Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region, in northern Italy, and is known as “La Dotta and la Grassa” (which means “The Educated and the Fat”) for being one of the main cultural hubs in the country and Italy’s foodie city!
Bologna hosts the oldest university in the Western world Hidden as well as some of the best Italian food, but it has a lot more to offer: from a historic center with charming canals and narrow streets to old churches, museums, and squares, etc.
Since I had the luck to do my master’s in this amazing city (and I am Italian!), I got to know it pretty well, so I decided to write this guide with the TOP things to do in Bologna, to help you choose which attractions to focus on during your holiday (I know how hard it can be!).
I also included some useful information about the best hotels, the most delicious Bologna restaurants, and how to get around the city.
So take your pen and block note and get ready to visit Bologna with me… are you ready?
If you are in a hurry
If you don’t have the time to read the whole post, check out this quick list of the best tours to do in Bologna:
Here are the main things to book in advance:
- Discover Bologna on a city walking tour
- Take a Bologna food & wine tour
- Take a round trip ticket for San Luca Express train
1. Stroll around Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is a huge piazza in Bologna’s historic center, and the true heart of the city, hosting old medieval buildings, the Basilica di San Petronio (the city’s main cathedral), and the City Hall (Palazzo Comunale).
There are countless things you can do in this fantastic square: from gazing at its architecture to visiting its important palaces and basilica (check out section 3), or just sitting and enjoying people watching while you eat some delicious pasta with the famous bolognese sauce.
Some of the most important attractions of this square are Palazzo del Podestà, dating back from 1200, the renaissance style Palazzo dei Bianchi and the fountain of Neptune, located northwest of the square.
This fountain is one of the main symbols of the city, known as “The Giant” (“Il Gigante” in Italian) for its huge dimensions and is actually located in Piazza del Nettuno, a small square within the bigger Piazza Maggiore.
But the coolest thing about this square is that you’ll find people hanging out at any time of the day or night, and sometimes even some concerts, open-air movies, and graduation celebrations, so there’s always a very lively vibe.
2. Climb up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca
The Santuario di Madonna di San Luca is one of the oldest churches in Bologna, located on top of a hill above the city: Monte Della Guardia, from where you’ll also get incredible views of the city and countryside!
The Madonna di San Luca is just majestic: huge, made of an orange/pink material with green domes and Baroque style… no wonder why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And the inside is as beautiful as the outside: featuring a plethora of decorations, and stunning frescos of important religious scenes (the details are just crazy!). One of the highlights inside the church is the Virgin Mary, which is thought to be painted by Luke the Evangelist.
The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is open every day from 7am to 7pm and the entrance is completely free! But if you want to have the best views from the rooftop of the church, you’ll have to pay €5.
This is called the San Luca Sky Experience: you will climb a narrow spiral staircase inside the Madonna di San Luca until the dome is on the top, and gaze at unforgettable city views!
This experience is available from 10am to 1:30pm and from 2:30pm to 6pm during weekdays, and from 12pm to 6pm on weekends, or you can do it as a part of this Bologna and food tasting tour, for €30.
PRICE: €5 for the San Luca Sky Experience
How to get there
- By public transport: take the San Luca Express from Piazza Maggiore, it costs €12 or €6 for kids from 6-10 years old.
- By walking: if you can, I suggest you do the 50-minute panoramic walk from the city center (Porta Saragozza) under the 666 arches of the Portico San Luca: the longest arch in the world! The walk is flat until it reaches the Arco del Meloncello, where it starts climbing uphill to the church.
3. Visit the Basilica di San Petronio
The Basilica di San Petronio, located right in the historic center of the Piazza Maggiore is considered the 10th largest church in the whole world and is characterized by its Gothic design and unfinished front facade.
In fact, the church has never been truly finished since its construction between 1388 and 1479, so it has quite a bizarre facade made of colored marble stone in the lower part and brown brickwork in the upper one.
Voices say that construction stopped either because the church ran out of money or the pope didn’t like the idea of doing a cathedral that was bigger than Rome’s St Peter’s.
