Is Bologna worth visiting? When we hear about our friend’s trips to Italy we are often told stories about their time in cities like Florence, Rome and Venice, a place that often goes under the radar however is Bologna.
A few weeks ago I asked my wonderful Instagram audience whether I should spare a few days to go to Bologna, and I was meant with a resounding ‘YES!’.
Bologna has a history of over 3,000 years and is in fact home to the world’s oldest university. After an interesting important history during the Roman Empire, followed by a decline and occupations by other groups (Byzantines, Visigoths and Lombards), Bologna became one of the most important Medieval cities in the world. During this time, the city saw huge growth and the construction of many buildings we see today.
In 1506, Papal troops overtook the city (an army relating to the Vatican and the Pope) which meant dozens of churches and convents were built as well as an expansion of the university and the addition of the botanical gardens which is one of the oldest in Europe.
Bologna finally became part of Europe in the 1800s before becoming a transportation hub, culinary capital of Italy and one of the richest cities in the country. Today, Bologna attracts tourists but is very much a living, working city with the majority of people going about their daily business whilst visitors meander between the attractions.
I found two days to be a good amount of time to spend exploring the city, perhaps if I was travelling with someone I would have spent a bit more time in restaurants but I have never been a foodie if I’m honest. I took the train from Venice direct to Bologna, it took around an hour and a half and cost €28. There are two options of trains from Venice to Bologna, the faster train is slightly more expensive with Frecciarossa as the operator, and the slower train, which takes 2 hours, is just over €12 and is with Trentitalia. The trainline is an important one, connecting Venice to Naples, stopping at Florence after Bologna.
I arrived into Bologna in the evening, it was a nice station but I had no idea where to go to get a taxi but there are plenty of train guards who speak English so one pointed me in the right direction, from there it was a 15 minute drive to my Air Bnb which was in the historic centre of the city.
My Air Bnb was perfect for solo travellers, I was meant inside by the owner who talked me through all the different keys and made sure I was okay, she gave me her Whatsapp number and it was nice to know I could reach out to someone if needs be. It was a studio apartment with a generous bedroom area, kitchen, dining area and bathroom. there was also an extra bed on a mezzanine, i’m not sure many would want to climb the ladder and sleep up there but it was pretty cool.
After a night of sleep I woke up at 7am to go out and explore, I wanted to beat the tourists but it turns out, there were none. Instead i was met with people going to work, to university, and people buying their fruit and veg for the week. It was actually pretty nice walking through the hustle and bustle and not being surrounded by a bunch of people like myself.
It took around 5 minutes to walk to the Two Towers, a central reference point of Bologna city centre. The taller tower is named Asinelli and the smaller is the Garisenda, the towers are named after the families who built them between 1109 and 1119. I was too early to go inside but made a note to come back.
Instead i headed for the main square, Piazza Maggiore, this is one of the oldest squares in Italy and was purchased by the City Hall in 1209 who demolished the houses in the space to make room for a market place and a meeting area. The piazza is home to the Basilica of San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Notai, the Palazzo d’Accursio, the Palazzo del Podestà and the Palazzo dei Banchi. Construction of the basilica began in 1390 and its main facade has remained unfinished since, it remains a beautiful building however!
The Palazzo d’Accursio is one of the most important buildings in Bologna and has been the seat of the city’s Municipal Authority since 1336. It is also home to the d’Accursio tower which guests can now climb and enjoy an exquisite view over the Piazza Maggiore for €8. Tickets can be booked online here and currently need to be pre-booked as there are limited spaces per time slot.
Just off of Piazza Maggiore is The “Quadrilateral”, a bustling market area that dates back centuries, so this is where I headed next. The best time to visit it is in the morning around 8:30-9:00am when they are setting up so you can have the best pick of the fresh produce. the majority of these shops and stalls are family run and. have been handed down through the generations for hundreds of years selling the same category of goods such as cheeses, pastas and fresh fruit and vegetables.
