Bologna Travel Guide

The Heart of Italian Joie de Vivre - A Blend of Historic Charm, Culinary Delights, and Vibrant Culture in Europe's Oldest University Town

Europe’s oldest university town, light-hearted, vivacious Bologna, is perhaps the most exciting city in Italy. Although lacking in some of the opulent art and museums seen elsewhere in Italy, Bologna offers a different kind of charm, created by a bohemian attitude visible in the cafés and trattorie that dot the streets and plazas of the center city.

The large and exceptionally well-preserved Centro Storico (historic center) is pedestrian-friendly and perfect for strolling. It is considered one of Europe’s largest intact historic centers and a potpourri of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and modern architecture. At the heart of the center are the bustling Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno (where the 16th-century Fountain of Neptune stands), two adjoining plazas rimmed with cafés and beautiful buildings like the Palazzo Comunale, now the town hall. Inside, a monumental staircase designed by Bramante to allow horse-drawn carriages upstairs is the first thing you will notice. The building is also home to a small art collection and a museum focusing on the work of artist Giorgio Morandi.

Nearby sits one of the city’s most unique churches, the Basilica di San Petronio. This large Gothic Church, the fifth-largest basilica in the world, is unfinished but still beautiful. Head to the Torre Asinelli, one of two leaning towers in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, to get a stellar view of the old city. At 97 meters, it affords a beautiful panorama of Bologna’s rooftops and Church spires.

Like many Italian cities, Bologna was founded by the Etruscans in 500 BC (who called it Felsina), although its name dates to a Gallic tribe called the Boii, who conquered the settlement a few short hundred years later. Eventually, the Romans also appeared, bestowing it with the name Bononia in 189 BC. Today, you can see the remnants of the Roman period under the old stock exchange (Sala Borsa) and, of course, at the Museo Archeologico. An important Roman center for centuries, it eventually declined and, in 728, became part of the Lombard Kingdom. Its university was founded during this time. Created in 1088, it is one of the world’s oldest. Dante was a student here. Always a progressive place, Bologna was ahead of its time when, in 1256, it freed all enslaved people and abolished serfdom.

Bologna has always been a hotly contested city. The Church, various emperors, and aristocratic families have long fought over it. The university has traditionally brought the city revenue, and trade flourished under the guilds (in the Mercato di Mezzo area, the streets are named after the guilds and workshops that have been there for centuries).

Napoleon’s army arrived in 1796 and swiftly took over the city and its possessions. Upon his departure, Bologna became part of the Papal State until being incorporated into Italy with the unification. Through scores of civil wars and scuffles for hundreds of years, Bologna remained one of Europe’s most influential cities. It’s still one of Italy’s economic engines and is a necessary transportation and trade hub. Bologna was a European Capital of Culture in 2000.

Bologna has many nicknames, the most famous being “La Grassa” (the fat one, a reference to the varied culinary temptations), “La Rossa” (the red, referring to Bologna’s fame for being communist and far left, and also a reference to the city’s dominant terracotta color) and “La Dotta” (the learned one, a reference to Bologna’s historic university). The famous author Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) was a professor at the University of Bologna! John Grisham, another best-selling author, recently set his book “The Broker” in Bologna. Above all, the thing that strikes the lucky visitor to Bologna, apart from its fabulous food and remarkable cultural heritage, is its inhabitants’ general joie de vivre. Without a doubt, Bologna is one of Italy’s most pleasurable and fun cities.

  • Fresh pasta, sold by weight
    Fresh pasta, sold by weight

    Gastronomy & Wine


  • Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno

    The epicenter of the Centro Storico, here you will find the imposing Fountain of Neptune and the Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall), home to a small museum dedicated to Giorgio Morandi. Beautiful squares, both of them.

  • Palazzo Comunale

    Nowadays, the town hall, this palace is where Charles V (I in Spain), was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Clemente VII. He was the last Emperor to receive a papal coronation. This is a lovely place to visit.

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  • Basilica di San Petronio

    The world’s fifth-largest basilica, the towering San Petronio encloses a mammoth sundial dating to the 17th century. The Gothic façade is still unfinished.

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  • Due Torri

    Who needs Pisa when Bologna boasts two leaning towers? The tallest at 97 meters, the Torre Asinelli, was built in the early 12th century and has 498 steps you can climb to enjoy a fabulous view of the city.

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  • Basilica di San Domenico

    Home to the tomb of the founder of the Dominican Order, San Domenico, this is one of the city’s more interesting churches. The sarcophagus sits in a small chapel where a barrage of artwork and sculpture (including some by Michelangelo) stands watch over the saint.

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  • Jewish ghetto

    Bologna retains a medieval Jewish ghetto, and you can still see the narrow passageways, alleys, and courtyards where the Church confined Bologna’s Jews in the 16th century. Located between Via dell’ Inferno and its adjacent streets, there used to be two actual gates enclosing the area. The Via dell’ Inferno is also where the synagogue was located. The Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico) is fascinating and exhibits the history of the Jewish community in Emilia Romagna (Ferrara is another town that had a strong Jewish tradition).

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  • Ducati Museum

    For Ducati motorcycle lovers, this museum traces the history of the Ducati family. You can see antique motorcycles, old ads and more.

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  • Il Collegio di Spagna

    This medieval college, founded in 1365 to house the Spanish students enrolled in the university, is off the trodden path. Visits are by appointment only, and if you can get in, you will see a beautiful structure that resembles a monastery with a cloister and frescoed Loggia. An amusing anecdote is that thanks to tradition, the college still houses 16 (quite lucky) Spanish students enrolled at the University of Bologna for free!

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