Bologna is the perfect destination if you want to step out of the traditional triangle Rome–Florence–Venice. This article will give you a flavor of what Bologna is like. It will show you why this city has become my favorite place to enjoy an authentic Italian experience. Without flocks of tourists ruining that authenticity.
Are you ready for a medieval and somewhat unpolished Italian city? Let’s visit Bologna!
A flavor of Bologna
07:05h – Bologna awakes. I am up early to stroll around the city and enjoy the early morning vibes. From nearby I hear the tinkling sound of espresso cups and plates; this is definitely Italy! The coffee bar owner starts to brew the first of what will be many cups of espresso today.
Fruit and vegetables are being placed on sidewalk tables by shop owners in the Quadrilatero district. Ready for another day of selling the great food that this region (EmiliaRomagna) is famous for. This narrow cobblestone alley has probably hosted food markets for centuries. The current shop owners share the latest stories while stacking cases of fruit. In Florence or Venice such an alley would be crowded with tourists. Not here in Bologna.
Bologna: Italian charm in a medieval atmosphere
I move on to find the local fish market (Pescheria). Trattoria owners are waiting to buy fresh fish for today’s guests. This is the unpolished yet authentic atmosphere I was looking for.
I walk inside one of the many coffee bars and order ‘un caffè’. It’s a pity I don’t speak Italian, because I can see curiosity in the eyes of the old coffee bar owner. What is this tall foreigner with his huge camera doing strolling these alleys? I ask for permission to take a photo from inside his bar. No problem. Prego!
Probably I could have spent a full hour in this bar just watching the local Italian life passing by. But I am curious to explore more of Bologna, so I head out. Arrivederci!
My favorite spots in Bologna
Exploring Bologna, I found towers, redbrick palaces and artistic churches (with amazing frescoes) everywhere. One of the best ways to discover the city is just to get lost. Discover by accident, have a coffee when you are tired and just enjoy the city vibes.
I will share two of my favorite spots in Bologna. One is the little square at the foot of the famous Two Towers: Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. You thought the leaning tower of Pisa was impressive? Check out these medieval beauties.
In the 12th century Bologna owned over 100 towers of which only around 20 have survived (check out this Bologna Tower Itinerary). The Two Towers are the most famous ones. They were built in the 12th century and have become the symbol of Bologna. The tallest one of the two (Asinelli) is the tallest leaning tower in Italy with a height of 97 meters. The second one (Garisenda) is smaller but has an extreme lean. Unfortunately, the famous Two Towers were closed for renovation during my visit (until July 2017) but normally you can climb all the way up! On the bucket list for my next visit for sure!
07:35h – The sun rises behind the two towers while I enjoy the cities atmosphere. For some reason, the area around the Two Towers interests me. The jumbled, unstructured streets are heritage from the medieval past, exhibiting a somewhat rough character. Combined with the porticoes and the earthy colors for me this is picture perfect. Definitely one of my favorite spots!
Scooters, bikes and busses approach from everywhere, continuing their way in one of the five directions moving away from the intersection at the foot of the towers. At this crossing of medieval and modern times I find this businessman who does seem to have structured his life to the maximum. What a contrast with the area around him!
After having taken another coffee (and croissant) I walk towards my second favorite spot in town: Piazza Santo Stefano. The square is medium-sized, large enough to create some action and small enough to be cozy. The porticoes around the square are some of the most beautiful ones in Bologna.
The background of Bologna’s porticoes
Bologna looks good, with the porticoes (arched pathways) being its signature feature. There are over 40 kilometers (!) of them, making Bologna a truly unique city in the world. They have been nominated as UNESCO World Heritage site.
Most of them have been built in the late Middle Ages to deal with the growing city. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 making it the world’s oldest university in continuous operation. With the arrival of students combined with urban migration (people moving to the city), Bologna needed to guide and control the movement of people through its narrow streets. The porticoes were born.
08:09h – I am still near Piazza San Stefano. An elderly man is walking towards his office, without noticing the beauty of the arches that cover him. His mind is probably wandering and he doesn’t even notice me taking pictures.
On the other side of the square I see an Asian woman sitting between the pillars of yet another stunning portico. She is from Taiwan but lives in Florence. Bologna is her getaway place, she loves it. Here she can draw and take a break from the uncountable number of tourists in her hometown. This to me says a lot about Bologna.
Before I leave Piazza San Stefano I watch the local barber shaving his first customer of the day. This piazza is wonderful but it feels like the porticoes continuously invite me to continue my journey to the following destination. I will be back to this square but for now I am following the call of the porticoes…. Before I leave the square I take a picture of the magnificent buildings that are illuminated by the early morning sunlight.
More places to visit in Bologna
I continue my walk through Bologna. The variety in colors and portico design keeps surprising me. I keep on taking pictures and slowly the morning turns into the afternoon. Bologna is a great place to wander around. But I do want to mention some special places that I think you should visit while in town.
Piazza Maggiore is the heart of town. People have been gathering on the square for centuries. Artists play music or perform an act. People applaud. Students come together to hang out. The City Red Bus (Hop On – Hop Off) circles the square, ready for another ride to the city’s main attractions. This is the true heart of the city surrounded by beautiful medieval buildings like the giant basilica of San Petronio.
San Michele in Bosco is a church high up the hill, offering great views of the city. It’s a steep climb, so consider using the red bus or any of the local busses. You can start counting the towers….
Closer by but with similar city views: Basilica San Petronio. As mentioned earlier, this basilica is situated right at the heart of the city at Piazza Maggiore. Entering from the backside, you can climb up the tower for a panorama view of the city center. This is the classic Italian city view with the red-colored roofs.
Until two centuries ago, Bologna has its share of open canals. Most of them have become underground waterways, but at Via Piella you can have a peek into history. Here one of the canals is still open, providing again a real medieval scenery.
The San Luca shrine is on the bucket list for my next visit. An arcade (portico) of almost 4 kilometers with 600 vaults or arches connect this place with the city center. People told me that this arcade alone is already an impressive experience. Once you arrive at San Luca you can enjoy great views over the city and its surroundings. There is a little train riding up to San Luca, the San Luca express. It departs from Piazza Maggiore.
If you want to make the most out of your limited time, consider buying the Bologna Welcome Card, including guided tours, entrance to museums, etc.
Bologna: the Italian experience I was searching for
What do you think, could Bologna be your next city trip? For me, this is the Italy I was searching for. The vibes of the city and its residents are good. The medieval atmosphere of the old town with all its porticoes is unique. And within all of this you find little gems around every corner, whether it’s a coffee bar, a trattoria or yet another stunning view.
Visiting Bologna is not only about visiting the city itself. Bologna is the perfect base for a visit to the region of Emilia Romagna with cities like Ferrara, Parma, Modena, Piacenza and Ravenna. But more about the Emilia Romagna network of medieval cities later on this blog!