Bologna travel tips: 14 essential things to know before you visit
Planning to visit Bologna? Here’s our essential list of everything you need to know before visiting Italy’s stunning northern city
It might not have the canals of Venice, the quaint cliffside villages of the Cinque Terre, nor the ancient ruins of Rome, but that certainly hasn’t held Bologna back from being one of Italy’s most unique, beautiful, and underrated cities.
Often overlooked in favour of Italy’s other tourism heavy hitters, Bologna, capital of the northern Emilia Romagna region, is where some of the country’s best food, architecture, and people can be found.
In fact, Bologna’s nicknames sum it up beautifully: La Dotta, or the learned, for its university - Europe’s oldest - and the educated that flock there. La rossa, the red, for its beautiful UNESCO-protected terracotta-hued medieval buildings and porticoes, and progressive left-leaning society. La Grassa (the fat), a nod to its richly delicious standing as Italy’s gastronomic capital.
What’s more, the city remains almost undiscovered by the foreign tourists that flock elsewhere in Italy, which makes for a beautifully authentic, immersive local experience as you wander the streets shoulder to shoulder with locals, not flag-waving tour groups.
We’ve already shared our favourite things to do in Bologna, so to help you plan your ideal visit to one of our favourite cities in Italy, we’re sharing a few useful tips to know before visiting Bologna.
14 essential things to know before you visit Bologna, Italy’s red city
#1 It’s a painfully beautiful city
We’re very well aware that Italy is home to some of the most beautiful cities and towns anywhere in the world, but we’ve not seen anywhere quite as stunning as Bologna.
Miles of medieval UNESCO heritage-listed porticoes paint the streets with lights, shadows, and deep architectural perspectives, while the terracotta buildings that span the old town give Bologna its nickname, La Rossa (The Red).
At the heart of this town is the imposing main square of Piazza Maggiore which stands proudly surrounded by the most important buildings of the medieval city, including the Basilica of San Petronio, Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo dei Notai, and Palazzo dei Banchi. Just off the Piazza Maggiore are block after block of colourful picturesque streets, including the quaint market district of Quadrilatero,
Then there’s the view from above; the ancient, if not slightly tipsy, Le Due Torri (Bologna’s twin towers) provide the best panorama in town.
What’s more, there’s a distinct lack of foreign tourists sharing these beautiful streets with you, which makes for a beautifully authentic, immersive experience.
Yep, Bologna's beautiful alright.
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#2 Bologna is heaven for foodies
In a country famed for its cuisine, Bologna reigns supreme as the gastronomic capital of Italy. Eating here is quite simply one of the best things to do in Bologna.
Bologna is the birthplace of bolognese, or tagliatelle al ragù, the delightful flat-ribboned pasta with subtle meat-sauce (head to Trattoria Anna Marie for the most authentic, home made Tagliatelle al ragù), while the broader region, Emilia Romagna, gifted the world glorious Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan, tortellini, tortelloni, mortadella, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, and many other delicacies. All of which can be found on the streets and laneways of Quadrilatero, just off Piazza Maggiore.
While in Bologna we recommend trying these essential meals:
Tagliatelle al ragù
Tortellini in broth
Pumpkin Tortelli with parmesan
Butter and sage Tortelloni
The sweets aren’t forgotten either, with some of the best Gelato in Italy (our opinion, but we stand by it!) found at Cremeria Cavour.
Fortunately, consuming all this incredible food won't break the bank (see #6 below!), with prices the most reasonable we’ve found in Italy.
BOLOGNA FOOD TOURS | If you’re keen to discover more of Bologna’s food culture, this awesome 3-hour private food tour takes in the very best of the city’s food secrets, with your own local guide. Find out more here.
#3 It’s Suuuuuper hip and cool
Due to its liberal, progressive inhabitants and world class university, Bologna is brimming with some of the coolest people on the planet.
We’re talking good looking, stylish, intelligent people who also somehow manage to look super elegant while riding their bikes everywhere too. In short, people we aspire to be, but will never actually be!
All of this stems from Bologna’s university, the oldest in Europe, which has been enticing Europe’s intellectual forward-thinkers to the city since 1088. The city favours education over the church, and is one of only two left-leaning cities in the whole of Italy. These progressive, creative, and forward-thinking people make this city what it is.
