Bologna is the city of porticoes, Europe’s oldest university, amazing towers and culinary delights you can’t even imagine. If you’re hankering for something different and unique to do while visiting Rome then this is the day trip you’ll want to make!
You might want to read about amazing Bologna before you visit!
Bologna is a city that you can easily visit in a day and the great thing is that you pick up a train right in the center of Rome and arrive in the center of Bologna.
Getting to Bologna from Rome:
The train trip to Bologna from Rome is exactly 2 hours and a round-trip ticket costs about €60. You’re best off getting an early morning train around 8:30 AM or earlier and returning to Rome on the 6:30 PM train. There are many trains throughout the day. That gives you a full day to enjoy the city, sample some delicacies at the wonderful markets, and see all the sites.
The Best of Bologna:
Even on a cloudy day the centro storico of Bologna is gorgeous. Everywhere you turn you see something exquisite, from the Two Towers and the Piazza Porta Ravegnana to all the delicious gourmet shops amidst fabulous architecture. If you haven’t visited this amazing city get Bologna on your bucket list.
Bologna is a well known culinary haven and you won’t want to miss out on its best. There are numerous eateries everywhere and markets where you will find homemade tortellini and tortelloni, and if you’re lucky you’ll run across a shop where you can watch these delicacies being made. Everyone has heard of Bolognese sauce and it’s here that this delicious recipe initiated.
Bologna is the capital city of the Emilia Romagna region; just a 20 minute regional train south of Modena which is famous for its IGP and DOP balsamic vinegar. While Modena boasts IGP and DOP balsamic vinegar, Bologna also has its special IGP and DOP products that you don’t want to miss, like mortadella.
The best thing to do if you’re visiting Bologna for the day is to walk everywhere: it’s a charming and lovely city.
- The Porticoes:
Probably the most beautiful thing about Bologna is the extensive network of porticoes throughout the city. You won’t need an umbrella because these porticoes cover just about every corner of the city. They’re all lovely and some of them are exquisitely frescoed.
No other city in the world has as many arcades (porticoes) as Bologna; they total over 38 km long if you count only those in the center of town. If you include the porticoes outside of the city walls then there are 53 km.
Take a look at all of them on Via Farini. My favorite is the Banca d’Italia, Piazza Cavour portico shown above.
- The Two Towers:
Back in the 12th and 13th century there were numerous towers in Bologna, in excess of 150. Most likely the function of the towers was for protection to be able to see out at a distance. In addition the towers were a sign of prestige for families of nobility. Many of the towers were demolished in the 13th century and less than 20 still remain.
The most important and best known are the two medieval towers in Piazza Ravegnana: the Torre degli Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda. The Asinelli tower was built between 1109 and 1119 by the noble Asinelli family. It’s slightly more than 97 m tall with a 2.23 m overhang. You can climb up to the top to enjoy a magnificent view of Bologna, but bear in mind the stairs are a bit rickety and narrow so you might feel claustrophobic. There are 498 steps inside, which were completed in 1684. Whether you climb the stairs or not it’s well worth visiting the towers as they are magnificent, and the entire surrounding area is charming.
The second tower, the Torre Garisenda, was built at the same time but it’s only 47 m high, with a 3.22 m overhang. When Dante saw this tower he compared it to the hunched Anteo in his 31st Song of Hell from the Inferno!
Charles Dickens also wrote about the two towers in his book American Notes: Pictures from Italy.
Some have speculated, including the architect Minoru Yamasaki, that New York’s World Trade Towers were inspired by Bologna’s two towers.
Lots of great shops and places to sit and have an aperitivo in Piazza Ravegnana so sit down and admire the view of the towers! The piazza is just four blocks east of the Piazza Maggiore and the Bologna Cathedral.
- The Piazza Maggiore:
The Piazza Maggiore is located in the very center of Bologna. It’s bordered by former administrative buildings like the townhall, Palazzo Accursio, now a museum, and the former notaries guild, police and justice offices.
The Basilica di San Petronio is also located in Piazza Maggiore. From a volume perspective it’s the tenth largest church in Europe.
Back in the 1200s the Piazza was just a grassy area, until the municipality purchased the houses and property to build Bologna’s administrative activities there. Originally the piazza went by a different name and it was only in 1945 that it became officially known as Piazza Maggiore.
The Piazza is a wonderful open space, always full of street musicians, passersby and locals out enjoying an afternoon aperitivo or a morning coffee.
- The Neptune Statue:
As you head off to the northwest corner of the Piazza you reach the Piazza del Nettuno (Neptune) with its famous fountain and statue.
The statue was commissioned by Pier Donato Cesi and sculpted by Giambologna. He, like a number of other sculptors including Leonardo da Vinci, occasionally used an artistic trick of perspective to poke some fun at the Catholic Church and its rigidity of thought. If you search around the square behind the statue and slightly to the right you’ll see a black stone on the pavement that’s known as the stone of shame, the Pietra della Vergogna. Take a look at the sculpture while standing on the stone and you’ll see that the thumb of Neptune’s left hand gives the illusion that he has a large, erect genitalia.
