There are so many different itineraries one could pick for getting to know the porticoes of Bologna. Here’s one I’ve put together that will give you a good idea of their history and variety. Use a map of Bologna’s historic center (available at the Bologna tourist office on Piazza Maggiore) to follow this itinerary.
A Tour of Bologna’s Porticoes
Start on Via Clavature.
The best way to understand the origins of porticoes – how they helped make additional room in existing houses by adding space that jutted out and was sustained by pillars – is to head to the 13th century Case Schiavina building on Via Clavature, at the corner with Via Drapperie, just off of Piazza Maggiore. (See photo below.)
From there, head to nearby Portico del Pavaglione, which extends from Via De’ Musei to Via Farini, flanking Via dell’Archiginnasio and Piazza Galvani. The Bolognesi love strolling under this elegant portico lined with high-end shops. It’s 139 meters long and features 30 arches. Along the way, you’ll find the Archiginnasio, the first unified seat of Bologna’s Studium (University), built in the mid-16th century. The portico owes its name to the Piazza del Pavaglione (now Piazza Galvani) where the silkworm market was held (pavajon in the Bolognese dialect means Pavilion; there was a pavilion to shelter the cocoons, when Bologna was the site of a thriving silk industry).
At the end of Portico del Pavaglione is a historic cafè of Bologna, Caffè Zanarini, where I suggest you stop for coffee or aperitivo; it’s especially nice with the warm weather when you can sit outside on Piazza Galvani.
Then turn left under the portico on Via Farini – for more luxury stores; down the portico is the entrance to Galleria Cavour, home to pricey Italian and international brands for clothing, shoes and accessories. Via Farini turns into Via Santo Stefano. The porticoes along these streets are tall and spacious, and the shops are interspersed with large doors of private homes which, when open, reveal pretty gardens and internal courtyards, often porticoed as well.
When you get to the point where Via Santo Stefano meets the ending part of Piazza Santo Stefano turn left to get on the piazza, cross it to reach Corte Isolani, a peaceful covered walkway that connects Santo Stefano to Strada Maggiore. When you reach Strada Maggiore, you’ll be right below an outstanding example of medieval portico, the one belonging to Casa Isolani. Erected around 1250, it’s supported by nine-meter-high wooden columns and, if you stand on the other side of the street, you’ll see how the third floor of the building sticks out and is supported by the columns of the portico.
Now head toward the Two Towers. When you reach them, turn right on Via Zamboni. This street is the heart of the university district and its lively portici resound with the laughter and excitement of the young students of the University of Bologna, day and night. The porticoes here guard ancient convents and Renaissance palaces, now home to university departments and libraries.
Turn left on Via Marsala until you reach the wooden portico of Palazzo Grassi (at via Marsala 12 ), one of the oldest surviving houses of Bologna and one of the few surviving examples of the medieval urban setting. The portico is one of the few to still be supported by wooden beams displaying the typical ‘crutch’ shape. (Wooden porticoes were deemed illegal after a decree in 1568 when it was ordered that all wooden porticoes be replaced with brick.)
Walk to the end of Via Marsala until you reach Via Indipendenza, one of the main arteries of the city center, connecting the train station with Piazza Maggiore; its porticoes are some of the most frequented, lined with shops and cafés, where the Bolognesi stroll up and down, especially on weekends; what we call ‘fare le vasche in via Indipendenza’, vasche being the literal translation of ‘doing laps’.
Fun facts about porticoes in Bologna:
The highest portico in Bologna is on via Altabella, where the loggia of the Archbishop’s palace reaches 10 meters.
The narrowest portico in Bologna is on Via Senzanome, a side street to Via Saragozza inside the walls: it is just 95 cm wide! Via Senzanome means ‘without name’ and it is said that they called it this way after its original name, via Sfregatette (which means ‘rubs tits’ – the Bolognesi are a playful bunch, aren’t they), was canceled because deemed too risqué.
The widest portico in Bologna is the Portico dei Servi by the basilica of S. Maria dei Servi in Strada Maggiore, designed at the end of the 14th century, in the part that flanks the church. Portico dei Servi hosts the famous Santa Lucia Christmas market every December.
The longest portico in Bologna (and probably in the world) is my favorite, the Portico di San Luca, which leads up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. Here’s my article on it. And I lead a walking tour up the Portico.
- Want to know more about the origins of porticoes in Bologna? Read my previous post, which also explains about porticoes’ candidacy to Unesco.