A city of two halves, Bologna is a fusion of Italian elegance and workaday grit. One side offers a waltz through the opera and theatre, with high-tech city spaces in between. The other is edgy, hedonistic, young. Oh yep, and there’s an enthralling medieval town center wedged in the middle, offering cobbled alleys and soaring Gothic towers. Is Bologna worth visiting? You bet it is!
Bologna is affectionately known by the locals as “la dotta, la rossa e la grassa“. This refers to the three main aspects of the town. There’s la dotta: The educated, referencing the university. There’s la rossa: The red, highlighting the architecture and communist political background. And there’s la grassa: The fat, referring to the incredible food that’s made here.
This guide will answer “is Bologna worth visiting?” by taking a close look at some of the most enthralling highlights of this regional capital of the Italian north. From the wine-soaked cuisine to the prestige car museums, the UNESCO architecture to the raucous student nightlife scene, we’ll show how Bologna offers a unique experience of The Boot.
Because it’s the gastronomic capital of Italy
Let’s not beat around the proverbial bush: Food is always going to be one of the most important things to consider when planning a trip to Italy. Bologna certainly won’t disappoint on this count, either. It’s hailed as the gastronomic capital of the whole country, famous for its delicious dishes inspired by the farming culture and age-old traditions of the surrounding Emilia-Romagna region.
If you’re a lover of pasta, this is a veritable mecca. Bologna is the birthplace of the Bolognese sauce. But don’t call it that. The locals only say tagliatelle al ragù before diving into that uber-famous dish of mixed pork-beef mince cooked in rich red wine, pancetta, and passata. And there are more pasta masterworks to sample, like the verdi lasagne, which uses the same Bolognese with green lasagne sheets, and the hearty passatelli pasta soups, served in a rich broth.
The surrounding region of which Bologna is a capital, Emilia-Romagna, is something of a powerhouse of production when it comes to famous Italian products. It’s home to balsamic vinegar, Parma ham, and parmesan cheese. So it’s hardly a surprise that you find well-made and tasty food around every corner, in every resto, served with passion and love.
Bologna’s central markets are great for fresh fruit and pastries and there are loads of places to dine. Take Via del Pratello, a good lunch spot with plenty of restaurants to choose from and excellent people watching. Or there’s Via Zamboni, the student area, with plenty of options for a filling aperitif. But honestly, there are thousands of acclaimed eateries here, from the Michelin-starred Ristorante Sotto l’Arco right down to the simple family trattoria serving mama’s old-school food.
The incredible architecture
Bologna is a place of deep historical significance for Italy and that really shows in its buildings. There are stories being told throughout the whole old town and beyond, of how this town has been one of the most important urban centers in the country for centuries, from before the Romans and the Middle Ages right up to today.
Sadly, WWII wrought destruction on much of the architecture. However, plenty of significant buildings were either lucky enough to survive or have been totally reconstructed to reveal their former glory. To begin with, there are the seven churches of Santo Stefano. This collection of churches were built over a 600 year period, all in varying styles…
You can then visit the Chiesa della Santa which has the mummified remains of Saint Catherine of Bologna – an 18th-century Italian mystic and writer. And then why not complete the church tour by visiting the San Domenico Basilica. This site has a Michelangelo statue and a piano that was used by Mozart during his time studying in Italy.
To continue your journey for amazing architecture and sites through Bologna, be sure to visit Piazza Maggiore, a square that still has its original 15th-century layout, and the Basilica di San Petronio, a colossal church that’s been unfinished since the 1390s. Oh, and then there are the Bologna Porticoes, now enshrined by UNESCO for their unique take on medieval urban planning, but more on those in a moment…
The Two Towers and Porticoes (or, even more incredible architecture!)
Sticking on the theme of Bologna’s fantastic building work, we’ve got to mention the Two Towers and the Porticoes. Both are iconic and pretty unique to Bologna and a must-see for anyone exploring the town for the first time.
The Two Towers put the Leaning Tower of Pisa to shame. Sorry, Pisa, but it’s true! The smaller of the two, the Garisenda tower, has a much more dramatic lean than the counterpart found over in Tuscany. You can’t climb this one sadly, but you can go up the sister medieval tower next door, the Asinelli tower. It’ll cost €3 and give incredible views across the whole city to the foothills of the Apennine mountains in the distance. Fun fact: These towers are so significant to Italian culture that Dante even cited them in The Divine Comedy.
Next up: The Porticoes. These are an absolute must if you visit Bologna. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Porticoes line Bologna’s streets and hearken from a time when sellers and thinkers would have met under their shade and protection back in the 12th and 13th centuries. Some of the best of them can be found on Via Marsala, where there’s a very old wooden portico, and Via Farini, which has luxury fashion stores under grander porticoes.
The music scene
If you do visit Bologna, you simply have to find the time to have a night at the opera. The Teatro Comunale di Bologna is in the center of the city and reigns as one of the most iconic opera houses in the whole of The Boot, up there with La Scala and others. The building itself is breathtaking. It was built in 1763 and designed by Antonio Galli Bibiena, with grand and gold-trimmed interiors that soar four levels up above the main stage.
This is truly hallowed ground in the world of operatic performance, you know? In the first century after flinging open its doors, the venue hosted works by greats in the field, including Gioachino Rossini and Niccolò Piccinni. The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini also plied his trade here throughout the early 1900s until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Of course, the Teatro Comunale di Bologna isn’t the only musical must in the town. Bologna’s student population also ensures there’s a rollicking modern music scene, which plays out in the bars of the nightlife districts. Check out all-new Sghetto Club for edgy Indie band names or head to the Camera Jazz&Music Club for all things saxophone and trumpet.
