With its world-renowned cuisine, rich history and architecture, and lively vibe, Bologna definitely deserves a slot in your itinerary for Italy. Read on to discover the best things to do in Bologna!
Bologna is not on most travelers’ radar for their first trip to Italy. Understandably, since the classic three of Venice, Florence, and Rome take priority for most visitors. But if you return to Italy, or if your itinerary can accommodate another destination, less well-traveled but equally amazing, then check out Bologna.
On our most recent visit to Italy, my husband and I based ourselves in Bologna for ten days while we explored northeastern Italy. In the time we spent in Bologna, we grew really fond of it (and put on a few pounds from eating all the delicious foods on offer here!), and we would not hesitate to return if and when we have the opportunity.
TOP Things to Do in Bologna
Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in northeastern Italy. It has three famous nicknames: La Dotta (the Learned), La Grassa (the Fat), and La Rossa (the Red).
Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe, and a renowned place of learning at that: hence its nickname of La Dotta. The university counts among its alumni luminaries like Copernicus and Marconi.
Bologna’s cuisine and food products are the stuff of culinary legend so it’s no wonder that it is called La Grassa. From meats like mortadella to pastas such as tortellini, you’ll find much to savor in the culinary capital of Italy when it comes to food.
And Bologna’s nickname of La Rossa refers to its red rooftops and facades. With umpteen places from which to admire the beautiful red roofs, you have many opportunities to capture their beauty!
Bologna is easily accessed by train (or car) from Venice or Florence or Milan, so it’s an easy add to your itinerary. And it makes the perfect base for lots of day trips if you wish to explore more of northeastern Italy.
Here then are the best things to do in Bologna!
#1 Climb to the top of the Asinelli Tower
Bologna has not one but two leaning towers in the heart of its historical center. You can climb to the top of the Asinelli Tower, the taller of the two. The challenge? Climbing a leg-busting series of 498 steps. There are resting platforms every few floors but the wooden stairs are steep and narrow. Your reward? Bragging rights, and fabulous views of the city.
If you don’t want to do the climb, gaze up at the towers from below. The shorter tower, with a more acute lean, is called the Garisenda. The two towers, and others in Bologna, are said to have been built by the families after whom they are named. The taller the tower, the more powerful and wealthy the family!
Le Due Torri, the two towers, make for fabulous photo subjects from street level. Via Rizzoli, the street in front of the towers, is closed to vehicular traffic on weekends, so you can stand in the middle of the street and take great photos of the towers from below.
The location of the two towers, at the hub of five streets in the city center, is always a great place for people watching. Several cafes and a couple of gelaterias make great excuses to hang out here.
#2 Stroll Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore, the main square in Bologna’s historical center, is a fascinating place to stroll. It’s large, and lined with many buildings of importance. And it’s vibrant at most hours of the day and into the night: there’s even an open-air cinema in the square during the summer!
The enormous Basilica di San Petronio takes up almost one side of the square. Elsewhere, you can see beautiful palazzos, including the Palazzo d’Accursio, which used to be the city hall, and the Palazzo del Podestà. The Bologna tourist information center is in the square as well.
#3 Admire the Fontana del Nettuno
Next to the Piazza Maggiore is the Piazza del Nettuno, where you can admire the gorgeous Fountain of Neptune. Created in the 16th century, the fountain features a huge sculpture of the god of the seas by Giambologna, who had reportedly bid unsuccessfully for the Neptune statue in Florence.
Do a walking tour of Bologna to learn the history of the square and other major sights in the center. This highly rated private walking tour length can be customized, based on what you wish to see!
#4 Visit the Basilica di San Petronio
The Basilica di San Petronio dominates Piazza Maggiore with its enormous size. Story has it that when the Vatican learned about Bologna’s plans to build a cathedral that would eclipse Saint Peter’s Basilica, funds that were meant for the church were diverted to the Archiginnasio of Bologna instead.
