These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Nourishment for the body and soul
A marvellous medieval centre, piles of perfect pasta and a thriving university, which is Europe’s oldest, dating from 1088. Bologna ticks all the boxes for a memorable stay combining good food with cultural curiosities. There are treasures to be discovered include a peppering of medieval towers, miles of porticoes and monumental statues with intriguing stories attached.
But it is without a doubt the city’s role as gastronomical capital that has really brought it to the fore in recent years. Food is taken seriously here: more than 30 official recipes – including much-loved dishes such as tortellini, lasagne and tagliatelle – are even registered at the Chamber of Commerce and it’s the local foodie culture that makes the strongest impact, with colourful markets, historic bars and atmospheric restaurants serving traditional cuisine. The city is ideally placed and well connected for out-of-town forays too; after a day away you’ll be glad to return to the authenticity, friendliness and genuine flavours of Bologna.
48 hours in . . . Bologna
Start your day in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s beating heart. First of all, pop into the tourist office under the arches of Palazzo del Podestà to invest in a Bologna Welcome card and book an afternoon time slot for the Asinelli tower. Try out the whispering corners under the palazzo’s vault; there’s a particularly powerful view of the Neptune fountain from here too. Photos are de rigeur by the monumental fountain, a 16th-century symbol of papal power by Flemish sculptor Giambologna.
Back on the main piazza, Palazzo d’Accursio is the next stop. Home to the town hall and its art collection, the frescoed interior and clock tower are as big a draw as the artworks. By midday (11am GMT) be sure to make it to the San Petronio basilica which dominates the piazza, to see the phenomenal effect of a spot of sunlight crossing the floor meridian which, at 67m long, is the world’s biggest.
From Piazza Maggiore take Via Clavature to enter the grid of streets that form the Quadrilatero food market, bliss for foodies with its colourful medley of sausages, cheeses, fruit and veg, and deep yellow fresh pasta. Buy lunch supplies at the Simoni deli (Via Drapperie 5/2a) and 150 year-old Paolo Atti bakery (Via Drapperie 6) and take them to the hugely atmospheric Osteria del Sole (00 39 347 968 0171; osteriadelsole.it) which dates from 1465. Order wine at the bar, take a seat at one of the large wooden tables and tuck into your goodies.
After lunch, explore the so-called Seven Churches (actually four) of Santo Stefano; passing through the succession of doors to find such different architectural styles is a rather Alice in Wonderland-like experience. Keep an eye on the time for your pre-booked slot to climb the 498 steps of the Asinelli tower for a bird’s eye view over the city.
Leaving the tower behind you head down Via Rizzoli to reach the centre’s other main food market, the covered Mercato delle Erbe. Open since 1910, when the stalls, previously in Piazza Maggiore, were moved here, the market has a great choice of street food, such as fried tortellini, if you’re feeling peckish.
The pavement cafés clustered round the back entrance to the market are the place to be on warm evenings; try the cocktails at Bizarre, they live up to the bar’s name. From here, stroll down cobbled Via del Pratello to Il Rovescio (00 39 051 52 35 45; rovescio.it) for a dinner of organic tagliatelle or sourdough pizza in the appealing farmhouse-style interior.
Stretch your legs and energise with an early morning walk: follow the world’s longest portico (about three miles) out of the centre via the Porta Saragozza city gate – one of 10 built into the medieval city walls that have since been destroyed – and up the steep route to the San Luca basilica. The views across the city, the football stadium just below and the hills beyond are spectacular, even more so from the cupola. There is a land train (Piazza Maggiore; cityredbus.com/en/san-luca-express) if time or energy don’t suffice.
On the way back into town, stop for lunch at multi-talented chef Cesare Maretti’s latest project: E’ Cesare (00 39 392 19 61 053; cesaremarretti.com/e-cesare) where you can buy his own-made crockery and flour as well as enjoy exceptional, market-fresh dishes at low prices.
Spend the rest of the afternoon delving into the lesser-known history and culture of the city, first at the grand, art-filled San Domenico basilica which has the tomb of the Dominican order’s founder adorned with works by Michelangelo, then at Palazzo Pepoli back in the centre, where thematic, multisensorial displays bring to life aspects of the city you’d never have imagined existed.
From the museum make your way past the Two Towers and through the alleys of the former ghetto, where the 16th-century Jewish community was obliged to live, to reach Medulla. Relax over a glass of biodynamic wine before proceeding to the cosy, family-run trattoria Serghei just round the corner for dinner. Try stuffed courgettes with meatballs, one of Bologna’s less famous, though typical dishes.