In any case, San Pietro is still an amazing building to gaze at, both outside and inside, where you’ll find huge decorated columns and an epic main altar at the end of the central aisle.
You can visit the church for free on any day of the week from 8:30am to 18:30pm, and (as for the Basilica of San Luca) for 5€ more there’s the chance to climb up to the panoramic terrace of the San Petronio, and gazing at sweeping views of the city from 54m tall.
PRICE: for the panoramic terrace of the San Petronio: 5€ or 3€ for people between 10-18 years old and over-65
4. Take a food tour
As I said in the intro, Bologna is a paradise for foodies, having a real food heritage and many traditional dishes that became famous all over the world, like the delicious spaghetti bolognese!
So, needless to say, if you’re in the city you need to join a food tour to explore all the local specialties in the right places: among all the things to do in Bologna, I bet this is the one you’ll enjoy the most!
Before going through the best food tours in Bologna, I will write you a quick list of all the great food you need to try in the city, so you come prepared and you know what to look for at the restaurants and tours:
- Cheeses: if you love cheeses like me, you’ll love Bologna: the city produces the world-famous Parmesan cheese as well as the softer Squacquerone di Romagna, or the Formaggio di Fossa di Sogliano, perfect to combine with some fresh bread!
- Cured meats: another thing that goes perfectly with cheese is the delicious cured meats. The most known (and delicious) ones are the Prosciutto di Parma Ham and the Mortadella, both produced in the region
- Tagliatelle al ragù (pasta Bolognese): one MUST try in the Emilia Region is the traditional “pasta al ragu”, which you probably know as Pasta Bolognese. This pasta is made of tomato and grounded meat sauce… try it with a lot of Parmesan Cheese!
- Traditional balsamic vinegar: one very famous ingredient of the region is the authentic Balsamico di Modena vinegar. This is a very typical dressing in Italy: try a few drops of it on salads, meats, and the Parmesan Cheese (the best combo!).
- Tortellini in brodo: Tortellini is another typical pasta of Bologna: they look like little ravioli and they’re filled with meat or cheese, and the traditional way of enjoying them is in broth (“in brodo”).
Now that you have an idea of the must-try food of the region, you are ready to join a delicious food tour, this is the one I can highly recommend:
Bologna Food + Wine Experience – visit local factories and family-run producers to see how they produce the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the traditional balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, and wine. You will also have the chance to taste Bologna fresh products along the way and have breakfast and multi-course Italian lunch with wine pairings. This full-day Bologna food tour costs €185.
NOTE: if you want to explore the different specialties of the Emilia Romagna region without joining a food tour, there are many markets and food shops around the city that you can find just strolling around… to not talk about all the authentic gelato shops!
If you want to try the BEST gelato in Bologna you have to pass through the Cremeria Santo Stefano… you’ll fall in love!
5. Lose yourself in Bologna city center
All the main things to do in Bologna are located in and around the historical city center… and which better way to discover them than losing yourself in it?
First of all, you need to know that Bologna is famous for its typical Portici, which are partially enclosed walkways, lined with arches and columns, and feature beautiful architecture.
There is about 40 km of Portici in this Italian city, so everywhere you’ll go you can walk under them… they are perfect for rainy days or when the sun is too strong!
But one thing you won’t expect to see in Bologna is its water canals, which in the middle ages were part of a very extensive canal system, but today are quite hard to find and not a lot of people know about them.
The coolest way to see them is through the Finestrella, a super small window located in Via Piella, from where you can get a framed and picturesque view of the hidden canals.
And of course, just wandering around you will encounter all the beautiful historical squares: Piazza Santo Stefano, Piazza Maggiore, Piazza del Nettuno… all great to have an aperitif, try all that pasta we talked about and do some people watching.
If you prefer to see all the major sights of Bologna with a guide that explains to you all the history behind them, you can join this Walking Tour around Bologna city center or ask for information and tour at the Bologna Welcome tourist office, with a central location in Piazza Maggiore.
6. Have the best city views from la Torre Asinelli
Another symbol of Bologna is the legendary two towers standing next to each other: Asinelli and Garisenda, right in the heart of the city (in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana).