- Piazza Santo Stefano & the Sette Chiese:
The Basilica of Santo Stefano, also known as the Sette Chiese, is not seven churches as the name would imply, but instead seven holy buildings dedicated to Santo Stefano. The Piazza Santo Stefano is a charming triangular widening of the Via Santo Stefano. This gorgeous pedestrian only area is used for concerts, cultural events, and flea markets. Lovely porticoes line both sides of the Piazza, and at the narrow end is the Santo Stefano Basilica. The buildings in the piazza are lovely: on the left you see the 15th century Palazzo Bolognini Isolani and the Casa Berti.
On the right is the 16th century Palazzo Bolognini Amorini Salina, best known for it frieze with terra-cotta heads.
This Piazza is a favorite in Bologna; locals love to meet here for a drink and a chat with friends while they admire the view.
- The Jazz Street:
Right in the heart of Bologna’s historic center you’ll find Via degli Orefici, which is known locally as the Jazz Street. The street is full of historic boutiques and restaurants, but it’s also well known for the commemoration of some of the greatest names in jazz. Walk along the street and you’ll find stars on the sidewalk much like the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. Some of the names you’ll recognize are Chet Baker and Miles Davis, but there are also stars commemorating some of Bologna’s most famous jazz artists who were regular performers in Bologna from 1958 to 1975. For anyone familiar with contemporary Italian music you’ll recognize the star dedicated to Lucio Dalla.
- The University of Bologna:
If you look inside the Palazzo Poggi on Via Zamboni you’ll find an inscription at the University desk with the Latin phrase Panum Resis, meaning knowledge is at the heart of everything. An apt phrase to find within Europe’s oldest university. Not only is it the oldest, but it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world so be sure to stroll around the University area.
The University of Bologna was founded in 1088, and in the 12th and 13th centuries it became the major center for the study of canon and civil law. The university was key in the development of medieval Roman law. Back in the 12th and 13th centuries students were mostly professional men already well into their career, rather than young students.
Also in in the 12th and 13th centuries the medicine and philosophy departments were formed. As the centuries went on the university went through a period of decline but about 150 years ago it revived and is now one of Italy’s top ranked universities. The university is ranked 180th worldwide and 77th in terms of academic reputation.
The University has 11 schools (faculties) and 33 departments which include disciplines like agriculture, economics, engineering and architecture, languages and literature, law, arts and humanities, medicine, pharmacy, and political science.
- The Canals:
A lovely and somewhat secret little jewel in Bologna is its canals. Head to Via Piella where you can take a look at one of these canals. When you’re looking at the canal, turn around and look behind you. You’ll see a small window in the wall; open it up and it’ll reveal another lovely view of the canal.
- The Ghetto Area:
Bologna does not have a lively Jewish ghetto area in the same sense that Rome does, and yet at the same time there is a rich history of a former lively Ghetto.
Historically the Bologna Ghetto dates back to the 16th-century and Jews lived here until 1569 when they were first expelled. Later on in the century they were allowed to return and then were expelled for a second time in 1593. After this the Jewish population wasn’t allowed to return to Bologna for several centuries.
You’ll see a map of the Jewish Ghetto throughout the Ghetto area of Bologna although you might not realize at first glance what it is. It’s shaped like a hand with the various streets that confine the former Ghetto outlining the hand: Via Rizzoli, Via Zamboni, Via Oberdan and Via Marsala. A ceramic replica of this hand often appears on the walls of palazzi, underneath the street names.
Sometimes you also see the hand on shopping bags or coasters. Keep your eye out for it: it’s a white and royal blue hand, with the main street names and Ex Ghetto logo.
Within the former Ghetto there is a synagogue (Via dè Gombruti, 9), a Jewish museum (Via Valdonica 1/5) and a Jewish cemetery. The cemetery is located in the Certosa monumental cemetery of Bologna.
The Jewish population in the Emilia Romagna region totals only about 500 people.
You might want to try one of these tours in Bologna!
Bologna is without a doubt one of Italy’s most spectacular culinary havens and many of its local products and dishes are not to be missed. I had the good fortune that my friend Tina shared all her culinary tips and favorites with me!
- Try the Balsamic Vinegar:
Both the IGP and DOP balsamic vinegars are excellent; the IGP is aged for about three years and the DOP for decades! If you purchase the more affordable, younger IGP vinegar make sure it has the IGP consortium logo on it; a yellow and blue circle with the wording Indicazione Geografica Protetta. The DOP balsamic vinegar must be sold in the consortium-designated bottles, like these:
- Try the Mortadella:
Mortadella is a wonderful IGP salame product made throughout the Emilia-Romagna region. If you’re interested in more information about this IGP product you can check out the consortium website: www.mortadellabologna.com. If you enjoy eating baloney in the United States, now you know that it’s name came from this iconic Bologna IGP product, even though it has nowhere near the wonderful flavor of Bolognese mortadella.
