When it comes to Italy, different cities and regions of the country are pretty universally “known” for certain things. Milan is known for fashion. Tuscany is known for wine and gorgeous countryside. Venice is known for its romantic canals. Florence for art. Rome for history.
But if you love food? If you love food, you go to Emilia-Romagna.
Emilia-Romagna is a region in northern Italy known for its medieval cities and fertile lands. This part of Italy gives the world delicious things like Parma ham, the best balsamic vinegar, and the delectable Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. (And, my husband would point out, it's also given the world Ferrari.)
And at the heart of Emilia-Romagna is the city of Bologna.
Located between Venice and Florence, Bologna is Italy's 7th-largest city. Its history dates back more than a thousand years, and it's widely regarded as being home to some of Italy's best food.
It's basically a crime, then, that Bologna doesn't get nearly as many tourists as most other “famous” parts of Italy. If you love food and history (but especially food), then you'll definitely want to make room in your Italy itinerary to visit this part of the country.
Why visit Bologna
I've heard my blogger friends rave about Bologna and Emilia-Romagna for years, but other than a college visit in 2005 and a whirlwind backpacking trip in 2013, my travels didn't bring me back to Italy for any length of time until the fall of 2019.
With a conference planned in the historic city of Ravenna and friends based in Bologna, I knew it was finally time to check this delicious part of Italy off my list.
And I'm SO glad I finally did. Emilia-Romagna lived up to all the hype, and I was absolutely charmed by Bologna.
Being sandwiched between a bunch of other popular destinations in Italy, Bologna often gets overlooked by the average tourist. They see the Colosseum in Rome, ride a gondola in Venice, see the David in Florence, and maybe hit up the Amalfi Coast or one of the Italian lakes… and then they move on and their Italy bucket list is complete.
Even though Bologna is one of the larger cities in Italy – and even though tourism IS a fast-growing industry there – it barely ranks in the top 25 cities in Italy in terms of actual tourist numbers. In 2018, more than 60 million tourists visited Italy, but only a little over 2 million of them made their way to Bologna.
This basically means that you can visit Bologna without feeling like you're visiting Italian Disney World with millions of other tourists. Bologna still feels quite “local,” and allows you to explore in a way that you can't in other parts of Italy.
My top 3 reasons to visit Bologna are:
- The food. Duh. One of Bologna's nicknames is La Grassa, or “the fat” one, and it lives up to it with some of the best food you'll find in all of Italy (which is saying something!).
- The architecture. Bologna has all the historic piazzas and churches you expect to find in Italy, alongside historic towers and nearly 40 kilometers of beautiful porticos that make walking the city a treat.
- The vibe. Bologna is home to the world's oldest university, and is therefore also quite a young and hip-feeling city.
The itinerary I've put together below melds all these things into a great introduction to Italy's gastronomic capital.
When to visit Bologna
Bologna, like the rest of northern Italy, can be enjoyed any time of year. BUT, there are definitely some times that are better than others. I personally would avoid the months of July and August, when it's the hottest.
Shoulder seasons are always good, including April-May and September-October. I visited in late September into early October, and the weather was pretty much perfect – sunny and still warm, but not stifling; perfect for exploring the city by foot, which is arguably the only real way to explore Bologna.
3 days in Bologna itinerary
Even though Bologna is Italy's 7th-largest city, the historic city center isn't all that large. You can walk from one end to the other in less than 45 minutes. Meaning that in 3 days you can really see (and eat!) all the best things in Bologna without feeling too rushed.
This itinerary is based on 5 days I spent in Bologna, in which I did a lot of walking and ate gelato at least once per day. I hope you'll steal it to inspire you own Bologna trip!
Day 1: Get historical
Start your time in Bologna in the heart of the city, in Piazza Maggiore. This large central square is surrounded by some of the city's most famous buildings, and is the ideal place to start your exploration of the city.
Here you'll find the Basilica di San Petronio, the Palazzo del Podestà, the Palazzo dei Banchi, and the Palazzo d'Accursio, all beautiful historic buildings. Around the corner you'll also find the famous Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune), which is a popular meeting spot for locals and visitors alike.
There are several historic spots worth visiting within just a few meters of this piazza, but I would start with the Basilica di San Petronio. You can't miss this vast basilica, with its curious half-finished facade. (And yes, it's front is exactly that – unfinished.)
The basilica dates all the way back to the year 1390, and is free to visit (though you'll have to pay a small fee if you want to take photos inside). Inside, you'll find 22 side chapels and a nave with soaring archways.
A must-do here is to head to the back of the basilica, where you can take a construction elevator up to a viewing terrace atop the basilica. It may seem a little odd, but the Terrazza has been open for quite a while, and offers up excellent views over Bologna. See how many towers or remnants of towers you can spot from up here; Bologna used to have hundreds of stone towers back in the 12th and 13th centuries.
