Discover Bologna: Italy’s Culinary & Cultural Capital

Written By: Andrea Spallanzani
Reviewed by: Rick Orford
How & Why We Created This Article

This article has been written, reviewed, and fact-checked by Rick and I. We live in Italy and travel throughout the country to help you make the best choices for your trip. We wrote this piece to ensure you have the best trip possible on your next trip to Italy. Portions of this article have been written using assistive AI tools to help with tasks like research, spell-checking, grammar, and translation.

Last Updated October 28, 2023

If you’re planning a trip to Bologna, you may have heard of the city’s famous foods, but what exactly is Bologna, Italy known for? We’ll show you what to see in Bologna, what it’s known for and why it’s worth visiting this bustling city!

Bologna is famous for its porticos (corridors), which help the city expand. The world’s oldest university is located there, dating back to 1088. Bologna’s cuisine, food markets and historic center are famous throughout Italy.

Bologna is a very multicultural city. In this article, we go over every aspect of Bologna, Italy including where to eat and shop, which attractions are must-sees and about the oldest university.

Bologna’s Nicknames

people walking near Madrid Palace under blue and white skies

Bologna has a long history and thus has a lot to offer. The oldest university in the world is located in this city, and as the university expanded over time, the city’s architecture changed. To ensure that the institution could expand, several distinctive structures, including the well-known porticos, were built.

Bologna has various nicknames that the locals frequently use because of its distinctive growth and architecture as well as the well-known cuisine produced in the area. These abbreviations best describe the city. Bologna is commonly known as;

La Rossa (The Red) 

It alludes to socialism or the left-leaning political movement. Bologna served as the focal point of the resistance movement against the Germans and Nazis during the Second World War. La Rossa also references the architectural design of the city. The city has a distinctive appearance thanks to the red roof tiles that cover every rooftop.

La Dotta (The studied one or The learned one)

The city received its moniker as a result of having the oldest university in the world. The Bologna University was the first institution in the modern west to use the term “university,” which comes from the Latin Universitas. Of course, there were numerous schools and educational institutions existing before Bologna University, but they never adopted the name university. As an illustration, the first Parma school, today called the University of Parma, was constructed in 962 AD. Bologna University was founded over a century earlier.

La Grassa (The Fat and The Food)

Bologna is the regional capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region of Italy known for its cuisine. The region produces some of the world’s most celebrated cuisine, including Parmesan cheese, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar. It is also home to tortellini, a type of stuffed pasta; and many other foods.

The Well-Known Attractions in Bologna

Bologna is well known for its architecture. The city had to construct additional buildings as the institution expanded to accommodate the expanding number of students. The growth of the metropolis necessitated a new approach to design and municipal planning. The clearest illustration of this growth may be the porticos that connect numerous buildings and public spaces. The old center of Bologna is a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status. Let’s find out what this city’s famous landmarks are.

Porticos of Bologna

Bologna Via Indipendenza Portici

Bologna’s porticos were constructed to keep up with the expansion of the city and its university. These distinctive passages are now what draw tourists to this city. It lends the city its distinctive personality.

The University of Bologna expanded quickly after its founding in 1088 AD, welcoming many students from across Europe. The municipal council had to alter the city’s plan to keep up with this growth and provide space for the residents and students. The corridors used in Bologna were modeled after the corridors that were commonly utilized at the time as an addition to a house to increase living space.

Corridors were also used to extend structures and living spaces in many other Italian cities. However, because using these passageways limited access to the streets, several city councils outlawed their use. The city council of Bologna recognized a chance in these passageways. Porticos that extend residential and public spaces are now legally allowed to be built. The construction of the corridors was subject to a rigid set of guidelines. For instance, a minimum height requirement of 7 feet (2.70 meters) had to be used so that a man riding a horse could pass through the hallways.

The Most Notable Porticos

The porticos are still in use today and are wonderful to stroll about. In Bologna, the most well-known hallways are;

  • The Porticoes of Piazza Maggiore

The most well-known square in Bologna is Maggiore. It serves as the center of the old town. There are many porticos on each side of the square. It’s remarkable to note how many affluent families have given throughout time to the porticoes. Several families had palaces on this square. You’ll find a slightly different kind of building on either side of the square.

