The Top Things to Do in Bologna

Photo of Sarah Lane
22 September 2021

All terracotta rooftops, porticoed pavements and trattoria tables groaning beneath mounds of tagliatelle alla bolognese, Bologna is a temptingly refined destination.

Bologna has long been one of Italy’s cultural capitals. Aptly nicknamed La Grassa (the fat one) – it’s also one of the country’s most celebrated food centres, with bolognese sauce (known as ragù) far from the only thing on the menu here. A wide range of regional cheese, cured meats and wine await gourmand in Bologna, with trattorias and market eateries dotting the well-preserved medieval centre. Elsewhere, the city’s gardens, country parks and nearby hills are ideal for some fresh air – and to walk off all that pasta.

Walk under the porticoes

Historical Landmark
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B3FDHB Exclusive shops in a portico on Via Farini in the historic centre, Bologna
© Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

Anyone who’s been to Bologna will be familiar with its porticoes: colonnaded, covered walkways, with stone entrance archways, vaulted ceilings and marble floors. They were built in order to create extra housing above ground level, without losing pavement space for pedestrians (and, at one time, people on horseback). Once timber, the porticoes were almost all replaced with stone or brick following a 1568 edict, although some medieval examples in wood survive to this day. Head to Via Clavature to see a fascinating succession of portico styles, from simple overhangs to decorative colonnades. Some, including in Piazza Cavour, have delicately painted ceilings. The city’s widest portico, at the Santa Maria dei Servi church, hosts a traditional Christmas market each winter.

Taste local wines at historic wine bars

Bar, Wine Bar, Italian
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E0322A Osteria del Sole, Bologna
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Though they’re less well-known than the wines from neighbouring areas, Bologna’s local wines are by no means inferior. Crisp and fruity whites, like Albana and Pignoletto, hold their own against rich, savoury reds like Sangiovese – and taste particularly good one of the city’s historic wine bars. Osteria del Sole, dating from 1465, is the oldest by far, but Enoteca Storica Faccioli (open since 1924) is worth a stop for its specialist natural wines. At Antica Drogheria Calzolari, bottles line the walls from floor to ceiling, leaving standing room only for a tasting.

Climb the hills near Bologna

Natural Feature
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JGTF80 vineyards on the hills in southwest of Bologna, Italy.
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The countryside surrounding Bologna is rich with green-carpeted hills, mountain villages, fertile vineyards and historic fortresses – perfect for escaping the city for some fresh air and inspiring views. Of the country parks in the hilly area south of the city, Villa Ghigi is the easiest to reach – it’s an easy walk from the Porta San Mamolo city gate. Elsewhere, Parco Cavaioni (a short trip on bus 52) offers a rustic farmhouse restaurant complete with its own kitchen garden, Ca’ Shin. Head west of the city for vine-covered hills and wineries, which turn out regional Colli Bolognesi wines such as the fresh and fruity white, Pignoletto.

Monte della Guardia and San Luca

Church
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RE13XW Pronaos and facade of the Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca at sunset. Basilica church of San Luca in Bologna
© Benny Marty / Alamy Stock Photo

Join the steady stream of walkers, runners and pilgrims on an uphill trek along the 2.2mi (3.5km) paved portico to the Sanctuary of San Luca, a towering terracotta basilica on the Monte della Guardia hill, southwest of Bologna proper. Alternatively, hop on bus 20 from central Bologna to the striking Parco della Chiusa in Casalecchio, dotted with faded villa ruins, before taking the Bregoli footpath from there to San Luca. Once at the top, relax and refuel at the Vito bar and restaurant, just a few minutes’ walk from the church and open all day.

