If you love Italy (who doesn’t?) and have a weak spot for Italian food (who hasn’t?), then Bologna should be on your bucket list. This historic city that is home to Europe’s oldest university is not only a feast for the eyes but also for the taste buds. In fact, Bologna is often dubbed the culinary capital of Italy. For a reason, because it’s at the heart of a region that produces some of Italy’s most famous foods. What’s more, without the crowds of other Italian cities, Bologna offers a truly authentic Italian experience. And now that the city is no more than a quick 1 hour train journey away from Milan or Florence, there is no excuse not to visit to mouth-watering place!
Ever since my Italian boyfriend introduced me to Bologna a few years ago I’ve been crazy about this city, so much so that I keep on coming back. This is what my ideal Bologna weekend break looks like:
1. Off to a great start: caffè & cornetto
2. Arches, squares, palaces and churches
3. Eat like a local
4. Climb up the Due Torri
5. (Food) shopping
6. Aperitivo time
7. Still your sugar craving
8. Party with the students
9. Burn off the calories and hike to the San Luca Sanctuary
10. Continue your foodie tour in Modena and Parma
- Off to a great start: caffè & cornetto
No other nation masters the skill of making great coffee as well as the Italians. In Bologna, the best place to experience the art of coffee making is – in my opinion – Caffè Terzi. This elegant yet unassuming Italian coffee bar offers an almost never-ending list of coffee varieties, from a standard shot of espresso to flavoured coffees, cold coffees, coffees with creams, alcohol, chocolate shavings… you name it, Terzi has it. And everything is made right in front of your eyes (which is why the bar is the best place to have your coffee!). Once you’ve visited this place you’ll understand why they don’t have any Starbucks here (yet)…
Get a cornetto (= croissant) with your coffee for the full Italian breakfast experience.
- Arches, squares, palaces and churches
Undoubtedly Bologna’s most distinct feature are its arches, or portici. The city has no fewer than 40 kilometers of arches and it’s hard to actually find a street in the city centre that doesn’t have them. As Bologna started to grow with the foundation of the university (which, established in 1088, is the oldest in Europe), arches were built – often illegally – to create additional housing space on upper floor levels. Now, the portici provide a perfect space to hide from the sun or rain, or socialise with others whilst enjoying a drink.
Like any other Italian city, social life in Bologna revolves around its many piazzas. The main one is the Piazza Maggiore, which is connected to the Piazza del Nettuno. Together, these 2 squares are surrounded by some of the city’s most important monuments, including the (never finished) San Petronio basilica, the Neptune fountain and several palazzi.
Smaller and more intimate is the Piazza Santo Stefano, locally known as Sette Chiese because of the seven churches that surround this beautiful square.
Do you have the bad luck of visiting Bologna on a rainy day? Then head to MAMbo, the city’s modern art museum. The Palazzo Fava, which houses some of Bologna’s most stunning Rennaisance frescos and often organises popular exhibits, is another favourite.
- Eat like a local
All that sightseeing makes hungry. Luckily for you, you’re in Bologna and this city does food like no other. So, it’s time to kick off the food marathon, round 1! You could just opt for a simple piadina, or local flatbread sandwich, but if you want to experience the real deal you should try one of the pasta dishes that made Bologna famous. No, I’m not talking about spaghetti Bolognese (there is NO such thing – in fact, spaghetti Bolognese is a foreign invention as dried spaghetti originally comes from Naples, while Bologna is known for its thicker fresh egg-based pasta). Instead, typical from Bologna are tagliatelle al ragù (fresh stretched pasta with a minced meat sauce), tortellini in brodo (filled pieces of ring-shaped pasta served in a broth, traditionally a winter dish), tortelloni (a larger version of tortellini, without the broth) or lasagne alla bolognese (oven-baked layers of pasta, ragù sauce and Parmesan cheese).
Pasta is normally served as a first course in Italy, between the starter and second course. So, if you’re still hungry after your tortelloni or tagliatelle al ragù you have a perfect excuse to order even more food. Traditional second courses from Bologna include cotoletta alla bolognese (a veal or chicken schnitzel), bollito misto (a meat and vegetable stew) or friggione (a sauce of onions and tomatoes, often served with meat, bread or polenta). If you haven’t reached food heaven after this then I’m not sure what will get you there.
You’ll eat well anywhere in Bologna, but I’ve had great food (or heard stories of great food) at Teresina, Osteria dell’Orsa, Trattoria da Leonida or the Vecchia Scuola Bolognese (the latter is a cooking school that also organises cooking classes and offers cheap lunches).
- Climb up the Due Torri
Time to digest. And what better way to do so than climbing up the stairs of Bologna’s most iconic towers? The Torri Asinelli & Garisenda are two leaning medieval towers in the heart of Bologna and probably the city’s most famous landmark. Only the Torre Asinelli, is open to the public. Climbing the 97 meters to the viewing platform (there’s no lift!) is not only a great exercise (that creates some much needed space in your stomach for the next round of your food marathon), but you’ll also be rewarded with a magnificent view of central Bologna!
- (Food) shopping
Shopping in Bologna equals food shopping, because every other shop is an enticing cheese, charcuterie or delicatessen store. The best place to start your foodie shopping spree is the old medieval market in and around Via Clavature, at the heart of the Quadrilatero, the oldest part of the city. This tiny alley is filled with food shops and stalls selling fresh fruit and veg, as well as meat, fish and local delicatessen. Although it can be quite touristy and hence more expensive than elsewhere in town, you’ll probably still pay considerably less here for your Italian grocery shopping – think Parmesan cheese, mortadella, olive oil and fresh pasta – than at home.
