Bologna is a self-assured city with a medieval history and a young edgy vibe. Linger in moody wine bars, stroll the porticoes, and discover the very best things to do in Bologna.

By: Paul | Last Updated: 21 Nov 2023 | Jump to Comments & Questions

Down Arrow

Bologna is a city that doesn’t feel the need to dress up for tourists; it’s happy just the way it is.

Worn around the edges and slightly scuffed, it’s a contrast from the regular Italian tourist centers.

Born of its own character, Bologna is a place that locals know better than tourists. And it feels like that’s the way it’s always going to be.

Bologna has the oldest university in the world with 85,000 students. So it’s old enough to be charming and young enough to be exciting.

We have rounded up our favorite things to do in Bologna along with helpful tips for visiting. Get the most out of the beating heart of Italy with our guide to the red city.

The best things to do in Bologna Italy including top attractions, best bars and restaurants, hidden gems plus useful visitor information and map.

IN THIS GUIDE

THINGS TO DO IN BOLOGNA


WHAT TO DO | MAP | WHERE TO STAY | TIPS | TOURS | GETTING AROUND | WHEN TO VISIT | HOW LONG |. GETTING THERE

1 – ASINELLI TOWER

Asinelli & Garisenda are the two main towers of Bologna. They were built to signal the prestige of the families who commissioned them; a trend similar to nearby rival Siena.

These medieval showpieces have watched over Bologna since the early 12th century.

As the highest of Bologna’s 24 towers, Asinelli has 500 steps to reach the viewing platform at the top. But it’s well worth it. The old wooden staircase provides tantalizing glimpses of the red-tinged city through openings.

From the top, the views of Bologna are stunning. Terracotta roofs stretch out in all directions, bouncing golden light back at you.

It’s an enchanting view and an unmissable thing to do in Bologna.

October 2023 Update – Asinelli Tower is currently closed due to structural concerns at Garisenda Tower.

red roofs from the asinelli tower in bologna
BOLOGNA FROM ASSINELLI TOWER

2 – SAN PETRONIO CHURCH

Bologna still feels like a work in progress and Basilica di San Petronio is a fine example of the city’s personality.

Construction began in 1388. After a series of complicated amendments, Pope Pius IV deemed it a pipedream and diverted funds to the university instead.

As a result, San Petronio remains unfinished to this day. The bottom half is decorated in marble, and the top half is simple brick.

While the inside is plain and not especially a highlight in Bologna, it does have a few interesting features.

A meridian line was paved into the isle by the astronomer Giovanni Cassini in 1655. With phenomenal precision, the line allowed Cassini to calculate the tilt of the earth’s axis and the timing of the equinoxes.

San Petronio also contains the oldest organ in the world still capable of belting out a tune. It was built in 1470.

San Petronio Church in Bologna is half marble half brick
SAN PETRONIO CHURCH

3 – PIAZZA MAGGIORE

Piazza Maggiore is the main square in Bologna and the heart of the historic town.

Dating back to 1200, it’s one of the first squares in Italy built after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Bolognese come here to eat ice cream, listen to concerts and scoff pizza in the charming streets that feed Piazza Maggiore.

It’s a great place to hang out and explore the mishmash of architectural styles that have developed over the years around the square.

4 – NEPTUNE’S FOUNTAIN

Fontana del Nettuno is an impressive 16th-century fountain in Piazza del Nettuno, next to Piazza Maggiore.

It was crafted between 1563 and 1566 and is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture.

The central figure depicts Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, standing on a pedestal surrounded by sea creatures, cherubs, and water deities.

The trident held by the statue of Neptune above the trickling waters was used by the Maserati brothers as the emblem for their cars.    

5 – THE QUADRILATERO

The Quadrilatero is the medieval market area of Bologna with ancient alleyways.

It stretches from Piazza Maggiore to the two towers. There is great shopping in the Quadrilatero with everything from fruit stalls to high-end fashion, fish markets, and bakeries.

The area comes alive in the evening with both locals and tourists elbowing in for a perfect position amongst the hustle and bustle.

Grab a table at Osteria del Sole – one of the oldest inns in Bologna. They provide the wine and you bring your own food.

