From the Alps to the Adriatic, Northern Italy is brimming with dramatic landscapes, but it’s the lively and historic cities that get our vote. With metropoles like Milan, Venice, and Verona on your doorstep, picking the north for your next getaway is easy, but deciding between Turin and Bologna might not be.
Once the capital of modern Italy, Turin now serves as Piedmont’s capital and is best known for its stately buildings, grand piazzas, opera houses, and rich history. Located slightly further southeast, Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the Italian region which gave the world parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar. So it should come as no surprise that the city is one of Italy’s premier foodie hubs, with a lively historic center and student population.
Alike in their impressive architecture, amazing cuisine, and understated atmospheres, you’re probably wondering what draws Turin and Bologna apart. Find out in our guide as we compare these two regional capitals. Let’s get into it.
Turin or Bologna: General Vibe
Turin served as the capital of Italy between 1861 and 1865. It might have been a short stint, but the city was also the capital of the Kingdom of Savoy in 1559, of Sardinia in 1713, and of the only Italian state not ruled by foreigners in 1848 (Piedmont). Turin’s rich and varied past has left its mark all over the city, and it remains an important cultural and business center in the north.
Piedmont’s capital is well-known for its refinery. From the architecture to the food; the sports cars to the chocolate truffles, the Torinese harbor a lot of pride in their elegant exports. That said, you can still find thrills in this charming city from the buzzing restaurants to its electric markets and multicultural neighborhoods.
There are plentiful art galleries, theaters, libraries, museums, and baroque buildings in Turin too, as well as old cafes that line the boulevards and grand piazzas. Turin is romantic and dramatic in terms of its setting. Nestled at the foot of the Alps you can catch glimpses of the snow-capped mountains at different points all over the city.
Bologna, like Turin, scores a good balance between laidback living and fast-paced city life, but it is arguably more bustling than Turin, which is due, in part, to the vibrant student population. Bologna is rich in heritage with arched colonnades, Renaissance cathedrals, and medieval towers punctuating the cobblestone streets, but meshed in with its heritage buildings, is its historical importance as a center for education.
Bologna is home to the oldest university in the West, the University of Bologna, which was founded in the 11th century. The university has never been out of operation and consistently ranks as the top institute in Italy in terms of academic reputation.
Bologna is located in the center of Northern Italy, just over 300 kilometers from Turin’s Alpine landscapes. The two cities have similar climates but Bologna can get slightly warmer in summer and receives less rain. With its rust-hued medieval buildings that somewhat resemble a Tuscan landscape, Bologna can feel more quintessentially Italian than Turin. Both cities are understated and known better with Italians than tourists, boasting fewer English speakers than you’ll find in other cities on the boot. Nevertheless, Turin, nestled close to Swiss and French borders, is a melting pot of culture and bares closer resemblance to a city like Grenoble than anywhere in southern Italy.
Bologna has better nightlife thanks to the young crowds and travelers passing through. Turin might be bigger than Bologna with a population that is more than double that of the Emilia-Romagna capital, but Bologna is more conveniently located on the path of tourists, making an easy stop off for people traveling between cities like Milan, Como, Venice, Trieste, and the south.
Turin or Bologna: Things to Do
Both Turin and Bologna are not short of things to keep you busy. From exploring the history to immersing yourself in modern art or even venturing into the Italian countryside, you won’t be bored, regardless of which one you pick, but they do have some different things on offer.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Turin is the stately buildings and they’re a good place to start. Architecture-buffs will not be disappointed with the restored palace and gardens of La Venaria Reale, as well as the regal residence and armory museums housed in the Royal Palace of Turin, and not forgetting the Palazzo Madama with its antique museum, and the 18th-century Basilica of Superga that overlooks the Alps. There’s also Piazza San Carlo and Piazza Castello, two equally impressive city squares with grand buildings and exciting event rosters.
Moreover, Turin is especially well-regarded for its museums. The Museo Egizio, dedicated to ancient Egyptian culture and art, is said to be the second-best in the world with an extensive collection of relics and installments. There’s also the National Cinema Museum, housed in the Mole Antonelliana tower—one of the emblems of the city, as well as the Automobile Museum for an insight into the history of the rare and unique Ford Torino, a classic Italian sports car that hails from Turin.
Nevertheless, it’s not all history and culture. Turin is the home of Juventus FC, one of the best football clubs in the country with the most famous stadium in Italy. There is usually something going on whether you fancy catching a friendly match or going to an international music festival. And just a couple of hours by e-bike, bus, or car are the sprawling Italian Alps, the Italian Riviera, Lake Como, and the South of France for some enriching day trips.
That said, Bologna certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the location. In less than an hour, you can be in Parma, Modena, Ferrara, and even Ravenna on the Adriatic Coast. And better yet, Bologna is just over an hour from Milan and Venice, two hours from Rome, and less than 40 minutes from Florence on the train—meaning you can easily make day trips to Italy’s most iconic cities from the Emilia-Romagna capital.
