‘‘A little bit of a bread, a little bit of Mozzarella?’ Chiara called back to our eager faces as we nodded, excitedly wetting our palates with some local Lambrusco and counting down the minutes until we sampled our first Emilia Romagna meal. The food was as good as the regions reputation promised, the company a perfect accompaniment, and we laughed throughout dinner until our bill was deposited, momentarily wiping away our joy at what was meant to be an affordable first meal in Bologna.
A little bit of everything extra had turned into a lot of extra Euros, and we laughed again, this time at Chiara’s sales skills and our easy fall into the upgrade scam. We couldn’t hold a grudge though, not here in Bologna, a city as loving and warm as the complimentary Limoncello shots we were gifted by Chiara on our departure.
It was the only time I felt cheated in this captivating city, for the locals of Bologna are some of the most liberal, kind, and friendly you will meet in Italy, or dare I say the world. Bologna is a city that reels you into its never-ending maze of Porticos, but the prize in this maze is getting blissfully lost, and ideally never finding your way out.
All is forgiven with free Lemoncello
Two visits to this city in six-months shows just how much Bologna clawed its way into my heart: from the unbelievably cheap daily delicious pizza slices to the epicurean dishes in family-run Osterias, Bologna fed me well. But it also fed my soul: the intricate frescos in the western worlds oldest University, the imposing towers with their unforgettable views, the 40-kilometres of Porticos which feel like an inside-outside gallery, Bologna is a city that you feel as much as you visit.
I can wax lyrically over this city I could easily call home for hours at a time, but I’m sure you’d rather know how to make your own weekend visit to the culinary capital of Italy just as special. Here are my favourite things to do in Bologna, and from these, I’m sure you can build the perfect three day trip to Bologna… and do tell her I’ll be back soon.
Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region, in Northern Italy. It’s roughly halfway between Verona and Florence. Getting here is easy, as Bologna is well served with connections to multiple destinations throughout Europe, and UAE and Morocco direct to its own airport, Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport. Please remember for those travelling into the Schengen zone from 2022 you will require an ETIAS, the new European Travel Authorisations. For those travelling from further afield, Florence, Milan and Venice central train-stations are linked in around 90-minutes to the city.
Bologna One Day Itinerary
From Michelangelo’s sculpture work to Morandi’s paintings, Bologna is a city you could easily spend days enjoying the art and architecture off – in fact, in the Emilia Region alone there are 13 UNESCO sites, so be sure to enjoy those that are in the city.
For day one, let’s start with some of the highlights, and some gelato because it’s a totally suitable food-group to build a whole lunch out of when in Italy!
Looking out on Basilica di San Petronio
Set in the centre of the old town, Piazza Maggiore will forever be one of my favourite places in the city to people watch, sip on a local Lambrusco, or sneak off into the small streets nearby for a breakfast or to buy some local goods.
Here, medieval palaces sit alongside Romanesque cathedrals, and there are a few sights you can enjoy on the square itself.
Start inside the Basilica di San Petronio, which dates back to the 14th-century and is the most important church that Bologna has to offer. the most important church in the city hailing back to the 14th-century, it’s also one of the largest in Europe. Be sure to head inside, and while outside, you’ll likely notice it was never fully completed – with the marble at the bottom turning into plain brickwork higher up.
Stop at Via Pescherie Vecchie, 1 for breakfast
Also on the square, you’ll find Palazzo dei Banchi, a 16th-century palace, and turning through the archways here is one of my favourite streets, Via Pescherie Vecchie, 1 – ideal for a quick breakfast bite at one of the cafes.
Gelato or Food Tour
There are countless food tours you can take around Bologna, so now is the right time to do one. It’s an ideal walking introduction to the city, and most the food tours will give you an idea of where you might want to re-visit, an insight into facts and history, and perhaps most importantly, a taste of what Emilia Romagna has to offer.
The Gelato Tour might not seem the most obvious pick, but if you love the Italian ice-cream as much as I do, I highly suggest this one.