- Try Bologna’s renowned pastas: Tortellini and Tortelloni, plus Tagliatelle al Ragù and Lasagna Verde alla Bolognese.
Throughout Bologna you’ll find an abundance of small tortellini and tortelloni shops where you can see both of these delicious filled pastas being made.
And of course let’s not forget the famous Bolognese sauce which is nothing short of exquisite. All of these pastas are made fresh daily and should be eaten on the day they’re made. Tortellini are always made with a meat filling, whereas tortelloni might have a luscious, freshly made ricotta filling, or a pumpkin filling. Usually a butter and sage sauce with a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan cheese is the sauce de rigeur. Make sure to taste these fabulous pastas wherever you stop to eat, and purchase some to take with you. Since you have a day to explore Bologna it’s best to eat some of these goodies on the fly at, or near, one of the Bologna markets.
- Visit the Bologna Food Markets:
Mercato delle Erbe: This market is right in the city center and is full of numerous stalls, eateries, wine vendors, cheese shops and bakeries. The market is full of locals out for their daily shopping. In the evening you can stop by here for an aperitivo.
It’s structure, a glass and iron building, used to be the San Gervasio barracks, and was converted to an indoor market in 1910.
Address: Via Ugo Bassi, 23-25, Bologna
Opening Time: Monday – Friday 7am – 1:15pm and 5:30pm – 7:30pm; Saturday and Thursday 7am – 1:15pm. Also open every night and on Sunday until 12pm.
Mercato di Mezzo: This is the oldest and most captivating of all of Bologna’s markets and is situated in the medieval area known as the Quadrilatero.
A few of the shops in this market you really shouldn’t miss. One is the Pescheria Brunelli where you’ll find a vast assortment of fresh fish from the Adriatic coast.
One of Bologna’s best culinary gadget and tool shops is right in this market: Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo.
Market Address: The area between Via Rizzoli, Piazza Maggiore, Piazza della Mercanzia and Piazza Galvani
Opening Time: Depending on the shops, usually from 8:30am to 7:30pm.
Bologna has other good markets that you can visit: the Mercato Ritrovato, the Mercato del Novale and the Mercato Albani.
Getting around Bologna:
Bologna is a small city and very easy to get around on foot. If you come into the central train station you can access all the major sites and charming areas of the city without ever using any form of transportation.
Renting a bike:
You’ll see that there are many cyclists throughout Bologna and lots of places where you can park your bike. If you’d like to explore the city more thoroughly you might want to consider renting a bike and there are a couple of places to do that: Tomi Bici, on Via Azzura (tel 051-341-218), Bike Rental Bologna (tel 342-713-1814) or BikeinBo, Via dell’Indipendenza, 69a (tel 347-001-7996).
Of course there is always public transportation. Buses run from the very early morning up until 11 PM depending on the bus line. You can access the public transportation website at www.tper.it.
Tourist buses in Bologna:
Another option is to take a tourist bus around Bologna. You’ll recognize these buses because they are characteristically red (cityredbus.com/en/city-red-bus/). Tickets are stop-and-go, and are valid all day. You can pick one up in the Piazza Maggiore and other spots throughout the city; check the website for details.
You can also grab a taxi; it’s best to look for one in the main square, Piazza Maggiore. Alternatively you can call a taxi, CoTaBol, at 051-372727, or book a taxi online (www.taxibologna.it). Sometimes after a day of walking around when your legs are tired it’s worth it to grab a taxi.
Getting a Train back to Rome & Navigating the Bologna Train Station:
The Bologna train station is one of Italy’s largest train stations and it can be a little bit confusing to navigate, but once you understand the layout it’s actually quite simple.
When you enter the main entrance you’ll find a ticket counter, customer service booths, a newsstand and a big board listing all the train departures. As your train might be listed with a different final destinations from your destination you need to look for the train number on your ticket. So, for example, if you’re returning to Rome the final destination for that train might actually be Naples. Therefore you don’t want to look for a train to Rome on the board when it might actually say Naples on the board. Always look for your train number; that’s your safest bet.
Also on this board you’ll see which track your train departs from and whether it’s on time or delayed. If you see AV on the board next to your train then you know it’s departing from the lowest level where all high-speed trains depart from.
The lowest level has four high speed train tracks (AV or alta velocità): tracks 16 to 19. If you enter the station from the main entrance then use the various walkways and elevators to get down to this lower level; it will take you about 10 minutes so take that into consideration when you go to the station to catch your train. On the other hand, if you take a taxi to the station the best thing is to tell the taxi driver you have an AV train and the driver will take you right close to the AV level.
Just above the AV level is the waiting area for the AV trains. It has plenty of seating, bathrooms, and a few shops and a coffee bar. If your train is delayed you’ll want to wait for it here because there is no seating at all on the AV level.
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