When it comes to the existential question: should I visit / stay in Bologna or Florence? – well, as for all existential questions, there is no definitive answer. The correct answer in my opinion is, it depends on your interests, travel personality, how much you like or despise crowds, and on the length of your stay.
Here are some points that I would suggest you ponder if you’re unsure whether to visit and stay in Bologna or Florence. Keep in mind that you can easily see both on the same trip (unless it’s a quick weekend break, then I’d recommend to stick to one place) because the two cities are only 35 minutes apart via the Frecciarossa or Italo high-speed trains.
Should I Visit Bologna or Florence? What to Consider
Art & Architecture
Whenever I get off the train at Santa Maria Novella in Florence and start walking towards Piazza della Signoria or the Duomo, and even though I’ve been to Florence numerous times, I am amazed at the beauty of its buildings and streets every single time. I suppose everyone has the same reaction of awe.
Not so when you get off the train in Bologna; the first impression is not one of awe! Bologna has a more modern, sometimes ‘rough’ look to it, especially around the train station. The city was heavily bombarded during World War II, which caused the destruction of many historical neighborhoods – even before then, between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, new regulatory plans approved in the name of ‘modernization’ destroyed entire medieval sections, including towers (did you know there were three more towers next to the famous Due Torri of Bologna?). It does get beautiful though as you move away from the train station.
As for the art, Florence has the Uffizi. It’s hard to beat that. However, just because ‘it’s the Uffizi’ doesn’t mean you have to see it. If you don’t have much interest in art and the only reason why you book a ticket is because you want to take a selfie in front of Botticelli’s Venus, do yourself and others (i.e. those truly interested in seeing works of art) a favor and don’t contribute to the overcrowding.
Then there’s the David by Michelangelo (we have something by Michelangelo in Bologna too!), the incredible Duomo complex, and many more artistic and architectural beauties. Florence is known as the ‘cradle of the Renaissance’ for good reason.
Bologna has more modest museums for sure, but they usually have no lines and low-cost entry tickets. They’re interesting to visit because they help you better understand the history of the city. Incidentally, the Pinacoteca has one of the most important collections of 16th century art in Italy. Oh, and we have a gelato museum! It’s little gems versus the big stars.
Conclusion: If you’re a true lover of art and architecture and your main reason for visiting is to enjoy that, then I think you should opt for Florence.
Both cities have excellent cuisines. Bologna has become known as the city of food in recent years. And there’s no doubt we have plenty of wonderful food: all that handmade rich egg pasta, like tortellini, tagliatelle and lasagne, the cured meats, the cheeses, etc. Florence and Tuscany also have some great dishes – pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, bistecca alla fiorentina, crostini, roasted meats, etc. Plus the olive oil and the wines – which Bologna and Emilia-Romagna have too by the way, they’re just not as well-known (well, ok, Brunello beats Lambrusco).
I think it’s easier to find traditional, authentic trattorias and restaurants in Bologna’s city center because the locals still live and go out to eat in the city center; whereas I think in Florence it would be more difficult to stumble upon a great place by chance as many are geared to tourists – the (in)famous ‘menu turistico’ – so it’s less spontaneous and requires more insider’s knowledge, and a lot of research. Even local, good-quality eating establishments in Florence, once they get discovered by major tourist guides and travel websites, get ‘ruined,’ if not just for the endless lines you’re gonna have to wait in. (I’m not one to stand in line to eat, but maybe you don’t mind.)
Conclusion: if you’re a foodie and your main reason for visiting is to sample the local cuisine, then I’d choose Bologna over Florence.
Florence gets approximately 12 million tourists a year – Bologna gets three millions (pre-pandemic). For all the talk on travel magazines about how travel is going to change after/because of the pandemic, with people favoring lesser-known destinations and open-air/countryside/small villages, I think that cities like Florence will always attract many, many tourists.
Now, don’t think that Bologna is a sleepy town. On the contrary; it is lively and quite crowded too, but mostly with locals who love to go out and about in the animated historic center.
Also, consider Bologna has a big university and lots of students from all over Italy and the world, which contribute to quite an energetic vibe and many cultural events.
Conclusion: in Bologna, you don’t feel overwhelmed by the throngs of tourists (for now) and it’s easier to get a glimpse at the daily local life.
Both Bologna and Florence have beautiful surroundings and plenty of opportunities for day trips to the countryside and to picturesque villages. Again, it mostly comes down to the question of how interested you are in going off the beaten path and discovering places untouched by mass tourism where you get the chance to interact with the locals. The Chianti countryside, San Gimignano, Siena and the Val d’Orcia are absolutely beautiful, but it does feel a little trite – and the huge buses unloading day trippers don’t help. (Incidentally, consider Mugello if you’re looking for a little-known area near Florence; I wrote about it for Italy Magazine.)
The countryside and mountains near Bologna on the other hand are still ignored by the masses (except perhaps for Dozza, which somehow has gotten very famous).
Bologna is a town where you can still find yourself next to an elderly Bolognese lady ordering mortadella at the historic deli in the heart of the city center. As a Bologna tour guide, Anna Brini, once told me:
“Bologna is much more real than many other Italian cities. Visitors can see the daily traffic of people going into the city center to work, they can see people who actually live in the city center going about their business, walking and carrying their grocery bags. People have a hunger for authenticity these days, and they can find it in Bologna.”
I think that may be more difficult to see or even grasp in Florence, especially if you visit for only a few days, as most do. So if you’re looking for authenticity, opt for Bologna.
Now, obviously these are my opinions (totally biased haha), based on my personal experience of the two cities. I think that even in the most popular destinations you can still find places overlooked by the masses – but it requires effort and commitment to a certain way of traveling.
Ask yourself: what experience of Italy do I want to have?
You don’t have to see a place just because all the travel guides or all your friends tell you to. Do some research and figure out for yourself if it’s a place that may interest you. Otherwise pick some place else. Florence doesn’t need more uninterested tourists.
And never underestimate the importance of a licensed local guide, who is instrumental in helping you uncover the place you visit. Contact me if you’d like to discover Bologna on foot with me: email@example.com.