As a result, the facade of the Basilica di San Petronio is unfinished. The bottom part, finished in marble, is beautifully decorated with sculptures. The main entrance, by Jacopo della Quercia, is gorgeous, with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The rest of the facade is red brick.
In the cavernous interior, you’ll find close to two dozen smaller chapels in addition to the main chapel. Most of them are beautifully frescoed. Of special interest is the St. Petronius meridian on the floor, the longest interior meridian in the world.
While entrance to the church is free, there is a small fee to be able to take photos inside.
#5 Take in the views from the terrace of the Church of San Petronio
Behind the church, in the Piazza Galvani, you will find the entrance to the elevator that takes you up to the viewing terrace of the Basilica di San Petronio. The elevator (and stairs) to the top are part of a restoration project at the church, so access will likely be removed once the project is complete.
But while access is available, you can ride the elevator up or take the stairs to the top after signing a waiver. The views from the terrace are phenomenal. Although the viewing platform is small, you can get beautiful photos of the red rooftops of Bologna.
There is a small fee to access the viewing terrace.
#6 Admire the Archiginnasio di Bologna
Built in the 16th century, the Archiginnasio di Bologna used to be the seat of the Bologna University until the start of the 19th century. The colonnaded entrance leads into a courtyard, from where staircases go up to the lecture halls.
The crowning glory of the structure is the Teatro Anatomico, made of carved wood. Built in the 17th century, the anatomical theater features the Spellati statues (two male figures with no skin) by Ercole Lelli.
The hallways and ceilings are beautiful, with frescoes, coats of arms, and inscriptions. The library is impressive, housing about one million works.
#7 Visit the Museo Civico Archaeologico
Located in the Palazzo Galvani in the heart of the historic center, the Civic Archaeological Museum contains impressive collections that include a fabulous Egyptian section, the third largest in Italy. With mummies, artifacts, and reliefs, the Egyptian exhibits are fascinating.
You will also see collections from the Etruscan-Italian, Roman, and Greek periods, with many of the artifacts excavated in and around the city, documenting its early history.
The building itself is beautiful, with a central courtyard. Originally built as a hospital and a church in the 15th century, the interior was significantly modified in the 19th century, some decades after the church and the hospital were closed.
#8 Sample the offerings at FICO Eataly
If you want to learn about everything food, visit FICO Eataly, billed as the “largest food park in the world”! With farms, food processing facilties, and restaurants, FICO Eataly is a great place to browse, shop, and eat.
Take tours of a farm or a factory, join a class, or attend an event or festival if one or more are on the schedule when you visit. I loved the demo gardens, with info on the major crops of Italy: did you know they grow over 400 types of olives?
There are close to four dozen eateries of all kinds here, so you’ll be spoiled for choice on where (and what) to eat. Also, if you want to take home some goodies, browse the marketplace!
#9 Admire the porticoes of Bologna
The porticoes of Bologna came about for a practical reason. More housing was needed in medieval Bologna to accommodate the city’s growing population. Wooden structures that protruded from the main buildings, propped up with wood beams, were built as quick fixes.
Eventually the city made porticoes mandatory, with specifications for quality and functionality. Architects and artisans created beautifully designed porticoes that make walking through Bologna a pleasure, as well as providing shelter against the elements.
The porticoes of Bologna have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. You’ll find lots of porticoes to admire in Bologna, but for the prettiest ceilings, make your way to the Palazzo della Banca d’Italia.
#10 Walk the world’s longest portico
Bologna is home to the longest portico in the world: the walkway that leads from the city to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca, perched on a hilltop, is about 2.4 miles long, with 666 arches! The portico starts at Porta Saragozza, one of the gates to the medieval city.
Making the trek to the Sanctuary, just like the pilgrims did in the past, is a fabulous Bologna experience if you have the time and the energy: the uphill portion is demanding, especially towards the very top. But the views of the city as you gain height are wonderful.
