Updated: 8th October 2019
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You don’t just travel to Italy, you get consumed by Italy; the words stumbled out of my mouth as I tried to explain why it was one of my favourite countries. The people, the passion, the food (oh boy, the food), the views, the attitude; there is something about the lifestyle here that transports you, and in this region, it’s all combined. Emilia Romagna offers up a fantastic mix of culinary, architecture and art based treats wrapped up in one.
I spent a week exploring this new to me region, and from the seaside towns to the hills of olive trees, I still don’t feel like I’ve genuinely scratched the surface so I happily booked a second return visit for a few months later. Grab a car, grab some mates and take a road trip through this region of Northern Italy. Or, for now, watch the video before reading all my Emilia Romagna must visits below.
When it comes to exploring Italy, I think road-trips are the winner. While you could take day trips from Bologna by public transport easily enough, to discover some of the true hidden gems of Europe and the little villages of this Italian region, four-wheels (or go all out with a Vespa) are a winner.
Here are some of my top things to do in Emilia Romagna, all of which are possible day trips from Bologna, and why not download the free Emilia Romagna magazine containing this article and many more to help you plan your trip!
When you think of Italy from the movies; you know the ones, hair flying in convertible cars, verdant green hills of vines, castles towering above little red roof towns, you’re essentially thinking of Brisighella.
This too cute to believe town was my first day trip in Emilia Romagna and it stayed my favourite. The picturesque streets with little cafes and gelato shops sit under the three hills of the town; one clocktower, one castle and one church. You can enjoy a casual stroll between the three and visit them before noshing down on all the gelato below. We saw one little tourist group there but other than that, on a blissfully sunny June day it was devoid of tourists.
Be sure to check out the surroundings including the old quarry caves which now host live music performances underground, the excavation site of the old castle which offers terrific panoramic views and head to the mountains for some fantastic fresh food and fresh air at the Parco Carnè visitor centre.
Cesenatico was one of those places where I just pointed at a map and went with no real research (it’s one of my best skills in life). I had wanted to visit the charming canals of Comacchio which had been touted as a ‘Venice without the people’ but time was not on my side.
Luckily, quaint Cesenatico was an ideal day trip from Bologna. Sure, it has a beach on the Adriatic, but I always recommend Albania or The Algarve for Europe beach holidays as I find the Italian beaches crowded with deckchairs.
The town it’s self though was adorable, with colourful houses lining the few small canals, a maritime museum with boats displayed on the canal and plenty of little restaurants the slow-pace of Italian life is ripe for the taking here.
It took me a few visits to Emilia Romagna before I finally made it to Comacchio, but it was certainly worth the wait! Comacchio isn’t the most accessible place to get to in Emilia Romagna as it does not have a train station, but whether you hire a car or make it here by bus, it’s well worth taking a detour for!
Often billed as ‘Little Venice’ due to it being close to the Veneto border, complete with canals and relatively devoid of tourists, it’s an ideal base to explore the local nature from and also soak up the quaint canals.
A relatively small commune, the main town its self is everything you would expect: still canals reflecting colourful buildings, streets lined with excellent restaurants and bars, and the joy of not being too crowded by tourists. It’s well worth hiring a bike to explore the local area and the Po Delta after you’ve enjoyed a couple of chilled days and sampled the local fish speciality, Eel and Clams.
Po Delta Nature Park
The Po Delta Nature Park sits across both Emilia Romagna and Veneto, and I stayed at the Spiaggia Romea Club Village on the Emilia Romagna side. This large resort, with pools, water sports, horse riding and a range of accommodation is set in a beautiful area that has been preserved by the current owners. Earmarked initially to be property development, the land was all brought, and the resort takes up just a fraction, leaving the rest of the area to nature and wildlife to blossom, an electric golf cart can take you on a ‘mini-safari’ through this part of the park.
But the real magic lies in the Lagoons and Saltworks of the park just outside Comacchio town. Whether you opt to cycle, take a boat, or both, the views are made that more special by the Flamingos that can be found on the lake. Although a migration spot, there are now permanent flocks of Flamingos who have set up their home here.
Other options in the Po Delta National Park include heading to the Sacca di Goro by the border of the region to see traditional clam fishing with the ‘rasca’ (although this is quite a detour so, not ideal if you are short on time) or relaxing in one of the spa and wellness facilities.
