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Things to do in Bologna for first-timers: travel tips + map

Need to know

Closest airport: G. Marconi Bologna International Airport (BLQ)
Population: around 400.000 (Bologna metropolitan area totals around 1 million)
Region: Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy

Not long ago we returned from our fabulous trip to Italy. Bologna was the last step of our itinerary, and now after settling down and inventorying all the places, I realize Bologna had something that instantly made me feel at home. Plus, it has some striking features all over: red rooftops, lots of porticoes, and great food. So here’s a guide of the best things to do in Bologna as we lived, enjoyed and immersed ourselves in this underrated Italian city!

In this travel guide you will find everything you need to know, whether you are up to a longer stay in Bologna, or you are just passing by. The best places, the city’s hot spots, visiting sites, day trips in the area, recommended tours, as well as some eating tips. Our personal experience as we lived and felt it.

Panorama of Bologna
Panorama of beautiful Bologna with the Asinelli Tower dominating the skyline

Travel to Bologna! This well-hidden Italian gem has a lot to offer to the curious traveller! A cultural jewel, Bologna offers not only shadow under its huge porticoes, but it also boasts the oldest university in the world.

Taste the Bolognese cuisine, a highlight of the Mediterranean kitchen! The star of Italian cuisine, Bologna area is famous for tortellini, tagliatelle, mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano or the renowned ragù sauce.

Feel the Bolognese vibes that will make you understand Bologna’s nicknames. La dotta, la grassa, la rossa mean the learned one (university), the fat one (cuisine) and the red one (red rooftops throughout the city).

Content

Good to know
How to get to Bologna
Our trip to Bologna
How many days should I plan for Bologna?
When visit Bologna
Bologna welcome card
Travel Guide: The best of Bologna
Other ideas for visiting
Eating recommendations in Bologna
Bologna Interactive map

Good to know

Bologna was the least packed with tourists compared to other cities on our Italian trip, which seemed a nice change of pace. It doesn’t mean that Bologna is less interesting, just a truly underrated gem.

  • Bologna is a fabulous city in northern Italy, a city which exceeded my expectations. Italy’s culinary enthusiast dream (mortadella, spaghetti bolognese, prosciutto, parmigiano reggiano to name just a few), Bologna has it all in terms of tourist attractions. Churches, piazzas, tall towers to climb with magnificent view over the red city, good vibes and lots of trattorias for all tastes.
  • To enjoy the best things to do in Bologna, climb up the tall leaning Asinelli tower, immerse yourself in the world oldest university’s atmosphere marvelling at Biblioteca dell’Archiginnasio and the Teatro Anatomico! Enjoy dinner tasting some traditional Bolognese dish while admiring the hundreds of porticoes (part of UNESCO World Heritage) Bologna has on show.
  • Founded in 1088, Bologna has the oldest university in the world. A very respected university until today, it attracted famous scholars, such as Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Copernicus, or Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio. With almost 100,000 students/year, the university contributes to the young and lively spirit in the city.

Day trips and tours

  • Although surrounded by land all over, Bologna offers a large variety of day trips that are easily reachable by train or car. Parma famous for any foodie (Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese) is just around one hour distance. On the same route, but closer lies the town of Modena, famous for the birth of Ferrari and Luciano Pavarotti. Car lovers will definitely want to visit the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, not far from Modena. South from Bologna you can visit Florence, the world capital of Renaissance, just about one hour. However, if you dream about the sea, why not indulge yourself a trip to Rimini, on the Adriatic coast?
  • Join one of the many tours suggested by GetYourGuide. You can opt for something tailored to your needs, be it a Bologna: Secrets of the City Private Tour or Bologna: Guided Walking Tour, guided tours of Bologna. If you prefer food and wine tasting, there’s also a range of tours for you, such as Bologna: Dining Experience at a Local’s Home or From Bologna: Wine Tasting and Vineyard Tour. Both tours include food and wine tasting.
View with me in the Asinelli Tower
Me in Torre Asinelli
The red city - la rossa - is one of the tourist attractions in Bologna
The red city – la rossa

How to get to Bologna

This university city placed in northern Italy is easily accessible by all means of transportation.