Ferrari, Ducati, Maserati – this is their stomping ground. Yep, the region around Bologna is considered the petrol-headed hub of the whole country. Many of the great auto makers that are now the go-to car choice of the world’s jet setters either started life in the city or have their headquarters in these parts.
There are several museums in the area that you can visit, join tours, and lust over the Italian auto beauties…
- Museo Ferruccio Lamborghini – A few kilometres north of town in Argelato, this museum showcases some of the oldest models of Lamborghini out there.
- Industrial Heritage Museum – Parts of this museum chronicle the rise of the auto industry around Bologna, but there’s loads more besides!
- Museo Ducati – A must for the motorbike buffs out there.
- Enzo Ferrari Museum – Located up the road in Modena, this fancy new museum is a journey through the world of arguably the most famous car maker of all time.
Of the lot, we’d say the Ferrari Museum tops the bill. They offer a selection of tours and package deals so you can see both the factory, the cars on the track, and then experience an F1 simulation. All of this is within a day’s tour of Bologna.
The north of Italy is renowned for its wine and Bologna is situated in a great region for it all. Top of the bill has to be the local Lambrusco. It’s unique in that it’s one of the few sparkling reds to hail from The Boot. It’s grown in the flatlands around Modena and Parma, picked young, and popularly drunk as a dolce (sweet wine), though can also be found in dry varieties.
We’d also recommend considering a sampling of the local Montuni, made from the Montù grape. It’s a white variety that grows exclusively along the Reno River in the Po Valley, offering a zingy, frizzante head.
However, it’s to the south that we think the crème-de-la-crème of the Bologna wine scene unfolds, up with the rising ridges of the Apennine Mountains. That’s where you get Pignoletto grape sellers, offering light and straw-hued white wines that are perfect in the Italian summer.
There are plenty of top vineyards within striking distance of the city center. Check out the organic wine stock of Tenuta Santa Cecilia Alla Croara. Head to the higher growing fields of the Vini Botti winery. Or consider visiting the stunning hill location of the Tenuta Folesano wine cellar, which grows in lands once prized by the Etruscans.
The University of Bologna is one of the oldest universities in the world. Founded way back in 1088, it was the first university to become an degree-awarding institute. And it’s still a central pillar of the town, as academia is at the heart of Bologna just as much as the gastro scene. As Italy’s top-rated university, this is an extremely popular choice for Erasmus students and reigns as the country’s answer to Havard in the US or Oxford in the UK.
But you’re not here to study anything more than the tasty Bolognese, right? Right. Thankfully the uni brings other joys. The Piazza Verdi sits amongst the university’s buildings and is filled with students and live music performances throughout the days of the summer. Oh, and there’s the whole University District on the northwestern edge of the town. Known colloquially by some as Partyville, it’s always throbbing with life and action – check out the bars of Via Zamboni to mingle with folk fresh from the lecture halls.
The education dream doesn’t stop there, either. Bologna is also home to Carpigiani Gelato University, somewhere truly unique! Here, you can take professional courses in making gelato, the real Italian way. It’s part of the Gelato Museum in Bologna and they offer a range of courses and workshops for ice cream lovers. Who said you weren’t on an educational trip, eh?
It’s not too touristy
Most folks who hit Bologna notice pretty quick that they aren’t joining huge hordes of other tourists. At least you won’t get the same vibe you do in Venice or Florence. This town is quiet and traditional, sticking true to its values, and has not become over-commercialized. When you walk the streets you’ll hear Italian over English; you’ll feel as if you’re discovering somewhere new; you’ll be part of the real Italy.
You’ll often get a cafe to yourself and restaurants are reasonably priced to boot – unlike in a host of Italy’s other popular summer hotspots. The most expensive part for dining out is around the Piazza Maggiore in the center of Bologna, but there are also local areas where it should be cheap and authentic to the T – the Quartiere Saragozza, edgy Bolognina.
On top of that, it’s never hard to whizz away from the town center in Bologna and get that taste of the Italian countryside. The town is nowhere near the sprawling mass of Rome or Milan. Give it 30 minutes in the rental car and you can be up in the lush hills between the cypress trees, checking into an agritourismo, or drinking wine while gazing at the mountains.
If you’re an art lover then you’ll be in heaven visiting Bologna. There is art, both old and new, around every corner. Most of the churches display fantastic Renaissance pieces. The Pinacoteca Nazionale has art exhibits spanning from 200 AD to the Baroque period. And there are museums for art buffs of all other kinds. Check it out:
- Municipal Art Collections – This acclaimed museum has art from the 14th to 19th centuries.
- Galleria D’Arte Maggiore – A focus on the big names of the contemporary Italian art scene is what you get here.
- MAMbo – Bologna’s answer to MOMA. Expect thought-provoking modern pieces.
But it doesn’t stop there. Bologna is also a street art mecca. The city center and Porta Mascarella are the two best places to go for a stroll to spot some incredible graffiti work scrawled right onto the walls. Make sure you take your camera along for the walk, you’re going to need it!
Is Bologna worth visiting? Our conclusion
Overall, this little Italian city tucked away in the north is one not to be missed. If you value passion in food, traditional vibes, and authentic Italian culture, then Bologna is the place for you. There is so much to offer in Bologna and you would be a fool to skip visiting this beautiful city. So is Bologna worth visiting? It’s a giant yes from us!