  • The Porticoes of Piazza Santo Stefano

There is a long corridor along this roadway that was constructed at various times. And other families also construct it. Over time, the arches and corridors’ shapes changed gradually.

  • The Porticoes of Strada Maggiore

The porticoes constructed in the late middle centuries can be seen here in some of the best conditions. Even today, some of these porticos are nine meters tall and still made of wood.

  • The Commercial Portico of Via dell’ Indipendenza

Built in 1888, the portico of Via dell’ Indipendenza is one of the newest passageways. It connects the railroad station and Piazza Maggiore. It is obvious that they constructed this corridor in a different manner, with more of the prevalent neo-Gothic design in mind.

  • The Portico of San Luca

The world’s longest corridor is 2.3 miles long (3.8 kilometers). 3796 meters is the actual measurement. The passageway begins outside the city walls and comes to a conclusion in front of the Madonna di San Luca Sanctuary. It is among the most well-known porticoes in Bologna and is frequently utilized for various sporting events.

Bologna portico di San Luca

Piazza Maggiore

This is Bologna’s main square, constructed between the 12th and the 15th centuries, where the city’s historic center is located. Important ancient governmental and religious structures line the square. On the western side of the Piazza, you may locate the Pallazo d’Accursio, a former municipal hall. On the southeast side of the area lies Bologna’s dome, the Basilica di San Petronio. The former courthouse Pallazo del Podestà is on the northern side. On the east side of the Piazza is the former financial district, Palazzo del Banchi.

Bologna Piazza Maggiore

On the northern side of this area, you’ll find the primary public library and the well-known Neptune fountain. An outstanding illustration of the Mannerism style in the late Renaissance is the Famous fountain of Neptune. The Italian elite employed the art form known as Mannerism at the end of the 16th century. The Baroque eventually followed this style.

Basilica di San Petronio

Bologna San Petronio

One of the most well-known structures in Piazza Maggiore is this basilica. Dedicated to Saint Petronius (St. Peter), who served as the fifth-century bishop of Bologna. The façade’s construction began in 1390, but it has never been completed. It lends the Basilique its distinctive personality.

Bologna San Petronio the Altar

Leaning Towers of Bologna

If you thought the leaning tower in Pisa was the only one in Italy, you were wrong. Other than the one in Pisa, which is arguably the most well-known, Italy has more leaning towers. The leaning towers of Bologna are another name for the city’s two towers, the asinelli tower and garisenda tower.

Bologna the two towers

Between 1019 and 1119 AD, the towers were constructed. The two towers were allegedly built as a sign of strength and wealth between the two rival dynasties. Despite the fact that this was never confirmed, these families’ names are attached to the towers. The Asinelli tower, which rises 90 meters, is the highest tower; the Garisenda tower is the leanest (height: 40 meters).

The view from the top of the Torre degli Asinelli Bologna

The towers are currently among the region’s most recognizable landmarks. Although it is possible to climb either tower, we suggest starting with the Asinelli tower. Climbing little steps can be terrifying if you’re afraid of heights. However, you’ll enjoy the most amazing perspective of the city and its surroundings once you get to the top.

Archiginnasio

Bologna the Archiginnasio

This structure is arguably the most significant in Bologna. It formerly served as Bologna University’s main structure. The structure now serves as a museum. Inside the structure are the public library and the Anatomical Theater. When the city moved the university to Palazzo Pogo in 1803, it ceased to serve as the primary university building.

The Emilia-Romagna region’s greatest public library, which first opened its doors in 1838, has a remarkable historical collection that includes over 850,000 various volumes, pamphlets, journals, and manuscripts. Some of the editions are from the sixteenth century.

The structure also houses the Anatomical Theater, where medical students learn about anatomy. The theater has an amphitheater design. During the Second World War’s bombardment, this distinctive theater sustained entire damage. Fortunately, it was reconstructed using the surviving intact parts.

Bologna the Anatomical Theater

Archaeological Museum of Bologna

The museum’s Piazza Maggiore home, Palazzo Galvani, first welcomed visitors in 1881. The museum houses one of Italy’s finest collections of antiquities. Local history features ancient artifacts from Rome and Greece. The museum’s extensive collection spans numerous time periods and cultures across 9 distinct galleries.

Bologna the Archeological Museum

If you’re into learning about the evolution of Italian and European civilizations, this museum is a must-see.

