La dotta. La rossa. La grassa. Bologna, one of Italy’s top 10 biggest cities and the primary city of breadbasket Emilia-Romagna, is rightfully known for its university, its political culture, and incredible food scene. Bologna is often overlooked by tourists and they pass on to more famous neighbors Milan, Florence, and Venice, but this city offers something that its neighbors cannot to tourists. It’s a very authentically Italian city that’s easy for tourists to get to know and enjoy. Hard to find are those awful tourist trap restaurants and tour guides waving their parasol or flag while shepherding tour bus groups through the city’s center.
The University of Bologna, the oldest in Europe, contributes a lot to the fabric of the city. The population booms when school is in session, bringing in students from all over Italy and the world. Restaurants cater to the frugal student population and offer great pizza and kebab for less than five euros across the board. The city is also notoriously leftist, and it’s common to see students protesting in Piazza Verdi and the city’s other student hubs. Now, without further ado, here are some of my picks.
Osteria dell’Orsa–Bologna is called La Grassa (the fat) for a reason, and I think this restaurant contributes a large part to that. I brought all of my guests here, and I think it’s a Bologna must. The restaurant serves typical and authentic Emilian and Romagnolo dishes, and everything is super cheap. Their ragù (bolognese sauce) is some of the best, and they serve it with their freshly homemade tagliatelle. Via Mentana, 1 $
Cicileo Cafe–This bar is one of my favorites for its cheap caffè shakerato, great aperitivo, and Claudio, the bartender and owner who can answer all of your questions and fix you up with the perfect drink. Via Parigi, 11 $
Modo Infoshop–A great place to pick up some Italian books or graphic novels. The staff here is friendly and very helpful as well. They have avant-garde shows and music playing sometimes, occasionally verging on the completely bizarre, but a fun place to check out. Via Mascarella, 24b $$
Piadina–So, this isn’t a specific venue but a typical Romangolo dish is piadina, a tortilla type dish which is usually served with soft cheese squacquerone and prosciutto crudo inside. I ate a couple of these a week, both at home and at certain piadina “counters.” La Tua Piadina (Via Borgonuovo 17) is the best I found in the city. They have a pretty big variety of piadine, and every one I tried was fantastic. It gets crowded at lunch and is slightly more expensive by Bologna standards. Another reliable option is Ciccio Tra Fame e Sonno (Via delle Moline 15/B). The piadine here are smaller but consistently good (try the Papera: fig jam and squacquerone).
For a sightseeing fix, visit the Archiginnasio (the historic building of the University) which is right off Piazza Maggiore. San Petronio, the city’s biggest basilica today, is best seen at midday when the meridional line inside the church is illuminated by the sun to tell you what the date is. Down Via Rizzoli are the two towers, and the Torre degli Asinelli boasts incredible, sweeping views of the city. Up Via Santo Stefano is Piazza Santo Stefano and the seven churches: seven little churches all built on top of each other over time to make an interesting, medieval, Romanesque church which you can visit today.
For some further listings:
- La Gazzetta–If you’re an American studying abroad, or just anybody who likes to work in coffee shops, stay away from ITIT and venture next-door to La Gazzetta. The coffee here is better (although still stick with Italian drinks) and cheaper, and the space is much more comfortable.
- Le Petit Cafe–Good for caffè d’orzo macchiato or their Canadian cappuccino.
- Bar Pizzeria del Teatro (Via delle Belle Arti)–One of my favorite pizza places in the city for a quick lunch. 2.50 euros for a whole pizza (while they advertise it as a special, that’s how much it always costs).
- Spacca Napoli–Some of the best pizza in the city. Neapolitan style
- Pasticceria dell’Arte–my trusted bar di fiducia while I lived in Bologna. Friendly service, good cappuccinos and caffè macchiato. I was obsessed with the little basket Nutella cookies.
- Babilonia–Bolognese Middle Eastern street food at its best. The best kebab I found in Bologna, hands down.
- Cremeria Santo Stefano–One of Bologna’s best spots for gelato. Their affogati (gelato drowned in espresso) are incredible and a great way to sample gelato while still warming up in the winter. For other gelato shops, Gelatauro and Sorbetteria Castiglione come recommended.
- Fram–A cute spot for coffee and a piece of pie, but kind of out of the way.
- Pinacoteca Nazionale–Bologna isn’t known for art like, say, Florence, but its national gallery is packed with religious art and is a really pleasant visit on a Friday evening. Their schedule is horrific and if you go spur of the moment they will most likely be closed, so double check their hours before visiting.
- Oratorio Santa Cecilia–A free church to visit with beautiful frescoes from Bologna’s Renaissance telling the story of Saint Cecilia. The staff is very helpful and informative, but I’m not sure if they speak English or just Italian.