The capital city of Emilia Romagna, Bologna is enjoying a moment on the centre-stage. Often overlooked for the likes of Venice, Rome and Milan, this city is seriously a star.
With the most extensive collection of Porticos in the world (the covered arch walkways), imposing towers littering the city, a hill-top monastery and countless restaurants, bars and markets serving up delicious treats around the clock, this is one epic city break.
The architecture throughout the city is outstanding, the cheap pizza slices from the hole in the wall restaurants delicious and the overall vibe is one of love and excitement. It’s damn romantic here, but it’s also a buzzing university city, the oldest in Europe in fact, and that gives it a real mix of cultural and modern experiences.READ MORE: A WEEKEND GUIDE TO BEAUTIFUL BOLOGNA
I’m gonna be honest, Janet and I spent much of our time in Ferrara drinking wine, Aperol and anything else we could use to ‘rehydrate’. While this large city has plenty going on it also seemed like the perfect place to have a lazy day of sight-seeing and bar-hopping.
Start your day off in the striking centre at the Castello Estense and marvel at the interior artwork before taking in the city from the viewing tower. The Palazzo die Diamanti holds the famous National Picture Gallery while Ferrara Castle, a marble facade 12th-century beauty towers in the central Piazza.
The city is split between medieval and renaissance art, and you can easily hire a bike as part of your Emilia Romagna day trip here to hope between each side and see the contrast of the little streets change as you ride through.
Just don’t get as tipsy as me and miss your train back to Bologna!
Modena is famous for two things: Fast cars and Modena Balsamic Vinegar. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take a day trip here at least. While the Ferraris and Lamborghini compliment the more classic Opera scene, there are plenty of impressive sights to enjoy.
The Torre della Ghirlandia is perhaps the most famous and imposing, a giant bell tower offers panoramic views of the city and sits in pride of place. The Roman castle nearby also completes the impressive central square.
For those who are into art and sophisticated architecture, this might actually be one of the best day trips in Emilia Romagna. With multiple museums and palaces stretching over a thousand years you can slowly hop between each sight stopping for coffee refills as needed. The Galleria Estense is a notable must visit for its painting collection from the 14th-century onwards.
The Casentinesi Forest National Park
Amongst the Casentinesi Forest National Park, you’ll find some cute village points to stop at, so you can easily combine a stay in Bagno di Romagna with other spots on a road-trip of the lesser-known Emilia Romagna spots. This part of the region borders Tuscany so is another option to be combined with the likes of Florence.
There is an array of activities you can do in the park, such as hiking through the forest hunting for mushrooms with deer in the distance, and these activities can be arranged through local guides. Be sure to stop off at one of the agritourism restaurants here, where the produce is local and cooking family style. I had a delightful meal in Poderone within the forest where we gorged on beetroot infused pasta, traditional ragu, and plate upon plate of local vegetables.
Another popular option in the park is to go E-Mountain Biking, especially around the Ridracoli Dam with bike tours starting from the Idro Eco-Museum which details how the water and Dam work in harmony with nature in the local area. Although a lot of the regions drinking water runs through this Dam, you can cycle through the mountains and around the water, and even head out onto the Dam by boat or Kayak. In the summer season, cafes and shops are also to be found here.
Bagno di Romagna
Up amongst the mountains of the Casentinesi Forest National Park, you’ll find Bagno di Romagna, a charming and small town which is famed for the many thermal spa hotels and resorts here. Not that well known with foreign tourists, this is an ideal place to escape for some R&R.
I stayed at the Roseo Euroterme Wellness Resort, which was vast and offered everything from a spa circuit, indoor and outdoor thermal pools through to blood sampling and recovery options.
The town itself is compact but delightful, and whether you want a quick hop to nearby hiking options, or just to indulge in the Romagna side of the region’s cuisine – there is a difference even here in Emilia Romagna. A great spot to sample the differences in cheese and ingredients, with mushrooms being a real focus during the season, is the lovely Hostaria Volante, a small restaurant in the town with a very creative own who as well as designing the menu, has hand made the water glasses through to the lampshades.
Rimini is a bit of a contradiction, and for some, it’s somewhere to base themselves and others it is somewhere to avoid. As such, I recommend meeting in the middle by having a day trip from Bologna here.
