It was only until recently that Bologna was, for many foreign visitors, just a stop on the high-speed train between Florence and Venice. Finally though, travelers have taken notice of the lively, bon vivant capital of Emilia-Romagna and have started to make it a destination in its own right.
Below are my suggestions on how to plan one, two or three days in and around Bologna (the clickable phrases will provide more in-depth information on the cited monuments or places).
*The recommendations below do not cover everything of course. There’s a lot more to be explored, which varies depending on each visitor’s interests and traveling pace: more art, museums, walking and biking excursions for the active traveler, etc. If you want to make the most of your time in Bologna, I’d recommend hiring a private guide for a half day or full day. See my Travel Services page and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What to See in Bologna in One Day
9 am – Start at Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square, bustling with life and activity. Order espresso or cappuccino, sit at one of the cafés that surround the piazza and watch the Bolognesi go about their daily life, while taking in the historic buildings that surround the square: Palazzo D’Accursio, Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo dei Banchi, all built between the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.
9:30 am – Head inside the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna’s most important church – which was never intended to be just a church. Before you enter, observe the small sculptural masterpieces on the three portals of the façade. Inside, don’t miss the longest indoor meridian line in the world by Gian Domenico Cassini and Cappella Bolognini, which displays one of the most original depictions of Heaven and Hell.
*Entrance to the Basilica is free, but there’s a fee of 3 euros for visiting the Cappella Bolognini.
Tip: When you’re done visiting the Basilica of San Petronio, exit, go left and toward the back of the building. Here you can take an elevator up to the terrace for some gorgeous views of Bologna (3 euros fee, you will contribute to the restoration of the Basilica).
10:30 am – Go under the portico that is at the side of the Basilica (called Pavaglione; if you like shopping, there are some good designer’s stores) and reach the Archiginnasio, the first official seat of the University of Bologna. Peek into the beautiful courtyard, then go upstairs to visit the Anatomical Theater, where corpses were dissected for the first scientific studies of the human body (3 euros fee).
11:30 am – Lunch time is nearing, so it’s a good time to start strolling the ancient streets of the bustling Quadrilatero, the site of the medieval food market, where you’ll find many traditional shops and places to eat the local delicacies. Some shops you don’t want to miss are Atti, Tamburini and Salumeria Simoni.
12:30 pm – Lunch. Some of my favorite places to eat in the area include: the historic Mercato di Mezzo, recently renovated and reopened, with a number of stands offering the local specialties; Zerocinquantello and Zerocinquantino on Via Pescherie Vecchie; Laboratorio Simoni.
2 pm – You now need to work off that lunch, right? Head to the landmark ‘Two Towers’ (Due Torri) and climb the 498 steps to the top of the Torre Asinelli.
3:30 pm – Head to nearby Piazza Santo Stefano; you will pass by Palazzo della Mercanzia, where the official recipe for the filling of tortellini and the correct measure of tagliatelle (yes, not kidding) are guarded. On cozy Piazza Santo Stefano, my favorite square in Bologna, is the fascinating complex of Sette Chiese (Seven Churches), which houses a number of churches and courtyards, cloisters and passages.
5 pm – Time for a drink! Spritz is a very popular aperitivo drink, and you could sip one at the café overlooking Piazza Santo Stefano, or head back toward the Quadrilatero area, which really comes alive at this hour; also, in the vicinity of Piazza Santo Stefano, is the hip Ruggine.
6 pm – Bologna is great for shopping, and I would spend some time browsing the stores between Via Rizzoli, the Pavaglione (upscale), Galleria Cavour (upscale), Via Farini (upscale), Via Ugo Bassi and Via Indipendenza (more chain-type stores). Some recommendations of local brands: Borbonese (women’s bags), Piquadro (leather business and travel items), Furla (women’s bags), Manila Grace (women’s clothing), Giusti (tailored suits and shirts for men). *Shops close at 7:30 pm.