- San Luca–Bologna is known for its porticoes, and the longest one in the world is found here. Take a walk or run up San Luca and find some great views from the top. The church is very unique on the outside, and its interior is pretty but not the most impressive (by Italian standards, that is).
- San Michele in Bosco–I didn’t actually make it to this church, but they say the view of Bologna from the top is better than the view from San Luca.
- Giardini Margherita–This isn’t much of a sight for tourists as much as a retreat from Bologna’s density. There are very, very few trees in Bologna, so the gardens are a nice step way from all of the red.
- San Domenico–This church is fairly simple and white inside, but there are some Michelangelo statues if you look closely.
- Quadrilatero–Patricia Schultz’s rates the Quadrilatero as one her 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and with good reason. The Quadrilateral is bursting with colorful vegetable stands, florist displays, and fish markets. If you’re up for it, shop for a picnic lunch here of some fruits and veggies, or just marvel over all the pretty colors if you’re lazier, like me.
- Museo Geologico Giovanni Capellini–The University of Bologna’s schools has a couple of weird museums ranging from disturbing medical wax figures to dinosaurs and fossils. The dinos are free to visit and definitely not something you’d think to do while in Italy.
Nightlife and Aperitivo:
- Camera a Sud–A cozy wine bar which is a good place to start a night out with a glass of wine and some tarali.
- Bar Senza Nome–This is a great bar for a heartier aperitivo near Cicileo. It’s run by deaf bartenders, so you need to order using drink cards from a bulletin board on the right as you walk in. There’s live music on select nights and a generally low key and relaxed vibe.
- Piazza Verdi–The center of Bologna’s nightlife. Buy some beers at one of the nearby convenience stores (there’s a cheap one on Via Marsala), and sit down to talk. La Scuderia is a cheap, student bar right on the piazza, and they have pre-made aperitivo plates which you get with your drink during aperitivo hours.
- Millennium–If you’re looking for a club, this is a better place than Sodapops. You need to buy a membership (which is generally the deal with Bologna’s clubs), but there’s no cover on Thursdays.
- Caffè Ristretto–A nice, quieter bar for a gin and tonic (of any variety: it’s their specialty)
- MAMBo–While Bologna’s modern art museum is a little disappointing, their aperitivo is one of the best in the city: they roll out fresh focaccia bread, couscous with veggies, and even wings.
- Bombocrep–Good Bolognese late-night food. Near Piazza Verdi and good for a crepe or bombolone. It gets packed at night, but they aggressively discount their food at lunchtime.
- Via del Pratello–A street not too far from the center with lots of cheap bars (Tarbacan Cafe is a good one).
- Antica Rosticceria Borghese–Another spot not too far from Piazza Verdi that’s good for some weird foods: they have gigantic croissants which seem like something you have to put on your Bolognese bucket list.
- Le Stanze–A nice bar for aperitivo located inside of an old chapel.
- Zerocinquantello–One of the nicest places for aperitivo in Bologna’s quadrilateral. Split a bottle of wine with friends and share some plates of meats and cheeses. Their meatballs are the best.
- Spazio in Due–A funky bar with all sorts of things going on (trapeze classes, a dance studio). Try the lavender mojito.
- Padua–One of my favorite day trips from Bologna. Located in the Veneto region, Padua offers a Venice-like feel without the tourists and still close enough to Bologna.
- Ravenna–My other favorite day trip, Ravenna and its famous mosaics are like nothing else. The city is an easy trip from Bologna and doesn’t require much studying or history reading to appreciate the art here (although, knowing about Ravenna and mosaics can only enhance a visit).
- Verona–Verona, also in the Veneto region, doesn’t have any particularly famous sites to see but is a simply beautiful Italian city.
- Ferrara–Ferrara is another major city in Emilia-Romagna, and though its historic center is small, it is very pretty and there’s some great food to be had here. If you go, make sure to try the cappellacci and tenerina. For some more info, check out my friend May’s vlog: she studies in Ferrara and has some great commentary and footage on life here.
- Milan–Only forty minutes by the Frecciarossa, Milan offers big city thrills, its magnificent Duomo, some famous art, and a very different view of modern Italy from Bologna. As it is a big city, it feels more like New York than Italy, but its Duomo is fantastic to climb and the Naviglio neighborhood is filled with great restaurants along the canal.
- Florence–Italy’s art capital is one of the biggest tourist destinations for blockbuster art like Michelangelo’s David, the Uffizi, and the city’s Renaissance architecture and Duomo. Only forty minutes by Freccia.
- Modena–Most famous for balsamic vinegar and its Romanesque cathedral, Modena is an easy half day or day trip from Bologna. The city is quiet and sleepy but simple and pretty.