The 14th century is represented in a range of works of art in this gallery, which was established in 1762. It regards as one of Europe’s most important art museums.

Santuario di Madonna di San Luca

The biggest portico in the world ends at the entrance to Santuario di Madonna di San Luca. Bologna’s most well-known landmark is the church that devotes to the Virgin Mary of St. Luca. The church is located on Mount del Guardia (Colle del Guardia), about 300 meters above the city.

Around 1194, toward the end of the 12th century, work on the church’s construction began. It didn’t get finished until 1765. It’s a great place to visit and discover the inside paintings and unique architectural designs. When you visit the church, we advise you to take the 2.6-mile portico walk because it is a unique experience. On top of the hill where the church is located, you’ll enjoy a stunning view of the city and its surroundings.

Torre di Prendiparte

Bologna gives off the impression of being a medieval city when you’re walking through it. You feel as though you are traveling back in time as you walk through the various old buildings, squares, porticos, and towers. Bologna has a variety of towers, all of which were utilized for defense. One of the best-preserved towers from the medieval era is arguably Torre di Prendiparte, commonly known as Coronata Tower.

After the Asinelli tower, the tower is the second-largest structure in Bologna. Given its height, which is 60 meters, it is not even all that spectacular. However, the way the tower is constructed, with its substantial concrete blocks and distinctively red bolognese color, gives the impression that it is a powerful medieval fortification.

The levels of the Torre di Prendiparte serve various purposes. The third through fifth floors were utilised as prison cells, and thanks to recent repairs, you can still see some indications of what inmates had scrawled on the bricks. It’s a terrific idea to see the tower. You’ll get a stunning perspective of the city when you get to the summit.

St. Stephen Basilica

Bologna le Sette Chiese

This intriguing building is possibly the oldest in Bologna, but its exact beginnings are still up for debate. Some contend that it was built in the tenth century on directives from the city’s patron saint, Bishop San Vitale. He lived in 430 AD. When you enter, you immediately see the many buildings despite the exterior giving the impression that it is only a modest church. The church consists of seven churches each with its own unique history. It’s fascinating to observe how Catholicism has evolved over time.

The Markets in Bologna

You undoubtedly think of Italian cuisine and fashion when you think of that country. In Bologna, you can have everything. Around the city, there are numerous food and clothing markets to visit. There are some that are open daily and others that are open multiple times per week.

Piozalla Market

assorted fruits at the market

Although Bologna has some of the best shopping in Italy, Milan is renowned as one of the world’s fashion capitals. The Piozalla market has been a weekly market since 1251, which is a very long time ago. Every Friday and Saturday from nightfall till morning, it formerly operated as a cattle market. Today, the world is a market where anything and everything is available. It offers something for everyone and has almost 400 stalls. Bologna is without a doubt the best location for shopping. The market is near Piazza VIII Agosto and Montagnola Park.

Bologna Antique Market

The neighborhood antique market is in front of the St. Stephen Basilica on the second Saturday and Sunday of each month. Even though it’s small, the Bologna market is fun to visit while you’re there during these times. You might find anything you want, like vintage postcards, stamps, and walking sticks among many other vintage goods.

Mercato Del Vintage

People in a Market

The location of this market is in Piazza Punton and it is open on Tuesdays. This market is where you want to go if you like antiques, used goods and clothing.

Quadrilatero Market (Old Market)

Bologna the old Market

The Quadrilatero is a small neighborhood in downtown Bologna with strolling pathways connecting some of the city’s main shopping areas. When artisans began to barter their wares in the middle ages, the Quadrilatero region grew. It remains a market where a wide variety of goods are available today. The market is the commercial heart of the historic district. Every day, this market is open.

Mercato Delle Erbe

This historic food market in Bologna is one of the largest indoor markets in all of Europe. Home to a wide range of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and cured meats, the store offers many varieties. It’s a great place to taste some of the region’s specialties!

Mercato Ritrovato (Farmers’ Market)

You must go to this farmers’ market if you enjoy tasting and purchasing locally produced goods. It includes freshly made cheese, olive oil, wine and beer (if you’re above Italy’s legal drinking age), veggies, honey, bread, cured meats, and much more.

Farmers from this region, around 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside of Bologna come to this market and sell their best goods for a fair price—often less than you’d pay at a supermarket!

