Italy's gastronomic capital.
Say the word 'Bologna' to an Italian and food springs first to mind.
Bologna is historically a university city. Europe's oldest! And famous for the likes of Dante Alighieri, Enzo Ferrari and Guglielmo Marconi schooled here in since 1088.
It's a medieval melting pot of architectural masterpieces, built into ancient city walls, towers and piazze with streets lined by UNESCO listed porticoes. Piazza Maggiore has a regal air of space and old-worldly timelessness, considered a capital of European culture... none of this compares to the heights of cuisine Bologna fondly holds in an Italian's eye.
Because this is the home of tortellini, tagliatelle, mortadella and ragù alla bolognese, it's capital of Emilia-Romagna - the region with most DOCG listed products (geographically protected foods) in the whole of Italy. Think Prosciutto Crudo di Parma, Aceto Balsamico di Modena and tigelle...
But try to forget about food for a moment and let's see what (else) Bologna offers:
La Rossa is one of Bologna's nicknames - 'The Red'. Once inside the old city, you're surrounded by terracotta-coloured walls, ochres and oranges while her porticoes create lofty headroom and marble-paved walkways, I find Bologna creeps in over you with colour. There's a real medieval feel to this place. Dark wooden beams and tall buildings hide patches of vibrant sky that open up into wide piazze buzzing with life.
Piazza Maggiore forms the heart of the city, stretching 6900 m² between the Basilica of San Petronio, Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo dei Notai, and Palazzo dei Banchi.
The main square doesn't seem as imposing from the top of Le Due Torri (The Two Towers) providing the best ancient panoramas in town. From here one gets an instant idea of the scale of these intricate city streets with a maze of rust-coloured rooftops indicating where Bologna gets her nickname from.
Bologna's Porticoes are UNESCO heritage listed as 40kms of unique design. With affreschi, carvings and quirky artwork, every one is different from the next. Built in the middle ages when an expanding university was on the hunt for space, they decided to build above the pavements to stay within the city. While many were destroyed when laws changed, as a UNESCO heritage, the porticoes maintain a certain fame and make for great shopping on a rainy day. Some of the most beautiful are found around Piazza Maggiore and the old University or in Via Marsala where thick medieval beams claim to be the oldest in Bologna.
Set under a seemingly innocuous portico beside an old osteria on Via Piella is La Finestrella - The little window. Here, a tiny hatch at eye level opens onto a magical, unforeseen view. Part of the beauty is the suspense leading up to it. Expect to queue here (don't worry you're under a shady portico beside an osteria) - every viewer is allowed their time to admire the view, make a tik-tok, take a selfie or pose for a group pic - it's a hit with the students and a must-see on their lists, in truth it is very instagrammable, and even has a website. 'Little Venice' is la finestrella's nickname due to the glimpse of an ancient canal network which once ran through Bologna leading to watermills with suspended wooden structures where washing could be done. Very cute - if you do get the chance, it's worth waiting for.
More to see.
Much like losing your map in Venice (my first ever blog post), Bologna is at her best being explored on foot and led by your senses. Start at Piazza Maggiore and head east towards the Quadrilatero - foodie hub of Italy's foodie heaven. You could spend an afternoon just here, picking through food markets and tiny eateries, sipping wines and nibbling cured meats from a tagliere, meandering through il Mercato di Mezzo - the founder of Eataly's personal collection of food stalls, then have a gelato, wander some more and suddenly it's 'Aperitivo Time!'
Not many cities do it better than Bologna. Padova is the home of Aperol and Turin claims to have created aperitivo culture but Bologna must have have perfected it because when the day's shadows lengthen, these shady side streets spring to life and become deliciously rowdy between greetings, meetings, food and flowing spritzes.
Oh, it's all under control... just nice and loud - the Italian way.
We've drifted to food again
Back to exploring - head north from Piazza Maggiore into the Ghetto Ebraico where calm and sleepy streets shout bold colours and street art, where history is written on the walls and remembered in hidden corners and time is taken to pause and reflect.
A must-see is the ancient University you can peek into. The Archiginnasio is the original seat from 1563 with schools of law and the arts and if history ticks your boxes, step back in scholarly time inside the Anatomical Theatre. Expect an endless library and ancient wooden lecture hall with beautiful carvings with elaborate furnishings and statues. Look up to the ceiling for a sky full of astrological signs and take in the impressive, central marble table copied from the original where fresh cadavers were once dissected back in the day.
Another quirky sight is Bologna's leaning tower, or rather two towers. These are the iconic city symbol the Bolognesi are fond of and if you think The Tower of Pisa is leaning - this leans more. Built as defence at the crossroads of five roads that led to the city gates, the shorter Garisenda had to be lowered due to unstable ground mass beneath it. Both are at a precarious angle although the taller sister Asinelli is safe enough to visit. It's a must in Bologna, not only for the views but because it's just a must, after tagliatelle con ragù alla bolognese that is. Climb the 498 wooden steps to 97metres offering spectacular views across the city.