These two tall towers were built during the Middle Ages and named after important Italian families.
Of these two leaning towers (nope, Pisa is not the only city having a leaning tower) you can climb only the Asinelli tower, the tallest one of the two: 97.2 meters high and inclined 1.3°.
To reach the top of the Asinelli Tower, you will need to take 498 steps on steep wooden staircases. It’s quite tiring but there are many platforms you can rest on between floors, and the panoramic view from the top is just breathtaking, so it’s definitely worth some effort!
Price for the Asinelli Tower: € 5 for adults, € 3 for people under 12 and over 65.
7. Visit the Bologna National Gallery
Located close to the University of Bologna (the oldest university in the Western world) and the main Piazza Maggiore, you’ll find the super interesting Bologna National Gallery museum, displaying works of the Emilian region and the city, most of them of religious themes.
The National Gallery (in Italian “Pinacoteca Nazionale”) is split into two main sections: the Accademia Clementina museum, showcasing 13th-century Byzantine paintings, and the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, displaying works from the 18th century.
The Gallery hosts some of the masterpieces of the most important Italian artists, from Giotto to Raphael… Some notable examples are the Ecstasy of St. Cecilia by Raphael and Christ and the Good Theif by Titian, but you’ll find many more once there!
To visit the place and its pieces of art you’ll need around 2 hours, and it costs 6€… one of the main things to do in Bologna if you love art!
PRICE: Adults-6€, 18 – 25 years old-2€, under 18-free
8. Relax in Parco Giardini Margherita
If you love to spend time in green spaces, you have to pass through the beautiful and huge Giardini Margherita, the most popular urban park in Bologna, located south of the city center (at a 20-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore)!
In fact, here you’ll find 26 hectares of walking/running paths passing through tall trees and a small lake: perfect to have a tranquil walk or do some physical activity. Otherwise, you can just have a cozy picnic nestled in nature or drink a coffee in one of the many bars in the area.
My favorite time to enjoy the Giardini Margherita is in autumn when all the ground is covered with colorful and big leaves, but it’s amazing also during the summer months when the famous Sierre dei Giardini bar opens.
The bar becomes particularly magical at night when you can enjoy live music, poetry readings, and lectures in front of a glass of wine or a delicious dinner!
9. Travel back in time at the Bologna Archeological Museum
The best way to learn about the ancient history of the Emilia Romagna region is by visiting the Archaeological Museum, hosting many works from Greek and Roman art, and a wide collection of Egyptian antiquities, one of the most important in Europe!
The Archaeological Museum displays a fascinating insight also of Bologna’s history itself throughout different ages, including Prehistoric, Etruscan, Celtic, Roman, Egyptian and more.
Each collection will show you some cool artifacts like Bronze Age tools, pottery, skeletal remains, marble statues, weaponry, and much more!
The museum is located right in the heart of Bologna, in Piazza Maggiore, so it’s super accessible, and to visit all its artworks you will need more or less 2 hours.
PRICE: Adults-6€, 18 – 25 years old-2€
10. Do some shopping at the Piazzola Market
If you’re an open markets-obsessed like me, you will fall in love with the Piazzola historic market, which has been running for hundreds of years and keeps being super popular both among the locals and tourists.
Here you’ll find literally anything: there are over 400 different stalls selling clothes, jewelry, fashion accessories, flowers, and pottery at very good prices… is the perfect place to do some souvenir shopping and have a real feel of the city.
In fact, you will be surrounded by locals chatting and buying the ingredients for their delicious recipes and be constantly stimulated by all the typical colors, smells, and sounds of Italy!
The market is open every Friday and Saturday from 8am to 6pm and is located in the Piazza dell Agosto, north of the city center, only 10 minutes walking from Piazza Maggiore.
11. Visit the Archiginnasio and Teatro Anatomico
Dating back to the 16th century, the Archiginnasio is one of the most important buildings in Bologna: it was once the main edifice of the University of Bologna, housing the prestigious Anatomical Theater.
The Anatomical Theater of the Archiginnasio was used for anatomy lectures and cadaver-dissection displays and you can easily imagine it from its structure, with an ornate anatomical table in the center surrounded by seating platforms.
