So after a quick pizza at nearby Regina Sofia we headed to the square only to find the seats were again full or being saved. It’s clearly a very popular summer activity for the good folk of Bologna! But there was space on the steps of the Basilica di San Petronio so we settled down there and had a brilliant evening watching the Usual Suspects in English under a moonlit Italian sky.
A couple of days later after a day trip to Modena to do an amazing food tour which I’ll write about soon, we were out and about in Bologna again and decided to work off some of the cheese with a mini hike to the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca. The church is up in the Bologna Hills and a great way to get there is via the Porticato, a 4km portico which runs all the way there from Porta Saragozza, one of the gates in the city’s medieval walls.
Initially the Porticato runs alongside a main road passed a range of shops and restaurants until you reach Arco di Meloncello. Then you start to climb up the many steps to the top walking under more of the Porticato’s 666 arches and passing the 15 rest stops for prayer. Where you can of course also take a break from the heat, although you are shaded almost all the way.
It’s well worth the effort when you get to the top. The inside of the church is beautifully decorated with paintings as well as an icon of the Virgin Mary which was supposedly brought by a pilgrim from Constantinople. And of course the views of the Apennine Mountains and Bologna city are pretty special too.
The other way to get to and from the church is on the San Luca Express bus. You can find it if you walk down the driveway at the front of the church and it goes all the way to Piazza Maggiore. After our exertions to get up there we opted for that route back.
Bologna is packed with wonderful churches often filled with stunning pieces of art, none more so than the one that was closest to our hotel, San Domenico. We walked passed it every day but didn’t go in until near the end of our trip and we were so glad we did. The chapels are absolutely gorgeous and there are some beautiful wooden choir stalls.
The other church not to be missed is Santo Stefano, which was built as a complex of seven churches by St Petronius who wanted to reproduce the seven holy sites of Jerusalem. Four of the churches are still intact and it’s a unique and atmospheric place mostly dating from the 8th-12th centuries.
The Cattedrale di San Pietro is also worth popping into. It’s not a favourite of the locals who prefer the basilica in Piazza Maggiore, but I thought it was rather nice. It’s on busy Via Indipendenza, the main road that leads out of the centre to the train station, so feels like a real sanctuary when you step inside.
Apart from the churches Bologna is probably most famous for it’s towers. The best known are the city’s landmark Two Towers, a pair of leaning towers, one of which is much taller than the leaning tower of Pisa.
The 97m high Torre degli Asinelli tilts just over 2m and there are 498 steps to the top. Well worth the effort for the fantastic views of Bologna and easy to book a slot online. It’s important to get there on time for your slot as there’s only one way up and down with no room for passing.
Bologna was filled with towers like this in medieval times and they became status symbols with families vying to built the tallest tower. Many were chopped down by the government to punish noblemen while others were brought down by earthquakes and lightening. If you wander around the medieval backstreets you’ll find a few more that are still standing.
The last place I’ll mention to visit is the Archiginnasio, the former home of Bologna university, which later became the city’s municipal library. It’s a lovely building that includes an atmospheric lecture room where Albert Einstein held a series of lectures on relativity. The other lecture room is now the library’s reading room.
You also get to go inside the 18th century Anatomical Theatre which was shattered by a bomb in the Second World War but carefully rebuilt in 1950. All around are statues of great surgeons like Hippocrates and Galen and in the centre is a marble table where dissections were carried out by candlelight.
And of course as well as sights to see Bologna also offers plenty of shopping opportunities. For foodies there is lots to choose from in the Quadrilatero area and at Mercato delle Erbe. There are stacks of shops with shoes and bags on offer, including in the high end Galleria Cavour. And we really liked the tiny Certoleria Felsinea in Via Rizzoli near the Two Towers, for more interesting souvenirs.
For eating and drinking I’ve included a few favourite places in my post about our DIY Bologna food tour, but there are lots more. If you stay in Hotel Touring or on that side of the city then I’d really recommend going to Osteria al 15 in Via Mirasole. It’s a small neighbourhood restaurant with quirky decor and amazing food. The chocolate salami dessert is one to remember.
The closest bar to the hotel was also a great place for a drink. Angolo B in Via Garibaldi has seats outside and bartenders who can mix very good Martinis and Manhattans, as well as the usual wine and beer. It was pretty quite all week but on Friday night it was suddenly very popular with the locals.
Friday was our last night in Bologna so we started with drinks on the hotel rooftop for one more look at the lovely view and then as seemed only fitting we went somewhere that Rick Stein recommends in his Long Weekends book, Ristorante Ciacco. Unsurprisingly they specialise in fish and seafood, but also have Bolognese specialties on the menu. As it was warm we sat outside but in colder weather the brick lined cellar dining room looks very inviting.
To finish the night we headed to Le Stanze a stunning bar housed in a 16th century former private chapel owned by the Bentivoglio family, who were once the de facto rulers of Bologna. The atmosphere is fab as are the cocktails from the American style bar.
It was the perfect place to end the trip and reflect on our wonderful week in Bologna, a fantastic city as well as being the ideal base for exploring Emilia Romagna. And somewhere I’ll definitely be going back to.
Click on an image to scroll through more photos in the gallery and visit the Italy section of my blog to find my Bologna DIY food tour post and others from Emilia Romagna that will be coming soon.