If you don’t want to self-cater, pull up at one of the many places packed into this tiny laneway.

6 – TRY THE BEST BARS IN BOLOGNA

Bologna is known as ‘la dotta, la grassa, la rossa’ or ‘the learned, the fat, the red’.

The fat owing to the profusion of excellent produce coming from this gastronomic region of Italy. The nearby town of Parma is famous for prosciutto di Parma. Modena for its balsamic vinegar. The entire Emilia Romagna region for Parmigiano Reggiano.

The food in Bologna is often considered some of the best in Italy. Here are some great bars to enjoy a glass of wine with a few specialties.

Enoteca Storica Faccioli // Open since 1924, they know their stuff and it’s a great place to find an excellent (and cheap) wine. The flatbreads are excellent.

La Prosciutteria // A rustic, welcoming restaurant where tourists and students mingle on old fruit crates. They have a great selection of cold cuts and sandwiches.

Medulla Vini // With in organic wines from Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia, Medulla Vini has a cosy position under the porticoes. It’s a great place to enjoy quality wine while watching the world go by.

Caffè Rubik // A bohemian bar in the university district with a pop-art vibe set under one of the city’s ancient porticoes. They have the best amaro list in Bologna – the liquor made from herbs and roots.

Enoteca Italiana // A more traditional wine shop in a large space. They have several tables dotted among the wine shelves offering a vast global selection.

7 – BASILICA DI SANTO STEFANO

The complex of Basilica di Santo Stefano dates back to the 5th century and at one time comprised 7 churches. Today, only 4 remain in an interlocking series of ancient architectural elements.

It’s an incredible place to visit in Bologna and something we highly recommend doing.

Entry is via the 13th-century Chiesa del Crocifisso, a barren building with high domes and arches in worn brick.

A door to the left at the back leads into the remarkable Church of the Santo Sepolcro. This is an evocative space, designed to look like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Its strange octagonal walls rise to a starred dome and a dramatic crucifixion hangs over the altar.

Next is the pleasingly simple and unadorned 11th-century Santi Vitale e Agricola. Bare stone walls are laced with shards of light from small high windows. It’s a step back into another time.

After the basilica have a wine or a coffee in Piazza Santo Stefano. It’s a little overpriced but the triangular space leading towards the old church is lovely compensation.

  • Hours – 6 pm to 7:30 pm (Mon) / 9:30 am – 12:30 pm & 2:30 pm – 7 pm (Tue-Sun).
  • Cost – It’s free to enter but donations are appreciated.

8 – TEATRO ANATOMICO OF THE ARCHIGINNASIO

The Teatro Anatomico is an ornate wooden lecture theatre.

The medical school in Bologna conducted public dissections of human bodies here. A marble table at the centre is surrounded by tiered seating. Apollo (the God of medicine) peers down from sunken panels in the ceiling.

Carved wooden statues of famous physicians adorn the walls. The most notable is a local doctor who was the first to attempt plastic surgery. Pick him out by the nose he is holding in his hand.

The main highlight at the Teatro Anatomico is the two wax statues of skinned human bodies holding the university chair. 

Don’t miss the colorful frescoes in the Palace of the Archiginnasio – the entrance to the theatre.

  • Hours – 10 am to 6 pm (Mon-Sat)
  • Cost – €3 (€3.50 if purchased in advance online)
  • Ticketsonline reservations are recommended for Saturdays

9 – DINE OUT AROUND MERCATO DELLE ERBE

Mercato delle Erbe is a traditional covered market with fruit stalls, cheeses, and Italian cured meats. It’s a good place to potter during the day but the entire area comes alive at night.

Here are some of the restaurants we loved.

Rush // This corner bar has a great position overlooking the hubbub surrounding the market. Moody music wafts into the street and the drinks are well-priced.

Oltre // For an upmarket dinner head to Oltre. The well-renowned kitchen does trendy Italian cooking respecting tradition and modern techniques.

Ahimé // Just around the corner from Oltre, the innovative Ahimé has a minimalist design and a regularly changing menu. It’s great for a iversion from traditional Italian cooking.

Tigelleria Tigellino // The perfect venue for relaxed handheld street food. Try lassic Italian sandwiches, a diverse selection of cheese, and great values wines.