When you leave the restaurant, stop at the window in the wall just beyond for a glimpse over one of the city’s underground canals, then carry on to the university district and end the evening with a dessert (such as tiramisù) or wine from the impressive selection while watching live jazz at Cantina Bentivoglio.
Where to stay . . .
The 18th-century palazzo which houses Grand Hotel Majestic già Baglioni was originally built as a seminary by a locally-born pope-to-be (Benedict XIV), and transformed into a hotel over 100 years ago. It attracts visiting royalty, politicians and celebrities, and interiors live up to expectations with splendid antique furniture, sculptures, paintings and prints, along with fresh flowers, rich fabrics and marble floors. Each of the 106 rooms is different.
Via Indipendenza 8; 00 39 051 225445
Al Cappello Rosso captures the essence of today’s Bologna: an appealing combination of traditional and contemporary with a warm and friendly atmosphere. The hotel (and restaurant) was already up and running by 1379, its first official mention, and guests receive a guide on its fascinating history. Most of the 33 bedrooms are thematic. The JFK room, for example, is one of several created by set designer Mauro Tinti, and has a red, white and blue theme with a star-studded ceiling, photographs and a reproduction of the American president’s rocking chair and Into the Garden was painted by a cartoonist to resemble a charming black-and-white garden overlooking rolling hills.
Via de’ Fusari, 9; 00 39 051 261891
The cheerful, hospitable nature of the Stegani family, who have run Hotel Touring for decades, comes out in the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the hotel. The overall look is smart and contemporary. The lounge has a selection of Marconi-themed photographs from a local gallery; the walls at reception are hung with works of contemporary art and even the ground-floor loo is worth a look for its Fornasetti décor. The view from the roof terrace is a work of art in itself, and a summertime aperitivo at sunset is an experience to be remembered. A three-seater whirlpool tub in a secluded corner of the terrace can also be reserved in summer.
Via de’ Mattuiani ½; 00 39 051 584305
What to bring home . . .
For a real taste of Bologna when you get back home it has to be a foodie souvenir. The mortadella and other spectacular sausages at Simoni (Via Drapperie 5/2a; salumeriasimoni.it) can be vacuum-packed.
At La Tarlatana (Via Canonica 1b; latarlatana.it) in the former Jewish ghetto, Daniela Collina uses traditional methods and materials such as acquaforte and copper plates, to create beautiful prints, many with a local theme.
When to go . . .
While Bologna is beautiful all year round and the pavement porticoes shelter pedestrians from the elements, spring and autumn are undoubtedly the best times to visit, when temperatures are moderate and pleasant. Winters can be cold but the festive decorations and seasonal markets are attractive during the run-up to Christmas. Avoid the height of summer, especially August, when it gets hot and humid and many bars, restaurants and even some shops, close for a couple of weeks. When booking your trip try to avoid coinciding with major trade fairs (such as Cosmoprof and Cersaie) as hotel rooms are scarce and expensive.
Know before you go . . .
Tourist board information: Bologna Welcome, Piazza Maggiore 1e; 00 39 051 658 3111; bolognawelcome.com/en
Emergency fire and ambulance: 112 (general emergency); 115 (fire); 118 (ambulance)
Emergency police: 112 / 113
British Consulate: Via San Paolo 7, Milan; 00 39 02 723 001; gov.uk/world/organisations/british-embassy-rome
Flight time: About two hours from London
Currency: Euros €
International dialling code: 00 39 051
Local laws and etiquette
Bologna does not have any particular safety issues and it’s a pretty relaxed city, though covered shoulders are respectful in the churches.
While tipping is not expected and most restaurants have a service charge, staff will be pleased if you decide to tip (around 10 per cent) for particularly good service. Evening meals are not usually served before about 8pm though some restaurants in the centre now offer all-day dining.
The main sights of the centre are within easy walking distance of each other but a day pass or 10-ride bus ticket might be useful if you are based out of town. Bus services are excellent and frequent during the day and there are hourly night buses (tper.it). The Aerobus (aerobus.bo.it) links the airport with the station every 11 minutes.
Taxis are usually plentiful at the airport and station though less easy to find elsewhere. Try the taxi rank in Piazza Malpighi or call one of the city’s two firms: CAT (00 39 051 45 90; taxibologna.it/en/taxi-bologna-en) and Cotabo (00 39 051 37 27 27; cotabo.it).
If you’re driving be careful to avoid the limited traffic zone (ZTL) unless you have an arrangement with a hotel or private garage. When parking kerbside, make sure the car is facing in the direction of traffic.
Sarah has lived in and around Bologna for over 20 years and is married to a local. She can often be found strolling through the markets and extolling the virtues of the local food and (especially) wine culture.