However, there’s plenty to do in Bologna itself that will have you not wanting to leave, from the grand buildings, like Palazzo Dei Notai, Palazzo d’Accursio, and Palazza del Podestá, to the leaning towers, the buzzing piazzas, and the great nightlife. Bologna’s twin towers, Asinelli and Garisenda, and symbolic of the city and its medieval roots. They were built in the 12th century and visitors can enter and climb Asinelli’s 498 wooden steps for incredible views over the city.
The towers are located at the entrance of ancient Via Emilia at Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. The medieval center of town is also an urban hub and you can take in its fountains, statues, piazzas, and libraries all while soaking up the energetic vibes of the student city. The 14th-century Basilica of Saint Petronio on Piazza Maggiore is also hard to ignore. It’s one of the largest in Italy, although smaller than originally planned with a curiously unfinished facade. Inside you’ll find the chapel of San Sebastiano and the painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian completed in 1475.
The City Hall is also anchored to the same square. This impressive palace houses an extensive art collection and is open to the public at an admission charge. While in Piazza Santa Stefano, you’ll find the Church of Santo Stefano which actually comprises several churches, including San Vitale e Agricola, the oldest building in Bologna, with its origins in the 5th century.
Turin or Bologna: Food
Now, we can never talk about Italy without mentioning the cuisine. The country that bought us pizza and pasta has had one of the most influential impacts on western gastronomy and food is at the heart of everything Italian. From family life to lucrative exports, tourist attractions, and culinary history, food is synonymous with Italian culture, and wherever you go in the country, the cuisine won’t disappoint.
The two cities are well-regarded for their gastronomy, and you can partake in exciting food tours, tasting menus, and market visits in both. That said, although both are located in Northern Italy and arguably more comparable than the sun-soaked Sicilian traditions in the south, the food in Turin and Bologna has some stark differences.
Since the 1960s, the Piedmontese food culture has been one of excess while being tinged with French influence. White truffles are harvested in the oak, poplar, and hazel forests of Alba in the autumn, while the cold temperatures make regional beef dishes, from razza Piedmontese, popular throughout Northern Italy.
The Po Valley in Piedmont also produces most of the country’s rice and more than 100 types of sausage hail from the region. Still, it’s not all rural specialties with excellent freshwater fish coming from Lake Maggiore.
Rice dishes are a big part of the Turin diet. Risotto al Funghi and risotto al Barolo, made from the globally-renowned red wine that comes from the region, are favorites in Turin. Alpine cheese and prized local hazelnuts are sold by the ton in Turin’s vast Mercato Centrale, which is the largest food market in Europe, while rich desserts and braised beef dishes – involving the king of all wine wherever possible – grace every menu in Turin.
Still, it’s hard to compete with the dent made by Bologna, or rather, Emilia-Romagna, in Italy’s food scene. The region has gifted the world with Parmeggiano Reggiano, Mortadella, Parma Ham, Tagliatelle al ragu, and Tortelloni, among other stuffed pastas and meat stews.
The cuisine in Bologna is equally hearty thanks to the brisk northern climate, and the city is big on cured meats and salty cheeses. However, Bologna’s food is quintessentially Italian at its core with some of the best pasta dishes hailing from this part of the country.
What’s more, Bologna has a food theme park, or “agri-food park” honoring the wonderful biodiversity of Italian cuisine and culinary traditions of the region across 10 hectares of farmland, factories, pop-up stores, eateries, and hands-on exhibitions. FICO Eataly World gives an insight into the world of Italian food production and is a testament to Emilia-Romagna’s impact on global gastronomy.
Turin or Bologna: Cost
When weighing up two holiday destinations, finding out the cost of visiting both could make all the difference. Bologna is further south while Turin is nestled close to the Swiss and French borders, better known for its refinery and the influence of nearby cultures. You might think this would make Bologna much cheaper, but you could be wrong.
Italy upholds its reputation of being a lusted travel destination, and there are plenty of places across the country from Milan to Amalfi that can really break the break. Neither Turin nor Bologna are shoestring cities, but they are more budget-friendly than some of the other tourist-choked cities in the north.
The average price of a typical double-occupancy room in Turin is around €126 a night, compared to €150 in Bologna. Likewise, you could get a hostel bed for €63 a night in Turin but it will cost you closer to €75 in Bologna. Food is also more expensive in Bologna, with the average meal coming to €17 compared to just €13 in Turin. In fact, everything from coffee to chicken fillets could cost you as much as 7 percent more in the Emilia-Romagna capital.
If you’re planning on sticking around, these are two cities that are affordable when it comes to renting. You could find a one-bedroom apartment in the city center of Turin for just €550 a month, and around €400 a month if you head out of the center. Bologna is more expensive but much more reasonable than cities like Rome, Venice, and Milan, with the average one-bedroom apartment going for around €650 a month.
Despite being refined by nature, you could make your Euros go a lot further in Turin, meaning the dolce vita might not be too unattainable after all. Turin also sells Alpine elegance at a discounted price compared to Switzerland or Lake Como, and you get a lot for your money in terms of history, setting, and great food.