Explore the city parks and gardens

Botanical Garden
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T5XP7K Giardini Margherita gardens in Bologna Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy statue
© Luca Antonio Lorenzelli / Alamy Stock Photo

Need time out from tramping around tourist sites in the midday heat? Take a breather in one of Bologna’s green lungs, such as the lush Orto Botanico, the university’s botanical gardens founded in 1568 – filled with some 5,000 plants in cavernous greenhouses. Much larger is the Giardini Margherita, which stretches between the Porta Castiglione and Porta Santo Stefano city gates and comprises extensive lawns with plenty of shady trees, a lake populated by turtles and a couple of bars for an aperitivo, including at the former municipal greenhouses.

See the underground canals

Museum
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2G563KK Secret window in the wall to the hidden part of the city in Bologna, Italy. Canal of Reno in Piella street
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Medieval Bologna was one of Italy’s top producers of silk – some 37mi (60km) of canals were built in the 12th century to bring water into the city to run silk mills. Though the canals are largely covered nowadays, you can still catch a glimpse here and there, including through the tiny window that peeks over the canal on Via Piella. Hosted in a former canalside brickworks, the Industrial Heritage museum has interesting displays about the city’s historic industries (take bus 30), where you’ll learn more about the canal’s importance in Bologna’s past.

Try traditional produce at the market

Market
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G3XB62 Crowds out in the early evening eating and drinking in the outside cafes of the Via Peschiera in the Quadrilatero district, Bolo
© Phil Crean A / Alamy Stock Photo

Bologna’s colourful food markets are the best place for tasting delicious, regional grub in buzzing surroundings. The deli-style tables of the Quadrilatero market, just off the main square Piazza Maggiore, should be your go-to place for platters of mortadella sausage and other local charcuterie, while Mercato delle Erbe is the locals’ choice for uber-fresh seafood and crusty panini oozing with mozzarella cheese. If you’re in Bologna on a Saturday morning (or a Monday evening in the summer), don’t miss the Mercato Ritrovato farmers’ market, where over 50 local producers sell and serve authentic regional specialties.

Learn to make pasta

School
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K7HBRK Bologna, Italy, 10 Sept 2017: Woman fare la sfoglia ( doing the pasta sfoglia) for fresh homemade pasta with rolling pin
© Luca Antonio Lorenzelli / Alamy Stock Photo

So you think your spaghetti bolognese is pretty good? Prepare to be humbled at a pasta-making class in Bologna, the birthplace of this world-famous ragù. Many of the city’s restaurants have their own specialist sfoglina (fresh pasta chef), who rolls out and fills the deep yellow dough by hand – and watching them at work will make you want to ditch dried pasta packets for good. Two of the many places offering pasta-making courses are Bottega del Cappello – whose chefs make pasta for the historic Osteria del Cappello restaurant next door – and out-of-town farmhouse Podere San Giuliano.

Ancient gates and Roman roads

Architectural Landmark
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Amazing Bologna Aerial Cityscape. Beautiful view of the italian medieval city of Bologna with Piazza della Mercanzia square, Italy.
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While 10 of the dozen 13th-century city gates remain from the last set of walls to be built around Bologna, only a few from earlier eras are still standing – such as those in Via Castiglione and Via Piella. The arrow-straight Via Emilia road, built in Roman times to link Piacenza to Rimini, is still a fundamental route through the region, passing right through the centre of the Emilia-Romagna region’s most important cities: Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma.

Go on the towers trail

Building
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G1C7NJ Two famous falling towers Asinelli and Garisenda in the morning, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
© Sergey Dzyuba / Alamy Stock Photo
While the Asinelli and Garisenda double act remain Bologna’s best-known medieval towers –and a much-loved city symbol – there are actually over 20 towers still standing in the historic centre. At 60m (197ft) tall, the well-preserved Prendiparte tower is the second-highest, after the Asinelli which measures 97m (318ft). The Galluzzi tower, meanwhile, was once the scene of a tragic, Romeo and Juliet-style love story. Book for a towers tour at the Bologna Welcome tourist office in Piazza Maggiore to see the towers and their stories.
These recommendations were updated on September 22, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh. This article is an updated version of a story created by Sarah Lane

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