Are you planning a visit to Bologna, Italy, and wonder what the best things to see and do are?
Bologna is truly a beautiful city to see, home to some of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the world, as well as the oldest University in the world. Without crowded tourists like Rome and Venice, the city is the perfect place to stroll. Through the cobbled streets and the halls of some of the oldest universities in the world, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy and an excellent place for a day trip.
The sites in Bologna revolve around the perfect blend of food, history, and art. To be sure, you don’t have to see and do all the activities in Bologna in one day, just a few of the most popular.
And, while the weather is usually cooperative, in case it isn’t, one of the first things you might notice in Bologna is the presence of Porticoes. Indeed, the Portico’s cover the walkways and offer protection from rain, to those who walk beneath. How convenient!
About Bologna, Italy
Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, and you can see all the best sites in one or two days. If you’re an art or history buff, there are lots for you here. And, if you’re a foodie, I recommend arriving early and staying until just after dinner, or perhaps overnight before continuing your journey. This way, you’ll be able to see all the best things to see in Bologna.
Bologna is famous for its food, its Bologna University, and incredible museums. Without a doubt, Bologna is worth seeing for a day or two while on a trip to Italy. To see all the best that Bologna has to offer, I recommend arriving early, staying overnight. Then, you can head out later in the afternoon the day after. Of course, if you are happy to make the city a hub, you can travel by train to nearby cities such as Modena, Venice, and Florence in about an hour.
Bologna, Italy is a very walkable city, and safe during the day and night.
How to Get to Bologna
To get to Bologna, you can Drive, Fly or arrive by Train. The name of the local airport is G. Marconi, or BLQ. You might arrive by air or by train at the Bologna Centrale Train Station. Admittedly, BLQ offers convenient flights to practically anywhere in the world. At the same time, Bologna Centrale provides easy access to see all the major cities in Italy. For example, you can easily reach Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples. Interestingly, as of June 2020, you can even travel from Bologna to Reggio Calabria. However, while it’s on an AV train, the journey will still take about 8hr 35 mins. As a result, if you are on a trip to Italy, I would highly recommend seeing Bologna a priority while you are in Milan, Florence, or Venice.
Top Things to See In Bologna in One Day, or Two
The Fountain of Neptune (Fontana del Nettuno) is a beautiful fountain built in the sixteenth century by Giambologna on a square dedicated to the Neptune. In the middle of this basin is the plinth, with four Nereids, and on this base stands the majestic figure of Neptune.
The Fountain of Neptune got built to glorify the papal government of Pope Pius IV. The design and assembly of the fountain were completed in 1563 by the Palermo architect Tommaso Laureti.
The Fountain of Neptune is made of local boulders and covered with Verona marble. The statue was originally a model for the Fountain of Neptune in Florence, which was submitted by Giambologna but lost the commission to Baccio Bandinelli.
The Fountain of Neptune is so famous that locals from Bologna often choose it as a meeting place. Also, tourists relax at the foot of the Fontana del Nettuno, perhaps listening to music, or just passing the time. One might even notice folks looking at pointing at the fountain from behind. Indeed, this is because Neptune offers a cheeky view that you will have to see for yourself while in Bologna!
Fun Facts About Piazza Neptune
- To pass an important exam, the students walk in circles around the fountain. This practice is a was because Giambologna himself, who was particularly careful in the planning of his fountain, circled the pedestal thinking about how to build the statue.
- At Christmas time, there is a large tree display that is lit up in the square.
- The Maserati logo is the trident of the Neptune in the piazza.
Located in the center of the city, Piazza Maggiore is the main square of Bologna, which is of great historical importance. Tourists will find many historic buildings in the square, including the Basilica of San Petronio, the Palazzo D’Accursio (City Hall), the Palazzo del Podestà, and Palazzo dei Notai.
The Basilica of San Petronio is the main Basilica in Bologna, and you will see it on the south side of Piazza Maggiore. Construction began in 1390 by the main facade that remains unfinished. San Petronio is the Saint Patron of the city of Bologna.
One of the most impressive features of the basilica is the Cassini Meridian line designed by Giovanni Domenico, a professor at Bologna University in 1655. The Cassini Meridian Line is one of the most significant time telling astronomical instruments in the world. The sundial works by sunlight entering through a small hole in the roof of the church. Then, at noon local time, the light projects an elliptical image on the line in a position that is different each day of the year. Incredibly, the accuracy of this instrument is exceptional.
The Two Towers (Due Torri)
Medieval Bologna is very different from that of today. For example, Medieval Bologna had a large number of towers built by wealthy families for defense and to show-off their wealth. During the Middle Ages, Bologna had as many as 180 towers built for prestige and protection.