Located on the Adriatic, you have the bustling coast, with nightclubs, sunlounger sellers and overcrowded beaches but a short stroll into the historic town is a contrast.
The Ponte di Tiberio is an iconic bridge, and renowned as being one of the oldest in the country, the main square is crammed with market stools and miniature Italy, with model versions of various landmarks might be entertaining for any kids in tow.
Personally, I didn’t overly rate Rimini, but it was a necessary stop on route to San Marino, and somewhere you should certainly give a chance; as I said, for many people this is somewhere not to miss.
If you visit Ravenna as a day trip from Bologna, be sure to give yourself enough time here as I wish I had been able to explore the plethora of UNESCO protected artwork more in-depth.
Famed for its colourful mosaics which can be found on walls, inside churches and hiding down little alleys, it’s an intricate treat.
With a vast collection of religious buildings, from churches, Basilicas and the Mausoleum di Teodorico, a 6th-century tomb for a king, it’s one of the more historically significant parts of the Emilia Romagna region. Don’t miss the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare which sits near the train station as is easy to pass by en route to the old centre.
All the food
Emilia Romagna is often touted as ‘the home of food’, partly due to being the birthplace of Ragu. We call it Spaghetti Bolognese, but it’s origins are here as a more meat-based sauce, served with tagliatelle – yup, we all eat an Italian dish that doesn’t really exist.
But this region is full of treats, from Gelato Tours in Bologna to factory tours at Parmigiano Reggiano, the original and certified hard cheese (you know it’s the real deal when it’s not called Parmesan).
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is also a famous export and again, certified. If it’s not from here and with the label, then it’s not the real deal. From small trattorias to bustling food markets, such as FICO, the worlds first food theme park, any hardcore foodie is going to be spoilt here!
When it comes to foodie things the world should be grateful for, send your thank yous for Parmesan cheese and Parma ham right here.
A buzzing city, and one of the largest in the region, Parma is a captivating cocktail of a vibrant university atmosphere and historic buildings and culture.
Perhaps the most unique, and striking of the cities architecture, is the Baptistery of Parma, with its pink marble exterior and unique design. Just next door, when you step into the cathedral, you’ll find a dazzling display of art across the ceilings and walls that puts many other churches to shame.
Culture and the arts are especially highlighted here, from the 19th-century opera house with its magical performances, through to the much old wooden theatre which draws in the crowds.
Parma might be a destination you head to for the food, but there is plenty more to discover so plan to spend at least a day, if not two, soaking up the peaceful atmosphere of Parma.
When I ventured to an almost deserted Reggio Emilia on a chilly Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t help warm to its charm. Just a short journey from either Modena or Parma, this quieter city might not have as many bold claims as its neighbours, but its the perfect place to soak up for a day.
As with many of the region’s cities, it’s the food and architecture that makes a trip to Reggio Emilia worth it. Inside the imposing Santa Maria cathedral, you’ll find the remains of Roman floor mosaics while the 17th-century facades across the city complement the multicoloured pastel hues of the various buildings and porticos.
I got the feeling that Reggio Emilia isn’t as used to tourists as other parts of the regions, and while I think the residents of Emilia Romagna are some of the most friendly and welcoming in Italy, in Reggio Emilia the hospitality from those I met was heightened. The tri-colour flag that we now know as the Italian flag also hails from this city and a littering of museums and ancient sites lie across the city.
To avoid any doubt, San Marino is an entirely different country to Italy, but given Emilia Romagna surrounds it, it’s a must-do day trip while you are here.
In fact, I’d suggest you stay overnight. This tiny republic is the 5th smallest country in the world and the least visited in Europe, but after sunset and the daytrippers depart, you have the most magical ancient experience walking its old city without any crowds.
It’s a truly fascinating place being one of the oldest republics in the world. Italy surrounds it but not part of the EU (although it has no borders). They use the Euro and have individual San Marino coins. They have two presidents at any time who serve six months each. They have their own calendar. You get the point, it’s a pretty unique place, and as such you should certainly make the time when planning your Emila Romagna day trips to fit it in.
How to get to Emilia Romagna: Bologna is the main airport for the region although Rimini now has more flights serving its routes. Verona and Milan are also nearby and offer relatively quick and easy transfers by bus or train.