Ten things to do for free in Bologna

When I decided to move out to go to college, Bologna was my obvious choice, is it the best University in the Country. Quite sadly, it is also one of the most underrated destinations when visiting Italy as a tourist. Known as La Dotta (the Erudite), La Grassa (the Fat) and la Rossa (the Red), Bologna is a fascinating city, buzzing with its creative energy and old architecture. After three years living here as a broke-ass student, I have some tips on how to enjoy this amazing city without spending a cent!  

Photo by Bogdan Dada on Unsplash

The Seven Secrets

With a history going back to 3000 BC, Bologna counts on many legends. However, to truly get a hold of the city and its spirit, there are seven secrets to discover which are a must (and can all be done for free!). It is quite easy to organize an itinerary and the whole scavenger hunt won’t take more than half a day. Just google “Seven Secrets of Bologna” and tons of article will appear.

Attend a lesson

Founded in 1088, the Alma Mater Studiorum is the oldest university of the Western Society; it hosts more than sixty-five thousand students and it ranks among the best in the world. With such a reputation, attending a lesson is a must. If you know a bit of Italian and are into arts, I advise you to go to the Arts Department in Santa Cristina, which was a historical nunnery. Otherwise, the University teaches a good number of subjects in English and you can easily choose from their website.

MEUS – Student Museum

I discovered this little treasure almost by accident; it was a sunny Friday morning in June and I was looking for a library in the city center. Obviously, with finals behind the corner, everything was full. So I wandered around via Zamboni when I found the European Student Museum right in front of my faculty. Holding more than 400 objects, this museum will walk you through the life of a University student, from 1088 to the modern day.

Have a picnic at Giardini Margherita

This one of my favorite spots in spring, although it is quite far from the center, it is almost impossible to get lost. It is the biggest park in the city and was opened in 1879 and the only place in the city where you can find a river (well, almost, if you already discovered the Seven secrets!). In warm days, it is buzzing with students having picnics and blasting music at all volume.

Climb up to San Luca

This is the most challenging thing you will find in this guide, however, it is also the most rewarding. Starting right in the city center, via Saragozza will lead you to the San Luca Sanctuary. The route, which is almost four kilometers long, is covered by the longest portico in the world. It is also possible to join the Dominican monks who engage in the pilgrimage every third Sunday of the month at 7:30 am. Once you reach the peak, the view of the city is one of the best I have ever seen.

Listening to some Lucio Dalla music

Bologna is also famous in the music panorama: it was the UNESCO City of Music in 2018 and is where Italian Hip Hop and most indie bands are born. However, its most emblematic musician is the songwriter Lucio Dalla. His songs gave voice to the aspirations and frustrations of a postwar generation seeking societal change. It is possible to see his house in Via D’Azeglio (right behind Piazza Maggiore) and I advise to listen to some of his music before coming to Bologna.

Christmas Markets

If you happen to be in Bologna around Christmas time, one of my favorite things to do in this period is to go for the Christmas Markets in Strada Maggiore. They date back to Napoleon’s conquest of Italy and are ideal if you are looking for some unique Christmas Gifts!

Il Cinema Ritrovato

On the other hand, if you are in Bologna during Summer, a must stop is the open air cinema in Piazza Maggiore. Hosted by the Cineteca of Bologna, this festival takes place from mid-June to mid-August every year. From old movies to new releases with English subtitles, it is a great opportunity to rest in a hot summer night. Here’s the website with all the information

Biografilm Festival

Again, if you find yourself in Bologna at the beginning of June another must is the Biografilm Festival in the Cavaticcio park. With movies, talks, theatre, and concerts the Biografilm become the heart of summer nights in Bologna since 2004. Beware, however! Your bags will be searched at the entrance so it won’t be possible for you to sneak in any food or beverage.

Sette Chiese and Piazza Santo Stefano

Last, but not least, my own favorite spot in the city: Piazza Santo Stefano is just a few blocks away from the center. I fell in love with it at first sight, I don’t know if it’s because it hosts the best Gelateria in the city, or because of the grass that stubbornly grows between the cobblestone. Thing is, stopping here for a beer at twilight is my way to treat myself when I’m particularly stressed. Another lesser known secret of this square lies in the church you can see in the back. Known by locals as Sette Chiese, literally Seven Churches, the building dates back to 430AC. Apparently, the city’s patron, Saint Petronio, wanted the construction of the building to be divided into seven churches of different styles to make a symbolic reenactment of the Passion of the Christ. In fact, the ancient name would be: ‘Sacra Hierusalem’.

Bonus spot: Piazza San Francesco

It is a Friday afternoon and you are wandering around the center, suddenly you start to realize that every twenty-something seem to be going in the same direction, guided by a mysterious force. What is it? They are reaching Piazza San Francesco! In an alley of via del Pratello, between artisanal breweries and cheap kebab stores, you’ll find around a thousand people sitting in the middle of a square, drinking cheap beer and playing the guitar. Why are they not using the perfectly fine benches all around? Honestly, I have no idea. But getting there, being sore for sitting on the pavement and losing your voice while singing along to some traditional Italian song it’s a rite of passage. If you are going to Bologna, you need to go there.

Enrica Salurso

21 and Italian. I’m bilingual since 2000, and always loved and dreamed about traveling. I visited Poland, England, Switzerland, France and Germany and at 18 packed my stuff and moved in the North of Italy. I lived in Bologna for three years, studied in the University, and worked as a volunteer and dreamed of being an expat myself. This year I was able to realize this dream: I’m living for six months in Argentina (and currently writing from Buenos Aires!)