Today, The Two Towers mark the center of medieval Bologna and stand side by side in Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. Indeed, they are the few surviving medieval towers scattered throughout the city. At present, the two towers are part of a group of medieval buildings in Bologna. Also, these towers, the Asinelli and Garisenda towers form a single ensemble. These days, they have become a famous symbol of Bologna because the two towers stand so high that they seem to defy gravity and age.
The taller of the two towers, the Asinelli tower, stands about 97 meters high. Inside, it offers people a challenging 498-step climb top the top. The rooftop observation deck is outdoors, so choose a clear day to visit, be it early in the morning or late afternoon.
The Asinelli Tower got its name from the family that built it between 1109 and 1119. It was initially only 60 meters high, but then, It got raised to emit bright warning signals that could be visible from a long distance.
Canals in Bologna
When people think of canals in Italy, Venice is naturally top of mind. However, Bologna has some largely undiscovered canals as well, and tourists should see them! Indeed, there are about 60km of canals in Bologna that connect the Reno and Savena rivers. Further, most of these canals are out of plain sight.
Although Bologna is not explicitly famous for its canals, it’s one of several cities in Italy that has a canal that runs through the heart of it.
Ask a local Bolognese if his city resembles Venice in any way, and he will probably say no, but ask him about the way it resembles Venice, and he will probably say yes.
At this time, there is only one place to see one of Bologna’s canals. Indeed, it’s through a little “window” (La Finestrella) on via Piella. The rest of Bologna’s canals remain hidden.
Bologna University is unique in that it’s one of the oldest universities in the western world. It was founded in 1088 by an organized guild of students. The University was granted a charter by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick the First Barbarossa. Also, it does not have a specific campus. Instead, classes are held all over the city.
Bologna is one of the most important educational centers in Europe and has, therefore, earned the nickname “the learning center” in Italy.
The University of Bologna, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, is home to more than 2,000 students and doctoral candidates from over 100 countries.
The University building (Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio) is located few steps away from Piazza Maggiore. Inside you can admire the old anatomy lab all made out of wood and perfectly restored.
Basilica San Francesco of Assisi
The Basilica of San Francesco is historic and one of the largest churches in Bologna, with a facade overlooking the main street of the city, Via della Repubblica, and its main square. To be sure, the basilica should be at the top of anyone’s list of what to see in Bologna.
The Franciscans occupied a town called Santa Maria Delle Pugliole, founded in 1211 by the famous founder of the Order, the Archbishop of Bologna, Giovanni Battista D’Ambrosio. Since its arrival in the city in 1211, it was the headquarters of the Franciscan Order. One of its founding fathers, Archbishop Domenico de’Agostino, visited the cities to preach to the people of these cities. Indeed, he created great interest in what the Order had founded.
Thanks to Pope Gregory IX, the local authorities gave the monks the land on which the basilica stands today, as well as their church.
The Franciscan community built the basilica between 1236 and 1254, with the main building finally completed in 1263. Indeed, it’s one of the most famous buildings in the city of Bologna and the second largest in Italy.
Tourists getting off the bus in Malpighi Square marvel at three majestic sarcophagi in the fence that surrounds San Francesco. In case you see the small lions around the gates, around the apse of St. Francis, they exist to guard the visitors.
Of particular interest are the two freestanding tombs on the site; they represent a truly unique construction, as you will rarely see examples of such mausoleums outside Italy, let alone Bologna.
Museums to See in Bologna
Those wanting to explore the historical treasures Bologna has to offer will be pleased. At the time of this writing, there are 82 museums to see in Bologna. However, I will list the most popular ones and save the rest for another article.
Museo di Palazzo Poggi
The Palazzo Poggi museum is a university museum in Bologna, located on via Zamboni. The same building houses the headquarters of the Alma Mater Studiorum and other university museums, such as the Museo della Specola and the European Student Museum (MEUS).
The Palazzo Poggi museum consists of the reconstruction of the laboratories and collections of the ancient Academy of Sciences: Institute of Bologna. Indeed, they were active in the very same building between 1711 and 1799.
The Museo Civico Medievale opened in 1985 in Palazzo Ghisilardi-Fava. You will see the museum in the heart of Bologna, alongside many others.
The most significant part of the Medieval Museum is made up mainly of the numerous documents of Medieval Bologna, beginning with the ancient 7th-9th century artifacts.
Another relevant section is dedicated to works by some of the most famous artists from Bologna during the 15th and 16th centuries, including the famous Neptune model by Giambologna. The collection includes weapons, ivory and glass, and a section dedicated to ancient manuscripts.
Museo Civico Archeologico
You will find the Museo Civico Archeologico (Civic Archaeological Museum) in Bologna’s city center, in the Palazzo Galvani. The museum is just steps from Piazza Maggiore and the Church of San Petronio.
