The sun shone with full force on the student-filled, red-brick city of Bologna. I didn’t know what to expect from the town, but soon discovered why Bologna boasts no less than three nicknames: la grassa (the “fat”), la dotta (the “learned”), and la rosso (the “red”). While I could have stayed much longer than just a weekend, it turns out that’s all the time I needed to experience this earthy, vibrant city.
Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio: It’s a palace… Which holds a 700,00 volume library… And which also houses one of the first anatomical theaters in Italy, where trainee surgeons once performed dissections (though only under the watchful gaze of a priest). It is also beautiful inside. The walls and ceilings of the main staircase are covered in detailed frescos, and a green courtyard sits in the middle. Piazza Galvani, 1.
Basilica di Santo Stefano: This is actually seven churches all squished together as one. The individual churches are joined by stone passageways and courtyards, and each one is unique. There were plenty of tourists, but I was also surprised to see students sitting under the archways, reading, and taking advantage of the mandatory silence. Right in front of the basilica is a big square where more students congregate for beers and other extracurricular activities. Via Santo Stefano, 24.
Torre Aisinelli: If you want an amazing view of the city, be prepared to climb a few stairs. The path to the top is narrow, steep, and made of creaking wood – but the vistas are definitely worth the panting and aching calve muscles. This was when I realized why Bologna got the nickname la rosso: the entire city is a deep, earthy terracotta color. Piazza di Porta Ravegnana.
Chiesa di San Bartolomeo: This was my favorite church in Bologna; and there are a lot of them. It’s little turquoise dome is a pretty splash of color against all the red, and the inside is bright and ornate. If you have time, start here and then do a tour of all the churches in the city. There is one in pretty much every piazza and even the neighboring churches are each distinct and unique. Strada Maggiore, 4.
Porta Saragozza & Via di San Luca: This is where 666, or 3 km of porticos begins. If there’s anything you’ll see a lot of in Bologna it’s the covered walkways instead of sidewalks, which they call portici. They were originally built to hold up the additional rooms families built onto their apartments; when the extra space was needed to rent out to students. Nowadays they make Bologna rainproof and one-of-a-kind. Via di San Luca, 36.
Caffe Zanarini: Go here for breakfast before a long day of walking. They have plenty of terrace seating and serve up an array of mouth-watering pastries. I didn’t have a single bad coffee during my stay. While I usually order a cappuccino this screams tourist, so I tried a doppio macchiatto instead. Piazza Galvani, 1.
Spacce Napoli: Students know where to still eat well on a budget, and this tiny place was packed when we went for lunch. They make amazing, authentic Naples pizza. They’re big, so you can easily get one to share. Via San Vitale, 24.
Cremeria Funivia: There may be no such thing as bad gelato in Bologna, but this place really takes it up a notch. Order the Alice – a chocolate-filled cone, topped with a generous helping of mascarpone ice cream. Piazza Cavour, 1.
La Sorbeteria: This is probably the oldest and most famous gelateria in Bologna. Order the Nociolla flavor. I promise it will blow your mind. Via Castiglione, 44.
Trattoria Trebbi: One of Bologna’s signature dishes is tortelloni and tortellini in brodo (in broth). This local, neighborhood trattoria served up the best ricotta tortelloni with buttery sage I have ever tried. Even their house wine was good! No wonder one of Bologna’s nicknames is la grassa. Via Solferino, 48.
Le Stanze: A lot of people skip dinner altogether in Bologna, and go for the aperitivo instead. This usually happens between 6:00 and 9:00 pm and involves a buffet of dishes that come with the purchase of a drink. I ordered the local favorite, Aperol Spritz: bitter orange liquor mixed with prosecco. Le Stanze is not necessarily the cheapest in town for aperitivo (drinks are around 6€-8€), but it’s worth going just for the 16th century frescos on the ceilings. Stunning. Via Borgo di San Pietro, 1.
Giardini de Margherita: named after the goddess of pizza, this is a gorgeous green park just outside the old city walls. Stroll through with your gelato, rent bikes to burn it off, or just lie in the grass for a nap. Viale Giovanni Gozzadini.
Saint Michele in Bosco: is a church and monastery complex which lies at the top of the hill beyond the Giardini de Margherita. Walk up Via Vittorio Putti and admire the villas and mansions that belong to the wealthier Bologneses. The best part about this walk though is the view that awaits you at the top. Via Pupilli, 1.
Piazza Maggiore: Cross this main square – but don’t do it diagonally if you’re a superstitious student. University of Bologna undergrads can’t cross the plaza until they have graduated, otherwise it could intervene with their goal to finish school. I crossed this square several times, and also sat in the middle of it to people-watch and soak up a little sun. The fountain of Neptune is in the adjacent plaza, and is one of the city’s main symbols since the 14th century. Piazza Maggiore, 1.
Piazza Verdi: Buy a pack of beers (or a bottle of wine) and go sit in this graffiti-stained square to drink with the Italian students. Right in the heart of the university, there’s always a crowd and a party in this plaza. Piazza Verdi, 1.
Mambo: A visit to the Modern Art Museum of Bologna was one of the only things on my list I didn’t have time for. But I’m still adding it to this guide. I felt I could have used with something a little contemporary to balance out all the Italian Renaissance art, so next time I’ll be paying this museum a visit. Via Don Minzoni, 14.
Mercato di Mezzo: If you’re a foodie, then this is the market for you. It’s really just an alleyway with stalls and shops whose contents spill over onto tables in the street. This is where you go to buy your 125 year-old balsamic modena vinegar or block of Parmesan (an Italian’s trader’s gold, from how expensive it is per kg). There are obviously also the salami and prosciutto vendors, as well as a colorful array of fruit stalls that would make any rainbow jealous. Quadrilatero.
Casa Isolani: walk under and through the tallest portico in Bologna and you’ll come across Casa Isolani. A 13th century building turned into an arcade of boutiques and fancy dining, all clustered around a cute courtyard. Strada Maggiore, 19.
Via Farini: this is the street where the luxury shopping happens. In my case it was more like luxury-window shopping, but the displays are still impressive and the shops are below some of the most beautiful porticos in the city – covered in baby blue, ornate frescos with gold trims.