051 Mercato // Classic Italian dishes in tables set out along the street. It’s one of the best places in Bologna to try the classic Tortellini in broth.

10 – PINOTECA NAZIONALE DI BOLOGNA

The National Art Gallery of Bologna was born from the need to rehouse works of art that were suppressed by either the church or Napoleon.

Today, the 13th to 18th-century art follows the progression from Byzantine to Renaissance styles. The collection is very manageable and it’s a wonderful thing to do in Bologna.

The highlights for us were Christ and the Good Thief by Titian, The Visitation by Tintoretto, and Madonna of the Sparrow by Guercino.

But the collection also includes works by Raphael and Reni.

The gallery is well laid out with information panels in English and a handy map to help navigate the space.

  • Hours – 9 am to 2 pm (Tue-Wed) / 9 am to 7 pm (Thu-Sun) / closed Mondays
  • Cost – €8 (€9 from June to September)
  • Free entry – 1st Sunday of every month & Nov 4.

11 – CHIESA DELLA MADONNA DI GALLIERA

The Church of the Madonna di Galliera is something of a hidden gem in Bologna. From the outside, the concrete façade gives no clues as to the ornate details waiting on the inside.

Originally founded in 1304, the interiors were refurbished in the 17th century to an opulent effect. Painted frescoes adorn the cupola ceiling with artwork hanging from intricately carved niches.

Cascading light streams from high windows create an ethereal effect in the beautiful space.

After exploring the church, grab a coffee at Caffè Letterario – Sebastiano Caridi just across the road. hey have amazing handcrafted chocolates and delicious pastries.

  • Church Hours – 7:30 am to 12 pm / 4 pm to 6:30 pm (Mon-Fri)
  • Cost – Admission is free.
  • Location – via Manzoni, 3.

12 – THE PORTICOES OF VIA DI SAN LUCA

In the early 12th century, the wealthy of Bologna expanded their upper floors to increase living space. Soon, columns were required to support them, creating the signature landmark of Bologna.

Today, there are around 38 kilometres of porticoes in the city which have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Portico di San Luca is the longest in the world (and the city) and walking it is a wonderful thing to do in Bologna. It starts at Porta Saragozza and continues for 4 kilometers up a hill to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, passing over 600 vaults.

The first part runs along via Saragozza before crossing the road on a beautifully ornate bridge.

The section after the bridge is the most picturesque section of the porticoes of Bologna.

From here it’s a hefty climb to reach the Church of San Luca. There are nice views from its panorama terrace, but we would not recommend spending the €5 to go up the dome.

A less exhausting option is to get a taxi to the top and walk back downhill. 

13 – APERITIVO ON VIA DEL PRATELLO

There are plenty of places to enjoy the delightful tradition of aperitivo in Bologna. But our favorite spot was the cool strip along the lively Via del Pratello.

Aperitivo takes place between 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm, where you’ll get some free snacks with your drink.

There are plenty of places to try – just walk along the street and stop at one that takes your fancy.

For dinner, we highly recommend Il Rovescio for the decidedly good pizza (especially for vegetarians).

There are also street food joints, lively bars, and traditional trattorias and osterias.

It’s a great part of Bologna, that feels much more local.

Via del Pratello, Bologna

14 – BASILICA DI SAN FRANCESCO

The Basilica di San Francesco is a lovely under-visited church.

It was built in a variety of different styles including Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance.

A solidarity market is held in the church courtyard under a quadrangle of porticoes. You can find a selection of well-worn goods on sale. The proceeds support the church’s various charities.

The flea market takes place between May and June. The San Francesco Market is in September and October. The Christmas market starts on the last Sunday of November and runs until early January.

If the markets coincide with your trip, looking for bargains under the towering spire is a great thing to do in Bologna.

  • Hours – 8.30 am to 10.00 am / 10.30 am to 11.45 / 1.30 am to 17.30 pm.
  • Cost – Admission is free.

15 – TAKE A FOOD TOUR IN BOLOGNA

Food is such an integral part of Bologna’s culture, that it’s hard not to be moved by the local’s passion for food. While the world knows the city for Bolognese, there are plenty of other great dishes to try.

