Best Things To Do In Bologna, Italy

things to do in bologna italy
Contributing Writer
| 6 min read

Bologna, as the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, is one of the most appealing cities in Italy, for locals. However, despite being a significant point for connections to popular destinations such as Florence, Milan and Venice, Bologna remains an underrated city, off the beaten tourist track. Known by several nicknames, namely La Dotta (the educated), La Grassa (the fat), and La Rossa (the red), the city’s unique character certainly warrants a visit for the curious traveller. Here are the 10 best things to do in the charming city of Bologna, for an authentic taste of Italy!

1. Visit the Basilica of San Petronio - the symbol of Bologna

San Petronio - Piazza Maggiore - Bologna
Source: Photo by user Michele Ursino used under CC BY-SA 2.0

As you arrive in the old town of Bologna, the first site to visit is none other than the city’s symbol - the Basilica of San Petronio. Standing on the city’s main square, the Piazza Maggiore, it is the sixth largest church in Europe and one of the largest in the world, so you will definitely notice the impressive architecture of this church, built in 1390. Named in honour of the Bolognese patron saint, Petronio, it is interesting to note that while San Petronio is the city’s most important church, it was originally intended as a public space rather than a religious one. Step into the church and realize how small you feel, relative to the enormous size of this majestic building. Marvel at its classic interior and unfinished facade, featuring marble in Bologna’s colours, white with red at the bottom.

Basilica of San Petronio

Address: Piazza Galvani, 5, Bologna, Italy

Price: Free admission. 2 EUR (2.10 USD) for taking photographs in the church. Guided tour at 8 EUR (8.50 USD) per adult for groups, minimum 7 persons.

Opening Hours: 8 am - 6.30 pm daily (till 6 pm in winter).

Access: Take bus 11, 25 or 27 from Central Station to Piazza Maggiore.

Contact: +39 051 231415

Website: Basilica of San Petronio (Italian only)

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2. People watch in the heart of town at Piazza Maggiore

Piazza Maggiore durante una manifestazione di beneficienza
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Ugeorge used under CC BY-SA 4.0

As the central square of Bologna, the Piazza Maggiore is right smack in the city centre. Since the 13th century, when construction began on the buildings surrounding the square, Piazza Maggiore has been the centre of Bolognese life. This was where citizens gathered to listen to announcements for new laws, and capital executions were witnessed. Goods from all over the world were also peddled at the square till the mid 19th century, at one of Europe’s largest open-air markets. Nowadays, everyone visits the square for one reason or another, as it has become the favourite meeting place for locals and foreigners, alike. Thus, it is also a great place to chill and people watch, in this vibrant part of town, where you can truly immerse yourself in the local atmosphere.

Piazza Maggiore

Address: Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Italy

Access: Take bus 11, 25 or 27 from Central Station to Piazza Maggiore.

Contact: +39 051 239660

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3. Check out Bologna’s most unique church - the Basilica of Santo Stefano

Basilica di Santo Stefano, Bologna
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Chiari86 used under CC BY-SA 4.0

There are a lot of beautiful churches in Bologna, but if you only have time for one, head to the Basilica of Santo Stefano. It is not only the oldest church in the city, dating back to the early Middle Ages but also one that evokes a lot of charm. There are a total of seven churches within the compounds, thus earning it the nickname of Le Sette Chiese, which means “seven churches”, locally.

Originally, these churches were independent of one another, but are now interconnected by gardens, porticoes, and other structures. Look out for exquisite medieval structures in the Basilica of Santo Stefano, such as the octagonal Santo Sepolcro, opening onto a pillared courtyard that adjoins a two-story cloister, and the elegant mosaic floors in the otherwise plain, third church.

Basilica di Santo Stefano

Address: Via Santo Stefano, 24, Bologna, Italy

Price: Free admission.

Opening Hours: Weekdays: 9 am - 12.30 pm and 3.30 pm - 6.30 pm; holidays: 9 am - 1 pm and 3.30pm - 7 pm. During religious services, tourist visits could be limited or suspended.

Access: Take bus 11, 25, 27, 30, 36 or 37 from Central Station to Basilica di Santo Stefano.

Contact: +39 051 223256

Website: Basilica di Santo Stefano

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4. Climb the leaning Towers of Bologna for a bird's eye view of the city

Bologna Towers
Source: Max Pixel

The Leaning Tower of Pisa may be more well known than the Towers of Bologna, but it is not the tallest leaning tower in Italy. The twin Towers of Bologna - the Garisenda Tower and the Asinelli Tower, appear to tilt much more because of their narrow shape. The taller of the two towers, the 498-step Asinelli Tower, stands at a towering 97 metres (318.2 feet). Although the Garisenda Tower is just half the height of Asinelli, its extreme lean by over 13 metres (42.7 feet), makes it look more majestic. Constructed in the 12th century, these towers were used as a lookout to defend the city from invaders. Picture yourself as a guard in a bygone era and climb the narrow and steep steps of these magnificent medieval structures, to get to the top. Be rewarded with panoramic views of the enchanting city!

Towers of Bologna

Address: Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, Bologna, Italy

Price: 3 EUR per adult (3.20 USD).

Opening Hours: Refer to website.

Access: Take bus 21, 25, 27, 30, 36 or 37 from Central Station to Asinelli Tower.