It costs 5 Euro to visit the Terrazza, and proceeds go back into restoration works in the basilica. Note that both the basilica and terrace close for a couple hours every afternoon, like many attractions in Bologna.
After visiting the basilica, continue your historical exploration of Bologna's city center by heading over to the Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, or Archiginnasio of Bologna.
This palace-like building was once the main building of the University of Bologna, which is the world's oldest continually operating university. The University of Bologna dates all the way back to 1088, which gives Bologna another of its nicknames: La Dotta, or “the learned” one.
The parts of the Archiginnasio you can visit today date back to the mid-1500s. You can peep into the Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio (Municipal Library) which is now housed here, but the real must-see is the Anatomical Theater.
The stunning Anatomical Theater was built in the 1630s, and was used for anatomy lectures and displays. Make note of the carved “spellati” or “skinned men” statues, and the marble slab in the center of the room where autopsies would have been performed.
An entry fee of 3 Euros gets you into the Anatomical Theater and also the Stabat Mater Lecture Hall.
After your time inside the Archiginnasio, wander through the Quadrilatero, or the old market streets of Bologna. The narrow alleyways here hint at their Medieval roots, and you'll still find food, handicrafts, and more for sale. This is a great spot for lunch.
For a sweet treat after lunch, head back over towards Piazza Maggiore and grab gelato from La Torinese 1888. While you can also get a full meal here, they're best-known for their unique and delicious gelato flavors. (And, fair warning, this itinerary includes gelato at least once per day!)
If you're not historied-out after gelato, head around the corner to the Biblioteca Salaborsa (Salaborsa Library), stopping to see the Fountain of Neptune on the way.
The Salaborsa Library is the main public library of Bologna. You might wonder why a regular library has made it onto this list – but you just have to walk inside the Palazzo d'Accursio to understand why!
The library has some incredible architecture inside, and beneath the main floor you can also see some ancient Roman ruins. For a couple Euros, you can go down into the basement and see the 2nd-century ruins up-close. This is highly recommended if you have the time.
Next, I recommend just taking a stroll through some of Bologna's beautiful porticos. It doesn't matter what the weather is like here; you can always walk in Bologna.
For dinner, head over to the Mercato della Erbe, or Herb Market. You'll find a lot more than just herbs here, though. You can buy all sorts of fresh foods during the day, or eat at one of several restaurants at night. Most market shops are open until 7:30 p.m., while the restaurants open for dinner at 7 p.m. (Just note that the market is closed on Sundays.)
Day 2: It's all about the food
Bologna is regarded as the foodie capital of Italy (“The Fat One,” remember?), so you'd be remiss if you came here and didn't learn all about it's food!
Sign up for a food tour this morning, like this one that includes 6 tastings at family-run cafes and restaurants with a local guide. I love food tours like this, because not only do you get to taste some delicious food, but you also learn about the local history and people along the way. Book this food tour here.
You'll eat enough on that 4.5-hour food tour to cover breakfast and lunch, so this afternoon I recommend walking off some of those calories.
Start at Bologna's famous Le Due Torri, or “Two Towers.” I mentioned before that Bologna used to be filled with more than 100 towers – and these two are some of the last that are (mostly) still standing.
The towers officially are the Torre degli Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda, named after the families that had them constructed as defensive fortifications back in the 11th century. The towers are extra famous today because they are both leaning.
You can't miss these imposing structures on the present-day Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, where one of Bologna's ancient city gates used to sit. The Asinelli Tower is the taller of the pair at just under 100 meters, while the Garisenda Tower is the one that leans more (4 degrees, which is more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa!).
If you're brave enough to tackle small enclosed spaces and 498 steps, you can climb to the top of the Asinelli Tower for just 5 Euros. From there, you can get incredible views out over Bologna. (You CAN buy timed tickets online in advance, which is recommended if you're visiting Bologna during a busy season.)
From the Two Towers, head down Via Santo Stefano, where you can enjoy more of Bologna's historic architecture. You can pop into Santo Stefano, which is a historic religious complex that's often called the “Seven Churches.”
It's free to enter and walk around the various churches and courtyards – just be sure to be dressed respectfully, with shoulders and knees covered.
If you keep walking down Via Santo Stefano, you will eventually reach Cremeria Santo Stefano, which in my opinion serves up the BEST gelato in Bologna. Hopefully you're hungry enough by now to try a scoop, because it's truly delicious.
Continue your walk, and cross out of Bologna's center to enter Giardini Margherita. This large public garden is one of the nicest bits of green space in the city, and is a super popular place for families to take strolls, walk their dogs, and have picnics.
There are a couple places that sell take-away-style food inside the park, but if you're going to make this your dinner spot, you might be better off stopping in to a grocery store to put together your own picnic.