Pizzeria Due Torri for lunch
This low-key take-away pizzeria near the two towers is one of my go-to places for a quick bite in Bologna. The no-fuss setting, quick service, and delicious yet criminally cheap slices are worth grabbing to enjoy on one of the benches outside in the shadow of the towers, our next stop.
The Two Towers
The iconic symbol of the city, you’ll need to book a ticket in advance and be ready to climb a lot of steps, to truly appreciate the two towers
Leaning, one of them in-fact actually has more of an angle than the more famous leaning tower of Pisa, and from the top, you’ll get an incredible birds-eye view over Bologna. Yes, you’ll need to climb nearly 500 steps to get close to 100 metres above the city, but the views will be worth it. Be aware, it can get very narrow inside, so it might not be suitable for everyone.
Piazza Santo Stefano for Aperitivo
Next up, head towards another wonderful square, Piazza Santo Stefano. On the way, there are some beautiful churches to visit, such as the Church of Saints Bartholomew and Cajetan and Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro, before admiring the Abbazia Santo Stefano, a Convent and one of the most magnificent buildings in the city for me.
It should be getting close to Aperitivo time, the hours when drinks flow with free snacks and dishes to accompany them, a northern Italian tradition. To make it local to Emilia Romagna, you might opt to swap your Aperol Spritz or Negroni for local wine, like Lambrusco or Sangiovese.
The architecture in Bologna in its red hues
Dinner at L’osteria dei Grifoni
For dinner, I suggest taking a 15-minute stroll around the back of the old-centre to L’osteria dei Grifoni, though you might need a map to find it.
This wonderful family-run restaurant is on a side-street, where a few steps will take you to the semi-underground restaurant. Menus are all in Italian, if there even is a menu, you might just be given a choice of the daily pasta’s and dishes to choose from.
Everything we ate here on two visits was sublime, and the host and candle-lit interior coupled with wooden bench seating make it an approachable and affordable dinner option.
Bologna Two Day Itinerary
Admire Bologna University and walking tour
The oldest western university in the world, Bologna University – The Alma Mater Studiorum – unsurprisingly doesn’t just sit in one orderly building but instead spreads out across various magnificent settings across the city. This makes for a nice walking trail which will bring you past lots of beautiful streets and attractions that aren’t necessarily connected to the university.
Some of the must-visit spots include the anatomical theatre, an all-wooden theatre that was used for teaching anatomy students, and the impressive library, which will literally take your breath away.
Palazzo Poggi, the Spanish College and Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio are stops well worth a visit as you walk the streets, and remember, this isn’t just a part of history, but students are still lucky enough to learn in these incredible settings even now.
A night at the theatre
The Teatro Comunale di Bologna is a masterpiece of design. An imposing entrance, lush red seating, grand balconies – a picture-perfect theatre. If you can secure tickets for a performance here then I highly recommend it.
Bologna has UNESCO listing as a city of creativity and music and where better to soak that in than this setting. Opened in 1763 and designed by renowned Antonio Galli Bibiena it’s worth visiting even if not for a show, you can try to join a tour on certain mornings by booking the night before.
Dinner at Trattoria Ana Maria
This institution of a restaurant, with walls coated into photos of previous patrons, including a few celebrities, will always hold a dear place in my heart as it’s where I enjoyed my final meal with Silvia, a true star of the Emilia Romagna tourism industry who sadly passed away.
Personal attachment aside, this slightly more upmarket restaurant, though still complete with traditional decor, served up dish after dish of delicious food – don’t forget you can have more than three courses quite happily in Italy! The lasagne was fantastic, as was the ragù tagliatelle (never call it, or compare it to, our embarrassing Bolognese version) and the desserts were sublime.
Emilia Romagna is often called the home of food
Enjoy drinks in Ghetto Ebraico
Nearby the to the theatre, this super cool neighbourhood is perhaps my favourite place to enjoy an evening drink in Bologna. The laughter and conversations more than spills out onto the street, so just find a bar or two that you like the look of and enjoy.
