A long weekend in Italy: the top things to do in Bologna
When planning a trip to Italy, the destinations that come to mind are usually Rome, Florence and Venice. Not that I’m blaming anyone, they are all one-of-a-kind cities and must-visits. But it’s my job to illuminate you on another fantastic Italian city that seems to be completely under the radar: Bologna. Known as La Dotta (“the learned one” for its world-renowned university), La Grassa (“the fat one” for its delicious cuisine) and La Rossa (“the red one” for its red rooftops and leftist political views), Bologna is definitely a destination to visit on your trip to il bel paese. And while I visited the capital of the Emilia Romagna region in March, I was lucky enough to catch it under the snow!
If you’re searching for a beautiful city in central Italy, easily walkable, easily reached by train, and close to major Italian cities, Bologna is the place for you. Not to mention that Bologna is one of the foodie capitals of Italy (if not THE foodie capital of Italy). Keep reading to find out how to spend three days in Bologna.
What to see in Bologna
Bologna is a city of contrasts. Located in central Italy in the rich Po valley, it’s a city that will capture you with its Medieval architecture, porticoes, views and amazing food. Its known for having the most ancient university in the western world – L’Alma Mater Sudiorum – founded in 1088, from which Bologna’s nickname La Dotta (“the learned one”) comes from. It’s also famous for being the birthplace of tagliatelle alla bolognese, tortellini and mortadella! Not to mention that it’s the city of towers, considered a skyscraper city in Medieval times for having over 100 towers. Although a long weekend isn’t enough to see all of Bologna, here are the things you should definitely see on your three-day trip!
The Motor Valley
If you’re a motorcycle or race car fan, chances are you’ve heard about the Motor Valley – the industrial district situated in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region specialized in the automotive industry. This area, mainly concentrated in Bologna, Modena, Cento and Argenta, is renowned worldwide for being the birthplace of some of the world’s leading automotive brands: Ducati, Ferrari and Lamborghini. In addition to the industrial activity, the Motor Valley is also characterized by museums, racetracks, factories and sports competitions, making it an authentic “land of engines”. Which means you can visit the Lamborghini, Ducati and Ferrari museums, racetracks and factories during your stay in Bologna!
To tell you the truth, I only visited the Ducati Museum, but the Lamborghini Museum is also in Bologna so don’t miss out like I did! While the Ferrari museum is a 50-minute drive from Bologna, in Maranello, so it’s best you organize yourself for a day trip! At the Ducati Museum, you can also visit the factory but you should reserve in advance. Unfortunately, the factory was not operating the day I visited, but the museum was amazing. From Ducati’s very first motorcycle, you’ll embark on a journey that will take you back to the origins and allow you to retrace the steps this one-of-a-kind brand. Seeing the very first models and comparing them to the ones of today was a wonderful experience, and understanding how each motorcycle was designed for a specific market was even more interesting!
9am – 6pm (Winter: Mon and Wed closed/ Summer Wed closed)
€15 (Museum), € 30 (Museum + Factory tour)
If you want to visit jaw-dropping palazzos, this is one not to miss. This was one of my absolute favorite places in Bologna. Located in the historic center, footsteps from Piazza Maggiore, this palazzo was commissioned by Cardinal Borromeo and dates back to the 16th century. Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio was built to house the lecture halls of the university’s Law and Arts departments and was the seat of the University till 1803. As you step inside, a rectangular courtyard awaits you, with an arcade with 30 arches and frescoes all around. Take a stroll and then head to the first floor to visit the famous Teatro Anatomico – the anatomy theater where the first anatomy classes were held, and the Stabat Mater Hall – the grand classroom dedicated to Jurists. As you walk the corridors, admire the frescoed ceilings and the stunning decorations all throughout. Unfortunately, in 1944 during the Second World War the building was heavily bombarded but it has been completely rebuilt. Don’t miss it!
Monday – Saturday 9am – 7pm /Sunday 10am – 2pm
Torre degli Asinelli
Bologna is the city of towers. During Medieval times, it was a skyscraper city boasting more than 100 towers! That’s more than San Gimignano’s 72 original towers, of which only 16 remain. In Bologna, of those 100 towers only 24 remain scattered throughout the city. Unfortunately some were demolished in the early 1900s as they were deemed dangerous. The most famous tower of all is the Torre degli Asinelli, a stone’s throw away from Piazza Maggiore, right next to the Garisenda tower (47m). With a height of 97.2 meters, the Asinelli tower is the tallest leaning Medieval tower in the world, taller than the leaning tower of Pisa (57m). As a symbol of Bologna, you cannot miss out on climbing the Torre degli Asinelli. Between you and a jaw-dropping panorama stand only 498 stair steps! Can you do it? Sure, I must admit it’s a bit tough, but you can stop every now and then to catch your breath, and once you reach the top, it’ll all have been worth it!
To go up the tower, you have go to Piazza Maggiore’s Bologna Welcome Tourist Office and buy your ticket (€3 – 5) or you can purchase it online here: duetorribologna.com. There are turns every 45 minutes.
Piazza Santo Stefano & Basilica di Santo Stefano (Sette Chiese)
Piazza di Santo Stefano is one of the most beautiful places in Bologna, where you will find the stunning Basilica di Santo Stefano, also called the complex of the Seven Churches. From outside, the churches seem to be side by side, but it’s only once you step inside the first one that you begin a journey back in time, back to the formation of the seven churches. The Seven churches are a single complex of many religious buildings juxtaposed over the centuries. Each individual church is dedicated to a saint, while the entire complex is dedicated to the patron martyr Stephen. This complex is one of the oldest religious complexes of Bologna, if not the oldest, so much so that it is traced back to the bishop Petronio, who later became the saint of Bologna (and whom the Basilica di San Petronio is dedicated to). What’s extremely interesting is that this complex was built on top of a previous place of worship, a Pagan temple dedicated to Iside, which dates back to Roman time. Of the seven original churches, only four remain today. It’s for sure a must-visit, and its two courtyards are marvellous!
