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What to Do in Bologna

14 Best Things to Do in Bologna

Located at the foot of the Apennines, Bologna is famous for its food and the University of Bologna. Founded in 1088, it’s the world’s oldest in continuous operation. The medieval center is a joy to explore with terracotta buildings adorned with miles of porticoes. It’s an intriguing mix of old and new – the large student population ensures there’s plenty happening day or night, with many trattorias, clubs, and bars. Some say it’s a city of two halves, one politically edgy with graffiti-filled piazzas where students swap gothic fashion tips and the other a high-tech city with regal theaters and some of Italy’s best restaurants, attracting the well-heeled. Many are drawn here for the food scene. In fact, Bologna’s moniker “La Grassa” translates to the fat one, referring not only to the indulgent cuisine but the prosperous economy.

Asinelli Tower Bologna

Asinelli Tower

Pisa isn’t the only place with a leaning tower. Bologna’s Asinelli tower leans a noticeable 1.3 degrees off-center and as it soars to nearly 319 feet, the views from the top are incredible. The city will be sprawled out before you in every direction, with Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica of San Luca to the west while the ancient Roman road, via Emilia, is to the southwest, and the green rolling hills of the region are to the south. You’ll need to climb almost 500 narrow, wooden steps, but it’s worth the effort, especially if you arrive at dusk to watch the sun go down while splashing its colors over the city. Built in the 11th century, there are actually two towers, Asinelli and Garisenda which stand next to each other, but Asinelli is the taller of the pair. Together they’re referred to as Le Due Torri, both named for prominent Italian families.

Piazza Maggiore Bologna

Piazza Maggiore

Piazza Maggiore is Bologna’s central square. Located in the heart of the city, it’s one of the oldest and largest in Italy, serving as the hub of social and political life as well as being a good starting point for just about everything to do in Bologna. It’s home to many grand buildings, including Palazzo Notai, Palazzo del Podesta, Palazzo d’Accursio, Palazzo dei Bianchi, and the Basilica di San Petronio. Just northwest, you’ll see the magnificent fountain of Neptune. But the beauty of the square lies beyond the historical buildings as a gathering place for locals for centuries. In fact, it was once home to one of the biggest open-air markets in Europe and today it’s a top spot for people-watching in Bologna.  Simply sit on the steps of the basilica or grab a seat at one of the shady cafes, sip a drink, and watch the world go by.

Fountain of Neptune, Bologna

The Fountain of Neptune

Other than Neptune, the world-famous Fountain of Neptune was entirely designed by Tommaso Laureti, an Italian painter, engineer, and sculptor from Palermo. He was inspired by the fountains he’d seen around Rome, and he designed it to be a central feature of Piazza Maggiore. Unfortunately, Laureti did not take into account the fact that the water in Bologna had a higher concentration of limescale than the water in Rome, so the fountain sprinkles only a small amount of water. The imposing statue of Neptune, created by Giambologna, stands over it all with his arm stretched in front as if to placate the waves, a symbol of the turmoil the people of Bologna experienced under Pope Julius II in 1506. It was moved to the smaller Piazza del Nettuno to protect it from the busy traffic at Piazza Maggiore and remains a popular tourist attraction today as well as a fine example of Italian Renaissance art.

Bologna Archeological Museum

Bologna Archaeological Museum

One of the most prestigious museums in Bologna, the archaeological museum sits within the 15th-century Palazzo Galvani, steps from Piazza Maggiore. It opened its doors in 1881 and includes one of the largest Egyptian collections in the country while offering an excellent overview of the city’s history as well. It’s one of the most important when it comes to archaeological finds in all of Italy and is highly representative of the local history starting from prehistoric times through the Roman Age. There are nine different sections, including the Egyptian collection as well as prehistoric, Etruscan, Celtic, Greek, Roman, and Numismatic collections. The Etruscan collection includes artifacts from Bologna and its surrounds, including 4,000 grave goods with bronze tools, biconical vases, and potteries. Other highlights include the Etruscan mirrors with engravings and urns made of marble and terracotta. The Greek collection includes a marble copy of the head of Athena Lemnia dating to ancient Greek times.

