When you think of Italy, Bologna may not be the first city that comes to mind. But once you’ve had a taste of “the fat one”, you’ll be back for more!
The capital of the Emilia Romagna region is largely ignored by tourists who may change trains at the station, en route to better-known destinations, but rarely explore the red city in any depth. This means that the locals are much more welcoming of visitors and the tourist traps that you may find in other Italian cities are almost entirely absent. And the city is a place to savour.
What you will find in abundance in Bologna are students. The city is home to the oldest university in Europe and has a gorgeous student quarter that bristles with activity well into the night. The tall arcades are perfect to shelter from the hot sunshine in the summer months and the snow in the winter.
So, what to do in Bologna?
La Piazzola open-air market
Every Friday and Saturday, the huge Piazzola market sets up in the northern part of the city centre, as it has done for almost 800 years. You can find a bewildering array of bargains, from leather bags and shoes to stylish Italian vintage clothing, toys and handmade jewellery. It starts early in the morning and finishes around eight in the evening.
If you enjoy the peace and quiet of grand, old churches, you are spoilt for choice in Bologna. The most prominent of all is the unfinished Basilica of San Petronio, which has been a “work in progress” since 1390! The goal to build the largest church in Christendom was vetoed by the Pope, but the church was still built on an awesome scale.
Elsewhere, the city streets are dotted with incredible religious structures, including the church on Piazza San Domenico which hosts various spectacular tombs and a shrine decorated by a young Michelangelo among others. If you want to go inside the churches, you will have to dress respectfully… for women this means covering your shoulders.
Over 40km of arcades line the streets, creating a unique visual effect and plenty of cool spots in which to escape the hot sunshine with a coffee.
In the city centre, the two (slightly wonky) towers on Via Rizzoli may appear to be phallic monuments to masculinity but they have a fascinating history. They were built by rich local families when Bologna was a city of internal strife and the Asinelli tower, built 9 centuries ago, was the tallest medieval tower in the world. Entry costs €3 but watch out… local legend says that any student who climbs the tower will never graduate.
Stop for an aperitivo
Bologna’s bars look after workers returning home after a long day at the office by laying out an impressive array of stuzzicati, the local interpretation of tapas that include mini-pizzas, sausages, cheeses, meats and a variety of vegetables. Sip from a glass of prosecco, hone your Italian skills and then…
Discover why Bologna is Italy’s food capital
photo: Austin Keys
Bologna is known as La Grassa – the fat one. It is also known as the home of pasta and, of course, spaghetti Bolognese (which is known as ragu locally and is served with tagliatelle, never spaghetti). One thing is certain: you will eat spectacularly well in Bologna and for a fair price.
The streets around Via dell’ Indipendenza are a good place to start, although you can’t go far wrong anywhere in the city. If you are on a tight budget, pizza offers a lot of bang for your buck and rarely costs more than €7. Alternatively, go for the whole antipasti, primi, secondi and dolce arrangement, but you will probably have to be rolled into bed shortly afterwards.
Catch an open-air concert
During the summer months, a series of open air concerts take place at Piazza Giuseppe Verdi in the university quarter. The square fills up for the gigs and then stays busy afterwards as local students mingle, flirt and enjoy the warm evening air with a beer in hand.
Just around the corner, Giardini de Via Filippo Rey hosts free concerts throughout June and July and Vicolo Bolognetti is a popular hangout with students. The bars around Via Zamboni are great throughout the year and are filled with students.
Santo Stefano vintage market
This is the place to go for antiques and vintage items. You can find unique jewellery, paintings and prints, furniture and plenty more. Best of all, the market is located in one of Bologna’s most beautiful squares, where you can explore the Basilica de Santo Stefano. The complex consists of seven churches, with the oldest dating back to the 2nd century.
If churches aren’t your thing, you can always just sit down at one of the cafes along Via Santo Stefano and enjoy watching people go by on their bicycles.
The market runs every second Saturday/Sunday of the month (except January, July and August).
The one thing that Bologna is lacking is a good beach. Or any kind of beach… the sea is around an hour away. But the journey is well worth it, as Ravenna is a glorious, UNESCO-listed town in its own right. The lidos are a little beyond the town itself and can be reached by a bus ride from the train station. When you get there, you won’t be disappointed: the Adriatic water is warm, the beaches are lively and the beachfront bars are great places to spend an evening getting to know the locals, cocktail in hand.
You can share your own Bologna tips in the comments below, or contact us to find out more about our range of Italian courses in Bologna.