Don’t let this put you off; the city doesn’t have any of the arrogance of London or Paris - the people are cool, but they don’t necessarily flaunt it.
Home to Bologna's uber-cool is Ghetto Ebraico, the former 16th century Jewish Ghetto. Here, the city's most hipster shopping, bars and restaurants, and street art, coupled with picturesque narrow streets, tiny windows and curious corners make it a great place to explore.
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#4 Bologna is covered (by historic porticoes)
In a sign of Bologna’s intellectual successes, in the Middle Ages the growth of the University created an urgent need for extra space. Rather than narrow down the already-narrow streets, the decision was made to build porticoes over existing walkways to allow the footprint of the uni to be extended on top of them.
During the Middle Ages, almost all of Europe’s developed cities had porticoes, however due to population booms and the invasion of ‘public’ space, authorities quickly put an end to porticoes. Many were demolished, but thankfully Bologna’s were spared. In fact, they were so revered they’ve been mentioned in all local regulations from the 13th century until today.
Now, Bologna’s porticoes take pride of place on UNESCO’s world-heritage list. There are close to 40kms of these beautiful tunnelled passages throughout the city of Bologna, each with their own unique style and structure. Strolling through them feels like you're getting to know the city and its history, one step at a time.
Some of the best porticoes to check out include:
The porticoes of Piazza Maggiore and the seat of the old University
The original wooden porticoes of Via Marsala
The porticoes of Piazza Santo Stefano
#5 Bologna is small enough to walk almost everywhere
If you’ve followed us for a while, you’d know we preach about getting wonderfully lost after arriving into a city. To us, it’s the best way to get to know a place; by taking a wrong turn and stumbling upon a cool bar, or church, or park (but mostly a bar!).
Fortunately, Bologna's a pretty compact and easily walkable city, so we recommend taking a day to meander along the pretty, colourful streets and historic porticoes. Not only will you see more of this delightful city, you’ll also work off all the calories you’ll no doubt consume in this gastronomic capital.
The starting point for all your walking adventures should be Piazza Maggiore. From here, follow the winding laneways east towards Quadrilatero and the Asinelli towers, north towards Ghetto Ebraico and the secret canals, or south towards Piazza Cavour and park Giardina Margherita.
If walking isn’t your thing, Bologna's bus network is efficient and well serviced, and a good alternative to explore Bologna's best things to do. Maps and tickets are available in the Bologna Welcome tourist office at Piazza Maggiore, and tickets allow you to make multiple journeys within a 75-minute period.
Bus services run daily from 0630 until 2300 on main routes. Check timetables and routes here.
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#6 It’s neither cheap nor expensive in Bologna
Curiously, we found Bologna neither super cheap nor budget-breakingly expensive. While food and alcohol seemed about on par, if not cheaper, compared to other European cities, accommodation actually seemed pretty expensive.
Having said that, when compared to popular Italian cities such as Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice, Bologna is still a bargain.
Food, for the most part, is affordable. Given the quality of regional produce, you can expect to eat very well, with a two course meal setting you back around €15 - €20. A gelato is around €2-3.
Alcohol can be fairly cheap, with a good glass of local wine around €5, an Aperol Spritz €4-5, and local beer around €3-4. Coffee drinkers can expect to pay around €1-€2 for their morning fix.
As mentioned, accommodation in the city did seem on the expensive side, with the majority of hotel rooms exceeding €100 per night. Even Airbnb seemed more expensive when compared to other European cities such as Porto.
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#7 Coperto is a thing in Bologna
In most restaurants in Italy you’ll be required to pay a curious and somewhat annoying little fee called ‘coperto’.
So what is coperto exactly? Basically a per-person cover charge.
Its origins stem from the Middle Ages when travellers used to stop at ‘inns’ but would bring their own food to save money (hey, we’ve all been there!). The innkeepers, missing out on earnings from food sales, decided to impose a charge on the customers for the space they occupied, and for things such as cutlery and plates.