Bologna Three Day Itinerary
Eat everything at Fico EATLY world
Emilia Romagna is sometimes referred to as the home of food, with culinary genius running in the blood of this region. From Parma Ham to Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic Vinegar to aforementioned Ragú, there are numerous dishes that the region hold claim too.
While on a longer visit to Emilia Romagna you could head to other cities and regions to sample the local cuisine, for those just here for a long weekend Fico EATLY world provides an answer.
Some will love it, others will think its cheating and might prefer to spend their last day hopping on quick trains to the likes of Parma itself, but this huge food ‘theme park’ just outside the city centre gives you the change to taste various Protected Designation of Origin flavours in one place.
You can dip into one of the small production rooms to see how items are made or take classes, wine-tasting, and gelato workshops. It also covers food from regions outside of Emilia Romagna and the whole country. Expect to spend a while here – it’s so vast you can actually hire bikes to cycle around the inside the building or visit the farms and outer sections. Make sure you’ve got some empty suitcase space to bring all the goodies home.
Once back into the centre (you might have walked or taken the bus to Fico, you’ll likely walk past one of Bolognas worse kept secrets, Finestrella.
Bologna used to have lots of canals, and in fact, many of these do still exist but have simply been built over, or hidden behind walls. The Finestrella window allows you a glimpse into this Venice like past through a small viewing spot onto one of the prettiest canals still open in the city.
Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
In the afternoon, head to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, some 300-metres above the city. You can take public transport there, or walk (an hour-ish) with the little tourist train a popular option as it leaves straight from Piazza Maggiore.
The Sanctuary is situated outside the city-centre, raised up on a green area with great views looking back to the old town. If you climbed the tower, you’ll have seen it in the distance. As well as being a notable place of worship, the beautifully curved construction offers wide vistas from the viewing platform, which you can enter for a few euros, or just walk around the buildings lower levels and grounds for free.
Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
A stroll through the Porticos back to town
It’s rare I get to this part of an article when writing about Bologna without mentioning Porticos multiple times. These UNESCO covered archways are all over Emilia Romagna, and other parts of Italy, but the city of Bologna boasts over 40-kilometres of them alone!
The walk back down to the city centre is really pleasant through the porticos the whole way, with some lovely buildings to pause and photograph on the route.
Depending on when your flight is, you might want to stay at the Sanctuary for sunset and walk back down as the sun is setting, a really lovely end to three days in Bologna.
There are, of course, many more museums, galleries and attractions in Bologna that you could squeeze in and around this itinerary. I’ve purposefully left this relatively loose so you don’t have to rush and can embrace the relaxed, liberal pace of life in this University City.
One thing I’m confident on is that no matter how you spend your time in Bologna, you’ll be hard pushed not to come away singing her praises – enjoy!
The remains of the gates to the old city walls
Where to eat in Bologna: While I’ve detailed some of my favourite places to dine above, you truly are spoilt for choice when it comes to food in Bologna. Be sure to check off all the amazing food experiences in Emilia Romagna, whether in the city or beyond.
Where to go after Bologna: After exploring Bologna I highly suggest you discover some more of the Emilia Romagna region. Brisighella, a dreamy village of towers and olive oil is an ideal day trip, while some of the smaller cities in Emilia Romagna such as Modena, Ferrara and Parma make fantastic day trips from Bologna.
Accessibility in Bologna: Bologna is an old city and has countless attractions, so it would be hard to give in-depth advice here. Many of the main attractions give accessibility details on their website and the team at Bologna Welcome, the tourism board, have a great website which discusses accessibility in the city.
Book your rail tickets for Italy in advance and secure savings
In general, when travelling by train in Italy and Europe, the best value fares are those booked in advance.
With a variety of high-speed and slower trains serving Italy, you can usually find the right journey at the right price. I’d suggest searching for routes and tickets on Italiarail before travelling to secure discounts.
If you are planning to travel to Italy for more than one or two trips, consider purchasing an Italiarail travel rail pass which will allow savings on extended travels.