Or, you can head to the far western side of the park and grab food and/or drinks at VETRO, a hip little spot that's basically built into a garden/greenhouse space. I didn't have any evening meals here, but I did go twice for coffee during the day, and had a good lunch here.
Alternatively, you can head back into the center for dinner, depending on when you get hungry after your big morning of eating all the things.
Day 3: Basilicas and more food
Today, start your morning with a little jaunt outside of Bologna's city center. Head to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, which is a beautiful basilica atop a hill overlooking the countryside of Emilia-Romagna.
There are a few different ways you can reach this basilica. The first would be to order a taxi, but I don't really recommend this option since it can be hard to get one to come pick you up again.
The second option is to walk; there are 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of porticos that connect Porta Saragozza in central Bologna to the Sanctuary of San Luca. With over 600 archways, it's the longest stretch of portico in the world. The walk isn't gentle, though, as the last bit ascends fairly steeply.
The third option is to take the San Luca Express, which is a little tourist train that leaves several times per day from Piazza Maggiore. The round-trip ride costs 10 Euro, and comes with an audio recording to listen to as you enjoy the 40-minute ride to the basilica. Check the timetable here.
I normally scoff at these tourist trains, but this one is actually reasonably priced, and the audio guide was interesting.
Once at the Sanctuary, you don't need more than an hour to explore, and enjoy the views. Afterwards, make your way leisurely back to the city center.
For lunch today, I recommend Osteria dell'Orsa, a famous favorite that is known for its communal-seating tables and its short menu. But that short menu includes the dishes Bologna is most famous for. I loved the Tagliatelle al ragu here so much that I went back and had it a second time.
Tagliatelle al ragu is the REAL “spaghetti Bolognese” that the rest of the world has bastardized. Try the real thing here. You can also try other favorites like Tortellini in Brodo (tortellini in broth), and lasagna Bolognese here.
Osteria dell'Orsa opens at 12:30 pm for lunch, and stays open late. It's a popular spot in the university district and doesn't take reservations, though, so don't be surprised if you have to wait in line a bit for a table.
After lunch, stop along Via Piella to see a curious sight in Bologna: a canal! This Venetian-looking canal can be spotted through a small window in a bridge, which is literally marked on Google Maps as the Finestrella.
From there, it's just a short walk to another great gelato place called Galliera 49. Try your ice cream, sorbet, or granita in a brioche bun!
And as for the rest of your afternoon and evening? I'm going to leave that open for you to fill as you'd like.
You could do something like sign up for a cooking class if you want to get hands-on (this pasta-making class, for example, is a great option in a local's home in central Bologna). Or you could opt to just spend the rest of your day wandering aimlessly, stopping for coffee or an aperitivo (a pre-dinner drink and small bites) as often as you like.
For more food recommendations, check out this guide to Bologna food.
As you can probably tell by now, Bologna isn't a city to experience too quickly. Part of the charm here is the ability to just wander under the porticoes and eat well – and often.
Here's a map I put together of all the places I recommend in this itinerary. Day 1 is red; Day 2 is blue; and Day 3 is purple.
Where to stay in Bologna
Since Bologna's center isn't all that big, you really can't go wrong with where you stay; pretty much everything will be walkable! But I've still got some suggestions for you:
Hotels in Bologna
For hotel stays in central Bologna, check out the following:
- Grand Hotel Majestic “Gia Baglioni” – This is the #1-rated hotel in Bologna on Trip Advisor, and also is the only 5-star hotel in the city. The historic hotel oozes old world charm, and is a great luxury option.
- Hotel Touring – With spacious rooms and a rooftop terrace, this hotel on a quiet street is a great place to base yourself in Bologna.
- Art Hotel Novecento – You can't get much more central than this boutique hotel, which is one of the Bologna Art Hotels.
Check out more Bologna hotels here.
Vacation rentals in Bologna
Want to save some money on accommodation in Bologna? Then a vacation rental might be a good fit for you, as they are very affordable. Here are some great Airbnb options in Bologna:
- Central studio near Piazza Maggiore – This light-filled studio is modern and cozy, and perfectly located for exploring Bologna.
- Sphera Bologna, Design Suite under the Two Towers – A sleek and modern apartment inside an historic building.
- Family-Friendly Apartment with Free Parking – This apartment in the University District has incredibly high ratings, and is beautiful inside.
How to get around in Bologna
For this itinerary, you really don't need any transportation other than your own two feet!
If your explorations are taking you further afield, though, you might want to download the TaxiClick app on your phone. Ride share services like Uber don't currently operate in Bologna, but this app basically works the same way with taxis.
And as for getting to/from Bologna, Bologna is well-connected by train, and also has an international airport (Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport), which is less than a 20-minute drive from Bologna's center.