Still a bit off the tourist radar, vibrant Bologna managed to keep its authentic flair. It’s the biggest city in the north-Italian region of Emilia-Romagna and renowned for its university, which is the oldest one in the Western world (even predating Oxford). This important student population creates a lively vibe. And thanks to the academic summer break, summers never feel too crowded.
Let’s kick off with the historic part. Hang in there, it gets more entertaining after the few paragraphs! We’ll even treat you to some delicious gelato if you make it all the way to the end. 🙂
Highlights of Bologna
Fontana di Nettuno
We were looking forward to see the Fountain of Neptune but unfortunately it is being restored at this time. For a small fee, it is however possible to see the restorers at work at fixed times on weekdays. No luck for us, since we were there during the week. We would have loved to admire this artwork, created by one of ours: Flemish emigrant Giambologna (Jan van Bologna). It represents the four main rivers of the then-known continents dominated by Neptune and decorated with some rather naughty details. But we had to settle for the gift-wrapping.
The most famous square in the city, located just a few steps from the fountain. It is surrounded by Palazzi, one of which is Palazzo del Podestà where you’ll find the tourist office. Unfortunately, the employees there didn’t really bother to help a tourist out. After taking a ticket and waiting in line, we were given another map and told to find all explanations on there. :-/
Another interesting palazzo on the Piazza Maggiore is the Palazzo d’Accursio which is partly Town Hall and partly museum, housing the City Art Collection. But the building’s architecture is just as impressive.
Basilica di San Petronio
There’s only one side to the Piazza Maggiore where you won’t find a palazzo but the stunning Basilica di San Petronio. The marble facing was left incomplete and there was never a consensus on an architect to finish it. The Basilica is home to quite a controversial artwork: a fresco, painted by Giovanni da Modena, showing the prophet Mohammed being devoured by demons in hell.
City of porticos
The many beautiful porticos are what makes vibrant Bologna truly unique. Their actual purpose remains unchanged: sheltering from rain and sun. Today you can still enjoy this shelter over a joint distance of 40km (just shy of 25 miles). In the late 13th century, a time when porticos were banned in most Italian cities, they became compulsory in Bologna for all newly built houses. The dimensions were set so that a man on his horse could easily pass through.
Archiginnasio of Bologna
The 16th century Archiginnasio of Bologna was originally the seat of the university. It was rebuilt after it was damaged by a bombing during WWII. The majestic staircases originally led to classrooms and two great halls, one for the School of Law and one for the School of Science. The anatomical theatre that was once used for lectures in anatomy is now open for visitors.The building also houses a public library.
How impressive are these ceilings and walls? The many decorations and inscriptions emphasized the building’s important academic role. About 6000 students’ coats of arms mention the name as well as the home country the student was representing. How’s that for prestige?
Piazza Santo Stefano
The splendid and spacious Piazza Santo Stefano isn’t really a square. It’s actually the Via Santo Stefano that widens and leads to the Complesso di Santo Stefano, a complex of religious buildings. The piazza emphasizes the grandeur of the buildings around it. The terraces make a great people-watching base.
As a bonus, we’d like to share where to find the cutest shop ever for child-supplies! It’s called Gallina Smilza and can be found in the Via San Stefano. You better come prepared because leaving empty-handed is not an option…
The leaning towers
Garisenda and Asinelli are the names of the towers that rise high above the city. Their historical purpose was military. Both towers are leaning, the Garisenda more than its big sister Asinelli. The latter can climbed and after 498 steps you can enjoy a phenomenal view.
Or at least we think you can. 🙂 The girls weren’t sure if they would be able to keep up with the pace on the stairs so we didn’t buy tickets in advance. And you need to pre-book a timeslot in order to access the tower, there’s no onsite ticketing office. We therefore decided to admire the towers from the outside. But don’t be disappointed because we found this video, showing the amazing panorama from the top. So, if you’re up to it during your future visit, go for it!
The girls loved the colorful street art in Via Zamboni, telling the story of South America. You can admire it right across Palazzo Pogni, housing not only the headquarters of the University of Bologna and of the rector of the university but also 5 museums amongst which the Aldovrandi Museum and the Astronomical Tower Museum.
Cavour, our favorite neighbourhoud in vibrant Bologna
We loved to spend time in the Cavour district. And no, not just thanks to the fancy designer shops in the Galleria Cavour! Okay, maybe just a bit. The Piazza Cavour features a quiet park, the only one we found during our exploration of the city.
And you’ll find the best gelati here too! The Caffé Zanarini is just around the corner, another mandatory stop in this area. You won’t regret it! The pastry here is finger-licking good.
Visit the beautiful San Giovanni in Monte church and head down to the spacious Piazza Minghetti to have an espresso to end that perfect Italian afternoon in style.
Overrated sights in vibrant Bologna
Some of vibrant Bologna’s sights couldn’t charm us. That’s totally personal, of course. You might happen to really like those if you visit the city but well, we didn’t. Here’s why.
Basilica Di San Domenico
The first site that was a bit disappointing is the one of the Basilica Di San Domenico. Don’t get me wrong, the building itself is quite impressive. It’s also huge and the square around it features several statues. But the location where it’s at doesn’t reflect that grandeur. The area feel a bit neglected because of that. Notice the weeds in this picture? I bet that the site could be way more attractive if it would be better taken care of.
Much to our surprise and apart from the Palazzo Pogni & the street art, the university district around Via Zamboni didn’t really appeal to us either. I guess it was just bad timing. During the academic year this area must be swarming with students. But in summer months, it seems to attract the wrong crowd to say the least. So, just keep that in mind should you visit this place with the kids during the summer months.
Finestrella di via Piella
Last but not least (read: very disappointing) is the Finestrella di via Piella. This corner of the city goes by the name of ‘Little Venice’. The introduction sounds promising, with the Torrente Aposa being the only natural river in the city. It is mostly covered except for this part, which can only be viewed from a handful of secret windows. It’s just a tiny stream of water, nothing compared to Venice.
What to eat in Bologna
Now you’ve built up an appetite, let’s get to the best part of this post: food!
A visit to vibrant Bologna can’t be complete without indulging in a tagliatelle al ragù Bolognese aka pasta Bolognaise. Just look at Alegra, she couldn’t get enough!
Head to the medieval market the Quadrilatero, close to the Piazza Magiore, to taste the best delicacies.
Or just try one of the quaint little artisan shops to mouth-water at the sight of the pasta-assortment, wine or mortadella.
And finally we come to the long-awaited gelato. The number of flavours is head-spinning! So, why not try them all? 😉 I’m pretty sure the Italian etiquette dictates to have a gelato for lunch and dinner. If not, it should. Our favorite stops were the Cremeria Funivia at the Piazza Cavour and Majori Gelati at Via Gugliemo Oberdan (on our way to the carpark).
Gelato-addiction is a real thing (speaking from experience here) but don’t despair, we found the perfect solution! Become a gelato-expert yourself! Take your kids for family workshop at the Gelato museum, just a short drive from Bologna. It will require some intensive practice but soon enough, you’ll be feeding your addiction form your own kitchen. Don’t forget to invite us for a tasting!
Where to stay in vibrant Bologna
Would we recommend to visit vibrant Bologna as a separate city break? Probably not. However, if you’re in the area like we were for our stay at the Palazzo di Varignana Resort & Spa, then you should definitely get a taste of Bologna (both literally and figuratively). But should you insist, there are plenty of hotels in Bologna.
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