You'll find plenty of little resting areas on your way up but no room on the stairs for both going up and coming down, so time your visit to 45 minutes and you won't bump into anyone because visits to the tower are staggered throughout the day, in fact, you must book a time slot. Do so here or purchase your tickets on Piazza Maggiore at the Tourist Office. It's a handy spot to make use of with lots of tips from keen, informative staff and where you can also pick up a Bologna Welcome Card. Two options (Easy or Plus) give you access to most sights-to-see plus guided tours and entry to museums. We'd suggest opting for the Plus Card as it includes the Asinelli Tower, the panoramic terrace of the Basilica of San Petronio, and access to the San Luca Sanctuary’s dome terrace. Here's where to buy the cards online or find the them at Tourist Info Points in town.
Where to stay.
When in Bologna, do as the Bolognesi do and stay in town. Bologna is not a tourist trap but accommodation is never at a loss due to the high number of students coming and going. This city offers all kinds of options from basic to luxury, hostels to hotels. There's always the choice of staying in the nearby hills in an Agriturismo Farm stay or something more rural, however, driving into town or even catching the train isn't always as quick as it seems. My advice would be to take the city break and look for a place within the old city but slightly away from Piazza Maggiore and Via Santo Stefano which buzzes with Bolognese life well into the night.
How long to stay for depends on how much history you love. Bologna was once a city of 180 towers, demonstrating her wealth and power, much like Manhattan but in the Middle ages. These days only 20-odd remain and some are available to climb. If you love to sit in old churches, admire affreschi and medieval art or visit every ancient museum you can, then stay for more but 3 would be a perfect number. Enough to fall in love with the vibe, the art and the food.
How to get there.
Fly into Bologna Airport! Major airlines as well as budget ones service this airport, see here for details. The train station is linked well and these days train announcements are in English and Italian and not as fast as they used to be. If Bologna is part of your Italian tour, consider staying in the beautiful surrounding countryside at an Agriturismo, one of our favourite types of Italian accommodation. The whole region of Emilia Romagna is known for it's stunning, lush landscape, and glorious food - did I mention that?
And finally, what to eat.
Here are some typical dishes and things you simply must try. If you're a regular reader, you'll know we always say: avoid the tourist menus. There's no excuse in Bologna.
The Bolognesi (the people) are picky, they tend to feel a little superior and they semplicemente will not cook you a pasta Alfredo - it doesn't exist. This is purism and Italian food perfection so be bold, try something local - ask the waiter what they'd recommend, see what everyone's is eating or go for the daily dish - there's a reason La Grassa is Bologna's other nickname - 'The Fat' as in 'juicy' and 'moreish'.
Here's our list and a few handy tips:
Tortellini in brodo - Bologna's classic filled pasta, served in broth
Crescentine - perfect with a tagliere! Golden puffs of bread served as an antipasto.
Friggione is a thick sauce of onion and tomato cooked incredibly slowly. The recipe varies but this is classic Bologna food, served on bread as an antipasto or beside a meaty main.
Mortadella - Bologna's enormous pale-pink polony, known fondly and simply in Italy as 'La Bologna', eaten best on a slice of warm bread.
Prosciutto crudo di Parma - you'll notice the whole cured Pork leg hanging all over the city as one of the region's most sought-after culinary delights. Sliced thinly onto an antipasti platter or wrapped around a grissino, I implore you to order Prosciutto here - it will be like none other you've ever tasted.
Parmigiano Reggiano is the second of the region's culinary claims-to-fame. Served simply in chunks with a glass of local Pignoletto or mixed into all kinds of regional dishes or grated on top of them.
Barbera is Bologna's local ruby-red wine, origianlly from Piemonte, this dry, intense wine is produced in the gentle hills outside town, found sparkling or still.
But probably the most favourite of the Bolognesi is Pignoletto. Light, bubbly and perfect for an aperitivo this ancient white wine dates back to Etruscan times, made from local Grechetto Gentile grapes.
Try anything with Aceto Balsamico di Modena - it's another regional DOCG delight.
Don't ask for 'spaghetti bolognaise' 1. Bolognese (the sauce) is served with tagliatelle and 2. Bolognaise is French. Read all about it in our blog post.
Expect to pay a 'coperta' - Bologna is a city proud to serve up "The Best Food in Italy" at reasonable prices but restaurants will charge an extra €2/3 a head to sit down and eat. Stemming from the Middle Ages when travellers would bring their own food to inns, strangely this custom still exists whether you eat the breads in the basket or not. Remember, tipping is not expected.
Bologna has always been a city of intellectuals, forward-thinkers, creativity and style. The people here don't try to be hip, they don't need to. They believe their food is superior, their city has it all and quite honestly don't feel the need to prove it. Tourism is not massive and they like it that way. There's a contended sigh of 'The Good Life' here under the lofty porticoes and long red shadows, if visiting the area, you'll feel it too. Visit Modena - home of Ferrari, sit in the hills sipping sparkling wines and tuck into some of the best hearty food you'll ever eat because once you've experienced La Rossa, you'll come back for seconds.