Just around the corner is the re-opened Mercato di Mezzo, an indoor (street) food market, which is located opposite a food shop come bookshop run by the Italian food retailer Eataly.
A bit more off the beaten track, but still in the city centre is the Mercato delle Erbe, Bologna’s main indoor market. It has traditional traders as well as a food court section, so it’s a perfect spot for lunch, aperitivo or a quick bite!
And finally, for the REAL foodies amongst us there’s Eataly World, just outside Bologna. With more than 100,000 m2 dedicated to Italian food – including open-air stables, farming factories, food-inspired educational rides and 40 restaurants – this is the biggest agri-food theme park in the world and a true foodie heaven. A shuttle bus from Bologna’s Central Station takes you there in 20 minutes. Make sure you bring an empty suitcase!
- Aperitivo time
It’s about 6pm (in my case probably earlier) and by now you haven’t had food for at least… 30 minutes. So, it’s time for one of my favourite (northern) Italian traditions: aperitivo. Aperitivo is more than just a quick pre-meal drink and snack – it’s almost a way of living. Sitting outside on a terrace at the piazza, looking effortlessly classy (as you do in Italy), you sip a drink and have a few small bites whilst watching people passing by. Unlike some other parts in the world, where this time of the day is all about getting drunk as fast as you can, here it’s about taking it easy (though feeling slightly tipsy may be a not-so-uncommon side effect).
In Bologna, your aperitivo drink – a glass of wine, beer or Aperol/Campari Spritz – is accompanied by some delicious local bites of your choice. It often includes cheese (Parmesan), cured meat or salumi (Parma ham, mortadella, culatello, salami, lardo, or my favourite: lardo spread, which is basically just cured pork fat but let’s not think about that), pickled food (olives, artichoke) and some bread (crescentine).
Bologna is full of great aperitivo spots, but some of the best places are around Via Clavature/Via Pescherie Vecchie, Sette Chiese (where many students go), or at MAMbo or one of the indoor markets (see above).
- Still your sugar craving
Say Italy, say gelato, so up next in your food exploration tour of Bologna is ice cream! Although gelato is not originally from here, there are some really good ice cream parlours in Bologna. My favourite one is Galliera 49, which is located just outside the main shopping streets and has some of the most flavoursome, creamy gelato I’ve ever tasted. They also do good granita. Another great place for ice cream is Sorbetteria Castiglione.
Fancy something warmer? Then head to Bombocrepe, a favourite among students. They not only sell great crêpes, but also heavenly Nutella-filled bomboloni, a hot bun. They’re open until early morning, and hence a perfect spot to still your post-clubbing sugar craving.
- Party with the students
As one of Italy’s main student cities, Bologna has a lively, buzzing atmosphere, also (or maybe especially) at night. After drinks at Sette Chiese, go to one of the many bars in the university area. And there’s also plenty to choose from if you’re up for some dancing. I haven’t actually been clubbing in Bologna myself, but apparently the best night clubs are located a bit further outside the city and can only be reached by car or shuttle bus. If you prefer to stay in the city centre then Kinki, Matis and Locomotiv are some of the most popular places to go.
In the summer months, when the students have left the city and the heat almost becomes unbearable, nightlife moves to nearby Rimini and the surrounding Riviera. It’s only a train ride away and hence perfect for an afternoon at the beach followed by some clubbing!
- Burn off the calories and hike to the San Luca monastery
Just outside Bologna, on top of a hill, lies the gorgeous Santuario di San Luca. The walk up to this basilica and sanctuary is an experience in itself. The nearly 4km journey starts at the medieval Porta Saragozza city gate and is entirely covered by portici (arches) – with 666 portici it even is the longest archway in the world. So, no excuses, even when it’s raining! Upon arrival at the top you’ll be rewarded with stunning views over Bologna and the surrounding hills.
- Continue your foodie tour in Modena and Parma
Situated the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is surrounded by picturesque cities, towns and villages, many of which have their own culinary traditions. Most well-known are Modena and Parma. Modena is the birth place of balsamic vinegar (as well as Ferrari and Lamborghini) and is definitely worth a visit for an afternoon, if only because you can have lunch (or dinner) at one of the best restaurants on the planet. Frequently voted as one of the top 3 restaurants in the world (it even made it to the first place in 2016), Osteria Francescana by Massimo Bottura turns regional dishes into pieces of contemporary art. This is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience, although anyone who eats here wishes they’ll come back! Make sure you book well (= months) in advance and to bring a big wallet. Or you can do like I did and persuade someone to invite you as a birthday gift…
A bit further up the Via Emilia, the Roman road that runs straight through Emilia-Romagna, is Parma. This charming university town is not only famous for its Parma ham and Parmesan cheese (what’s in a name), but also for its beautiful Romanesque architecture.
The best way to discover Bologna’s surroundings, including the beautiful Colli Bolognesi (the hills of Bologna), is by train or car, or even better: on a Vespa.
Bologna’s best (IMHO):
- Coffee: Terzi
- Pasta: tagliatelle al ragù, tortellini in brodo or tortelloni, anywhere in town
- Gelato: Galliera 49
- View: from the Torre Asinelli or the San Luca Sanctuary
- Accommodation: rent an apartment in one of the stunning portico-buildings in the city centre
- Food shopping: Mercato delle Erbe
- Aperitivo dish: crescentine with lardo spread and Parmesan cheese (divine…)
- Evening drinks hangout spot: Sette Chiese
- Rainy day activity: visiting the MAMbo or doing a tortelloni making course