Along with other visitors to Bologna, you will likely encounter locals that walk (or jog or bike) up the hill for exercise, and the devout that make the climb in gratitude for a prayer answered or as a sign of their faith.
The porticoes are beautiful, painted in yellow and burnt orange. There are over a dozen chapels along the way, as well as plaques acknowledging some of the citizens that contributed to its construction.
#11 Take in the views from the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca
Legend has it that an icon of the Virgin was brought to Bologna in the 12th century by a pilgrim traveling from Constantinople. A chapel was built at the top of the Colle della Guardia, to house the icon.
The beautiful structure you see today was built in the 18th century. Inside you’ll see frescoes and other art by various Italian artists. The arched extensions to the church (called tribunes) are gorgeous, and you can get great views from the openings.
For a special experience, climb to the terrace at the top of the church via the narrow steep steps. From the tiny terrace, you get 180-degree panoramas of the countryside below. There is an entrance fee.
Other ways of getting to the Sanctuary, if you don’t wish to walk up, include the bus, the tourist train that departs from Piazza Maggiore, or by car or taxi.
#12 Visit the Santo Stefano churches…
The Santo Stefano complex is a very unique in that there are multiple churches in one place, linked to one another. Also called Sette Chiese, or seven churches, the churches are quite old, with the oldest anecdotally going back to the 5th century.
Four of the seven churches are still standing and can be visited. The little Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro has a unique octagonal shape. The Santi Vitale e Agricola incorporates Roman stonework.
The architecture is beautiful and the ambiance serene: visiting this beautiful complex was one of my favorite things to do in Bologna. Walk the cloisters, admire the beautiful old frescoes, and linger in the pretty courtyards.
#13…And linger in the quiet Piazza Santo Stefano
Unlike the very busy and lively Piazza Maggiore, Piazza Santo Stefano seemed to have more locals standing around and chatting when we visited. Much smaller in size as well, the square has a more intimate and tranquil feel.
The square is lined with lovely palazzos, and is also the starting point of the old road to Tuscany. It is a popular venue for events and concerts.
#14 Enjoy the views from Complesso di San Michele in Bosco
Bologna definitely doesn’t have a shortage of great viewpoints from which to admire the city, whether it be the tops of towers or the grounds and terraces of its churches.
The San Michele complex contains a church and a convent, and is located on a hillside in Bologna. From its grounds, you get fabulous views of the city, all the sway to the Alps in the distance on a clear day.
The church itself was rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the complex served as a military barrack, a prison, and an orthopedic hospital. With a beautiful marble entrance and gorgeous frescoes inside, the church is well worth a visit even though it’s a little out of the way.
#15 Visit the Torre Prendiparte (or stay in it!)
Bologna had about 100 towers during medieval times, but only a handful of them are still standing. The Torre Prendiparte, in the heart of the historical center, is just under 200 feet tall, and you can climb to the top for views over the city.
But the tower also offers a bed and breakfast special occasion stay! The suite is lovely, and the owner can make arrangements for you to eat in if you so desire. I didn’t know about this prior to our visit, but we’ll definitely plan on it on our next visit to the city!
#16 Marvel at the Oratorio dei Battuti
Very near the Piazza Maggiore, you ‘ll find the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita, a beautiful Baroque church. The oratory of the church, on the first floor, is gorgeous.
Late Baroque frescoes and paintings cover the walls of the room. You’ll also see Alfonso Lombardi’s life size statues of the Twelve Apostles around the tomb of the Virgin.
The church also holds another treasure that you must not miss: Niccolò dell’Arca’s group sculpture, Compianto sul Cristo morto (Sorrow over the Dead Christ). The expressions on the faces of the mourners and the drama of the scene is extraordinary.
#17 Visit the Cattedrale di San Pietro
The Bologna Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Peter. Although there was a church at the site from several centuries prior, the building we see today was largely built in the 17th century.
