I ended up in Bologna by accident. Well, sort of. I didn’t take the wrong train or anything but it was a last minute decision after my plans in Venice fell through due to flooding. I’ll admit, Bologna was not my favourite city of Italy. I spent 2 full days there but, to be honest, I easily could have just spent one day in Bologna. It’s small, and there isn’t a ton to see and do. However, I do recommend staying for a couple of days either to take a break and slow down a bit. Why? Because it’s foodie heaven and makes a good base to see other parts of Italy. With that in mind, here is my suggestions for a Bologna itinerary.
How Many Days Should I Spend in Bologna?
As I said above, I could have easily just spent one day in Bologna city itself. To me, Bologna is a walk-and-look type city. Somewhere to stop, take photos, eat gelato, and continue on. There isn’t much to actually DO as a tourist. Other than eat, because wow! I have never been happier eating my way through a city. From gelato and cookies to freshly made tortellini and tagliatelle with ragu sauce… I’m getting hungry just thinking of all the food there. Which, to be honest, is the real reason why I suggest spending a couple days in Bologna: the food alone is worth it.
The good news is Bologna makes a great base to explore nearby areas of Italy so you can go on adventures during the day to work up an appetite and stuff your face with some of the best pasta you will ever have at night. For this reason, I suggested spending about 3 days in Bologna.
Things to do in Bologna
So what is there do in Bologna? For my personal travel tastes, not much. That being said, I did enjoy wandering around and exploring. It’s definitely a pedestrian-friendly city with lots of interesting things to see and photograph. Here’s what I’d suggest:
Explore Bologna’s Porticos
Bologna’s Porticos are everywhere. Not only did the come in incredibly handy during the rainy weather I experienced, but they also add a lot of charm to the city. Some have interesting street lights while others have painted ceilings. Some are plain and others are more decorative and ornate. I thought they added a lot charm to the city.
Wander Through Quadrilatero
This part of Bologna was my personal favourite. It’s busy, more colourful, and full of different foodie finds. This is one of the best places to come if you are looking for local produce. From fresh-baked breads to hand made pasta, all types of cheeses, wines, and even fresh fish. There’s a bit of everything. I ended up standing in line for a bakery in this area just because I figured it would be worth the wait since everyone else around me was a local. All I bought was a cookie but I will say, it was a very good cookie and the experience was pretty fun too.
Check out the Leaning Towers of Bologna
Think Pisa has the only leaning tower in Italy? Think again! Bologna once had over a hundred towers, and while a few remain to this day it is the two towers Garisenda and Asinelli that are the best-known. Asinelli is the tallest at 97 meters but Garisenda has quite the tilt to it. In fact, it leans 4 degrees which is actually a larger tilt that the famous leaning tower of Pisa.
The towers date back to 1109 and, if you don’t mind tight confined spaces and 498 steps, you can actually climb up Asinelli for views of the city. Plus, if you do it you definitely earn yourself an extra gelato.
People Watch at Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is the heart of Bologna. This large square has a lot of history, plenty of statues, and is unsurprisingly filled with people making it a fun place to just take a little break and people watch for a bit. Especially since the area around the square is lined with cafes and restaurants so you may as well order an aperol spritz and rest your feet for a bit! Of course, be mindful that this is a very touristic part of the city so keep an eye out for pickpockets!
Step Inside San Petronio Basilica
Located beside Piazza Maggiore is San Petronio Basilica. Construction began in 1390 yet, to this day, the façade of the building remains unfinished. Why? They ran out of money. Despite the fact that it is only half-complete from the outside, it’s still a beautiful building and is worth a look.
Take in the Views From Monte Della Guardia
Ok, I didn’t do this one because you are supposed to go for the views and my time in Bologna was very overcast and rainy so I didn’t bother. However, if you get nicer weather and clear skies then it might be worth it. Plus, it means meandering up the longest portico in the world to get there which is pretty cool too. At the top, you will also find the Sanctuary of Madonna which is one of the oldest churches in Bologna.
Explore Mercato Delle Erbe
Foodies will also want to take a wander through Mercato Delle Erbe, a well-known food market in Bologna. While not as picturesque and quaint as Quadrilatero, you can find all kinds of goodies here. Chances are you won’t buy, but trust me- that won’t stop the man with the aged parmesan from trying to sell!
What and Where to Eat in Bologna
While indoor food markets and streets famous for their food vendors are always a fun find, the real question when it comes to planning your Bologna itinerary is: where to eat?
Well, you have plenty of choices. It’s easy to find a great place to eat in Bologna. The trick is really more WHAT to eat.
