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18 Best Things to Do in Bologna, Italy

The energetic, historic capital of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is our favorite type of city. It is large enough that there are many beautiful things to see and lots of things to do in Bologna, but it is easy to navigate and lacks the crushing crowds that can flood some of the bigger cities, making it a perfect place to explore.

Bologna has a rich heritage dating back thousands of years, with historic buildings and churches and the oldest university in the Western world. All of that exists alongside fabulous markets, world-class entertainment, and some of the best food we’ve ever had. The fact that it’s slightly off the main tourist circuit makes it even better. Here’s a look at some of our top recommendations for what to do in Bologna.

See the Basilica di San Petronio

Exterior of a brown, pink, and white church.
The unfinished Basilica of San Petronio

The Basilica of San Petronio sits right on the city’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, so it’s impossible to miss. Built from 1388 to 1479, the church was never finished, which is apparent when you see its pink and brown exterior–the lower half is carved marble while the upper half is essentially exposed brown brick. It’s not exactly what you’d expect from the church that was once intended to be the largest church in the world and is one of the most impressive Italian landmarks.

Cathedral interior with altar and vaulted ceiling.
Inside the Basilica

Inside, the Basilica of San Petronio is beautifully decorated, with a line of imposing columns stretching down the nave and a huge gilded crucifix over the altar. The sides of the Basilica are lined with 22 chapels adorned in marble, bronze, and gold. One houses relics from San Petronio and another was the place where Pope Clement VII crowned Charles V as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1530. Standing in a place with that much history is astounding.

The Basilica is impressive from the outside, too. Don’t miss the chance to take the elevator to the top for sweeping views of the lovely city below and to see its towers from a different angle.

Climb the Two Towers

Skyline view of orange rooftops and a tall tower.
Asinelli and Garisenda towers in the skyline

Another option for great views (plus a great workout) is climbing the towers. Like San Gimignano in Tuscany, Bologna was once a city of towers with over 100 tall buildings dominating the skyline. Only about 20 remain, and the most famous of these Bologna sights are the Asinelli and Garisenda Towers, together called the “Two Towers.” Conveniently, they stand next to each other in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana.

Climbing the Two Towers gives you great views over the city. Asinelli requires a steep 498 steps to reach the top, which soars nearly 100 meters in the air. The leaning Garisenda tower is a slightly easier task at about half the height. (Note: As of November 2023, Asinelli is temporarily closed.)

Explore the local food markets

Cheese counter and sausages in a market.
Meats and cheese at Mercato delle Erbe

Visiting local food markets is always one of our favorite things to do on a trip, whether in Provence, Siena, or pretty much any other destination. Bologna markets are some of the best we’ve come across.

Vegetables on display
The bounty of the market

Bologna has open-air markets with ancient histories and food halls with kiosks featuring local products and restaurants. There’s also a slow food market where locals love to hang out and listen to live music.

Outside the center, you’ll find FICO Eataly World, which bills itself as the largest food park in the world. Wandering these delicious spaces and trying their wares was one of our favorite things to do in Bologna.

Walk under the historic porticoes

Colorful porticoes.
A few of the historic porticoes

There are nearly 25 miles (40 km) of porticoes in Bologna. These beautiful arches stretch throughout the city center and all the way to the Basilica of San Luca. There are so many that have lasted for so long (nearly 1000 years) that they have been added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, they lend character to this ancient city, not to mention providing great shade and shelter from the rain.

Visit the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca

Orange church on a hill
The church on the hilltop

The burnt orange Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca sits on top of a lush hill just outside the center of Bologna. The 18th-century church houses an icon of the Virgin Mary, supposedly painted by St. Luke himself.

There are two main ways to reach this lovely spot–walking or bus. You can stroll just under 2.5 miles beneath 666 of the city’s famous porticoes out to the church. Alternatively, hop on the San Luca Express like we did in Piazza Maggiore. It’s a red bus that visits a circuit of about 12 stops around the city, culminating in a visit to San Luca.

Try traditional food

Tagliatelle al ragu pasta with meat sauce.
Tagliatelle al ragu

Fabulous food is a given in Italy, and Bologna is full of amazing regional specialties. Try the mortadella (known elsewhere as bologna) or a piadina (flatbread), perhaps with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that’s made only an hour away in the Parma area. Tagliatelle al ragu––sometimes referred to as Bolognese––is also a must-try along with tortellini in brodo.