FUN FACT: In the wall of the Anatomica theater there is still the spy hole through which the church kept its eyes on the medical classes, to make sure they weren’t teaching anything too progressive!
But one of the best things about the theater is its stunning architecture: the room is completely in wood and is decorated with beautiful statues of famous medical professors, to not talk about the gorgeous portico in the entrance courtyard, featuring colorful frescoes on the ceiling.
PRICE: 3€ for the Anatomical Theater, free for the Archiginnasio
12. Explore the Santo Stefano religious complex
It’s no secret that Italy brims with historical churches, and Bologna is no exception! We have already seen the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca and San Petronio church, but there is a place where some important religious buildings are concentrated: Santo Stefano square.
In this square, you’ll find a complex of four churches (once they were seven): the Santo Stefano Basilica, the Church of Saint John the Baptist, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the courtyard of Pilate.
The churches are all interconnected to each other (thanks to some peaceful courtyards) but each one has its own character, architecture, and design, and there’s also a free museum if you want to have more information about the complex.
The entrance to the complex is by donation, otherwise, you can learn more about the churches with this private tour, for 81€.
13. Have a spritz at Il Bracio
If you want to experience the Bologna nightlife, you should head to the Ebracio area, the former Jewish Ghetto where the younger and hip crowd of Bologna hang out, as well as all the international people who came to the city as university exchange students.
In fact, here you’ll find countless bars and restaurants where locals meet to have a coffee at any time of the day or an Aperol spritz in the evening and then most likely go to a party in one of the clubs in the area!
But this doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy Il Bracio during the daytime: its narrow streets host many shops, local street art, photo ops, and cafes for a lunch or a snack!
14. Go on a day trip to one of the villages in the region!
Apart from Bologna, in the Emilia Romagna region, there are so many hidden gems to discover that you should definitely go on a day trip to one of them if you have the time during your holiday!
If you’re a foodie, you should definitely check out Parma, where the exquisite Parma ham and Parmesan cheese are produced, while Ravenna is famous for its colorful mosaics and majestic buildings, both at 1-hour train ride.
And if you plan on extending your trip to other amazing Italian regions, check out our post with the best places to stay in the beautiful Tuscany, at 2 hours’ driving away!
If you don’t want to join one of the day trips tours linked above, no worries: you won’t even need a car to reach these amazing cities, you can either take the regional Trenitalia or Italo high-speed train from the Bologna Central Train station!
15. Check out Fico – a food theme park
FICO Eataly World is a MUST, it is the largest food park in the whole world!
The whole point of the theme is to share the biodiversity of Italian cuisine through workshops and classrooms and to show the behind-the-scenes creation of Italian food and drink.
Located just a 20-minute drive from Bologna city center, FICO hosts food stalls, attractions, events, restaurants, and a supermarket… So you can also buy Italian food to take home, eat some delicious dishes or attend a cooking class!
The park is a great place to spend some quality time with the family because you can learn about the history of pasta and the wine-making process, do Italian food tastings (like the parmesan cheese with aged balsamic vinegar), and see farm animals like cows and horses!
Price for a ticket to FICO: €8
How to get there: If you don’t have a car, included with the ticket to FICO there’s a free shuttle service that runs from 2 spots:
- Bologna central station at 10:30am, 11:30am and 5:30pm
- Via dei Mille, Bologna at 10:45am or 11:45am
|🤩 Range of activities:||Average|
|👪 Family-friendly score:||Medium|
|🏛️ Best museum:||Bologna National Gallery|
|🎢 Top paid attraction:||San Luca Sky Experience|
|🚶🏽♂️ Best free activity:||Piazza Maggiore|
|🥟 Must try food:||Tagliatelle al ragu|
|📅 How many days:||3-5|
|📍 Best neighborhood:||City center|
|🍽️ Dinner for 2:||€50|
|🚕 Average taxi PRICE:||€10|
|💵 Avg hotel PRICE:||€80|
|✈️ Cost of traveling:||Medium|
Where to stay in Bologna, Emilia Romagna
If you’re wondering where to stay in the city to have easy access to all the best things to do in Bologna, Italy, you should definitely choose the historic center!
