Famously underrated, this gourmet’s haven is Italy’s seventh largest city, full of jaw-dropping medieval architecture and sweeping piazzas. The city shimmers with vibrant activity, its world-class cultural institutions hosting year-round events for a buzzy populous of students and intellectuals.
There’s a distinct lack of mass tourism, too – you won’t see coach-loads of day-trippers or gallery queues – so you can simply fall into the flow of locals (especially if you add some Italian to your repertoire). Beloved by its country folk, Bologna has not one but three nicknames; La Dotta (‘The Learned’) in honour of its 11th-century university, hailed as the oldest in Europe; La Rossa (‘The Red’) for the city’s leftist politics; and, most importantly, La Grassa (‘The Fat’), a nod to its notoriety as Italy’s foodie capital.
What to do
Eat your way around town
Top priority on any trip to Bologna is the local food and knowing where to eat it. “Bolognese’’ is known regionally as Tagliatelle al Ragù, and it goes without saying that its origin city serves a life affirming plate of the good stuff. The other quintessential Bologna dish is tortellini in broth – usually chicken – which is just as comforting as you’d imagine a pasta chicken soup to be. Making reservations for dinner plans is a must, now more so than ever (check out our ‘Where to Eat’ section below for some recommendations to get you started) but you may well want to make a day of it, visiting the food markets, or booking yourself a food tour and cookery class with veteran guides at Taste Bologna or Delicious Bologna tours.
Take in the architecture
Bologna is home to a roster of fine Renaissance buildings spared by the developers of bygone eras, from the Unesco-listed porticos (roofed walkways) that frame the old university as well as Piazzas Maggiore and Santo Stefano, to a total of 20 towers – most notably ‘Le Due Torri’ of Asinelli Tower and Garisenda Tower. Ascend the former for heart-lifting city views, and note how the latter has even more of a lean than its Pisan counterpart. Factor in a stroll around the illustrious main square of Piazza Maggiore to take in the layer-cake Basilica of San Petronio, as well as the knockout palazzos that surround it.
Brush up on your Italian cinema
Cineteca di Bologna is the devoted film institute that preserves, restores and promotes local film heritage. Born in the 1960s, the Cineteca has been in its current trendy building for almost 20 years – it’s where you can catch the best of Italian cinema, alongside current and international releases. The organisation is behind the annual Visioni Italiane film festival, the 28th edition of which will be held in Bologna from 2 to 6 November 2022, as well as the outdoor summer screenings you’ll see in Piazza Maggiore in summer months.
Go back to uni
The University of Bologna, or UniBo to its friends, isn’t just an architectural marvel and seat of outstanding education (it’s the highest ranking university in the country). It also contains a smorgasbord of mini-museums, including medieval anatomy collections and Renaissance painting displays.
Be sure to visit the Archiginnasio, the university’s former site, which includes a 17th-century anatomical lecture theatre and captivating ancient library, before heading to the current site at Palazzo Poggi, which has been the home of UniBo since 1803. The individual museums have assorted, unpredictable opening times so do check online in advance.
Where to stay
Bologna has a strong selection of bed and breakfast accommodation in the old town centre, with vibes ranging from chintzy to minimalist. AB Suite Innovative Design B&B – a renovated 1850s hotel that’s had a boutique style makeover – is a top choice just east of the university. Doubles from £70. absuiteinnovativedesign.it
For something more central still, look up BLQ01 Boutique B&B in the Quadrilatero, a lovely stay that has a boho feel and super friendly host, who serves a delectable breakfast. Doubles from £92.
If you’re more inclined to book a stay that offers the works, the deceptively named Student Hotel Bologna is for you. A trendy, sizable building just north of the train station, its co-living, co-working quarters were designed with nomads and remote workers in mind. It has an outdoor pool and indoor gym, as well as some of the largest rooms in the city. Doubles from £81 a night, discounts for long stay available.
For mountains of character, check yourself into Phi Hotel Bologna – Al Cappello Rosso, a tastefully restored hotel that’s been hosting guests since 1345. The property, which started its life as a 14th century inn, has consistently welcomed visitors for 600 years and is now a four-star delight, complete with local modern art on the walls and a divine yet petite restaurant. Doubles from £87.