8 pm – Dinner. Some recommendations within the historic city center:
- Vicolo Colombina
- Osteria al 15
- Cantina Bentivoglio
- Osteria de’ Poeti
- Trattoria dal Biassanot
- I Carracci
What to See in Bologna in Two Days
Day one: as above.
9 am – Begin your day at the Museum of the History of Bologna. This is one of my favorite museums in town. It covers the entire history of Bologna from Etruscan times to the present, in an interactive and easy to digest way. It will soon launch a 3D virtual journey into medieval Bologna (begins April 8).
Depending on how much you love history, the visit could take from a couple of hours to the entire morning.
Alternatives for interesting museums in Bologna:
Pinacoteca Nazionale: Bologna’s main art gallery displays paintings from artists of the caliber of Giotto, Raphael, the Carracci and Guido Reni (Bologna’s most famous painters), Tintoretto and Titian.
Museo Civico Archeologico: The Archeological Museum provides an interesting insight into the city’s Etruscan past, when Bologna was known as Felsina, as well as a general overview of the local history, with objects and artifacts from prehistoric and Roman times.
Museo Civico Medievale: Housed in the Palazzo Ghisilardi-Fava, the Medieval Museum is the best place to relive the history of the city in its heyday, the Middle Ages. Highlights include the funerary monuments dedicated to the professors of the University of Bologna, the oldest of the Western world, and the frescoes by the Carracci in the adjacent building, Palazzo Fava.
12:30/1 pm – Lunch. If you’ve been at the Museum of the History of Bologna, Sfoglia Rina, on Via Castiglione, is a handy – and tasty – option for fresh, hand-made pasta.
2 pm – Walk up to the Basilica of San Luca by way of the longest portico in world (3,8 km and 666 arcades). You need to make your way to the Arco del Meloncello, which you can reach by taking bus n. 20 from the city center.
If you love walking, another nice hike is Trail 904, managed by the Italian Alpine Club (CAI). It begins at Porta San Mamolo, and ends at the Church of San Michele di Gaibola, deep in the Bolognese hills, passing the beautiful park of Villa Ghigi as well as historic and religious sites, such as the sanctuary of the Madonna del Monte, and the Eremo di Ronzano, a hermitage place. Follow the ‘CAI’ white and red signs.
*If you like views, Piazzale San Michele in Bosco has one of the best vistas of Bologna (see top photo above).
6 pm – Back in the city center for a well-deserved aperitivo! Some recommendations:
- Caffè Zanarini, an institution.
- Mercato di Mezzo
- Nu Lounge
- Altro and/or Banco 32 at Mercato delle Erbe
- Boa Vista
8 pm – Dinner. See suggestions in Day One.
What to See in Bologna in Three Days
Day One and Two: as above.
Day three: Time to get creative! For me, a third day could be dedicated to exploring the surroundings of Bologna or other towns in the region. Bologna is very well connected through public transportation. You could opt for a picturesque borgo closer to Bologna, such as Dozza or Monteveglio and the surrounding Regional Park of the Abbey of Monteveglio, which you can explore on foot.
Or you could opt for one of Emilia-Romagna’s art cities: Modena (25 minutes), home to Unesco-designated Piazza Grande with the Cathedral and the annexed bell tower Ghirlandina; Parma (55 minutes), filled with artistic masterpieces, a pleasant destination with a tranquil and sophisticated atmosphere reminding of a small European capital; Ferrara (30 minutes), capital of the Renaissance in Emilia-Romagna, with the Este Castle and the Diamanti Palace; Ravenna (one hour and 20 minutes), the former capital of the Western Roman empire, with eight Unesco World Heritage sites representing some of the most important examples of early Christian art and architecture in Europe. These cities can all be easily reached for a one-day excursion by regional train.
And, if you have decided to make Bologna your base (good thinking!), you can even get to some famous neighbors for the day: by high-speed train, you can reach Florence in 37 minutes, Venice in an hour and half, Milan in an hour.