Across Italy, the custom still exists, and Bologna is no different. Expect to pay between €2-3 for the coperto charge, which will need to be paid regardless of whether you eat the supplied bread or not. So eat it ALL!
While coperto is completely foreign to us (especially as Aussies, a nation of non-tippers), it’s custom so you’ll need to deal with it. It does however relieve you of the need to tip, so there’s a silver lining to this ancient tradition.
#8 Bologna is home to many significant, historic towers
A random fact about Bologna is that during the Middle Ages it actually resembled modern-day Manhattan, with close to 180 towers dotting the city’s skyline.
Bologna, as with the rest of Italy, was extremely wealthy during the Middle Ages. Many powerful families built these towers as an extreme display of wealth and status, as well as for defensive purposes to guard their land.
Unfortunately, only twenty or so have survived the ravages of fires, wars and lightning strikes and remain standing today. The most famous of the remaining towers are the twin towers of Bologna, otherwise known as Le Due Torri. Funnily enough, the smaller of these, the Garisenda tower, is another of Italy’s leaning towers - and it leans considerably more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa!
You can climb the 498 stairs to the top of the larger Asinelli Tower for the most incredible panoramic views over the red city, including the remaining towers of Bologna.
Entry is € 5.00 per person, which you can book here. We recommend booking ahead of time a there are limited numbers allowed per viewing session. Visiting early in the day, or for the last admission time, will provide you with the most comfortable experience.
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#9 Bologna is home to the Europe (and maybe the World’s) oldest continuous University
It’s not entirely surprising to learn that Bologna is a liberal-minded and progressive city, given that the University has called Europe’s intellectual minds to its streets since 1088.
The Archiginnasio was the first official seat of the University, inaugurated in 1563. It hosted the schools of Legisti (civil law) and Artisti (philosophy, medicine, maths, natural sciences and physics). It’s possible to visit the Archiginnasio, including the popular Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio, a 17th-century anatomical lecture hall at the old medical school.
The room is intricately carved entirely out of spruce wood, with an elaborate teachers chair and canopy held by the two famous spellati statues (carved ‘skinless’ men) as well as statues of famous doctors and beautiful ceiling motifs full of astrological symbols. In the centre of the room lies a marble table (a copy of the original), where fresh cadavers were once dissected by medical students and teachers.
The Teatro Anatomico, along with the seemingly endless library (locked, but viewable!) is absolutely interesting enough to make it onto any list of things to do in Bologna!
#10 Book restaurants in advance (especially the main ones)
Because we’re such spontaneous people, we’re really bad at planning.
Really, horrendously bad.
We leave everything to the last minute and generally suffer as a result. As you’ve probably already guessed, this ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ mentality also came back to haunt us during our travels in Bologna.
Time after time, we’d see a nice restaurant, ask if they had space available only to be turned away as we didn’t have a booking.
Turns out, this is very much a city that runs on restaurant bookings and forward planning. Don’t be us, people.
If you’re visiting Bologna, plan out the restaurants you’d like to eat at and make a reservation at least a few days in advance.
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#11 Bologna is not good for vegetarians (but options do exist)
Vegetarian? Unfortunately you might struggle a little in Bologna!
Bologna’s most famous (and beloved) dishes; tagliatelle al ragù, tortellini in brodo, lasagna al forno, mortadella, and a local charcuterie all contain meat in some capacity, while the idea of vegetarianism is impossible to understand for some locals. Indeed, the BBC even wrote an article titled “Bologna, where vegetarianism is an exotic illness”.
But Bologna being Bologna, progressive and liberal, means that it is possible to find vegetarian restaurants throughout the city, you’ve just got to know where to look. The student quarter of Bologna (near Piazza Guiseppe Verdi) has a great array of cafes and street food markets which cater more for vegetarians. Alternatively, check out Happy Cow for local recommendations. Some examples of local vegetarian dishes include:
Tagliatelle with mushrooms
Ricotta-filled tortelloni with sage and butter (always look for tortelloni, not tortellini, which is a meat-filled)
Piadina with Squacquerone cheese and rocket salad
For full transparency, Mark relaxed his vegetarianism on the odd occasion in Bologna (he tried tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo), keen to understand the city’s rich gastronomic heritage and sample some of the local dishes.