Contact: +39 051 647 2113

Website: Towers of Bologna

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5. Tuck into the best Bolognese pasta meal in the city of La Grassa

Spaghetti bolognese pasta
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Amin used under CC BY-SA 4.0

After a memorable hike up the Towers of Bologna, bet you can’t wait to energise yourself with some tasty Italian cuisine. Bologna is renowned for its delectable cuisine, and the most famous of all is the typical Bolognese hand-made pasta, tagliatelle. In the city of La Grassa, you will find multifarious restaurants serving the delightful pasta. Pasta Fresca Naldi is a popular little 8-seater pasta shop, often crowded with both locals and tourists, who can’t resist its fresh and tasty handmade pasta. Try some before it is sold out for the day!

Pasta Fresca Naldi

Address: Via del Pratello, 71/A, Bologna, Italy

Price: from 6 EUR (6.40 USD).

Opening Hours: 9.30 am - 2.30 pm from Tuesday to Sunday; 6.30 pm - 11 pm on Friday and Saturday. Closed on Monday.

Access: 4-minute walk from Porta Sant`Isaia bus stop. Buses: 14, 20, 21, 33, 671, 826.

Contact: +39 051 523288

Website: Pasta Fresca Naldi

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6. Appreciate Bologna's rich history through the interactive Palazzo Pepoli

Elisa Bonaparte at the mirror
Source: Photo by Flickr user Davide Alberani used under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Palazzo Pepoli was a medieval palace, which has been converted into the civic Museum of the History of Bologna, known locally as Museo della Storia di Bologna. Designed by world renowned architect and designer Mario Bellini, appreciate Bologna’s rich history and heritage through its interactive and innovative design, from the Etruscan period to the present day.

Palazzo Pepoli

Address: Via Castiglione 8, Bologna, Italy

Price: 10 EUR per adult (10.60 USD).

Opening Hours: 10 am - 7 pm from Tuesday to Sunday. Last admission 1 hour before closing. Closed on Monday.

Access: Take bus 11 or 21 from Central Station to the museum.

Contact: +39 051 19936370

Website: Palazzo Pepoli

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7. Shop at the historical open-air market - La Piazzola

It is often said that the best way to gain insight into local culture is to visit a local market. Indeed, one of the best things to do on a Friday or Saturday, in Bologna is to check out the historical La Piazzola, an open-air market that has existed as early as the year 1251. Originally a cattle market, La Piazzola is a huge market that fills the Piazza Mercato. Now, over 400 street vendors sell a myriad of goods, from vintage clothing to handmade jewellery, ethnic handicrafts, cosmetics, household items and more. Even if you are not a shopaholic, you will love the vibrant atmosphere in this lively market for a real taste of the daily lives of locals.

La Piazzola

Address: Piazza Mercato, Bologna, Italy

Price: Free admission.

Opening Hours: Every Friday and Saturday from sunrise to sunset.

Website: La Piazzola (Italian only)

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8. Marvel at the impressive Basilica of San Domenico

San Domenico Church (1228-1238) and Ghisilardi chapel (1530-1535 by Baldassarre Peruzzi) at Bologna
Source: Photo by user Carlo Raso used under PUBLIC DOMAIN

The Basilica of San Domenico, or St. Dominic Church, is one of the major churches of Bologna and is named after Saint Dominic, who founded the convent. It took several centuries before work on the church was fully completed, and it contains works of art by the greatest artists of the day, including Michelangelo and Nicola Pisano. Admire in awe the detailed carvings on the marble tomb that enshrines Saint Dominic’s remains, and the remarkable Renaissance wood inlay in the choir.

Basilica of San Domenico

Address: Piazza S. Domenico, 13, Bologna, Italy

Price: Free admission.

Opening Hours: Free guided tours on the first and second Saturday of the month at 10.30 am and 3.30 pm.

Access: Take bus 11 or 30 from Central Station to the museum.

Contact: +39 051 640 0411

Website: Basilica of San Domenico

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9. Hike your way through the famous Porticoes of San Luca

Portico di San Luca. Crepuscolo - panoramio
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Carlo Pelagalli used under CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the most well-known architectural works of Bologna are the Porticoes of San Luca, said to be the longest in the world, at 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles) long and with 666 arches. The arches are built to protect the virgin icon, up the hill from the Porta Saragozza to San Luca Sanctuary. It is a popular hiking path that many undertake for a unique experience as they travel through the grand baroque-style structures, constructed in the 17th century. Feel a sense of achievement as you reach the end of the famous portico and see the holy cross. Enjoy the beautiful views of the countryside here, from the front steps of the basilica!

The Porticoes of San Luca

Access: Start from Piazza Maggiore, 1 and end at Via di San Luca, 36.

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10. Discover Italy's "little Venice" with the hidden charms of Bologna's canals

Source: Photo by user WordRidden used under CC BY 2.0

Just like Venice, Bologna has a vast network of canals that run through the heart of the city. However, this medieval canal network is often overlooked, even by the locals and buildings were constructed over them, from the 1950s to the 1960s. Enchanted by the picturesque canal scenery in Venice, but put off by the throngs of tourists in the popular Italian city? Then visit the hidden Bologna canals instead, for they are equally charming, yet without the tourist crowds. A great spot is through the recently restored little window in Via Piella, offering a charming view over the Reno Canal.

Hidden canals of Bologna

Address: Various spots in Bologna, Italy

Price: Free admission.

Opening Hours: Always open.

Website: Hidden canals of Bologna

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Discover the alluring city of Bologna

Bologna is an Italian city, oozing with plenty of character and charm. Not only is it the country’s gastronomic capital, but it is also a medieval city, bustling with activities suitable for people of all ages. Plan your next trip to Italy with Bologna as one of your stops, soon and relish in the charms of Bologna!

Any must-sees we missed? Tell us about them in the comments section or write a post here to help out fellow travelers!
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