Must-Visit Attractions in Bologna
Bologna from the Top|©Playerest/Flickr
The birthplace of bolognese sauce is perfect for a food-lover’s pilgrimage, but Bologna has more going for it than meaty pasta. Explore this northern Italian city’s vaulted arcades, museums and basilicas, plus its fantastic eateries.
Well-known the world over for its fabulous food and eponymous pasta sauce, Bologna – the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region – is the perfect destination for experiencing and tasting the real Italy. The red-brick-and-terracotta medieval centre is characterised by porticoes and medieval towers, and is easily explored on foot. Bologna’s university, dating from 1088 and one of the oldest in the world, continues to thrive and contributes to the city’s successful combination of tradition and innovation. Here are the top must-visit attractions in Bologna, Italy.
Spaghetti (or tagliatelle) bolognese
Restaurant, Italian, $$$
Widely considered as Italy’s foodie capital, Bologna takes its specialities seriously and over 30 traditional recipes are registered at the Chamber of Commerce, which also keeps a strip of gold the exact dimensions of perfect tagliatelle – 8mm, for your information. Meat-filled tortellini and tagliatelle al ragù – the authentic version of spaghetti bolognese – reign when it comes to pasta. Find out what real bolognese sauce tastes like at informal lunch spot Sfoglia Rina or in the evening at traditional Trattoria Serghei, then try to recreate it when you get home.
Covered arcades (portici)
© Realy Easy Star / Toni Spagone / Alamy
With more covered pavements than anywhere else in the world – nearly 24mi (40km) – in Bologna, you’re always protected from the rain or hot sun. These porticoes first began to appear in the 11th century to house the city’s fast-growing university population above the arcades, without occupying extra terrain, and in 1288 a law was passed making them obligatory. While some original medieval wooden porticoes remain, including at Strada Maggiore 19, in Via Marsala and behind the Corona d’Oro Hotel, most are brick or stone, with columns, archways, vaulted ceilings and marble floors.
Quadrilatero old market
Produce stalls and food shops have filled this knot of narrow lanes just off Piazza Maggiore with colour and aroma since medieval times. Nowadays, it’s one of Bologna’s most picturesque spots for a snack or meal at the numerous deli-eateries. Don’t miss the Osteria del Sole wine bar which dates from 1465 – only wine is served, but you can bring your own food. For more tasty market bites check out Mercato delle Erbe, the city’s largest covered food market, which is also in the centre.
Museo della Storia di Bologna
Housed in the imposing medieval Palazzo Pepoli, this contemporary museum offers an enthralling, interactive multimedia experience, with rooms dedicated to varied takes on the history and culture of Bologna. You’ll learn about the influence of the ancient Etruscan and Roman era on the city, before exploring a music room dedicated to Mozart’s time there and a section on the Italian inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi.
At 97m high, the 12th-century Asinelli Tower is the tallest of the remaining two dozen – out of 100 or so – towers that were built in the Middle Ages by aristocratic families as status symbols. Pair it with its partner, the dramatically leaning Garisenda Tower, and it becomes the defining symbol of Bologna. Climb the 498 steps to the top for views over the city and the hills beyond – unless you plan to graduate from Bologna’s nearby university, that is, in which case it’s said to be bad luck.
Bologna’s main piazza is dominated by the unfinished facade of the vast San Petronio basilica, dedicated to the city patron and home to the world’s largest sundial. Palazzo d’Accursio, the city hall, hosts the municipal art collection and offers birds-eye views from the clock tower. Try out the acoustic effect of the whispering corners below Palazzo del Podestà and admire the magnificent 3m-high bronze statue of Neptune, whose trident inspired the Maserati logo, in adjacent Piazza Nettuno.
Basilica di Santo Stefano
Also known as the Seven Churches, this unusual complex incorporates a medley of churches, chapels and cloisters from different eras. The oldest of the surviving four, the Basilica of San Vitale and Sant’Agricola, dates from the fourth century and can be compared to the more-modern, circular San Sepolcro basilica. The cobbled square it stands on is arguably Bologna’s prettiest, with pavement cafes and an antiques market the second weekend of each month, except in July and August.
San Luca Sanctuary
© travelbild-Italy / Alamy
Like a welcoming beacon, this graceful, 18th-century hilltop church is the first landmark seen by homecoming locals. Views from the dome are impressive and artworks include a revered Madonna icon, which is carried down the hill each May in a procession to spend a week at Bologna’s cathedral. The traditional way to get here is on foot from the centre, following the world’s longest portico – or take the cute land train, the San Luca Express.
FICO food centre
Since its 2021 makeover, this massive foodie centre just outside the city – hop on bus 35 – has become a kind of theme park dedicated to the origins of food, with fun and educational experiences both for children and adults: think multimedia exhibits, live demonstrations, tastings and cookery classes. There are farm animals and crops, producers of traditional foods and plenty of opportunities for the two most important elements of a trip to Bologna, eating and drinking.
Former ghetto district
Wine Bar, Italian, $$$
With its compact tangle of cobbled alleys, Bologna’s historic former ghetto district, just round the corner from the Asinelli Tower, is one of the most atmospheric parts of town. Craft workshops sell beautiful handmade items including traditionally made artistic prints and custom shoes, and there’s a Jewish museum and heritage centre. Soak up the atmosphere over an aperitivo at wine bar Camera a Sud.
These recommendations were updated on September 15, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.