For visitors to Italy who are interested in getting beyond the usual Venice-Florence-Rome itinerary without an hour-long train ride, a stop in Bologna is an excellent option. This city has everything you’re looking for – grand piazzas, historic attractions and exceptional food – without many of the trappings of a tourist city. What’s more, Bologna is on Italy’s high-speed train line, making it easy to include it on an itinerary in the northern part of the country.
While Bologna doesn’t have world-famous attractions on the same level as nearby Florence or some other cities in Italy, there are several notable sights to visit during your stay. The huge San Petronio Basilica, facing Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, gives you a peek at what’s underneath all those marble facades you normally see on churches – as this one is unfinished. You can see works by Filippino Lippi and a young Michelangelo in the Basilica of San Domenico. And the city’s iconic symbol, the pair of leaning towers in the historic center, can give you an incredible vantage point from which to snap photos of Bologna’s red roofs.
Bologna isn’t as touristy as cities like Florence, but you’ll still notice a youthful and international vibe, thanks to the city’s enormous university. In fact, Bologna’s university is the oldest in the world, opened in 1088. This means the city has long been a cultural center, including being named a UNESCO “City of Music.”
Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, a region known throughout Italy (and the world) for its cuisine, and some of the best things to do in Bologna revolve around eating. Many of the dishes we associate with Italy come from this part of the country – including the meaty tomato sauce named for the city itself, “bolognese.” Other typical dishes to try in Bologna include tortellini in brodo (tortellini pasta in a light broth) and sandwiches made on “piadina” flat bread, which make an excellent quick snack or light lunch. Nearby, cities like Parma and Modena are famous for their prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar, so these ingredients often feature prominently on menus in Bologna.
If you need a way to work up an appetite, get your heart racing with a visit to one of the nearby sports car and motorcycle factories and museums. You can take a private tour to Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Ducati, which are all located a short distance from Bologna, and if you time your visit right you’ll even get to watch a car go around Ferrari’s test track.
As mentioned, Bologna is on Italy’s high-speed train network – it takes just over an hour to get from Milan to Bologna, and a mere 40 minutes to get from Bologna to Florence. This makes both cities easy day trips from a base in Bologna, or vice versa.