This market is open every Saturday between the hours of 9 and 2, as well as every Monday night during the summer.

Bologna’s Famous Cuisine

The traditional food of Bologna is well-known and it is also Italy’s food capital. It combines the best products from the Emilia-Romagna region into freshly prepared traditional dishes. If you enjoy eating traditional foods and are a food enthusiast, go on a bologna food tour. Naturally, you can go to one of the neighborhood markets we mentioned before. But going on a cuisine tour with a local guide is also advised. A local tour guide may show you some interesting locations in the city and explain the history of the local cuisine.

If you are going to visit Bologna, we recommend you try the following things:

Mortadella

Gnocco Fritto with Mortadella

This pork-based meat is widely used in sandwiches or as a snack. It is a high-quality meat with flavors of pepper, olive, and other herbs. The thin slices are ideal for lunchtime consumption.

Mortadella is made according to a traditional recipe and has a distinct flavor from its American counterpart, which is known as “Baloney” in America.

Parmesan Cheese

Parmesan Cheese wheels

Bologna is close to Parma, which is why you can find authentic Parmesan cheese in this city as well. Be sure to sample the authentic cheese created in accordance with a traditional recipe. The cheese’s trademark makes it easy to identify.

Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic Vinegar tasting

We’ve all had at least one salad or another dish with balsamic vinegar, right? So what makes traditional Balsamico Vinegar so special? Well, the product commonly available in shops and restaurants is typically not traditional balsamic vinegar. It consists primarily of white wine vinegar with a balsamic flavor.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is comparable to quality wine and it is difficult to make. Balsamic Vinegar requires aging (some varieties are stored for over 25 years in oak barrels) and has a distinct flavor. There are a number of fantastic locations surrounding Bologna where you may sample authentic balsamic vinegar and observe its production.

Tortellini

Tortellini in cream sauce

Tortellini are small stuffed pasta bombs. It is often filled with meat, but also available in vegetarian form. Tortellini is typically served as a soup or a side dish during the Apperitivo.

Tortellini is a tiny pasta pie and a must-try if you’re in Bologna!

Bolognese sauce

Tagliatelle Bolognese

Bolognese sauce is a traditional meat sauce originating in Bologna, but it is slightly different than the simple sauce we are familiar with. The traditional sauce takes time to get its unique taste, so make sure to try it when you’re not a vegetarian–you’ll find out that the taste is different.

Tigelle (flatbread)

It is a traditional flatbread often referred to as Cresentine that is frequently consumed as a snack or during the aperitivo. The tiny thick breads resemble thick pancakes in appearance, but they frequently contain additional ingredients like cheese, cured meats, or vegetables.

Typical basket of Tigelle

Famous Wines from Bologna

Food is very important in Bologna culture. But what about the drinks? Let’s take a look at some of the region’s most popular wines and see how they compare favorably against Bologna’s famed meals.

Lambrusco

In Bologna, the Emilia-Romagna region’s capital, you’ll find a wide variety of the local wines. Lambrusco is the most well-known type of wine in this area. The Lombardy region, which is on the northern border of Bologna, is where Lambrusco gets its name. The vibrant metropolis of Milan serves as the Lombardy region’s capital.

The Lambrusco wines spread outside of Italy to other countries. These days, it is produced throughout the world and not just in the Lombardy region. Many wineries in the Bologna area produce this sparkling red wine. Lambrusco is a fruity-tasting, lightly sparkling red wine. It’s simple to drink while eating fresh pasta or enjoying an Apperitivo.

Pignoletto

Pignoletto is a known for being a famous wine in Bologna Italy

There is a fantastic Italian alternative if you prefer white sparkling wines and aren’t in the mood for Champagne. Which is not prosecco.

Pingelotto is a white frizzante wine created from the pignoletto grape, which is sparkling in Italian. A less well-known alternative to sparkling white wine is ordinary white wine.

The flavors are frequently described as vibrant and aromatic, tasting of lemon and green apple. To us, it sounds like a newly bubbling wine!

It is a rare variety of wine and isn’t produced as frequently as Lambrusco. But Pignoletto is made by numerous wineries in the Bologna area.