  • By plane – G. Marconi international airport in Bologna is a good option with many destinations. As our Italian trip ended in Bologna, we took the plane from the red city. The infrastructure from the central train station to the airport is updated and the Marconi Express takes you there in basically no time for 9.20 euro. For a more budget-friendly travel, you can opt for buses.
  • By train – Trains are a good option, especially between cities. We travelled with Freccia Rossa from Florence and the trip was a true pleasure. Too bad it lasted under 40 minutes! Of course, the comfort and speed don’t come cheap! We paid around 25-30 euro/person. If you come from Milan, you can also choose the Freccia and pay 48 euro, or opt for Italo, a slightly cheaper version that won’t let you down! We had pleasant experiences with them, but for best prices it is good to book in advance.
  • By car – renting a car is always a good option, it takes you wherever you want. Unfortunately, car prices went up a lot in 2022 and renting a car for a few days got very expensive.
A portico in Bologna
Just one of the 62 km …. of porticoes

Porticoes in Bologna are part of the  UNESCO heritage
Porticoes are part of the UNESCO heritage

Our trip to Bologna

It was part of an Italian exploration tour whose final destination was Bologna. After visiting 5 previous cities, we felt really exhausted by the heat wave that never got under 37 degrees. But also by the many kilometers walked to see all the wonderful places.

We arrived in Bologna around 9.30 p.m. at Bologna Centrale station and since our very first impact, my daughters and I, we fell in love with Bologna. First of all, the train station looks more like an airport (it does!). Then, we loved the vibrant city with an intense local flavour, tourist hustle and bustle and lots of bars and pubs. And the cinema festival taking place in Piazza Maggiore with hundreds of people sitting on chairs, on the stairs of San Petronio and simply… down, breathlessly enjoying the Italian movie. Not to mention the fact that we ate better than expected.

Traditional cured Italian meat is one of the main tourist attractions in Bologna
Speaking of the food… Italian cured meat

How many days should I plan for Bologna?

The capital of Emilia-Romagna may not be as famous as Florence, Milan or Rome, but it sure has a lot to offer. Most of the best things to do in Bologna can be visited in one day. Include tasty food in your trip!

If you have time, spend two days in Bologna! Thus, besides the main tourist objectives, you may also enjoy some private tours. One idea is the Secrets of Parmigiano Reggiano Full to find out about the famous Reggiano cheese that is produced only in the area.

For three or more days, I recommend visiting a city from the vicinity, such as Ravenna or Modena.

Arena del Sole
Arena del Sole -a theatre
Clombing to the top of Asinelli Tower is one of the best things to do in Bologna
View over Bologna

When visit Bologna

The best visiting season is April-June or September-November. The temperature is pleasant then and the things to do in Bologna can be visited at your own pace.

We visited in late July and it was terribly hot. Luckily, Bologna was less crammed with tourists compared to other parts of Italy, but still, temperature made things a bit complicated. Nevertheless, Bologna has a huge advantage with the hundreds porticoes whose shadows we constantly enjoyed.

postcard of beautiful Bologna
Postcard from Bologna

Bologna welcome card

This card is suited for the traveller curious to discover the best things to do in Bologna. The city card costs 25 euros and includes the famous Torre Asinelli and a guided walking tour of the city centre. Besides, the card also gives you access to Musei Civici , Museo della Storia di Bologna, Pinacoteca or Palazzo Re Enzo. It is valid for maximum 15 days after activation.

However, if you only want to visit the 10 tourist attractions of Bologna listed under this heading, the card is not worth it.

Travel Guide: The best of Bologna

This is my travel guide with the best things to do in Bologna if visiting for the first time.

Piazza Maggiore

The biggest square in town, Piazza Maggiore is the perfect downtown meeting place. It is the hotspot where you take the pulse of the events in Bologna. When we visited, we stumbled upon a cinema festival. Flanked on the four sides by memorable buildings, this piazza is possibly the first built in Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Municipal Palace and the Clock Tower dominate the Piazza Maggiore, one of the tourist attractions in Bologna
Part of Piazza Maggiore with the Accursio Palace in the background

Fountain of Neptune (Fontana di Nettuno)

Once you visit Piazza Maggiore, it is impossible to miss the huge, sexy and muscly Neptune, God of the sea. But which is his story?

Commissioned in the 16th century at the order of Cardinal Borromeo, this impressive fountain was born after the demolition of an edifice necessary to provide the space. The huge statue, also called Il Gigante, symbolizes the power of the Pope and Catholic church over Bologna. This explains the young, robust body ready to defeat storms, but the older wise face stands for the wisdom of the pope. Besides Neptune, we can see four nymphs squeezing water of their breasts.

Insider tip!: The trident held by the statue of Neptune was used by the Maserati brothers as the emblem for their cars. And is until today.

fountain of Neptune
The fountain of Neptune

Asinelli Tower (Torre degli Asinelli)

Price: 5 euros
Official website: Asinelli and Garisenda Towers

Asinelli Tower is undoubtedly the most famous tower in Bologna. It is the tallest (97 m), it is leaning, and together with Torre Garisenda (a few steps away), is one of the best things to do in Bologna.

Today, we only have 22 remaining towers out of over 90 Bolognese skyscrapers erected between the 11th and 12th centuries. Initially, public towers served a defence and surveillance function, and later, they were passed on to the wealthy. Asinelli family (just like the Guinigis in Lucca) built the famous tower which served as a symbol of power, used both for offence and defence.