Bologna National Gallery

Bologna National Gallery

Located in the 17th-century former Jesuit novitiate of St. Ignatius, the Bologna National Gallery may not be the Uffizi, but it offers an enjoyable experience without the crowds. You’ll be able to marvel at and contemplate some extraordinary pieces by Italian masters. Here you’ll find works related to Bologna and the Emilia region ranging from the 13th through the 18th centuries. It’s split into two main sections, the Accademia Clementina which includes a wealth of 13th-century Byzantine paintings, and the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts which features works from the 14th century on. Most are religious in nature and are from the Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque periods. Highlights include the Ecstasy of St. Cecilia by Raphael, The Visitation by Tintoretto, Madonna di Santa Margherita by Parmigianino, and the Christ and the Good Thief by Titian. The entire collection can be viewed in roughly two hours with information provided in Italian and English.

View of Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna

Basilica di San Petronio

Located just steps from Piazza Maggiore, the imposing Basilica di San Petronio, or San Petronio Church, is one of Bologna’s most important structures. Named after the city’s patron saint, Petronius, its construction began in 1390 and although it was never completed, it’s still a must-see for any visitor to Bologna. The half-brick, half-marble façade on the exterior is magnificent, while the interior boasts a number of impressive features, including the world’s longest meridian line and the world’s oldest functioning organ, along with several frescoes. Marking the passing of the days and seasons, the meridian line was created in 1656. The organ dates back to 1479 and is still in use today, while the frescoes depict scenes from the Bible and the Divine Comedy, including Giovanni da Modena’s scenes of the Last Judgement, and Maometto’s In Inferno Canto 28. There is no charge to enter, but there is a small fee if you want to take photos.

Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Modern Art

Bologna is home to such a long list of historical sites, when you’re ready for something different, you might explore some of the modern, like the Museum of Modern Art (MAMbo). It’s set within a former bread bakery, but today it houses a collection of modern and contemporary art. One of the most important museums of its kind in Italy, it holds the city’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art, including 85 works by Giorgio Morandi, the Bolognese master of still life painting. Morandi’s work is often described as deceptively simple, but his minimalist approach to painting is deeply rooted in his fascination with the natural world, including still lifes that are meditations on light, color, and form. The museum also houses a number of other important works of Italian art, including Renato Guttuso’s 1972 I Funerali di Togliatti depicting the funeral of Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party. 

Mast Museum of Technology

Mast Museum of Technology

Bologna is a city with a rich history and culture, but it’s also a city at the forefront of technology and innovation. Another opportunity to explore something different, the MAST foundation is an international cultural and philanthropic institution that is dedicated to exploring the intersection of art, technology, and innovation. Its MAST gallery is a modern art museum that features exhibits on industry, technology, and photography. Housed in an impressive glass and cement modernist building, it’s a great place to learn about the latest developments related to those topics as well as to simply enjoy some beautiful art. It includes two large galleries and exhibitions with the interactive Innovation Gallery ideal for kids and adults alike featuring hands-on activities, videos, and panels. The Photo Gallery hosts temporary exhibitions on work and industry that change every four months, such as Ando Gilardi’s works with a focus on the depth of subjects and the simplicity of composition.

The Markets in Bologna

The Markets

To understand a city or culture, one of the best things to do is to visit its local markets. They’re a great way to sample local cuisine, meet the locals, and learn about the history and culture of the place. While there are many in Bologna, La Piazzolo has been held here for centuries and continues to become increasingly popular among locals and tourists alike. Located in Piazza dell Agosto, north of the city center, it includes more than 400 different stalls with everything from flowers, jewelry, and pottery to shoes, clothing, and fashion accessories. Other markets include Quadrilatero della Cucina, a traditional market with many food stalls for buying a variety of local specialties like fresh produce, meats, and cheeses. If you’re looking for vintage items or antiques, head to Mercato dell’Antiquariato Santo Stefano. No matter which you visit, it’s a great way to mingle with the locals and enjoy an authentic Italian experience.

Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca

Sanctuary of Madonna at Monte della Guardia

The world’s longest portico leads up to the Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca, a church atop Monte della Guardia, an over 984-foot-high forested hill to the southwest of the city center that offers stunning panoramic views of Bologna and the surrounding countryside. You can’t help but see it when entering the city with the imposing church standing out as one of its iconic landmarks. It’s a great spot to escape the city while enjoying a view of the Reno River and surrounding countryside. The sanctuary itself is a baroque-style church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a popular pilgrimage site known for its beautifully detailed frescoes depicting religious scenes, sculptures, and an icon of the Virgin Mary that’s said to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist. The church is one of the oldest in the city, with construction starting in 1194 but not completed until 1765.

Inner yard of Archiginnasio of Bologna

Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio

As mentioned, Bologna, a liberal-minded and progressive city, is home to the oldest university in the western world, founded in 1088. It’s been a center of learning for centuries and it’s home to the rather intriguing Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio, a 17th-century anatomical lecture hall at the old medical school. The ceiling and wall décor were completed in 1649, but the theater was modified several times before becoming what you see today in 1736. It was entirely carved from spruce wood with intricate carvings and statues, it’s absolutely jaw-dropping. The center of the room is dominated by a marble table where fresh cadavers were once dissected by medical students and teachers. Unfortunately, the building was heavily bombed during World War II, but it was rebuilt to its former glory using its original pieces. Anyone who has an interest in medicine, history, or art will appreciate a visit here. 

The Porticos in Bologna

The Porticos

Bologna is famous for its porticos, essentially a partially enclosed walkway lined with arches and columns. As the city continued to grow, so did the number of its porticos which were built over existing walkways at a height so carts and horses could pass below. Most were built between the city’s prosperous Middle Ages and the early 1900s due to the university’s growth. Today there are nearly 25 miles of corridors in the city center alone to walk. Each has its own unique structure and style that will allow you to get to know Bologna and its history one step at a time. The most famous porticos are the aforementioned walkway that leads to the hilltop Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca and the Bonaccorsi Arch. It’s enjoyable just to stroll the porticoes, admiring the ancient architecture with unique angles, shadows and lights, columns, and frescoes that also make for numerous photo-ops. 

Canal of Reno in Piella street, Bologna

The Canals

Though few outsiders are aware, Bologna is an ancient river town with a network of over 37 miles of canals dating back to the Middle Ages. While most of the canals are now covered, there are a few that can still be seen. Consider spending an afternoon discovering them. The Finestrella (Little Window) on via Piella is a great place to start. It offers a magical view of an underground river that re-emerges in the historic center. The image to which it gives life is defined by many as “Little Venice.” Another great spot to see the canals is Via Capo di Lucca. Here, the Moline canal runs partially uncovered between the buildings. If you look closely, you can still see some Renaissance-age millers’ houses on the right. From the bridge in via Malcontenti, you can see the only remaining watering place, used for washing carts and watering animals. 

Food Tour Bologna

Food Tour

Bologna’s food scene is one of the main reasons to visit. Taking a food tour is a great way to sample a variety of offerings while learning more about the culture. There are many different options, most of which will include a visit to a coffee shop to fuel up for the experience. You might tour food shops and markets, sampling aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil while learning about some of the best local products. Many include a stop to watch fresh pasta as it’s made too. It’s typically a half-day spent eating (and drinking) your way around the city. While there are many meat-focused dishes, there are plenty of options for vegetarians. If you want to do some tasting on your own, visit the atmospheric Quadrilatero, a cluster of narrow streets off the main square filled with stalls and delis offering everything from fruits and veggies to legs of ham, pasta, and parmesan cheese.