Canal in Old Town Bologna Italy

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Bologna is the historic capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. It is also home to the oldest university in the world. 

Unless you are a serious foodie, Bologna may not be on your radar for a long weekend away. That’s a mistake. On our recent visit, we found it to be the perfect off-the-beaten-track destination for a romantic long weekend away with a twist. 

Amazing Things to Do in Bologna, Italy

View of the Bologna skyline from Prendiparte Tower. Photo by Tom Hall
View of the Bologna skyline from Prendiparte Tower. Photo by Tom Hall

The Famous Skyline of Bologna, Italy

Bologna is famous for its towers that used to dot the skyline like prodigious brick-clad trees. These were often built by wealthy merchant families and served as watchtowers in defense of the city from marauding outsiders. Back then, size really did matter – the higher the tower, the greater your wealth and influence. 

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Now the remaining towers, numbering only 22 of the original 180, are like tourist flypaper. The tallest and most famous is the Asinelli Tower. Standing at over 97 meters tall, it’s a real slog climbing to the top, but you are blessed with eye-wateringly beautiful views over the city. Be sure to book your timeslot days in advance to avoid disappointment. 

If you want to get the same experience without the hassle, we found the Prendiparte Tower – a stone’s throw from the Asinelli Tower – to be a great option with no queues or pre-booking. You can even stay in the tower if you’re looking for a unique, if not slightly rustic, stay!

San Luca Monastery in Bologna, Italy
San Luca Monastery in Bologna, Italy. Photo by Tom Hall

A Visit to San Luca Monastery

No trip to Bologna would be complete without a visit to the San Luca Monastery, sitting handsomely atop a hillside overlooking La Rossa (a nickname for Bologna, literally “the Red City”, based on its red rooftops).

It’s a serious walk to get up there, and the best option (from an ease and sightseeing perspective) is to catch the San Luca Express, a small road train that runs from the Piazza Maggiore roughly every 30 minutes. 

When you arrive, be sure to pay to climb to the top of the cupola for stunning views across the city and the green verdant rolling valleys beyond.

Whilst you can catch the San Luca Express back down to Piazza Maggiore, we enjoyed walking back down under the porticos (covered walkways, of which there are over 40km in the city) snooping in courtyards and observing daily life as we went.

A Quaint Street Art Bicycle Tour

For a slightly different perspective of Bologna, we loved the small-group half-day street art bicycle tour run by Travelhoo. Since the 1980s, Bologna has been a street art mecca for local and international artists alike. It is home to the annual CHEAP Street Art Festival

During the guided tour, which ended up being just the two of us, we got fully off the beaten track visiting little-known suburbs to view stunning street art bedecked buildings of all shapes and sizes, each telling their own uniquely fascinating story.

Imagine Street in Bologna, Italy
Imagine Street in Bologna, Italy. Photo by Tom Hall

The Many Car Factories of Bologna

For petrolheads, you have the Lamborghini, Ferrari and Bugatti factories and the Imola Grand Prix circuit within a stone’s throw of the city. This makes for a fun day out, particularly if you fancy yourself as the next Max Verstappen on the track.

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Fantastic Photo Ops in Bologna, Italy

For Instagrammers amongst you, fear not – the city is full of options. By day, wander the narrow food market streets adjoining Piazza Maggiore or seek out the Finestrella alla Piccola Venezia, a small window looking out over one of the last remaining canals in Bologna which, as the name suggests, evokes shades of Venice. 

By night, take a stroll down Via Massimo d’Azeglio, just off Piazza Maggiore, which currently has the lyrics of “Imagine” by John Lennon spelled out on illuminated strings of lights straddling the width of the street.

A spacious bedroom in Design Club Bologna
A spacious bedroom in Design Club Bologna, located very conveniently. Photo by Tom Hall

Where to Stay in Bologna, Italy

As you would expect, you are not short of accommodation options catering to all budgets within the city. We stayed in the Design Club Bologna, a serviced aparthotel a 10-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore. We splashed out on one of the rooms with a hot tub in, which was a welcome treat after a full day pounding the pavements.

For a slightly more budget option, try the Hotel Maggiore.

If you are on an extra special trip away, try the lavish I Portici Hotel, which is also home to one of only three restaurants in the city with the distinction of holding one Michelin Star. 

A course at the Michelin star restaurant, I Portici
A course at the Michelin star restaurant, I Portici. Photo by Tom Hall

What to Eat in Bologna, Italy

The Emilia-Romagna region is blessed with some of the best-known produce that Italy has to offer… think Balsamic Vinegar and Parmesan and you get the idea…and has recently been voted as the best foodie destination in Italy. 

Lambrusco in Osterio del Sole
Lambrusco in Osterio del Sole. Photo by Tom Hall

Half-Day Walking Food Tour

We did a half-day walking food tour on our first morning, which is always top of our list when we explore a new city as it allows you to see some of the lesser-known sights and sample the local delicacies. 