These great dishes can be washed down with a local sparkling wine like the light, white Pignoletto or a fruity, red Lambrusco. If you’ve never tried sparkling red wine, this is the place to do it.

See the Basilica di Santo Stefano

People near a group of old church buildings.
Basilica di Santo Stefano

At one end of a pretty square (which reminds me of a mini version of Siena’s Piazza del Campo), Basilica di Santo Stefano is actually a complex of churches. Originally seven houses of worship, the buildings were built between the 5th and 13th centuries. Wandering among the rooms, you can find early Christian relics, fantastic artwork and sculptures, and brilliant mosaic floors.

Visit a festival

Special events happen all year long in Bologna. From the summer film festival to winter’s Carneval, there are often unique events happening throughout the city. Check the calendar to see what’s going on during your visit.

Go for aperitivo

Small snacks displayed on cutting boards.
An impressive aperitivo spread

Finishing the day with an aperitivo at one of the city’s many bars is one of the top 10 things to do in Bologna. Try a local wine or an Aperol spritz and enjoy the buffet. Usually laid out around 7pm, the spread is likely to include an array of meats, cheeses, breads, pizzas, and sometimes even full pasta dishes and desserts. As long as your glass is full, you can continue to nibble.

We loved Senza Nome and the record-filled Camera A Sud. Check out Nu Lounge Bar for a unique tiki-themed option.

See the art at MAMbo

The Bologna Museum of Modern Art (known as MAMbo) features modern and experimental art in a space that used to house a bakery. The permanent collection includes some of the most innovative art of the post-war period and some of the most interesting things to see in Bologna when it comes to artwork. The museum also devotes space to temporary exhibits that include solo shows, retrospectives, and themed presentations.

Sit in the Anatomical Theater

Wooden room with autopsy platform in the center.
The 17th-century Anatomical Theater

The Anatomical Theater is one of the more unusual Bologna tourist attractions. It’s located inside the Archiginnasio, the first seat of the University of Bologna, which is the oldest university in the West.

The fascinating Anatomical Theater, built in 1636, is where autopsies took place, teaching students about the human body. From uncomfortable, elevated wooden benches, students watched the dissections happening in the middle of the room. While it’s slightly macabre, the theater is fascinating for the advanced nature of the studies that happened there.

Booking ahead is recommended and is required on Saturdays and holidays.

Find the hidden canals

A little bit like Venice, Bologna once had open, visible canals running through the city. They were used for transportation and powering businesses like the silk weavers and tanneries.

Over the last 100 years, the canals have been largely built over and covered from view, but there are certain opportunities to see them through unique vantage points. One such place is on Via Piella where you can see an old canal through a small window cut in the wall. Look carefully for the cut-out square and push the window open to reveal the canal.

Visit Villaggio della Salute Più

People on a hillside water slide.
Fun at Villaggio della Salute Piu

In the hills of Monterenzio, Italy, you’ll find a water wonderland, Villaggio della Salute Piu. This spa complex features more than a dozen pools, plus slides, fountains, and a myriad of other amazing water features. You can also get massages and other equally indulgent spa treatments. It was one of our favorite ways to spend a day relaxing after all the sightseeing in Bologna.

Soak in the nightlife

Wine and food on a table.
Drinks with friends

Just off Piazza Maggiore is the Quadrilatero–the perfect place to hang out. The streets of this section of the city center are lined with cafes, bars, and specialty food shops. It’s busy during the day, but it’s on fire at night.

Like other mid-size university cities such as Ghent and Oxford, as friends and co-workers arrive for after-work fun, tables spill out into the narrow lanes. Every store front seems to be lit up. There is music and laughter everywhere. Pull up a chair if you want to, or just walk through the streets and breathe in the good life of Italy.

Sample the best gelato

Gelato in a cone.
Some of the city’s best gelato at Cremeria Funivia

No visit to Italy is complete without trying gelato…perhaps a couple of times a day. Bologna has a number of authentic gelato shops where you can try every flavor you’re craving. The best options are the shops where the gelato colors are natural (i.e., mint is white, not electric green). Cremeria Funivia was one of our favorites. If you go, be prepared to wait in line. It’s worth it.

Explore the attractions of Modena

Bologna makes an ideal base from which to explore other parts of Emilia Romagna. In about an hour, you can visit a wide variety of places.

Black barrels of aging balsamic vinegar.
Aging balsamic vinegar

Only a half-hour away by train, Modena makes a great day trip. You can make a special reservation at one of the world’s best restaurants, Osteria Francescana, or take a more low-key approach visiting the city’s sights.

