A First Timer's Guide to Bologna: The Very Best of What to See, Eat, & Do

La Dotta, La Grassa e La Rossa

 

Bologna is quite possibly the most underrated city I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. To first time visitors, its Italian nickname “La Dotta, la Grassa e la Rossa” may seem curious, but it sums up the very best of what this central Italian city has to offer. In short... "The Educated, the Fat, and the Red"! 

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“La Dotta” honors the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the Western world. “La Grassa” refers to Bologna's renowned cuisine, some of the best Italian food in the world. And “la Rossa” for the stunning red buildings and rooftops made of clay. 

 

Bologna lies in between two of Italy's most visited cities, Venice and Florence, and roughly an hour from each by train. And yet it remains relatively unknown by tourists on their quest to see Italy's most iconic landmarks, all in 10 days. This is precisely the reason you should go!  Our first time to Bologna in 2016 was during the high-season month of September (May is the other heavy travel month) and I was struck by how uncrowded it felt. Sure I saw tourists, but the locals intermingled with us so seamlessly we never really noticed, which gave Bologna a very local, authentic feel. 


Getting Around

 

The easiest way to get around Bologna is on foot, and it's such a pleasure to do. Over 24 miles of covered medieval porticos - beautiful architectural structures worthy of seeing on their own - line the streets around the Centro Storico (historic center) and invite casual strolling amidst the Bolognese people on their way to work or enjoying an afternoon cappuccino or gelato. Walking is a great way to see the city. We felt very safe and secure walking with our camera equipment out in the open, window browsing and sightseeing. If you need a break from walking, Bologna also has a convenient bus you can hop on to get around. Purchase a Citypass at the Infopoint in Piazza Maggiore that’ll give you multiple trips around town. Bikes and Vespas also look fun, though as a tourist, I'd recommend staying out of direct traffic on your first trip.

 

Bologna is a working class city with a laidback Italian lifestyle: breakfast starts the day off early and lingers until late morning. Lunch begins around 1pm; Aperitivo starts between 6 and 7pm; then dinner commences at 8. La Grassa! If you’re unfamiliar with the "Aperitivo" - the Italian Happy Hour - make time to go each day. Local bars offer food with your libations, either for free or just a few euros. You may even opt to skip dinner altogether. 


What to Eat in Bologna and Emilia Romagna

 

Italian food is popular around the world, but amongst Italians, Bologna and Emilia Romagna is known for producing and creating some of the most delicious food in all of Italy! There are so many foods to try the first time you're here. Here are 5 of my favorites, but check out more in my 10 Quintessential Must-Try Bologna Foods

Parmiggiano reggiano, Prosciutto and Mortadella

Pasta “alla ragú”, the classic Bolognese

The Trifecta - Parmiggiano reggiano, Prosciutto and Mortadella. Emilia Romagna is an area with excellent cold meats and cheeses. Parmiggiano reggiano and prosciutto is made right here in the region under strict DOP guidelines, and mortadella is the famous garlicky concoction that’s like bologna on steroids, in the best way possible! 

Wine – The “terroir” (soil) of Emilia Romagna is perfect for producing red Lambrusco wine and Pinoletto, a slightly fizzy (frizzante) white wine. These are just some of the traditional wines made here, and you’ll enjoy getting to know them all! 

Pasta “alla ragú” – the traditional Bolognese meat sauce, known in Italian as “alla ragú”. Your idea of Pasta with Meat Sauce doesn’t stand a chance!

Afternoon lunch of tortellini en brodo

Tortellini en brodo – Tortellini is the typical pasta of Bologna, little meat- or cheese-filled pasta purses, and the traditional way of enjoying them is en brodo, in broth. Simple and delicious!

Lasagna - I honestly hated (yes, hated) lasagna before I came to Bologna! I grew up in an Italian American family, but really dislike the American version of Lasagna with its dry baked noodles, never enough sauce, and gritty ricotta cheese. Bolognese lasagna is unique, made with spinach noodles (traditional) and creamy bescamel sauce. Please try it. Your life may be changed forever for lasagna!

Balsamic di Modena - Finally, if you taste nothing else in Bologna, be sure and try authentic Balsamic di Modena, one of the regions' most renowned foods. So much time and care goes into the making of balsamic, it needed an entire photo tour, and its production makes for one of the most popular food tours in Bologna (see the Italian Days Food Experience below). Suffice it to say it's the farthest thing from vinegar that you'll ever taste. Delicious on everything - especially cheese and gelato - authentic balsamic is a foodie's liquid gold!


3 Must-Try Restaurants

 

There are so many great places to eat in Bologna, from local family restaurants to high-end gastronomic dining experiences. You really can't go wrong! Here are 3 of my favorites places you can visit all in one day - starting your day with coffee drinks at Aroma Cafe, lunch/dinner at Trattoria Serghei, and ending with gelato at Cremeria Santo Stefano!