Bologna sunset from the Asinelli Tower, one of the main tourist attractions in Bologna
Bologna sunset from the Asinelli Tower

The tower comprises 498 stairs, but my daughters who don’t have a head for heights said that the ascent was okay (after carrying them in lots of towers in Tuscany) as the spiral inside the tower is rather large and the wooden stairs are very stable. Anyway, it can be pretty tiring, but the view is totally worth the effort!!!

Insider tip!: You need to book your ticket in advance and you should know that the time slot you have for visiting the tower is no more than 45 minutes. But it is enough to marvel at the beauty of the Red city at sunset, best time to catch some memorable pics.

Palazzo dell’ Archiginnasio and Teatro Anatomico

Price:  3 euros
Official website:
Teatro Anatomico and Archiginnasio

We didn’t know exactly what to expect here, although the names sounded very academic. And indeed it is.

The Archiginnasio Palace is the seat of the Public Library. It is filled with inscriptions, commemorative documents, but mostly, thousands of coats of arms. The staircases connect the courtyard to the upper floor and are a preview of the splendid display of ornamentations. The most famous room is the Stabat Mater auditorium (called after the musical performance of Rossini), seat of lectures and conferences, but also a richly decorated old library.

Porticoes of Archiginnasio
The porticoes of the Archiginnasio are a true work of art
Stabat Mater Hall
Stabat Mater Hall is more impressive in real life
Archiginnasio is one of the main tourist attractions in Bologna
An old school classroom, today part of the library

The Anatomical Theatre is called this way for the shape of an amphitheatre. It is an ornate wooden lecture theatre that was used in Bologna to perform dissections on human bodies. It was designed in the 17th century and completed with the statues in the 18th century, the most famous being the two “skinned” men on the sides of the university chair. Above, there is a feminine allegory of the Anatomy, but I was particularly fascinated by an Apollo (God of medicine) hanging from the ceiling.

Insider tip!: During the weekend and official holidays, it is mandatory to have a booking, but remember that tickets purchased in advance have an additional cost of 0.50 euro.

ceiling of the Anatomical Theatre
The ornate wooden lecture theatre – Teatro Anatomico

San Petronio Basilica

Free entry, 2 euro fee for taking pictures
Official website: San Petronio Basilica

This huge basilica is one of the largest churches built. The humongous size has a political background. It is said that at the end of 14th century, when seeing that the church would exceed Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican, Pope Pius IV halted the construction. Instead, he ordered the building of the Archiginnasio on the other side of Piazza Maggiore. True, the church never got finished, and it is observable from the half marble half brick façade.

Initially intended as a civic temple, this church dedicated to the patron saint of the city, features some sculptural masterpieces belonging to Jacopo della Quercia. This Renaissance sculptor was an early influence for no other than Michelangelo. These sculptures are outside above the central door. Otherwise, I was not particularly impressed by the inside of the church and didn’t find it beautiful compared to others visited.

San Petronio basilica is a highlight of Bologna
San Petronio’s half marble half brick facade

However, there is one interesting fact about it: the church houses the longest indoor meridian line in the world. Cassini, professor at the University of Bologna, calculated with phenomenal precision in 1656 the tilt of the earth axis and the timing of the equinoxes.

Insider tips!: Appropriate dress-code for church is required – for 1 euro you can buy a robe on the premises.

Right at the exit you can go up visit the terrace of San Petronio. The fee is 3 euros (cash only) and there is an elevator. The view is simply beautiful!

San Petronio on the inside
San Petronio’s inside
Stained glass in san Petronio
Stained glass

Municipal Palace of Bologna/Palazzo d’Accursio

Price: 8 euros
Official website: The Clock Tower and Municipal Art Collections

The palace is situated on one side of the Piazza, between San Petronio and the statue of Neptune. Symbol of Bologna’s political power, it resulted from the fusion of three palaces, out of which the one with the clock tower is the oldest. It was built by jurist Accursio in the 13th century, later becoming shelter for the Papal Legate.

Above the main entrance you’ll see the statue of Pope Gregory XIII giving his blessing. It is interesting to know that he is the man who introduced the Gregorian calendar, the one in use today. Today, the Palazzo D’Accursio houses the municipal government, the Municipal Art Collections and the city’s library. Certain rooms can be visited for free, but for the Art Collection you have to pay a fee.

Take a look at the impressive staircase that leads to the first floor. Although uncomfortable for us, it was designed in such a way that the horse-drawn carriages could reach the first floor.

Climbing your way up in the Clock Tower is one of the things to do in Bologna
The Clock Tower and the Palace
Garden of d'Accursio Palace
Interior garden of d’Accursio Palace

The Clock Tower

Price: 8 euros
Official website: The Clock Tower and Municipal Art Collections

It’s been the Bolognesi’s time-counter for sooo many years. You can climb up to the top, observe every corner and crack in the clock! The tower offers panoramic views over the Piazza Maggiore.