Piano, tuxedo, and memorabilia on display
Inside Pavarotti’s house

A great way to hit the highlights in Modena is to take their hop-on/hop-off bus that leaves from Bologna. You can visit the home of opera great Pavarotti, taste test the famous Aceto Balsamico di Modena (balsamic vinegar), and visit a local winery. If cars are more your speed, you can get your fill of Ferraris, too.

Visit Parma

Painted vaulted ceiling of a cathedral
The exquisite Parma Cathedral

Another university town, Parma is known for its architecture, music, art, and food–particularly Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. On a day trip, you can explore the city center, including shops, the frescoed Parma Cathedral, and the nearby pink marble Baptistry.

Wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano on shelves
Aging Parmigiano-Reggiano

If eating is on your agenda, get up early or come in the night before to watch Parmigiano-Reggiano (this is NOT the stuff in the green can) come to life in front of you. From the milk delivery through the the aging process, you can see every step of the creation of this world-famous cheese.

See the Rimini coast

Fountain and exterior of the Grand Hotel in Rimini
The Grand Hotel

On the Adriatic Sea, Rimini is known for its beaches and nightlife. If sand and clubbing aren’t quite your speed, there’s also lots of great food to be had. The Grand Hotel Rimini–a frequent feature in Fellini films–has a fabulous weekend brunch, which is offered as an outdoor picnic on special occasions. Every June, you can also find a fantastic food festival, Al Meni, which showcases dishes and chefs from all over Italy and the world. If you’re in town, it’s definitely worth a trip.

Where to Stay

Aemilia Hotel: A 10-minute walk from the city center, Aemilia Hotel offers four-star accommodations. With air-conditioned rooms, an on-site restaurant and bar, and a rooftop terrace and jacuzzi, the amenities are top-notch. There is also a garage, so it’s perfect for those traveling by car.

UNAHOTELS Bologna Centro: This modern hotel right by the central train station makes it easy to explore the old town and beyond. Rooms have air conditioning and satellite TV, and exercise equipment is even available in your room.

B&B Santo Stefano: In a quiet part of the historic center, you’ll find B&B Santo Stefano. This charming B&B offers air-conditioned rooms and a great breakfast buffet. Guests love the personal hospitality.

We visited as part of the Blogville project in coordination with the Emilia-Romagna Tourism Board and iambassador. All opinions of the fun and flavorful are our own.

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Sunday 28th of April 2019

Thank you, Madam !

"The german poet Goethe visited Bologna 1786 and wrote: "Toward evening I got out of this ancient, venerable, and learned city, and extricated myself from its crowds, who, protected from the sun and weather by the arched bowers which are to be seen in almost every street, walk about, gape about, or buy and sell, and transact whatever business they may have. I ascended the tower, and enjoyed the pure air. The view is glorious. (...) The Leaning Tower has a frightful look, and yet it is most probable that it was built so by design. The following seems to me the explanation of this absurdity. In the disturbed times of the city, every large edifice was a fortress, and every powerful family had its tower. By and by the possession of such a building became a mark of splendour and distinction; and as, at last, a perpendicular tower was a common and every-day thing, an oblique one was built. Both architect and owner have obtained their object: the multitude of slender, upright towers are just looked at, and all hurry to see the leaning one. Afterward I ascended it. The bricks are all arranged horizontally. With clamps and good cement one may build any mad whim..."

Shelley Harris

Tuesday 14th of August 2018

Going to Bologna tomorrow - thanks for the tips. Can’t wait to visit the markets.

Laura Longwell

Tuesday 14th of August 2018

Have a great time! Bologna is lovely!

Gearoid McSweeney

Sunday 22nd of October 2017

I clearly need to get to Bologna. Despite living for five years in Italy, I've only passed through it on the way to somewhere else. Your post has sold me! It seems that it is rich in food and culture, as well as being a vibrant urban centre.

Laura Longwell

Monday 23rd of October 2017

It is! Definitely one of my top favorites in Italy so far. And, if you go after next month, you can visit the Eataly food "theme park" that's opening ;)

Enrico & Zuzana

Thursday 10th of November 2016

Hey guys, great post! We love Bologna. It's one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. It's also the capital of the food, as you noticed :)

Great tips!

happy travelling :)

Enri & Zuz


Monday 31st of October 2016

Thank you, nice read.

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