The best of Bologna in one weekend

Food, history, and how to see the city without its traffic

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Donald Strachan

Donald Strachan 
HomeAway travel expert

Aerial view of Bologna at sunset. Italy The capital of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region is a city with three personalities. As La Grassa, “the fat”, it is the country's foodie hotspot, and the home of several dishes we think of as “classic Italian” cuisine.

As La Dotta, “the learned”, it hosts Europe's (maybe the world's) oldest university. It was founded around 1088, and tens of thousands of students bring a youthful fizz to Bologna's medieval streets and squares.

Its third nickname, La Rossa refers both to the ubiquitous red brick, and to Bologna's politics. Despite its wealth, the city is a traditional heartland for socialism, one reason why it was a target for neo-fascist terrorists in the deadliest terrorist attack of Italy's Anni di Piombo (“Years of Lead”). On August 2, 1980, a bomb exploded in the train station, killing 85 people. The station clock remains stuck at 10.25am, the precise time the bomb exploded.

It's a big city—Italy's seventh-largest—but the historic centre is just the right size to see in a long weekend.

Donald Strachan's verdict Bologna in a Weekend

 Walking. Each weekend and public holiday since May 2012, the city has closed a large part of its centre to traffic. Motorized transport is barred from the inverted-T formed by Via Indipendenza, Via Ugo Bassi and Via Rizzoli—between 8am and 10pm only pedestrians and cyclists are allowed. This gives Bologna a special atmosphere at weekends.

 Eating. So much classic Bolognese cooking finds its way onto menus at “Italian” restaurants around the world. Filled pastas like tortellini and tortelloni , served with sauces or in brodo (floating in a clear broth), are originally from Emilia-Romagna; lasagne likewise. You can celebrate the city's food traditions with affordable, classic Bolognese cooking at Trattoria Tony, where the menu has not changed in 45 years. Cremeria Funivia churns the best ice cream in town, including signature flavour Cavour, made with shortbread and Amalfi lemons.

Top places to see in Bologna


Piazza Maggiore Piazza Maggiore

This monumental piazza is Bologna's main civic space, dominated by secular buildings like the Palazzo Comunale and medieval Palazzo Re Enzo, where the son of Emperor Frederick II was imprisoned for 25 years. The vast city cathedral, the Basilca di San Petronio, is also here. In adjacent Piazza Nettuno is a fountain so risqué that no bishop would have signed off on it: Giambologna's 1565 Fontana del Nettuno is an erotic portrayal of the sea god and his retinue, including reclining nereids around the base of the pedestal.

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Quadrilatero Quadrilatero

This narrow grid of streets just east of Piazza Maggiore was first laid out by the Romans. It later became the city's old market, and still has a rep for top-quality produce. Delis like Ceccarelli and La Baita, both on Via Pescherie Vecchie, sell local produce like mortadella (local ground and rolled pork sausage), balsamic vinegar from nearby Modena, and Emilia-Romagna's most famous export, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

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The leaning towers The leaning towers

Pisa has just one... but Bologna can do better than that. Built in the 12th century, the Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda were erected to show off the wealth and prestige of local noble families. A pair of big brick boasts, in other words. You can climb the Torre Asinelli—which leans half a metre more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. From 100 metres up, you can see for miles over Bologna's red-brick medieval centre and modern suburbs. There used to be around 100 towers spiking the skyline of medieval Bologna, but many were cut down over the centuries for safety reasons—the much shorter Torre Garisenda among them.

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Santo Stefano Santo Stefano

This is the kind of church that captivates even people who just “don't do churches” on a weekend break—you don't need to be religious to appreciate the magic of some of the oldest religious buildings in Bologna, dating to the 5th century, and with bits from the 10th still standing. Private chapels with faded frescoes surround the Cortile di Pilato; a Romanesque cloister dates to the 10th century. The complex is still a working monastery, and the friars make and sell their own liqueurs, jam, and even limoncello.

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Shopping Shopping

Food culture permeates the city well beyond the Quadrilatero, and there's plenty more to buy in Bologna than just food. The Bolognese are a fashionable bunch, and a lucky few even have the euros to spend in the Galleria Cavour. Inside the covered precinct are Italian fashions by Gucci, Prada, Armani and plenty more. For those on a regular budget, there's high-street shops and young fashions along Via Indipendenza. A Friday and Saturday general and bric-a-brac market is held on Piazza VIII Agosto (known as La Piazzola). Under the arcades of Via de' Musei, Libreria Nanni is a delightfully old-fashioned bookshop that also sells old prints of the city—a perfect souvenir.

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Piazza Maggiore by Ki Zel
Quadrilatero by avilasal
The Leaning Towers by David Barrie
Santo Stefano by Jessica Spengler


Accommodation in Bologna

Studio in the middle of nature with panoramic views of the valley Santerno.

This apartment is located about 480m above sea level: the air is fresh in fall and spring, pleasant in summer. From here you can enjoy a splendid view over the valley of Santerno. Not far away are the beautiful badlands and the Vena del Gesso, ve...

Studio in the middle of nature with panoramic views of the valley of Santerno.

This apartment is located about 480m above sea level: the air is fresh in fall and spring, pleasant in summer. From here you can enjoy a splendid view over the valley of Santerno. Not far away are the beautiful badlands and the Vena del Gesso, ve...

Quiet Apartment in Historic Center

Flat on the floor 5 to 900 m from Piazza Maggiore, in a quiet and excellent transport pubblic. The apartment includes a fully equipped kitchen, 1 dining room with 32'' LCD TV and sofa, a spacious bedroom with 1 double bed and one single, bathroo...

A Few Steps from The Old Town, Very Nice Apartment!

Very nice apartment of 60 sqm on the 4 floor, fully air-conditioned, consists of a spacious room with LCD TV 32 "and DVD, kitchen (with fridge, microwave,oven, electric stove , pans, dishes and glasses, salt and up, coffee), 1 bathroom with large ...

Beautiful Loft in Downtown

Situated in the historical building, special 80 sqm loft on the ground floor with high ceilings (6 meters) in the heart of the historic center of Bologna, a 5 minute walk from Piazza Maggiore and 20 minutes walk from Central Station. The living...
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