After taking a wander through the narrow streets, watching the locals go about their early morning routines, I walked up towards the Two towers. On arrival i quickly noticed i needed to prebook, this is because the staircase is very narrow so only a limited number of visitors can arrive in any one time, so instead i headed back to the apartment and had some breakfast. I took this time to book my slot to climb the taller of the two towers, the Asinelli Tower. I was able to book for the next 30 minutes so paid the €5 (you can book here) and walked over to the tower ready to climb the 498 steps to the highest point in Bologna.
The Asinelli Tower recently underwent a 3-month restoration to strengthen the wooden staircase that leads to the top. The towers were designed to be the entrance point into the Medieval city and they happen to also offer the best vantage point over the city and across to the mountains. the reason the tower is so high is so back in the day, guarders of the city could watch out for dangers from all around, it was also used in WWII for this exact reason.
Climbing the tower is not as tiresome as it sounds, there are a number of waiting platforms along the way you can stop on if you need to catch your breath. Unfortunately, due to the nature and age of the tower, the viewing platform is not accessible to those with mobility limitations.
The view was incredible and within a few minutes the whole city had become inundated by a thick layer of fog, it was January after all! After waiting for the fog to lift, I realised it wasn’t going to, so instead i enjoyed a very spooky view across terracotta roofs, Piazza Maggiore and the numbers towers and belfries that jutted up towards the sky.
The descent back down the tower was not so bad although they had much smaller feet back in the 1100s so the steps are rather small in places. As soon as my feet touched the ground, the sun made an appearance…typical. So i decided i wasn’t done walking up stairs for good views and i went to the the Clock Tower of Palazzo d’Accursio which boasts a wonderful view over Piazza Maggiore.
The building itself is a masterpiece and houses a small museum and some beautiful artwork, you have to prebook and the price of €8 also includes an audioguide if you wish to listen to it., you can book your tickets online here.
Finally, it was lunch time, all that climbing had really got my appetite up. Having read an informative blog post by The Common Wanderer (you can read their Bologna articles here), I took a quick stroll up towards via della Moline which is one of the main foodie streets and settled on the recommended Trattoria del Rosso for some authentic tagliatelle al ragù. The restaurant felt very Italian which I loved, not much English was spoken and it was full over local people. My ragu was lovely and there was a good range of pasta dishes on the menu so I would highly recommend.
Bologna is a stand out city in Italy for its food and is particularly is known for cured meats, salty cheeses, handmade pastas, hearty meat sauces, and of course, its ragú. it’s not called spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna, just simply “ragù”, and they don’t eat spaghetti either. Instead, you will find tagliatelle, a thicker, egg-based pasta noodle that holds onto the sauce better.
After my belly was full, i was pretty tired, I decided I would walk back to the Air Bnb. This took me along the street named Via dell’Indipendenza which just so happened to be one of their main shopping streets. There were a number of high street stores, including two Zara’s, so I had a little look around before heading back empty handed (I definitely did not have the luggage space to buy anything, much to the gratitude of my debit card).
I had a quiet evening back in the apartment and a well needed few hours of relaxation with a supermarket sandwich for dinner. I decided to have an early night and spoke to the apartment owner who booked a taxi for the morning to take me back to the train station. Even in rush hour the taxi only took 15 to get me to the train station and cost around €10. When booking my train to Siena at the station I realised there were no direct trains, I had to change at Florence but this was pretty simply to do, Florence Train Station is very self explanatory and if you are confused, there are plenty of staff who can point you in the right direction. Bologna is on the high-speed rail line (Alta Velocità) so takes only 35 minutes to get to Florence with 59 trains a day so there are plenty to choose from!
So what did I take from my time in Bologna? It was lovely to visit an Italian city that isn’t completely set up for mass tourism. Yes it receives a fair amount of visitors, the majority in summer, but it is much more peaceful than places such as Venice, Florence and Rome. It is a foodie paradise (this always gets a little lost on me as I have a very basic tasting palette!) and a great place to visit if you love history! I personally think 2 nights was the perfect amount of time spent here, but the city can be used as a base to visit surrounding towns such as Ferrara and Ravenna.