Tortellini in Bologna
First and foremost, Bologna is known for its tortellini, commonly referred to as tortellino. Yes, you can find this pasta across Italy but it truly is the best in Bologna. Trust me, I’ve eaten my fair share over my visits.
According to legend, this pasta was shaped after a man saw the goddess Venus naked. He was obsessed with her navel and created the pasta to reflect its shape. Yes, it’s a bit strange but I, for one, am very grateful of his odd belly button obsession.
The earliest recipe for tortellini dates back to the 1300s and to this day it is still considered almost an art form in Bologna. As you wander through the streets you will notice many windows looking into kitchens where you will find women rolling out the dough for tortellini. It’s fun to watch!
The most common tortellini plates in Bologna is tortellini in brodo (broth). I will admit, I did not get this one. I got tortellini in a cheese sauce and have zero regrets because it was one of the best meals of my life.
If you want to try tortellini in Bologna, either in broth or in a cheese sauce like I did, then head to a restaurant called Trattoria Anna Maria. It’s pretty small and very busy so I do recommend making reservations. But it came highly recommended to me a by a couple of locals and it did not disappoint. I actually went twice. You can find their website here.
Tagliatelle al Ragu in Bologna
Another must-try dish in Bologna is tagliatelle al ragu. This is NOT spaghetti bolognese.
Let me say it again for the people in the back: NOT SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE.
If you see spaghetti bolognese on a menu- run. It’s not authentic, it’s a tourist trap.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, tagliatelle al ragu can be found in many restaurants in Bologna as well. I had several people tell me to go to a restaurant called Osteria dell’Orsa for it so, I did as I was told and was very pleasantly surprised. Not just at the delicious meal, but also because of the VERY affordable pricing. Eating here is cheap!
Now, this restaurant is a bit different than you would expect. I didn’t get a table to myself but rather joined other solo (and couple) diners at a large rectangular table. It was a fun social way to eat that I really enjoyed as a solo traveller.
Find the website for Osteria dell’Orsa here.
I can’t write about Italy and not mention gelato (have you seen my post on gelato in Rome?), especially in Bologna which is a foodie city. Despite the rain and cooler temperatures, I was 100% that girl who walked around with a cone of gelato in her hand. I can’t help it, I love the stuff.
My favourite place to get gelato in Bologna was Cremeria La Vecchia Stalla. They had so many flavours to choose from and the ones I got (dark chocolate and amaretto) were perfectly creamy and delicious. They do not have a website but the address is: Via Santo Stefano, 14/A, 40125 Bologna.
Other Bologna Foodie Favourites
I spent three nights in Bologna and, as I mentioned above, at twice at the same restaurant because it was so good. Bologna has plenty of great dishes- you will have no problem finding something on the menu you like. But it’s also worth noting that both lasagna and mortadella are very popular and well-known in this part of Italy. So if you like either (or both) this is the place to order them!
Food Tours to Add to your Bologna Itinerary
If you love to cook (or just to eat) then you might want to take a cooking class or a local food tour. There are tons of options in a variety of budgets for these types of activities. Take a look at some of these options:
- Food Tasting Walking Tour
- FICO Eatly World 1 Hour Tour
- Self-Guided Food Tasting Tour with Vouchers
- Cooking Class and Dinner with a Local Cook
- Bolognaise Cooking Class with Market Visit
Day Trips from Bologna
As I mentioned above, you really only need one day to see Bologna city itself. But it does make a great base from which to explore other nearby cities and areas.
I did a day trip from Bologna to San Marino. It’s long (about 3 hours each way by public transit) but 100% worth it. I loved my time there.
Other popular day trip options include:
Or, even bigger cities such as Florence, Venice, and Verona. All of these cities can be reached from Bologna by train, so you don’t need to worry about renting a car.
If you are looking for something a little different and don’t mind taking a tour, then consider wine-tasting tour like this one here.
Where to Stay in Bologna
As for where to stay in Bologna, I suggest in the old city within the city walls. This way it is easy to get to/from my recommended attractions and restaurants by foot. Although, there is public transit available through the busier parts of the city should you require it.
If you are looking for some suggestions that are actually in the city centre, consider the following:
Final Tips for Your Bologna Itinerary
As I said multiple times, the city itself wasn’t my favourite. I could easily have done with one day in Bologna and, if that’s a better fit for your schedule, then it could be the best option for you as well. However, if you have the time to spare and are looking to slow down a bit or want a base for a couple of days, the Bologna is a great pick. Especially if you are a foodie.
Keep in mind though, it’s status as a foodie city makes it popular among travellers so I highly recommend making reservations for any tours or restaurants that you have your heart set on in advance. This is not a city to skimp on eating out!
A Note on Travel Insurance in Italy
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.