Step inside to admire the majestic Baroque interior and to view the art: of special interest is the beautiful wooden sculpture Lament of the Christ by Alfonso Lombardi.
If it’s open, you can climb to the top of the bell tower for panoramic views over the city. The tower is the second tallest in Bologna. There are four named bells at the top. La Nonna is the largest bell that rings using the Bolognese system of bell ringing.
#18 Step inside the Basilica di San Domenico
A short walk from Piazza Maggiore, the Church of San Domenico is well worth a visit. The exterior of the church is Romanesque, and in the square is a tall column on which sits a statue of the saint. There are a couple of tombs in the square as well.
The Baroque interior is beautiful, with lots of art work on the walls. Don’t miss the gorgeous shrine that contains the remains of the saint. Created by Nicola Pisano, the shrine includes three angel sculptures by a young Michelangelo.
#19 Wander the Centro Storico
Wander the lively streets of the historical center! Stroll the Quadrilatero, the oldest market in the city right by the Two Towers, where you’ll see locals haggling in narrow streets such as via Pescherie and via Drapperie.
Admire the colorful facades, walk through the many porticoes, and explore the side streets leading out from Piazza Maggiore or the Two Towers. You’ll come across churches and small squares, with more locals than tourists, the further out you walk.
We came across at least one lovely piece of street art during our wanderings! However, much of Bologna’s street art is outside the historic center, so check with the tourist information center at Piazza Maggiore if you want to tour the art.
On the weekends, when Via Rizzoli, the main street by the towers, is closed to traffic, you may come across sidewalk artists working on the road. We saw a sidewalk artist creating a dramatic piece with chalk. I love good street art, don’t you?
#20 Admire the art in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
The National Art Gallery of Bologna opened in 1875. It is housed in a building that used to be a novitiate and also includes the chapel of the old convent at the site. Many of the walls, and the chapel ceiling, are decorated with beautiful frescoes.
The gallery contains a good collection of works from the Emilia region and artists with links to Bologna, as also a few renowned masterpieces. Don’t miss Tintoretto’s The Visitation, El Greco’s The Last Supper, and The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia by Raphael.
#21 Snap a photo of Bologna’s Canale delle Moline
Bologna had a large network of canals in medieval times, because the city used to be a major silk manufacturing center, and water powered the silk mills. Today most of the canals have been built over, so you have to hunt to discover one that is still visible.
But it’s well worth walking to one that you can see, because it makes for gorgeous photos! The Canale delle Moline, an extension of the Canale di Reno, is about a 10-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore. The area is called La Piccola Venezia, Little Venice.
#22 Browse Mercato delle Erbe and Mercato di Mezzo
Bologna’s food markets are fun to browse! Mercato delle Erbe features lots of stalls selling fresh produce, meats, cheeses, pastas, and other food products. We bought a lot of fresh fruit and cheeses and everything was fresh and flavorful.
A word of caution: don’t touch produce or other food, it is considered unsanitary. Let the stall staff know what you want and they will pick, weigh, and bag it for you.
On the periphery of the Mercato delle Erbe are a number of restaurants, some of them highly rated. My husband had some bites at Banco 32, the seafood restaurant, and said everything he ate was delicious!
Mercato di Mezzo is a recently renovated food hall just off Piazza Maggiore. You’ll find lots of pastas, meats, cheeses and other prepared foods in this multi-level marketplace. Stop in for lunch at the pizzeria, enjoy craft beers in the pub on the bottom floor, or savor some ice cream.
#23 Do a food tour
A food tour with a local expert is a must when you are in Bologna. It’s an efficient way of tasting a variety of local foods in the best possible places in a short period of time. Plus, your guide will likely give you suggestions on where to eat while you are in the city, as ours did!
Consider this highly rated 3.5-hour small group walking and tasting tour offers tastings of food and wine at 5 different places, and includes pasta, meats, and gelato.