Tortellini, the small stuffed pasta parcels are a must. Served in soup as Tortellini in brodo, it’s a popular winter warmer.

Balazoni is the bright green filled pasta flavored with spinach. Gramigna all salsiccia is a delicious hollow pasta tube served with sausage in a creamy sauce.

  • Bologna Food Walking Tour – Watch fresh pasta being made from scratch then sample the goods on this well-rated tour.
  • Full-Day Food Tour – This tour visits family-run producers in the area and includes a family-style lunch.

16 – DAY TRIPS FROM BOLOGNA

Bologna’s location in the Emilia-Romagna region makes it the perfect gateway to explore northern Italy. There are several great day trips from Bologna from the nearby rolling hills of Tuscany to Milan.

Here are some suggestions.

  • Parma – Visit the home of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham in this beautiful Emilia-Romagna city. (1 hour by train from Bologna Centrale to Parma)
  • Modena – Famous for balsamic vinegar and the home of Ferrari, Modena has a beautifully preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site old town. (25 minutes by train from Bologna Centrale to Modena)
  • Florence – Enjoy the remarkable things to do in Florence on a day trip from Bologna. (40 minutes by train from Bologna Centrale to Firenze Santa Maria Novella Train Station)
  • Milan – Enjoy the fashion capital of Italy overflowing with cultural landmarks and world-class museums. (1 hour, 15 minutes by train from Bologna Centrale to Milano Centrale)
  • Venice – Stroll the canals and admire the grand architecture of Venice on a day trip from Bologna. (1.5 hours by train from Bologna Centrale to Venezia Santa Lucia)

OTHER THINGS TO DO IN BOLOGNA

Bologna is a lovely city with a delightfully local vibe, which we thoroughly enjoyed. But not all the attractions of the Red City could make it onto our list. If you have more time, here are some other things to do in Bologna.

CANALE DI RENO

Bologna has a network of canals that were created in the Middle Ages for the transport of goods and water. Most our now covered and only a few sections are visible. Canale di Reno is the best stretch, but you only need a couple of minutes to grab a quick photo.

MUSEO DELLA STORIA DI BOLOGNA

The History of Bologna Museum is a whistle-stop tour through Bologna’s backstory. There is no English on the information boards, but you can pick up an audio guide to help explain what you are looking at.

There is very little to actually see in the museum (except for the information boards) so it’s a bit like reading the Wikipedia entry for Bologna.

MUSEI DI PALAZZO POGGI

There are several rooms making up the museums at Palazzo Poggi. The most interesting is the Human Anatomy Museum which has a collection of waxwork fetuses. There is also a Natural History Museum, a Museum of Ships and Geographical Maps. They could all be interesting; however, none are set up well for non-Italian speakers.

MUSEO INTERNAZIONALE E BIBLIOTECA DELLA MUSICA

The International Music Museum and Library has an interesting collection of old instruments. It’s also located in a lavishly decorated house. Their key item is the original score of Rossini’s Barber of Seville in Room 7 complete with the old leather binding.

MAMBO

Like any good modern art museum, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna or MAMbo, wrestles with social commentary and political power. It’s also a little indecipherable. If you do decide to visit, the History of the 21st Century by Italian artist, Renato Guttuso is a highlight.

WHERE IS BOLOGNA, ITALY?

Bologna is situated in northern Italy, serving as the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. Geographically, it’s positioned between the Po River and the Apennine Mountains.

All the must-visit places in Bologna that we mentioned in this guide are on the below map.

How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.  


WHERE TO STAY IN BOLOGNA

Bologna is quite a large city of around 400,000 people, but almost all the sights are in a compact area in the centre of town. If you stay central, you can easily explore this golden gem on foot.

Here’s our pick of the best places to stay to enjoy the city.

GOOD VALUE B&B

TORTE & LINI

This very clean and modern redecorated B&B in an old resident’s block is a short walk from Bologna Central and 20 minutes to the main square. It overlooks the train tracks, but double glazing does its job.


CHIC APARTMENTS

L’8 BOUTIQUE DESIGN APARTMENTS

Super cool apartments lovingly decorated in a buzzy part of town, only ten minutes from the central square. Some rooms come with a living room, others with a terrace.