Most importantly, this museum features archeological finds in Italy and is highly representative of the local history from the prehistoric period to the Roman Age. Additionally, it has one of the largest Egyptian collections in Europe, and as a result, the museum is often called the “Egyptian Museum in Bologna.”
Museo Palazzo Pepoli
To see the History Museum of Bologna, you must go to the Palazzo Pepoli.
The Museum of the History of Bologna opened in January 2012. The museum offers an innovative display dedicated to Bolognas’ history, culture, and transformations. There, you will find a captivating journey through 2500 years of history.
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
The National Art Gallery of Bologna is the most famous art museum to see in Bologna, Italy. You will find it in Bologna’s University district, and inside the same building that houses the Academy of Fine Arts. T
The National Art Gallery offers an extensive collection of paintings from Emilia-Romagna, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries and other significant works by artists who were tied to the city.
Local Food of Bologna
A day or two in Bologna wouldn’t be complete until you sample the local food. To be sure, the food in Bologna is insanely good. In Bologna, you will see lots of fresh pasta and cured meats. Without a doubt, the core of the traditional Bologna meal is tagliatelle. Tagliatelle is fresh pasta made of just eggs and flour.
Bolognese sauce (locals refer to as ragu) is primarily a sauce composed of meat, vegetables, and wine. Noticeably absent in ragu are the tomatoes. Sure, there are a few tomatoes, but, ragu is primarily a meat sauce. Admittedly, you’ll see tagliatelle ragu on pretty much any local restaurant’s menu in Bologna. However, don’t look for spaghetti bolognese here as it’s an Americanized dish that doesn’t exist in Italy!
You might also see lasagna bolognese on menus in Bologna. If you decide to have a piece, I think you’ll fall in love. However, just know that it consists of green (spinach) pasta noodles, with ragu, and bechamel and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Bolognese cuisine relies heavily on pork, and cheeses from the entire region. For example, you will find the famous mortadella (sometimes called Bologna in English) and lots of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Another famous pasta to see (and eat) in Bologna is tortellini. Now, depending on who you ask, they might say tortellini is from Modena, and not Bologna. Regardless, the recipe for tortellini got registered with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in 1974. The tortellini (like tagliatelle) pasta consists of a flour and egg dough. And, the filling contains a mixture of meat and cheese.
Where to Eat in Bologna
Bologna is one of Italy’s most famous cities for food, and it’s for a good reason! Admittedly, Bologna is one of the gourmet capitals of Italy. And, to say that there’s something for everyone is an understatement.
Bologna offers an unforgettable culinary experience, and you can buy many delicacies that can cost a small fortune at home.
Don’t be afraid to talk to the people behind the counter and browse the markets. Indeed, you may see what looks good and whether it’s right for you.
There are so many foods to try in Bologna, but you should not overdo it and eat it all at once.
If you are looking for a restaurant in Bologna, you will not go hungry. You will find the best restaurants in Bologna in the Quadrilatero Area. The area is quaint yet maintains its medieval charm. Also, it’s just a few steps away from the Piazza Maggiore, and the Neptune sculpture. Year-round, people of all ages eat outside with their friends and family.
I enjoyed some of the best foods in my life here, and they were all great. I would go so far as to say that Bologna has the most delicious pasta of any city in Europe, if not the world. My favorites include fresh pasta, such as tagliatelle bolognese. For lighter fare, I like salumi boards with prosciutto and mortadella. Don’t forget a glass of white wine, with or without bubbles.
FICO Eataly World Bologna – Excellent for Kids!
Bologna is very friendly with Kids. Considering the city is incredibly walkable, and includes outdoor restaurants everywhere if you are traveling to Bologna with kids, I recommend stopping at FICO Eataly World. Actually, I highly recommend it! Eataly World is a 25 acre indoor and outdoor theme park based on the food of Italy. It can easily take two to three hours to walk through the entire park. Or, you can choose to ride a bicycle.
Inside, you can peruse Italian food products from virtually all regions. Care to sample Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, or Parmigiano Reggiano? No problem! To be sure, you’ll find a mind-blowing selection of everything from gelato to kitchen gadgets, and everything in between. Also, there are restaurants and food vendors that offer tastings of all their local products. FICO Eataly World offers fun for the whole family!
TIP: Visit FICO Eataly World for lunch, and skip dinner plans! You won’t be hungry, I promise!
Rick Orford is the co-founder and Executive Producer of Travel Addicts Life. He has a passion for traveling, making money, healthy living, and making friends all over the world. Aside from travel, some of his other interests include investing, mentoring, and writing about finance.