I put here below 3 amazing hotels for you, divided by price range, so you don’t have to do any research, and if you want to see more areas and accommodation options you can read this post!
Check them out:
- Luxury (€130 and up)
Aemilia Bologna – Aemilia Bologna is an amazing 4-star hotel within walking distance of Bologna’s city center and the famous towers. Here you’ll start your day with a large buffet breakfast and finish it at the on-site restaurant serving local specialties. And there’s even a rooftop terrace with a jacuzzi, to have the BEST city views!
- Mid Range (€90 – €120)
Bibliò Rooms – This amazing modern hotel, offers great value and a central location, close to the Santo Stefano Church and Piazza Maggiore. You will also love the spacious rooms here, with access to free wifi, a private bathroom, and some of them even a balcony… check them out!
- Budget (up to €80)
Santo Stefano – These elegant studios and apartments are perfect if you want to save some money in Bologna! They are housed in a historic building and located a short 15 minutes walk from Piazza Maggiore. All the apartments are spacious, fully equipped with a kitchen, and pet-friendly… so you can even come with your four-legged friend!
Now I will give you some useful tips on the best Bologna restaurants: they will save you some precious time and give you delicious dinners that you’ll remember forever! Let’s see them both in more detail:
Where to eat in Bologna
If you come to one of the best cities in Italy for food, you want to make sure you don’t follow in the typical tourist traps and choose amazing restaurants where you can taste the traditional food!
Don’t worry about it, I already did the job for you: check out this list of the best restaurants in Bologna, where you can try all the delicious specialties we talked about in section 3:
- Sfoglia Rina – if you want to have the best pasta in town you need to go to this delicious restaurant: it has fair prices and many options. Some MUST tries are the tagliatelle al ragu or the tortelloni with butter and sage. If you want to try them all and avoid big lines I suggest you go as early as possible!
- Trattoria Serghei – If you love to eat in a cozy setting offering traditional dishes, you will love this small restaurant! Here the staff is super friendly and they serve some classics of the Bolognese cuisine: the tortellini in brodo or the ravioli with pumpkin is just amazing… make sure you try them!
- Ca Pelletti – this is a casual cafe serving food all afternoon, so it’s good if you get hungry during your day and you want to have a yummy snack or a late lunch! The service is quick, the food is more affordable than most restaurants, and they have many vegetarian options including homemade pasta, salads, and piadina (my favorite!)
- Farina – If you love bread like me, Sfarina is the place to be! Here you’ll find any kind of piadinas (flatbread sandwiches), with cured meats like the famous Lardo, or vegetarian fillings including a parmigiana with grilled aubergine, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and balsamic vinegar… my absolute favorite! Another plus? The prices are very affordable!
Frequently asked questions about Bologna, Italy
🤩 What are the best things to do in Bologna, Italy?
The best things to do in Bologna, Italy, are climbing the Asinelli leaning tower, strolling around Piazza Santo Stefano, and visiting the Basilica of San Luca on the Monte della Guardia hill!
📍Which are the best day trips from Bologna, Italy?
A good day trip from Bologna, Italy is to Parma, the region where they produce the famous prosciutto di Parma ham, which is just a 1-hour drive away.
📅 How many days do you need in Bologna Italy?
3 days (and 2 nights) is enough time to complete all the best things to do in Bologna: see all the Bologna highlights, eat in delicious restaurants, visit old churches, and just live the Italian lifestyle!
Congrats! You made it to the end of this very extensive guide with the best things to do in Bologna, Emilia Romagna, the city where I did my master’s degree.
We went through the best historical attractions, charming squares, museums, food tours, and even some useful tips about where to stay, where to eat, and how to get around the city.
I hope I was able to bring you to my home country for a few minutes and that this guide will help you narrow down the best things to do in this amazing city.
If you have some questions about the post or you want to share your favorite things to do in Bologna, please do so in the comments below… I am looking forward to answering you!
Have an amazing holiday!
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