As a preview to the top, we saw some panels displaying lots of clocks from the world. But there was a clock displaying 10.25 in a red frame. This is because in 1980, a neo fascist terrorist group hid a time bomb at Bologna Centrale and killed 85 people. If you go to the train station you will observe the clock readjusted to the moment of the explosion.

Clocks
Clocks… with a message

The Quadrilatero

The Quadrilatero, the area stretching from Piazza Maggiore to the Two Towers has a special vibe. It was the medieval market of Bologna and is heaven for every foodie. In the same place since Roman times, today, the area is boasting prosperous shops and mostly eateries where you can buy the famous Bolognese and regional specialties: tortellini, tagliatelle, mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano or the renowned ragù sauce. The little cobblestone streets take the name of the merchants that were originally based there: via Pescherie stands for fish traders or via Caprarie stands for butchers selling mainly goat meat.

A street of Quadrilatero
A street in Quadrilatero area

Bologna San Pietro Cathedral

Free entry

This is the true cathedral of Bologna. Today’s version dates from the 12th century. Placed on the busy pedestrian Via dell’Indipendenza, the imposing Baroque Cathedral seems to get well along with gelaterias and fancy shops. Even if on the outside it doesn’t look impressive, the interior is worth it. It is stunningly beautiful featuring towering arches, works of art and lots of marble.

Canal of Bologna – Finestrella on via Piella

Do not expect Venice! However, the canal on via Piella is hidden after a window and gradually unveils a slice of Bologna’s canals. It seems that back in the Middle Ages Bologna managed to be an important commercial centre thanks to its complex system of canals totalling around 60 km.

view over Bologna canal
An open window … to one of Bologna’s canals

Other ideas for visiting

Unfortunately, our time in Bologna was limited. Here are some suggestions that you may find interesting.

The Basilica di Santo Stefano is a complex of seven churches. Built in the 5th century, it was meant to reproduce the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is one of the most interesting Romanesque monuments in Bologna.

MAMbo (Bologna Museum of Modern Art) is a museum that features aspects of the artistic practice from the second half of the last century.

Pinacoteca di Bologna is a building that houses the National Art Gallery where you can make an impression of Byzantine to Renaissance styles in Bolognese art.

Palazzo Re Enzo placed close to the Fountain of Neptune is home to cultural events and exhibitions.  

Art in Bologna
Art is everywhere: old …
street art in Bologna
… and new

Eating recommendations in Bologna

Eating is undoubtedly one of the main things to do in Bologna. Here are some suggestions of places we tested although we would have loved to spoil our tastebuds more.

Mercato delle Erbe is so much more than just a vegetable market. Beautiful historic building in the centre with a new functionality, the Mercato is a place to buy your fruit, vegetables, cheeses, traditional Italian cured meats, but also enjoy lunch or dinner. The streets around the Mercato share the same bon viveur spirit with lots of eating and drinking possibilities. Altro? is a good choice, a simple eating spot with delicious dishes and decent prices.

tortellini, a local special
Tortelloni, a local special…

Mercato di Mezzo is a downtown eating hub. Rather crowded, although we went there for breakfast, the Mercato is an encounter of flavours and traditions. From Neapolitan pizza to fish market, this grocery store and restaurant area has on display a large variety of products, some of them prepared in front of you. The Mercato has correct prices and a small terrace right in front to run from the noisy inside.

On the same Clavature street, we had a lunch at Rosarose where we served the tradional and delicious tortellini. A few steps away, Regina Sofia is a favourite of the locals, known for its good food and correct prices. But prepare to wait! They do not accept reservations, so if you want to have dinner you can grab a table inside, but if you prefer to dine outside you have to wait your line in front of the restaurant, otherwise you miss your spot. We waited for maximum half an hour, but it was worth it. I totally recommend their chicken scarpariello!

Fancy restaurant
Flor is a fancy Bolognese restaurant
Tortellini and lasagna, an Italian special
Tortelloni and lasagna

Just two steps from Torre Asinelli, Bottega Portici 2 Torri is another casual food restaurant with a nice terrace where we tried sweet home-made tortellini!

Like in all good places, reservation (if possible) can sometimes spare some waiting time. Unlike in smaller towns, in Bologna you can find places that are open all day!

Interactive map/ Things to do in Bologna

I have included my list of the best things to do in Bologna on the map below. With purple you will find the things to do in Bologna and with green you have some recommended eating spots.

How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.  

Have you already been to Bologna?  Did you enjoy your visit there? Or maybe you discovered some interesting places worth sharing with other travellers? I am really looking forward to your additional tips.

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