There’s far more to Italy’s culinary capital than its delicious cuisine. Discover the top 10 attractions and things to do in Bologna with our travel guide.
While Bologna may be considered Italy’s culinary capital – accounting for one if its three nicknames, the Fat – there’s so much more to this city that needs discovering. It’s a place of architectural beauty and fascinating history, all mixed in with cultural variety. Here are the 10 attractions you won’t want to miss during your trip.
Basilica di San Petronio
Not only is this the most important church in the city, but Basilica di San Petronio is also the most imposing. Standing more than 150 feet tall and measuring 430 feet wide, it’s one of the largest churches in the world. You’ll find the basilica, named after the patron saint of the city, on the main square, Piazza Maggiore. While building work started in 1390, you’ll notice it’s not actually finished, with a large part of the facade awaiting completion. Comprising 22 chapels, the church is open daily for tours.
Museo della Storia di Bologna
Discover more than 2,500 years of Bolognese history in Museo della Storia di Bologna. This interactive venue opened in 2012. Across 35 rooms it catalogues the city’s history, showing its evolution from an Etruscan settlement – as far back as the 9th century BC – right through to the modern day.
Translated as the Museum of the History of Bologna in English, it’s located inside Palazzo Pepoli, which is the former residence of an important family in medieval Bologna.
Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
Bologna is famous for its porticoes – there are around 23 miles of them across the city – which have been sheltering locals for 1,000 years or more. The longest of them is Portico di San Luca, where 666 arches line a two-and-a-half-mile passage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.
The portico begins at the Bonaccorsi Arch at Porta Saragozza and the uphill climb starts at Meloncello, where a mile-long stairway takes you up to the sanctuary some 900 feet above sea level. Once you’ve hiked up, give yourself a rest and admire the breathtaking views.
Towers of Bologna
The city’s two leaning towers – the striking Torre degli Asinelli and its smaller twin, the Torre Garisenda – have become a symbol of the city. Admiring these from the ground is impressive, but you can also venture up the 498 steps to the top of Asinelli. It’s fairly steep and narrow, but the view across the city is well worth the effort.
Both towers have a lean to them – Asinelli is only off by seven feet, but Garisenda has a 10-foot tilt, which is why it’s not open to the public. If you’re a student, you may wish to take note of some local folklore: the myth says you will never graduate if you climb the tower. Aspiring scholars beware.
Bologna is Europe’s oldest university town, which is how it earned one of its nicknames, the Learned. Archiginnasio is the first seat of the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088, and can lay claim to the illustrious title of the oldest university in Europe – and second oldest in the world.
This building remained the seat of the university until 1803 and is now home to the largest stocked public library in Italy. You’ll find more than 500,000 texts and 12,000 manuscripts here. The building features a two-story arcade, surrounding a beautiful courtyard.
Basilica di Santo Stefano
A labyrinth of pastoral structures – dating back to the 11th century – make Basilica di Santo Stefano unique among the city’s religious buildings. It’s also known as Sette Chiese – which translates as ‘seven churches’ – although only four remain, of which Santi Vitale e Agricola is the city’s oldest. The classical architecture has Romanesque, Lombard, and ancient Roman elements. Make your way in through the Chiesa del Crocifisso entrance – where the bones of the city’s patron saint, St. Petronius, are housed.
San Colombano – Collezione Tagliavini
At San Colombano, you’ll find a collection of more than 80 musical instruments that have been collected by organist Luigi Tagliavini. See harpsichords, pianos, clavichords, and oboes dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. The instruments are housed inside a restored church that was founded in 616. Free concerts regularly take place in this stunning setting.
On the west side of Piazza Maggiore, you’ll find Palazzo Comunale, the magnificent palace that has housed the Bologna city council since 1336. Take some time to admire the building from the outside before heading in and up to the second floor, where you can visit Collezioni Comunali d’Arte, a collection of 13th- to 19th-century paintings and sculptures.
The area around Via Clavature, to the east of Piazza Maggiore, is known as Quadrilatero. This is the former Roman Bologna, and wandering its narrow streets offers a glimpse into this quintessentially Italian city’s past.
Here you’ll find the old medieval market alongside shops that have preserved their historic architecture and furnishings. Stop at one of the cafes and enjoy a relaxing coffee as you watch the world go by.
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
Discover work by Bolognese artists at the city’s main art gallery, Pinacoteca Nazionale. Dating back to the 14th century, the collection includes canvases by members of the Carracci family who were among the founders of the Italian baroque art movement, influenced by the Counter-Reformation. Their evocative, emotive work is often based around religious themes. One of the highlights of the gallery is the Madonna di San Ludovico by Annibale Carracci.
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