During the tour, we crunched through pistachio cream-filled croissants, sampled sweet award-winning Balsamic Vinegar, swirled through plates of spaghetti al ragu (the true spaghetti Bolognese), grazed on cured meat platters washed down with sparkling chilled Lambrusco in Osteria Del Sole (a fantastic ‘bring your own’ restaurant that has been open since 1465!), topped off with a gluttonous cup of creamy gelato. 

Tortelloni served in a broth at Mercato Delle Erbe
Tortelloni served in a broth at Mercato Delle Erbe. Photo by Tom Hall

Great Lunch Choices

For a light bite at lunch, there are a plethora of small cafes and restaurants to choose from, including in the Quadrilatero area just to the east of Piazza Maggiore. This is also home to a number of food halls, such as the Mercato Delle Erbe

If you get the chance, make sure you sample tortelloni, small hand-crafted pasta parcels of meaty magnificence, served traditionally in a broth. 

For a sweet treat, the macarons at Stringhetto were excellent as a much-needed mid-afternoon snack.

A Grand Michelin Star Experience

For a special treat, we went to the I Portici Restaurant, one of three restaurants holding one Michelin Star in Bologna. There, you have the choice of a 5, 7 or 9-course tasting menu, showcasing the finest ingredients that Emilia-Romagna has to offer from land and sea. 

As with any Michelin-star dining experience, it’s as much about the theatre and service as it is the food – just don’t do it on the same day as the food tour to ensure you can do the meal justice!

A Spot for Local Delicacies

On our final night, we ate at the Fior di Sale restaurant, just around the corner from the Prendiparte Tower. This had a really relaxed vibe with exposed brickwork, ambient lighting, an array of plants and interesting trinkets, topped off with a menu filled with delicious local delicacies. 

Aperol spritz at Piazza Maggiore
Aperol spritz at Piazza Maggiore. Photo by Tom Hall

Where to Drink in Bologna

If we’re talking people-watching, whether it’s with a morning cappuccino or an early evening Aperol, head to one of the many cafes and bars dotted around the Piazza Maggiore – be sure to be there for Happy Hour from 5 – 7 pm.

If you are on a real budget or only fancy a light bite, we found that almost everywhere serves a small complimentary snack (ranging from crisps or nuts to bruschetta) with your drink.

If cocktails are your thing, then try Vanilla & Comics or Bizarre, which is so tiny that it only has 12 seats! 

For a vine-to-glass experience, take a short trip out of the city to visit one of the many vineyards dotting the Emilia-Romagna countryside, such as Orsi or Corte d’Aibo, which is a vineyard/restaurant/agrotourism hotel all thrown into one.

Cottage boutique shop on Via degli Orefic
Cottage boutique shop on Via degli Orefici. Photo by Tom Hall

Where to Shop in Bologna

We were surprised at just how many beautiful independent boutique stores there were in the city, ranging from pre-loved to couture and everything in between. Heather particularly enjoyed the Instagrammable “Cottage” (on Via degli Orefici) with its range of beautiful yet inexpensive women’s clothing.

There are more deli shops than you can possibly hope to visit. What better gift for the foodie in your life than a small bottle of award-winning Balsamic Vinegar from Giuseppe Giusti, the oldest producer in the world, or a wedge of aged parmesan?

FAQ Travel to Bologna, Italy

What Currency Do They Use in Bologna? Euro.

What Language Do They Speak? Italian, but most people can speak English.

How Much Should I Tip? Tipping is customary and anywhere between 5% – 10% would be the expected tip.

What’s the Time Difference? 1 hour ahead of the UK.

What’s the Average Flight Time from the UK? 2 – 4 hours.

How Should I Get Around? We found that the best way to get around was to walk or hire a bicycle (e-bikes or ‘normal’ pedal power). 

If you want to get out into the beautiful Emilia-Romagna countryside surrounding Bologna, what better way to see it than doing a vintage Vespa tour with Travelhoo, who will also throw in a picnic for a small fee if you book ahead?

View from San Luca Monastery
View from San Luca Monastery. Photo by Tom Hall

What’s the Best View?

For sweeping views over the city, you really must visit the San Luca Monastery.

For a close-up eye-wateringly beautiful view over the city’s tiled red rooftops, get your steps in with a climb up one of the towers, such as the Asinelli or Prendiparte.

We found the Bottega Portici to be a great place for people watching a degree removed from street level – sit out on the first-floor balcony with an Aperol or glass of Lambrusco and you’ll easily while away an hour.

Insider Tip:

The monorail from the airport (Marconi Express ) is inexpensive (€11 single) and takes you directly to the main station in less than 8 minutes. The station is then only a 15-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s beating heart.

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Author Bio: Tom Hall is a freelance travel journalist based in Jersey in the Channel Islands. His passion is getting off the beaten track to explore places that are misunderstood or not on the average traveler’s radar. He loves immersing himself in the local culture so that he can provide readers with an informed narrative about the local quirks of everyday life.

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