9 First Time Things to See and Do in Bologna

 

1.  Take a Bologna Food Tour

 

A dedicated food tour is a great way to get to the heart of Bologna, and we took two of them on our first trip. Taste Bologna is a fantastic walking food tour given by a local Bolognese guide that winds you through the historic city noshing on some of the best foods Bologna is known for. Book the “Classic Food Tour”.

Our second Bologna food tour with Italian Days took us out into the rural hills of Emilia Romagna for in-depth factory tours and tastings of parmigiano reggiano cheese, traditional balsamic di Modena, and delicious prosciutto di Modena. Book their "Food Experience"! Both tours gave us such a great overview of Bologna inside and out, and we recommend them highly.

 

2.  Stroll the Porticos at Night

 

Bologna is a city that comes alive at night, with its quiet streets on the outskirts leading to lively piazzas. The miles of porticos are fun to stroll during the day, but be sure and stay out long into the evening. Throughout the historic center, street lights illuminate every nook and cranny with glowing shades of orange and gold, and cast intriguing shadows that stir the imagination. If you're looking for gorgeous photo ops, bring your tripod. Bologna is stunning at night! 

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Walk around and you'll see practically everyone in the city is outside - socializing until late, dining even later, or arm in arm on a quiet evening stroll. 

 

3.  Switch Gears in Bologna's Motor Valley

 

Did you know that Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ducati, Pagani, and Maserati are all based right here outside Bologna in the Motor Valley? A pretty awesome find for motorheads - sorry, performance motor enthusiasts! Each of these brands welcomes visitors for factory and/or museum tours, and even invite you to test drive some of them for a price (and most assuredly a valid drivers license). Combine it with a winery visit and tasting, and I'd say that's a great day. Visit the Tourist Office on Piazza Maggiore for help in arranging a tour, or check out their Motor Tours at bolognawelcome.com. They can combine many of them in one tour!  

 

4.  Hang Out on the Piazza Maggiore

 

The heart of Bologna and the center of action is the Piazza Maggiore. The huge piazza is a public space facing centuries old medieval buildings on all sides including the main cathedral, Basilica di San Petronio, and City Hall. Grab a morning espresso and hang out with the crowds. On the northeast corner of the Piazza Maggiore you'll find the Fountain of Neptune, one of the symbols of the city, and the Biblioteca Salaborsa, the Public Library.

 

Be sure and see the very moving Sacrario dei Partigiani, a memorial to the partisans of the second world war on the wall outside the entrance, the same wall where hundreds of locals were executed by the Nazis during the occupation.

 

5.  Shop The Quadrilatero

 

Bologna’s oldest medieval market is alive and well with food vendors selling everything from fresh baked breads, cold meats and cheeses, and hand made tortellini, to the freshest seafood catch of the day. In between, local bars and restaurants are filled with patrons socializing and dining al fresco.

 

Shopping for a picnic lunch is a great way to spend the afternoon. Grab some meat, cheese, bread, and wine, and head for the nearest piazza or better yet, L'Osteria del Sole.

 

6.  Have a Drink in The Oldest Pub in the World

 

If the Oldest Tavern in the World strikes a chord in you History Hounds and Culture Vultures, you'll find it right off the Quadrilatero. Dating to 1465, L'Osteria del Sole oozes so much history, that if these walls could talk you'd surely hear Galileo and Da Vinci in interesting conversation over a birra!  This is truly a journey back through time, where they serve no food around the community tables (bring your own), the birra and vino are plentiful, and its all about the company you keep.

 

7.  Climb the Two Towers

 

At the end of Via Rizzoli, you will find the two towers - Torri degli Asinelli and Torri Garisenda - the striking symbols of the city. During medieval times, rich families demonstrated their power by constructing their own tower within the city, all striving to be the tallest and most grand. At one time, there were as many as 125 towers and the city still has around 25 towers today. These two towers are the tallest ones that still remain from that day, and the Asinelli Tower is the only one available to climb. For 3€, you'll have a great experience and the best possible view of Bologna!

 

8.  Find La Finestrela

 

This hidden little gem may be somewhat overrated, but it's worth the hunt to find it, getting off the main drags to quieter streets. Bologna continues to surprise you around every corner - another reason to discover it on foot. Around Via Piella, you'll find this sweet little window - la Finestrela alla piccola Venezia (the window to the small Venice). Aside from the unexpected and picturesque view, you'll also find some of Bologna's best restaurants too. 


9.  Parco Giardini Margherita

 

If you're longing for some green space, Parco Giardini Margherita is the largest and most popular urban park in the city. Walk south on any through-street from the historic center, cross the highway and enter the gorgeous wrought iron gates to the Park. There are multiple walking or running paths that cover the 26 hectares, paved paths around a small lake, and several cafes. During warmer months, one of the most famous places to relax with food and wine is The Greenhouse, a bar set among several restored flower greenhouses. Most nights, you'll enjoy live music, poetry readings, and lectures.

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First Timers Guide to Bologna, Italy

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