#12 Card is widely accepted (even for your morning coffee)
Having just come from a month in Vienna where literally every business runs on cash (it was really weird, it was 2018 after all!), it was somewhat surprising to find that almost all businesses, restaurants, cafes, bars and retail stores we visited in Bologna, used eftpos or payWave systems.
Even hole in the wall bars on via Pratello accepted our card after a few impromptu late-night beers. It certainly made life a hell of a lot easier, especially for the times we didn’t have cash and Mim needed her morning coffee!
That being said, we do recommend carrying some Euros for those ‘just in case’ moments where card facilities aren’t available.
#13 Stay in central Bologna
Central Bologna is such a unique, picturesque place that we recommend staying within the old town, but in doing so, pick accommodation that’s slightly away from the main hotspots, such as Piazza Maggiore or via Santo Stefano, which can get a little rowdy come evenings and weekends (Bolognesi like to live their life in the city and its wonderful streets and piazzas!).
We stayed in a quiet area in the south of the city near Porta San Mamola, which was away from the hustle and bustle, but close enough to walk to all the city’s main points of interest.
Search for prices and availability for Bologna accommodation here.
#14 Consider Purchasing the Bologna Welcome card
Although more expensive, we actually recommend purchasing the Plus card, which gives you access to a lot more of the city’s main tourist attractions, including the Asinelli Towers, the panoramic terrace of the Basilica of San Petronio, and access to the San Luca Sanctuary’s dome terrace, as wells as all the inclusions on the normal Bologna Welcome card, such a guided walking tours, and entry to many of the city’s museums.
The Bologna Welcome card can be purchased online or at tourist info points in town.
Cost | € 25 or € 40
The best Travel photography gear For Bologna
Bologna is a seriously photogenic city, so we definitely recommend investing in some good photography gear before visiting.
Below is the photography gear we used to get all of our shots in Bologna.
The Sony A7RII produces brilliant photos and video
The original photography beast which keeps going strong, the Canon 5D MKIII produces the best colours
The Canon 24-70mm is known as one of the best zoom lenses on the market; it's exceptionally sharp, small and lightweight, which makes it perfect for travel photography
The Canon 70-200mm f4 is our favourite lens, hands down. The image stabilisation works a treat, even on moving trains!
Check out the rest of camera gear here.
If you like our photography, be sure to follow us on Instagram, too.
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WHERE IS BOLOGNA?
Bologna is the capital city of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, located in northern Italy. With a population of close to 400,000, it's Italy's 7th largest city.
When to visit Bologna?
Like most European cities, Bologna comes alive during the warmer months from May - October, when the temperatures are warm and there's barely any rain.
The average temperatures during July and August are around 30 degrees, which might be a little too warm to enjoy exploring the city. Therefore, the best time to visit Bologna is during June or September, when the days are long, warm but not stifling!
Where to stay in Bologna
We’ve also written a comprehensive guide to Airbnb to help you book the best, cheapest and safest accommodation, every time.
While we stayed at the Hotel Porta San Mamolo, we personally found the ‘traditional charm’ of the rooms a little dated. There are plenty of great hotel options in Bologna (like the Canonica Apartments!) and as the city is small enough to be pretty walkable we’d recommend staying just outside the city centre so you’re not kept up all night by the lively nightlife.
Alternatively, check prices and availability for hostels in Bologna here.
How to get to Bolonga, Italy
Flights arrive and depart Bologna's G. Marconi International Airport, about 30 minutes from the city.
Check flight prices and availability to Bologna with Skyscanner.
Aerobus runs a service to the Airport from Bologna central station (and return) every 11 minutes from 5:30am, and is the best way to get to and from the airport. Tickets cost € 6.00 per person.
Bologna is serviced by Italy's high-speed train network, so it's easy to find tickets to and from the city to many other European destinations.
We recommend booking tickets in advance to secure seats, especially during the summer months.
To check departure times, availability and to book tickets, click here.
Bologna's central railway station is located a 20 minute walk south of the historic city centre and all the city's best attractions.
Have you been to Bologna yourself? Help your fellow travellers our by sharing your travel tips for Bologna in the comments below!