Planning a Bologna City Break
Bologna is a small, compact city that punches above its weight, yet doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It's home to magnificent architecture, narrow lanes, and wide-open piazzas, plus one of the world's largest churches and the oldest university in continuous operation. In addition, Bologna has the nickname La Grassa (the Fat One), and for good reason — some of the greatest contributions to Italian cuisine originated in the capital of Emilia-Romagna.
Begin in the heart of the city
We recommend starting your exploration in the wide-open main square of Bologna, Piazza Maggiore, right in the centre of the city. It's a great place to sit outside one of the cafés and admire the Medieval and Renaissance buildings around. One of them is the Basilica of San Petronio; construction began on Bologna's largest church in 1390, but the façade remains unfinished today. Inside, you can see a meridian line measuring more than 67 metres in length, which was designed by the astronomer Cassini. The sun falls on the line every day at noon, and allowed Cassini to measure the length of the solar year and the timing of solstices and equinoxes.
There are many other stunning buildings in the square, including the Palazzo del Podestà, built in the 13th century for Bologna's chief magistrate — today it hosts the city's tourist information centre. Look out too for the Torre dell'Arengo bell tower that rises above it, and the Voltone del Podestà, a vault under the building whose acoustics allow you to whisper to someone standing in the opposite corner and be heard. Also worth visiting is the Palazzo d'Accursio. It's home to the Municipal Art Collection, which displays paintings dating from as far back as the Middle Ages, plus historic furniture, porcelain, fabrics, lace, and embroidery, as well as coats of arms.
Explore Bologna's architectural and artisitic heritage
Nearby is a smaller square, the Piazza del Nettuno, which contains the 16th-century Fountain of Neptune. Continue north for a few minutes and you'll reach the Baroque Bologna Cathedral — it's not as famous as the Basilica of San Petronio, but is well worth a look. Another symbol of the city is the Two Towers, consisting of the Asinelli tower and smaller Garisenda tower, both of which lean slightly. The Asinelli Tower, almost a hundred metres in height and built in the early 12th century, is open to the public, and if you fancy tackling the 498 steps, your reward is magnificent views of the city.
Less than 10 minutes' walk from the towers is the National Gallery of Bologna (Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna). Here, inside a 17th-century former Jesuit novitiate, you can see works by the likes of Raphael, Giotto, and Titian.
A good way to save money if you're planning on doing a lot of sightseeing is to buy a Bologna Welcome Card, which gives you access to many museums and attractions in the city, including the National Gallery, the Asinelli Tower, and the Municipal Art Collection, plus other sites like the History Museum of Bologna (Museo della Storia di Bologna), MAMbo modern art museum, and the Morandi Museum.
Bolognese and beyond
Bologna is a great city for food. Head to the Quadrilatero, an area close to Piazza Maggiore, where you can explore the old, narrow lanes and browse the many market stalls. You can shop for produce from Emilia-Romagna to take home, including parmigiano reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto ham, and truffles. Look out, too, for mortadella, a pork sausage that originated in Bologna and contains black pepper grains, and sometimes pistachios and berries.
There are also many cafés and restaurants in the city where you can sample some local cuisine. Arguably the city's most famous dish, tagliatelle al ragù, dates from 18th-century Bologna, and the classic version features veal, truffles, chicken liver, and cream. The more modern take on it is Bolognese sauce, featuring beef, tomato, carrot, and celery — but it should never be served with spaghetti. Another local dish is tortellini: fresh egg pasta stuffed with meat or cheese, and served in a broth.
To wash down your meal, there are plenty of great wines that come from this region of northern Italy. They include red varieties made from Sangiovese grapes, including Sangiovese di Romagna, and Albana di Romagna, which was the first white wine in Italy to be given DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) classification. One of the most famous Italian sparkling wines, the sweet red Lambrusco, also comes from the area.
Gateways to the past
The centre of Bologna is ringed by a series of Medieval gates, each of which is only about a 15-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore, and are remnants of the old city walls. They include Porta Saragozza, which resembles a small fort. Starting near the gate is the Portico of San Luca, one of the city's 40 kilometres of porticoes (together, they constitute UNESCO World Heritage Site). It leads for 3.5 kilometres to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca and features 666 arches (this along with the portico’s snake-like route is said to be symbolic of the victory of good over evil). It's a pleasant walk whatever the weather, as you're protected from both rain and strong sun. The hilltop sanctuary is a striking 18th-century church with a frescoed cupola and numerous works of art, plus a panoramic terrace with great views over the city and surrounding countryside.
If you're a fan of classic cars, the area surrounding Bologna is full of museums devoted to some of Italy’s most iconic manufacturers. Mudetec, the Lamborghini museum, is a few miles north of the city. It tells the story of the life and work of the founder of Lamborghini, and includes a number of classic models including the Miura SV, the Countach, and the Jarama. Twenty-five minutes from Bologna by train is the town of Modena, which is home to the Enzo Ferrari Museum, where you can tour a futuristic new building containing stunning, sometimes rare models, including Formula 1 cars, and also look around the house and workshop that belonged to the Ferrari founder's father. At Maranello, just south of Modena, is the Ferrari Factory, which you can also tour.
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Nick Elvin contributed to this post.