Where to eat
In contrast to its tourist-trapping sister cities, you’re more likely to get a great bite here than a mediocre one – whether snacking in a bar or sitting down to make a night of it. A standout, tavern-esque spot to top your hit list is Osteria del Cappello, nestled in the aforementioned Phi Hotel Bologna – Al Cappello Rosso. This place has been feeding visitors the best Bolognan fare since 1345, making it the oldest restaurant in the city. It’s an intimate size, with just six tables, so be sure to book, whether you’re a hotel guest or not, and be sure to try the fried tortellini.
While Ruggine is technically a bar, it serves enticing plates all day long, with pastas, burgers and salads all given a modern twist. Tucked away down an alley in the city centre, the rustic décor of this former bicycle repair shop (ruggine means ‘rust’) spills out onto the street, taking over the pavement with mouth-watering fare and exceptional cocktails. Staff are always happy to make recommendations, so do have a chat with them about the menu.
Bologna is a meat lover’s paradise but that doesn’t mean it’s not without good vegan outposts. Botanical Lab Cucina is a classy plant-based affair that is very reasonably priced considering how fancy it is. Vegan pastas are plentiful, as are the Mediterranean fusion plates. Don’t miss the cashew-based cheesecakes, whether you’re carnivore or herbivore.
Where to drink
Whatever the time, be sure to swing by Caffe Rubik for some of the best people-watching opportunities in town. Serving strong Italian coffees by day and cocktails by night, its walls are lined with shelves full of cassette tapes, porcelain teapots and vintage toys, punctuated by work of local artists. Cafe de la Paix has the same all-day lounging vibe, with an added sustainable, fair-trade ethos.
To witness Bologna in full force, step into Osteria del Sole, the city’s oldest wine bar. With an enjoyably unassuming façade, it’s a busy watering hole that’s popular for graduation parties – and trust us when we say the Italian university graduation celebrations are truly something to witness (you’ll never forget the song). You can even bring your own food in with you, if you’re not already completely stuffed from your eating adventures.
For an interactive night out, pop in to Senza Nome, whose deaf or partial hearing bar staff will offer you some sign language tips or flashcards, but all are able to lip read if your communication skills are amiss. There are excellent snacks in this high ceilinged bar, but if it’s delicious décor you’re after hit up Le Stanze, whose fading, elegant, Renaissance wall and ceiling paintings will dazzle you as much as the cocktails.
Where to shop
Nothing says “I’ve been to Italy” like a new pair of handcrafted leather shoes, and the Bologna branch of Milanese shoe makers Velasca is the place to go for classy brogues and other fine footwear. Their store round the corner from Piazza Maggiore is a fun visit (not the usual shoe vending austere environs) in a converted garage, with industrial décor and neon lights.
Make yourself popular and take home a lovely, vacuum-sealed packet of tortellini from La Casa del Tortellino, which sells freshly made artisanal pasta from its laboratory-slash-food-bar. It’s a bit of a way out of the city centre, but near the airport, so make the pitstop if you’re leaving that way.
Like many a student city, Bologna has a great vintage clothes scene. Take some time to explore and find that one-off, pre-loved shirt at La Leonarda, Humana Vintage Bologna and Zero Vintage – all of whom stock quality collections and have lovely staff. If you’re into bric-à-brac, there’s also a strong weekly flea market on Fridays and Saturdays at Piazza VIII Agosto.
Bologna has a rich history of natural sciences, and La Bottega dei Minerali taps into that heritage, selling a beautiful array of crystals and minerals as well as unusual pieces of jewellery. Find it just north of Centrale station – it’s open in the mornings until 1.30pm and again after a lunch break from 3.30pm. Ideal for gifts – or treating yourself.
Once you’ve had your fill of Renaissance pendentives, make the time to visit the Bologna Shoah Memorial, a deeply moving, contemporary space completed in 2016 in memorium of the Holocaust and Italy’s lost Jewish communities.
Nuts and bolts:
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
Should I tip?
10 per cent minimum. Plus expect a “coperta” cover charge of €2 or so added in restaurants.
How should I get around?
By foot, it’s an enjoyably walkable city.
What’s the best view?
Ascend the 468 steps of the taller “Le Due Torri” – Asinelli Tower for panoramic views of the city below.
Bologna has some great public parks, the finest of which, Giardini Margherita, is home to recently renovated botanical gardens. It’s a great place to work, rest and play, tending to be a student haunt as it’s the ideal place to study thanks to cheap food and drinks, and free wifi.
Trying to fly less?
Take the Eurostar from London to Paris, then an SNCF train onward to Turin, from where you can catch a local train to Bologna.
Fine with flying?
British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair all fly to Bologna from the UK.