Negretto (Italian’s forgotten secret)

two black glass bottles on the top of the brown wooden barrel

Typical of the Emilia-Romagna area, Negretto is a robust red wine. The grape’s pigmentation is what gives the fruit its name. It’s nearly as dark as black, making it the darkest variety of grapes. The grapes from the Negretto variety were originally used for their color solely, but the wine was eventually produced on its own.

Due to the complexity of its production, this wine is rarely consumed. Clay soil is ideal for growing grapes because they are so frost-sensitive. As a result, it might be challenging to produce in the colder northern regions.

The difficulty of making this wine means that only a few winemakers ever attempt it. In addition, the quality of the goods they manufacture these days is exceptional. The wine known as Negretto is a dessert wine with a rich, fruity flavor. In spite of the fact that its dark hue suggests the opposite, most red wines are surprisingly light in both body and alcohol.

Going on a wine-tasting tour of the surrounding area is high on the list of things to do in Bologna. The best way to sample as many wines as possible is to arrange a trip with your tour guide.

Bologna’s Top Restaurants

Since there is such an abundance of delicious traditional dishes and wine, you may be wondering where you might get the best examples of this cuisine. In Bologna, you can choose from many different possibilities. You really can’t go wrong either way. There isn’t a single restaurant in Italy that we’ve had a bad meal at over our many visits there. Simply strolling in and ordering some of the local cuisines is one of our favorite things to do. And if we still can’t find the comfort we’re looking for, we go on.

If you’re looking for something to do in Bologna, we recommend checking out the city’s most notable attractions.

Oltre

Classic Bolognese cuisine is served in a contemporary manner at this distinctive restaurant, which has a limited menu. It’s the ideal location for a special dinner and a taste of regional customs. Traditional entrées are available, along with a variety of tasting menus that you can share.

Oltre is located at Via Majani 1, in the heart of Bologna. The restaurant is open every day except Tuesday. We advise that you make a reservation.

Mortadella Lab

The Mortadella Lab is the ideal location for a quick snack or meal. Despite being a fast-food takeaway bar, Mortadella Lab serves the tastiest sandwiches in the area.

The concept of a sandwich is elevated at Mortadella Lab. Everything is prepared from scratch, and the selection and quality of the products are superb. People constantly crowd this location. We heartily recommend stopping there for a quick snack while exploring the city.

In the heart of Bologna, at via de monari 1/c, is where you can find Mortadella Lab. Mondays are a holiday for them. They are open from Noon till 9:00 PM every other day.

Osteria Francescana

Bologna is around an hour’s drive from Modena, where there is Osteria Francescana. It can be the location where getting bookings is the most difficult. Your trip’s cost may increase substantially if you eat here for dinner. A 12-course tasting menu is available for €290.

Osteria Francescana - a well known restaurant in Modena (near Bologna, Italy)

Massimo Bottura, a well-known Italian chef, runs the establishment. He gained international fame as the lead in the first season of Chef’s Table on Netflix. His famous Tortellini, which is substantially different from a conventional Tortellini, is one of his well-known culinary inventions. There weren’t any whole Tortellini on the plate, only six pieces arranged in a row. They ran into issues with the neighborhood after adding this type to the menu. It held an opinion that they couldn’t alter this tried-and-true recipe. However, they persisted and succeeded.

Dining at Osteria Fransescana must be a wonderful experience. If you want to try it, have a plan in advance. There is frequently a waiting list that is months long.

Conclusion

One of Italy’s most unexpected cities has to be Bologna. Perhaps we ought to use the phrase underrated instead? We had no idea that this intriguing location would quickly climb to the top of our list of favorite Italian locations. In Bologna, Italy, there are countless amazing things to do, and don’t even get us started on the amazing food!

It’s clear why this city has the moniker “La Grassa” (the fat one). It’s challenging to resist nibbling on all the delicious food this city has to offer due to the great cuisine.

Bologna has a charm. Once you enter the lovely historic center, you immediately find it. The shifting facades of medieval buildings, the amazing churches, the porticos, the unique street art, and the gritty feel adds character to the city.

Tourists typically ignore Bologna when they visit Italy. Instead, many tourists go to the well-traveled road and head straight for well-known cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice. These are all wonderful places, but Bologna is a hidden treasure.

We recommend you plan a trip to Bologna if you’re looking for an Italian getaway where hotels are still reasonably priced, the food is excellent (and affordable), and you can experience the local culture.