Best in Show: Bologna
Rome, Florence, and Venice—everyone knows Italy’s big three cities. But if you ask most travelers where Bologna lies in Italy, they will have no idea. That’s because it is one of Italy’s best kept secrets.
This central Italian city, located between Florence and Venice in the north, mixes the best of the “Big Three” cities in its own unique way. It draws foodies, avid historians, curiosity seekers, and students to its robust cityscape. Get ready to open your eyes and your senses as you disembark from your PLAY flight.
Let’s get acquainted at the piazza
First, get acquainted with this beautiful city in its giant Piazza Maggiore. Here you can sit with the locals and sip a morning espresso at one of the many outdoor cafes while you plan your Bologna discovery. This is the center of action and the beating heart of this vibrant city. Surrounding you are centuries old medieval buildings: the Basilica di San Petronio cathedral, City Hall, the Biblioteca Salaborsa, and the beautiful Neptune fountain. Work first commenced at the large basilica in 1393 and has been continuously updated for more than 200 years. Don’t miss the Sacrario dei Partigiani (the Partisan Wall), Bologna’s memorial to the Second World War partisans. It’s here where hundreds of local Bolognese were killed by the Nazis during the city’s occupation.
Up and moving
Now that you’ve had your cup of espresso, it’s time to start wandering the city. First stop, the Asinelli Tower. It is one of two leaning towers that symbolize the city from medieval times. Sitting next to the shorter Garisenda Tower, the Asinelli holds the reputation as the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. And, rejuvenated with your cup of expresso and 5€, you’re ready to tackle its 498 steps on steep wooden staircases to its peak at 97.2 m-high, providing commanding views of the city. As you catch your breath at the top, consider that Bologna during the 12th and 13th centuries had 125 of these towers around the city, built by rich families who advertised their power and status by trying to outdo each other by constructing the grandest tower and were used as a defense to guard their property. Building just one tall tower is very impressive when you consider the lack of resources during this medieval time, let alone over 100. But the towers were soon demolished or collapsed after the 13th century and some were repurposed as residential buildings and prisons.
Back on terra firma, take a leisurely stroll through the Quadrilatero, the medieval market area where your senses will be delighted with Bolognese delicacies. These narrow cobblestone streets will introduce you to Italian fare such as Parmigiano, tortellini, tagliatelle, ragu, and Lambrusco. Don’t leave the market without trying mortadella, a large Italian sausage made of finely hashed or ground heat-cured pork, which was invented here. Or, send your senses on high alert as you enjoy a flavorful dish of tortellini with meat broth.
Who knew Bologna had canals?
When tourists in Italy think of canals, the first and only thought is of Venice. But did you know that Bologna had its own canal system? While Venice’s canals continue to invite tourists to step into its famous gondola rides, most of Bologna’s canals were covered over with roads and parking lots during the 20th century. No longer were they needed to transport goods or people.
But there’s one last secret spot to view one of Bologna’s remaining historic canals. Behind houses and buildings obscuring the view, you’ll find a quaint and picturesque sight through the small Canal Window on Via Piella. From this vantage point, you peek out over this special stretch of water called the Canale delle Moline. Here you’ll see the canal sandwiched between brightly colored houses on one side and unpainted walls on a brick building on the other.
No visit to Bologna is complete without encountering the Basilica of Santo Stefano. Billed as the city’s most unique religious site, it offers visitors a labyrinth of connected religious structures that span the city’s history from ancient Roman times through Lombard and Romanesque. It all began in the 5th century when the bishop of Bologna, San Petronio, announced a plan to build the Church of the Santo Sepolcro. He wanted to go further, however, and create a complex of seven churches. The number seven was chosen to reproduce the sacred places of Christ’s passion.
Today, you’ll be able to visit four of the remaining churches: Chiesa del Crocifisso (Church of Crucifix), Church of Holy Sepulchre, Church of Santi Vitale and Agricola, and the Martirium Church. The complex offers some amazing sites such as the Pilato Courtyard, which symbolizes the place where Jesus was condemned, and some unique tombstones such as one for a tailor with two real scissors embedded into the cement.
It’s no wonder that Bologna beckons the best and brightest students. It is home to the oldest university in the Western world. During the day, hobnob with its international student body as you visit the Archiginnasio Anatomical Theatre. In the 15th century Bologna’s medical students watched as doctors performed dissections of human cadavers. It was believed to be the first of its kind.
Near the University of Bologna is a choice neighborhood known as the Ebracio. Historically, the Ebracio is the former 16th century Jewish Ghetto. Walking through this maze of alleyways, covered bridges, and narrow passages, you’ll be suspended back in time to 1556 when the Italian church-state confined its Jewish residents to this small area. They were constantly monitored at the guarded entrances to the neighborhood, which were opened when the sun came up and locked once again at sunset.
Today, parts of the ancient ghetto can still be seen: houses one upon each other; covered balconies; small windows; and cleverly disguised doors that face the street but reveal false entrances for safety sake. Like the university environs, the Ebracio draws a younger, hip crowd among its narrow streets during the day. At night, the area awakens to its popular bar scene.
The Motor Valley
If you are an auto enthusiast, and who isn’t, motor outside of Bologna for a factory tour or museum visit where the great Italian carmakers got their start: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ducati, Pagani, and Maserati. Enzo Ferrari, the motorhead who established the iconic Ferrari brand, hailed from Modena outside of Bologna as did opera star Luciano Pavarotti. These brands are still manufacturing eye-catching vehicles that roar with approval. If you’ve saved your Euros, take a test drive on the track or book a special Ferrari and Pavarotti land tour to the renowned tenor’s home.
Now that you’ve experienced all that Bologna has to offer, take it down a notch and let the more subtle, romantic parts of Bologna seep into your soul. By day, hang out in the Parco Giardini Margherita (Margherita Gardens). Here you’ll enter through its magnificent wrought iron gates to find plenty of green space for a quiet reprieve. Join the joggers, mothers with baby carriages, and other tourists as they choose one of its many running or walking paths that surround a small lake and several cafes. If you’re visiting Bologna during its warmer months, The Greenhouse bar is a famous stop for good food and wine. Set among the park’s restored flower greenhouses, it offers live music, lectures, and poetry readings.
Or, head back to the Piazza Maggiore, where a daily free show is offered at night by local celebrities and street entertainers. Gaze up at the giant statue of Virgin Mary that sits on top of the Piazza or fix your sights into Bologna’s starry sky.
At night, come alive with the residents of Bologna. Everyone is out socializing, dining, or just taking a quiet evening stroll. One of the most famous magnets is the famed Bologna Porticos. Much like sitting under the stars at Venice’s St. Mark’s Square and its Battle of the Bands, Bologna’s miles of porticos are so beloved that they’ve been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along your walk, enjoy discovering lively piazzas filled with families and couples as the sun sets over another magnificent day in Bologna. You’ll take stunning photos of the city’s unique evening light as you complete another memorable day.