Wedged between the well-trodden cities of Venice, Milan, and Florence, Bologna is often overlooked. That’s too bad because this vibrant historical and gastronomic center is one of the most culturally rich places in Italy. Home to 400,000 people, the capital of Emilia-Romagna has high quality-of-life indicators and ranks as one of the most livable destinations in the country.
Bologna is the perfect place to lose yourself amidst its elegant architecture, medieval side streets, food markets, crumbling historical houses, and impressive towers. Discover famous sights and hidden gems in our Bologna travel guide.
What To See In Bologna
Piazza Maggiore & Fontana del Nettuno
The medieval Piazza Maggiore is the beating heart of Bologna. This square dates back to 1200 and was developed over centuries! It is also home to several important palaces and churches — and a few secrets. One of these is under the vault of Palazzo del Podestà: position yourself in one corner beneath the Arengo tower, facing the column. Next, invite a friend or a passerby to stand in the opposite corner diagonally across from you, aligning themselves with the opposing column. When you speak, the other person will be able to hear you clearly while staying in their designated corner.
Next to Piazza Maggiore lies another famous square: Piazza del Nettuno. This piazza is named for its iconic, oversized fountain of Neptune created by the Flemish artist Giambologna in the mid-1500s.
Basilica di San Petronio
Located in Piazza Maggiore, the Basilica di San Petronio is the 6th largest church in Europe. Though the top of the façade is unfinished, it is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Italy. Don’t miss admiring its grand interior including the Chapel of the Magi, with its fresco cycle illustrating scenes from the life of Christ. Not to mention the stunning sundial on the floor of the basilica.
After you’ve visited the Basilica, make your way to the rear of the building from the outside. Here, an elevator will whisk you to a terrace on top of the basilica, which soars high above the city. From the rooftop terrace, you’ll enjoy a stunning view of the Bologna skyline and a sweeping vista of the surrounding hills.
The “finestrella” (little window) of Via Piella
In the 12th century, canals were built along Bologna’s two major rivers, the Savena and Reno, with a sophisticated hydraulic system of locks and pipes. Some of the canals were used to transport goods while others also carried people. As the economy developed over the centuries, major sections of the canal system were covered with roads and parking lots, especially after the end of World War II.
However, you can still catch a glimpse of Bologna’s historic canals if you know where to look. One of the best spots is through the finestrella (little window) on Via Piella. Incidentally, this spot lies near Trattoria dal Biassanot, one of the best places to eat in Bologna. Take a peek from the window to see water flowing between brightly colored houses before enjoying tagliatelle in a rich ragù sauce.
The Quadrilatero, the ancient market of Bologna
The heart of Bologna is made of tortellini and tagliatelle, mortadella and crescentine. Food and wine are the city’s main draw, so don’t miss wandering around the Quadrilatero of Bologna during your trip. This is the ancient market where the city’s guilds were based. Put Mercato di Mezzo in Google Maps and wander the surrounding streets.
Cured meats, pasta, fishmongers, flowers, fruits, and vegetables abound. The Quadrilatero is a pinwheel of colors, smells, and flavors. It is the ideal place for your shopping for Emilian goodness!
The University of Bologna was first established in 1088 and is considered the oldest university in the world. Over time, additional buildings have been developed to house academic lectures, and one of the most beautiful is the Archiginnasio. Just footsteps from Piazza Maggiore, this jaw-dropping palazzo was commissioned by Cardinal Borromeo in the 16th century. It was created to house the lecture halls of the university’s Law and Arts departments.
As you step inside, you’ll admire a courtyard with an arcade featuring 30 arches and frescoes all around. Stroll through the courtyard before heading to the first floor to visit the famous Teatro Anatomico: a 17th-century wooden theater where the first anatomy classes were held. As you walk the corridors, take a moment to admire the frescoed ceilings and the stunning decorations throughout. The Archiginnasio is a symbol of Bologna’s cultural and educational heritage so don’t miss it!
Asinelli and Garisenda Towers
These two defensive watchtowers are some of the most recognized symbols of Bologna. They are located in the heart of Bologna at the point where the ancient Via Emilia entered the city. The towers were built during the Middle Ages by the Asinelli and Garisenda families, demonstrating the social prestige of these two noble lineages.
According to legend, one day a farmer with two donkeys found a trunk full of coins and precious stones while working in the fields. He kept the treasure without saying anything to anyone. One day, the farmer’s son fell in love with a bourgeois girl and proposed, but the young woman’s father would only consent to the marriage if the young man could build the tallest tower in the city. When the farmer learned about this condition, he gave the treasure to his son who proceeded to build the Torre degli Asinelli (“Tower of the Donkeys”) — over 300 ft tall (95 meters). The young woman’s father consented, and the young couple was married.
Although it looks like it’s leaning, the tower of the Asinelli is open to the public. You can book the tickets here. There are 498 steps to the top, so it’s not for the faint of heart. The views of Bologna and the surrounding hillside, however, are worth the effort.
Like other medieval cities in Italy, Bologna had hundreds of towers, many of which have been lost over time. Today, there are officially 22 other towers. Although most are camouflaged in the fabric of the city, like Torre Prendiparte — an exclusive B&B and location for events.
The Sanctuary of San Luca and the longest portico in the world
Bologna has 53 km of arcades of shops, homes, and cafes, letting locals move around and stay dry while it rains. There are many things to love about Bologna but its cold, foggy weather in the winter months is not one of them. The most famous stretch of arcades is the Portico of San Luca. It is the longest portico in the world and a beautiful example of Italian portico architecture. Walking its length, which stretches for about 3.5 kilometers (around 2.2 miles), is a uniquely Bolognese thing to do. Connecting the city center and the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, located up on a hill, this portico has historically been used as a pilgrimage route. It takes about 30 minutes to walk through the 666 arches.
If you’d rather avoid the trek on foot, you can catch a bus to Porta Saragozza and start your ascent to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca from there. It’s worth climbing the 110 steps into the cupola for the “San Luca Sky Experience“: a 180-degree view of the city and the surrounding hills.
Piazza Santo Stefano: the sette chiese di Bologna
While strolling in the city center along the arcade corridors and buildings, among the voices of diners sitting at small tables and groups of young people chatting along the sidewalk your attention will surely be caught by the Basilica di Santo Stefano, also called Sette Chiese (seven churches).
The complex is called “Sette Chiese” because it comprises seven different environments: four churches, two outdoor spaces, and the Museum of Santo Stefano.
It is one of the most interesting architectural complexes in the city, and it is free to the public. Once you finish your tour, stop by 051 bar for an aperitivo with a lovely view of the Basilica and the square.