OUR PICK

QUIRKY & RETRO

ART HOTEL COMMERCIANTI

On a quiet lane just off the main square, this quirky hotel makes a great base for exploring the sights. Set in the former town hall, individually styled rooms mix original features with modern additions. Book the limited parking in advance.


PALACE DIGS

GRAND HOTEL MAJESTIC GIÀ BAGLIONI

For a splurge, this elegant hotel in an 18th-century palace is a good choice. Sumptuously furnished with rare antiques and gorgeous furniture, some of the rooms come with their own frescoes.


Towers of Bologna between the golden buildings in early morning sunlight

IS THE BOLOGNA WELCOME CARD WORTH IT?

The Bologna Welcome Card provides access to various museums, the Asinelli Tower, plus a guided walking tour for €25 per person.

You can book it online before you arrive, or pick it up from the Bologna Tourist Office in Piazza Maggiore.

If you visited the Bologna attractions we listed in this guide, then the Welcome Card is not worth it.

However, if you stay for a bit longer and visit the History Museum, and the International Music Museum and do the walking tour, it will pay for itself.

BOLOGNA ATTRACTIONS OPENING HOURS

Pick up a guide with the opening times for all Bologna’s attractions from the Tourist Information Office in Piazza Maggiore when you first arrive as hours vary considerably.

Generally, most museums are closed on Mondays and most churches shut over lunchtime for two to three hours.

BOLOGNA TOURS

Bologna is a compact city and a walking tour is a great way to get your bearings. It’s also the perfect place to get to know the food scene a bit better with a local guide. Here are some Bologna tours we recommend.

GETTING AROUND BOLOGNA

Bologna is a very compact city and walking everywhere is achievable for most people. Try to stay as centrally as possible and you don’t need a taxi at all. The one exception might be the walk along the Portico di San Luca which is 4 kilometres.

View from Asinelli Tower, Bologna

BEST TIME TO GO TO BOLOGNA

The best time to visit Bologna is during the shoulder seasons of April to June and mid-September to November.

Over these times, the temperatures are generally comfortable, there are fewer tourists. However, the population swells by about 100,000 students but this gives it a fun and buzzing atmosphere.

As with most European destinations, summer is the peak season when both the temperature and visitor numbers are high.

In winter it can be wet and cold with temperatures dropping to near freezing.

Most importantly, keep your eye out for Bologna’s many trade fairs when prices for accommodation can double.

We visited during the last day of the Ceramics Trade Fair in late September and the accommodation prices were through the roof.

HOW LONG DO YOU NEED IN BOLOGNA?

Most of the best things to do in Bologna can be seen in 2 days. 

However much of the attraction is savoring the energy of the city so it’s worth taking your time if you have it.

We recommend staying 3 days in Bologna. Two days to see the sights and one for a day trip of your choice.

HOW TO GET TO BOLOGNA

Bologna has its own international airport (Airport G.Marconi) just a short distance from town.

Taxis to the center of the city cost €25 to €30 and take only 20 minutes.

There is also a train service from the airport to the city called the Marconi Express. The journey takes 7 minutes with one stop at Lazzaretto, before terminating at Bologna Centrale. Tickets cost €8.70.

BY TRAIN

Bologna Centrale is the major train station in the area with direct lines to many other Italian cities in the area. If you are doing a tour of Italy, it’s very easy to connect Bologna with your other destinations.

TRAINS TO BOLOGNA


FLORENCE TO BOLOGNA

From 34 minutes | 76 services per day

MILAN TO BOLOGNA

from 1 hour, 4 minutes | 71 services per day

VENICE TO BOLOGNA

from 1 hour, 15 minutes |45 services per day

ROME TO BOLOGNA

from 2 hours | 93 services per day

View of the roof terracotta tops top of Bologna from the tower

MORE ITALY GUIDES

paul mark 1
ANYWHERE WE ROAM IS
READER-SUPPORTED

When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission at no extra cost to you.

Thanks for your support.

You can also buy us a coffee, and follow us on Instagram or Facebook.

- Paul & Mark.