Rome is eternal, Venice is impressive, and Florence artistic, but currently they are all too touristic. However, there is an often neglected Italian city that is neither so famous nor so visited, but frank, charming, delicious and so worth seeing – Bologna. In Italy, it is known as La Dotta, La Grassa, La Rossa (the learned, the fat, the red) and after only a few hours spent in the administrative capital of the region Emilia Romana you will be falling in love with it and planning your next trip.
How to get there?
The low fare airlines made traveling so much more affordable these last years and this is completely valid for getting to Bologna from anywhere in Europe. The airport is just outside of the city center and you can either get a bus (to the train station) or a taxi (if you get one from the official stand, the fare is fixed at 30 euro). From anywhere within the country, you can get a train. TrenItalia is punctual and convenient and if you want to even save some money, you can get on a regional train that has more stops but is a lot cheaper. The rent a car option is also a good idea, but you better know that you need to book one in advance, as almost always there are no cars available to rent there.
Where to stay?
There are plenty of hotels in the city center – the traditional, small, family ones are not very fancy, but tidy and neat, while the few of the world hotel chains have their luxurious branches here. However, if you are looking for something less formal, you can book an airbnb. Most probably, it is going to be cheaper and you will have the chance to chat and get some tips from a local as well as some coffee and cookies left in the flat. The good thing about Bologna is that almost everywhere you can get by foot, so as long as you book something in the center, you are good.
What to see?
Via dell’Indipendenza starts at the train station and goes by Parco della Montagnola to the main square, Piazza Maggiore. This street is full of shops and is almost always busy. The first thing you will see, if you are getting into the city center from here, is Fontana di Nettuno, the masterpiece bronze figure of Neptune created in the 16th century. Right after that, you will get to the piazza with many notable buildings, but one that instantly catches the eye, the San Petronio Basilica. When the construction of the dome was started, the plan was ambitious and this church should have been larger than St Peter in Rome. However, this never happened and the basilica built in two styles is now the largest built with bricks.
Towers of Bologna
The history says that once Bologna was full of towers – they were a symbol of wealth and supremacy. Now, unfortunately, there are only two left, but merely one of them (Torre degli Asinelli) standing with its full grace. For 5 euro you can get on the top of the tower and glance at the entire city. However, you need to be aware that there is no lift or escalator, but a tiny and dark staircase of 498 steps, so it is going to be a workout.
Archiginnasio of Bologna
One of the things Bologna is famous with is its university – one of the oldest in the world – and that is why it is known as la dotta. The once main building of the institution now houses the Municipal Library as well as the Anatomical Theatre. While the first is with limited access, you can visit the theatre. The wooden benches, the dissection table, the chair of the teacher, and the statue of Hippocrates are all in wonderful condition. The entire room is impressive and inspiring. The yard of the Archiginnaio is also so magnificent that it’s often a background for fashion photoshoots.
Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
While most of the places worth visiting are within the city center, this church is situated on the top of the hill right above Bologna. Between 1931 and 1976, there was a cable car going to the top of the hill, which is abandoned now, but you can certainly still get there through the 3.8 km roofed arcade path, though it may be a struggle if you are not very fit, as you will be going uphill. However, even if you decide to take the shortcut and go to the basilica with a cab, better walk down the arcade on the way back. When it was built, a parade brought an icon to the church. Now it is believed that you need to walk through the arcade so that your soul heals. Eitherways, it is impressive and something you can hardly see anywhere else.
What to do?
Walk around the old market Quadrilatero
In the heart of the city is the old market Quadrilatero that doesn’t really look like a market anymore. Its streets are tiny and so are its restaurants and shops. But the devil is in the details. Forget about the map, the churches, and the squares for a couple of hours and just walk around. One color will for sure features – the red. It all started with the roofs of the old town, but now more and more houses and buildings are painted like this. Moreover, the left leanings of the politicians in the city also contribute to the nickname of the city – la rossa. The plenty of young people brought to Bologna by the university make it lively and the nightlife active. There are many bookstores and libraries. The town is always busy, but the tourists are a minority. Thus, you can feel the real Italian spirit. You can see how the local people live and celebrate. So no matter day or night, do not spend too much time in the hotel, go out!
Stop for a lunch or dinner in a traditional trattoria
I bet that no matter where you live, you have at least once tried Spaghetti Bolognese. Well, there are many legends and, of course, quarrels whose the original recipe is, but one thing is for sure – they come from Bologna and you need to try them. Ragu bolognese is the tomato and meat sauce enhanced with vegetables and spices used all over the world. Here, when you order pasta this style, you just order ragu. And there is surely a reason for Bologna to be known as the culinary capital of Italy or la grassa. There is no diet, gluten- or dairy-free menu anywhere here. But after you’ve tried the original ragu, you need to taste the other typical Italian dishes, because they are also so delicious.
Get an espresso in the morning and a Spritz in the evening
While the lunches and the dinners in Italy always last long, local people cannot be bothered with spending too much time having their coffee. The espresso is always short and drank while standing at one of the bars. Italians prefer to have their cappuccinos in the morning, so if you order one later in the afternoon, you will get a few shocked stares and a comment for the crime (of course, in Italian). Whether you are actually a coffee lover or not here doesn’t really matter. In Italy, coffee is religion and you need to try it. Later at night, you better stop for an Aperol Spritz – a refreshing and remarkable cocktail made of Prosecco, Aperol, soda and citrus juice – which again originate here and is later brought all over the world.
Plan your next trip to Bologna
There is something addictive in this city – in the fact that it is simultaneously far too regular and far too extraordinary, far too artistic and far too normal. It is a city of contrasts that could not be easily described, but a place that could be your comfort and your anchor.