Or check out this secret food tour that takes you to a bottega for charcuterie and cheese! You will also taste different types of pasta, wine, and artisanal gelato.
#24 Visit the unique Museum for the Memory of Ustica
The Memory of Ustica Museum is a memorial to the victims of an Italian airplane disaster, and features the wreckage of the plane. There is some mystery surrounding the incident, with no definitive answers as to who was responsible.
Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 was en route from Bologna to Palermo with 81 people on board when an explosion occurred and the plane was destroyed, killing everyone on board.
In addition to the wreckage of the plane, the memorial consists of black boxes holding the recovered personal effects of the people on board the aircraft. It’s a very moving exhibit.
#25 Gorge on gelato
We love scoping out the best gelaterias everywhere we go in Italy! Bologna was our base for 10 days on a recent trip to the Emilia-Romagna region, and we tried several gelaterias over the course of our stay.
Cremeria Santo Stefano is highly rated, and it lived up to the hype, and then some! It’s a bit of a walk from Piazza Maggiore, but absolutely worth the effort.
La Sorbetaria Castiglione is also a bit of a trek from Piazza Maggiore, but you’ll want to visit at least once, because their gelato is both authentic and sensational.
Oggi offers artisanal gelato closer to Piazza Maggiore and Two Towers. We loved the choice of flavors, and the store displays pictures of the flavors, which is so helpful! The chocolate tasted rich and luscious, just the way my husband and I like it!
#26 Shop on Corso Cavour
Love shopping, or window shopping? Head to Corso Cavour, just a short walk from Two Towers, where you’ll find the upscale Galleria Cavour, a luxury shopping center.
The mall features many top brands from Gucci and Prada to Louis Vuitton and Armani. The sidewalk is lovely to walk as well, with beautiful porticoes.
#27 Add easy day trips to your Bologna itinerary!
Bologna is extremely well connected by train (and by road) with many other beautiful cities, towns, and villages, and you can pick any number of day trip destinations based on the time you have, and your interests.
A visit to Emilia-Romagna, the foodie region of Italy, wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t visit the holy trinity of Bologna, Modena, and Parma. Modena, boasting many world famous restaurants and the home of the balsamico, is just about 20 minutes away by train. Parma, the home of Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, is under an hour away by train.
If you love the history, architecture, and cultural choices that large cities offer, Florence, Venice, Milan, and Verona are all within reach. Of course, if you have the time, you’d ideally want to spend more than one day in each of these places, but they make great day trip destinations as well.
And finally, there are some unique destinations you might want to consider: San Marino, the little country landlocked within Italy, or Ravenna, with its many UNESCO monuments filled with glorious mosaics, or Vicenza, where you can see the gorgeous architecture of Andrea Palladio.
For a fun and food-filled day trip, consider this highly rated full-day food and Ferrari day trip from Bologna! You’ll visit local producers of the trio of local delicacies: ham, balsamic, and Parmesan cheese. Plus a tour of the Ferrari Museum.
Getting into Bologna
Bologna does have an international airport and you can fly into the city from many European destinations and from some international destinations as well.
The airport is just under 4 miles from the city center. The Aerobus shuttle connects Bologna airport with the Bologna train station and the city center, and is a convenient way to get in if you do not have a lot of baggage. Taxis are also available at the airport.
Bologna is connected by train with other large cities such as Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, as well as with smaller cities in the region. The train is the most convenient way to travel in Italy if you do not plan to drive.
You can get from Florence to Bologna in about 35 minutes, from Venice in about 1 hour and 25 minutes, from Milan in about 1 hour and 34 minutes, and from Rome in about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Fast trains can cut the time further.
Pro Tip: Book train tickets in advance for cheaper prices, especially on fast trains.
To book bus (and train) tickets for Europe in advance, consider Omio. I found the booking experience super easy and hassle-free. They charge a nominal service fee but I thought it was well worth the convenience! Plan out your itinerary and book all your tickets at once and you’ll pay the fee just once.