Basilica di San Petronio
The Basilica of San Petronio is the fourth largest church in Italy and the sixth largest church in Europe. But most importantly, this basilica is the main church of Bologna, and the one kept most at heart by the Bolognese people. It’s located in the city’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, and it’s dedicated to the patron saint of Bologna: Petronio. Unlike the nearby cathedral (St. Peter’s Cathedral on Via Indipendenza), San Petronio is a “civic” church, meaning it was built by the private citizens of Bologna between the 14th and 15th century. The facade, unfinished for the upper part, is surely one of the most beautiful in Italy. But there’s something else that is very special about the Basilica di San Petronio: inside, drawn on the floor, you will find the Cassini sundial, which is the largest sundial in the world (in a closed space)! The pontifical astronomer Giandomenico Cassini in 1655 expanded the meridian line already built a century earlier by Dominican Danti. The sundial corresponds exactly to the six hundred thousandth part of the Earth’s meridian. Every day, entering from the hole at 27 meters in height, a ray of sunshine intersects the line, marking the slow passing of the days and seasons.
Piazza Maggiore is the beating heart of the city of Bologna. This piazza is the result of various transformations over the centuries, which slowly enriched the piazza by adding important buildings. In this beautiful square, you can admire the Basilica di San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Notai, the Palazzo d’Accursio, the Palazzo del Podestà and the Palazzo dei Banchi. It was only in the year 1200 that the comune started purchasing houses and terrain to build a piazza that was supposed to represent the importance of the Municipal institutions on one side, and reunite major everyday activities such as trade, exchanges and services on the other. Interesting to note is that Piazza Maggiore was initially known as Curia Communis and later as Platea Communis. It is only in the 6th century that it became known as Piazza Maggiore. Before 1944, the piazza was named Piazza Re d’Italia Vittorio Emanuele II. So it’s only from 1945 that the square was officially named Piazza Maggiore again.
Fountain of Neptune
On the Piazza del Nettuno, just a footstep from Piazza Maggiore, you can admire the stunning Fountain of Neptune by Giambologna, nicknamed Il Gigante for being 4 meters tall and weighing 2,200 kg. The fountain dates back to 1564, when Pope Pius IV decided to give the Bolognese people a public fountain. The reason? Bologna was an independent comune during the Middle Ages, but in 1508 it became subject to the Papal States. Pier Donato Cesi, the papal delegate, wanted to make sure the people of Bologna knew who was in charge, and had the Fountain of Neptune commissioned to Giambologna to mark a new political era. Giambologna’s inspiration came from ancient Greek and Roman statues. Just as Neptune ruled the seas, he wanted to portray the Pope ruling the world. While the body of Neptune appears strong the face seems older to emphasize the strength and wisdom of the Pope.
Museums to visit in Bologna
Bologna is filled with wonderful museums. During my three-day trip I visited two of them, in addition to the Ducati Museum mentioned above. The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna is the place to visit if you’re a Medieval and Renaissance art enthusiast. From the many frescoes kept in temperature-controlled exhibition rooms, to works by Raffaello and Giotto, there is sure a lot to see! But if you’re not into religious art, you might want to skip this museum! While if you’re more into contemporary art, check out the exhibitions at MAMbo. I saw the temporary exhibition Revolujta which displayed Russian art dating from the Russian Revolution to the Soviet Union. The permanent collection is also interesting, especially if you’re a fan of Giorgio Morandi’s artworks!
For someone that visited Bologna under the snow, I can’t explain how happy I was to find shelter under the Bolognese porticoes! Rain or snow, sun or wind, the arcades of Bologna – almost 40 kilometers long – make this a one-of-a-kind city in the world. They allow you to walk comfortably through the streets of the historic center, go shopping or move from one museum to another during all seasons! Although I haven’t personally been due to the weather conditions, I’ve been told a must-visit is the Sanctuary of San Luca, which can be reached by walking the famous San Luca portico! The porticoes of Bologna were included in 2006 in the Italian Tentative List of the candidate sites to become UNESCO World Heritage. Lets see how it goes!
Where to stay in Bologna
When it’s your first time visiting a city, you may not know which area is the best to stay at. Some areas are more touristy, others more local, others best for nightlife! I have to say that during my three-day trip to Bologna, I hit the jackpot in terms of location with my accommodation. It was a cute bed and breakfast located in an historic palazzo on Via Massimo D’Azeglio, literally 8 footsteps from Piazza Maggiore. Wherever I wanted to go, whether it was a restaurant, a church, a museum or a shop, everything was super close! And to my great surprise, I found Bologna to be a very authentic Italian city. Unlike other cities in Italy, there were no visible tourist traps, no ugly souvenir shops, no horrible restaurants I ended up in. The whole experience was definitely Italian! Based on my experience, if you plan on spending your time sightseeing, walking, eating and drinking amazing Sangiovese and Lambrusco wine, Piazza Maggiore is the perfect location to get your accommodation.
If for some reason you need to leave your luggage somewhere, there is a bag deposit very close to Piazza Maggiore. I used it on my last day in Bologna and it was great, they were very nice and efficient. It’s just 160 meters away from Piazza Maggiore in Piazza Roosevelt 4/C and it’s open every day from 10.30am – 1.30pm and from 2.30pm – 6.30pm.
For more information go bologna4you.com
Read by foodie guide to Bologna to find out where to eat like a local
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