If you are doing an Italy road trip, you can drive to Bologna. Distances and approximate drive times in normal traffic from other major cities are as follows:
Florence: 66 miles, 1 hour 25 minutes
Milan: 134 miles, 2 hours 20 minutes
Venice: 96 miles, 1 hour 40 minutes
Rome: 232 miles, 3 hours 45 minutes
Looking to book a car rental for your Europe trip? We have found great deals on Auto Europe on our visits to Europe. Compare car rental rates and find your car here.
Getting around in Bologna
We walked to most places in the city center, but used the local bus for a couple of sights that were a little further away, such as the Complesso di San Michele in Bosco.
We also used the local bus to get to and from the train station when we did day trips. It was super convenient! Just buy a set of tickets from a tabacchi or newsstand: you’ll find them everywhere.You can also buy the tickets on the bus, but they are a little more expensive.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to validate your ticket when you get on the bus. You will see the machine near the entrances. There’s a stiff fine if you do not validate!
Where to stay in Bologna
Ideally you want to stay in the city center so you are close to most major sights and a wide choice of eateries. You can use the bus to get to and from the train station for day trips.
Luxury: For a luxury stay in Bologna, consider Grand Hotel Majestic “Gia Baglioni.” Located in the heart of the city, within walking distance of Piazza Maggiore, the hotel is housed in an 18th century palazzo. Rooms are elegantly appointed with classic furnishings but all the mod cons.
Book a stay here
Mid Range: The Art Hotel Commercianti is located just off Piazza Maggiore. Located in a historic building close to most major attractions, the hotel features gorgeous furnishings. Some rooms come with a sun terrace. Breakfast is included.
Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a stay here
Where to eat in Bologna
For a very special dining experience, try Da Cesari. We ate here twice, and our experience was perfect both times. Their tagliatelle alla bolognese is amazing, as are their truffle dishes and their signature pannacotta, made without gelatin. Advance reservations are a must, especially for dinner: we saw several groups turned away when we were there.
We also enjoyed our meal at Polpette e Crescentine in the Mercato delle Erbe. We tried the local squacquerone cheese: soft and flavorful. My husband had the meatballs and thought they were delicious. I loved my vegetarian pasta dish.
How long should you spend in Bologna?
If you have just one day in Bologna, you can take in the sights around Piazza Maggiore, wander the historic center, visit a couple of the food markets, and enjoy the city’s culinary offerings.
Two days in Bologna will allow you to also walk up to the Sanctuary of San Luca, and visit some of Bologna’s many beautiful churches and interesting museums.
With three days in Bologna (or more) you can add in some day trips to nearby cities, and continue to enjoy Bologna in the evenings.
The best time to visit Bologna
Visit between March and May or from September to November for pleasant daytime temperatures. Summers are very hot and you may find that the fresh food markets and many of the best restaurants close down in the summer.
Since spring and fall are popular times to visit Bologna, you’ll run into more people (but still far less than you would in Venice or Rome or Florence!) and accommodations will likely be pricier.
So there you have it: my suggestions for what to do in Bologna, Italy. Have you visited this Italian foodie heaven? I would love to hear your thoughts if you have! Comment below to respond.
If you have not yet visited, I hope I have inspired you to add Bologna to your itinerary for your next visit to Italy. And if you are looking for other destinations to visit in northern Italy, you’ll be spoiled for choice!
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OTHER GREAT ITALIAN CITIES TO VISIT
Florence: 10 Best Things to Do in Florence for First-Timers
Venice: How to Make the Most of 2 Days in Venice
Rome: 25 Best Things to Do in Rome on Your First Visit
Verona: The Best Things to Do in Verona
Siena: See the Best of Siena in One Day!
Ravenna: How to See the Best Ravenna Mosaics in One Day
Vicenza: The Best Things to Do in Vicenza
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