Coming back from a faraway work trip, I realised that changing trains at Bologna was a terrible idea.
I'd never visited the city before, it was Saturday morning, and there was no reason to rush back. So ten minutes before arriving at Bologna station I decided to spend the weekend there, and I'm really glad I did.
Bologna is famous for its distinctive terracotta-hued buildings, its historical communist leanings, and its student life, being home to Europe’s oldest university. And of course, for having some of the most delicious food in all of Italy.
That was pretty much all I knew about the place when I arrived.
I quickly changed my FrecciaRossa ticket and called my husband who, luckily, is always up for getting on a train to meet me somewhere. Then I started walking, cluelessly. in the direction of the centre.
The streets of Bologna are still beautiful in the rain. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
It was raining, but no problem - almost every street is porticoed. In fact Bologna has 38 kilometres of Unesco-listed porticoes, meaning you can walk pretty much anywhere in the city in style, and without getting soaked.
Where would I go? Boh. I just hoped I'd find some tortellini and a glass of something red before very long.
In the end though, I learned that there's a lot more to Bologna than pasta and politics. So in case you have a similar stopover planned, here are a few things everyone should see and do in the city, even on the shortest trip.
Get a glimpse of history
Did you know that Bologna was a city built on canals? Surprisingly enough, I didn't.
Turns out it once had a thriving textiles industry, as evidenced by street names like Via delle Moline (Street of the mills). Most of these canals have sadly been paved over now, but you can still catch a glimpse of one through a quirky little window built into a wall on Via Piella.
This little window gives you a view of the canals and an idea of how the city once looked. It is also seemingly Bologna’s most popular tourist attraction; when I found it, there was a long queue of people waiting in the street for their turn to have a peek.
Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local
Another place where you can glimpse the city’s past is at the main city library, Sala Borsa, which has a glass floor to allow visitors to see the excavated Roman remains below. It could be the best library ever.
You can, apparently, even go downstairs to walk among the ruins, but I didn’t realise this until later. Sometimes planning your trip ahead of time really does pay off...
Visit Piazza Maggiore
In any Italian city, you know without checking that you’ll probably find the main attractions on and around the main square, or Piazza Grande.
Bologna doesn’t have a Piazza Grande, but a Piazza Maggiore, and it is suitably full of fascinating sights. In fact it was one of the most interesting main squares I've seen anywhere in Italy.
Palazzo Re Enzo. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
The surrounding palazzi date from the 13th century. There's the intriguing Palazzo d'Accursio, which has a church filled with frescoes and fine art museum. The Palazzo Re Enzo is now an event space hosting (often free) art exhibitions.
Behind the cafes and gift shops, behind the porticoes, you'll find the "curiosity" of the Palazzo del Podestà. Here, a central section of the vaulted ceiling has the uncanny ability to send sound from one pillar to another - if you lean in close and whisper into the wall, your friend listening at the opposite corner will be able to hear what you're saying.
Don't be surprised if you see people talking to walls in Bologna. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
It sounds (and looks) a bit odd, but it works. Why? It's something to do with the unusual architecture - the building's tower has no base but rests on the four pillars of this vault.
Another surprise was the nearby Fountain of Neptune, a stunning Renaissance work commissioned by a Medici, Pope Pius IV, which was built to represent abundance and the "generosity of the papacy."
A majestic figure of the sea god stands above cherubs, dolphins, and female figures spurting water at passers by from their nipples. Ah, Italy.
The Fountain of Neptune. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
See the leaning tower
Who needs Pisa’s tower and its huge crowds of tourists? Bologna has its very own leaning tower and, get this, it leans more. A lot more. (Especially since Pisa started straightening theirs out…)
Bologna’s two towers are a symbol of the city, and the shorter of the two, Garisenda, is the leaning one.
These are just two left of the many towers built in medieval times, when the city resembled a medieval version of Manhattan. Rival noble families in Bologna and towns throughout Emilia-Romagna, Le Marche, and beyond would compete to build the tallest tower to show off their wealth and power.
You can't climb up the leaning tower, but it only costs a few euros for a ticket to climb its sister tower, Asinelli, and get an incredible view of the city. But be aware that you can’t just turn up – you’ll need to buy tickets and book your visiting time slot in advance at the city’s tourist information office.
The two red-brick towers look even more dramatic on a rainy day. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
Visit the markets
Every Friday and Saturday, all year round, in all weathers, you can visit the famous La Piazzola di Bologna market. Hundreds of stalls sell everything from quilts and scarved to handmade jewellery. There's lots of vintage clothing for sale - from actual vintage Converse and Vans shoes to the Italian version of "vintage" clothing stalls, which are more like a jumble sale.
I went straight for the stalls selling cut-price designer kitchenware. After buying a ridiculous amount of fancy plates and dishes for ten euros, I realised I couldn't exactly carry them around the city. Luckily the owner of the stall stashed them away , telling me she’d be there “until sunset”. And she was. Unlike many markets that pack up in the early afternoon, this one is literally open from dawn until dusk.
After dusk, Mercato delle Erbe is an atmospheric place to visit in the evenings, where you can join locals for a drink and a bite to eat from one of the food stalls.
Enjoy art and music in the streets
One thing that struck me about Bologna - and this might be just on weekends - was the huge number of musicians performing in the streets and squares in between showers of rain.
From ridiculously suave young Italian men singing classics like "Volare" as crowds of happy tourists clap along, to a long-haired guy with ripped jeans sitting on the floor, grinning as he manically bashed out a rhythm on assorted kitchen pots and pans. Whatever you stumble across is sure to be entertaining.
And under the porticoes, where merchants once sold their wares, artists now sit and paint.
Artists like Gianni Tinti work under the porticoes whatever the weather. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
Eat all of the food
After the mayor of Bologna recently kicked up a huge fuss over visitors asking for spaghetti Bolognese. I was well aware that I mustn’t even bother looking for it on a menu here. Instead, there’s tagliatelle al ragù, and it’s just as good, even if I’m a self-confessed spag bol fan (sorry, not sorry.)
But tortellini in brodo, little pasta parcels in broth, is the real must-try dish from this region. Try it at La Montanara (book ahead) which also serves up some heavenly tortellini filled with creamy lemon ricotta.
Despite looking like a very Instagram-friendly kind of place, this cosy trattoria was actually packed with local people enjoying homemade pasta and jugs of the lightly sparkling red house wine - a little similar to the Lambrusco (the real one!) that turned my world upside down in Mantova.
And traditional dishes aside, Bologna is a city that has no problem challenging and building on its famous cuisine. The city is the best place in Italy to find organic, vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free food served in restaurants and cafes, as well as Greek, Mexican and lots of other international cuisines.
Even the biggest Italian cities aren’t known for having a very modern or global outlook when it comes to food, so Bologna’s variety of restaurants makes a refreshing change.
Before trying out the fabulous restaurants, though, you can escape the rain with an aperitivo cocktail at one of the many cosy cafe-bars tucked inside gallerias.
And my favourite thing of all was sampling local wines, cheeses and of course, the local mortadella sausage - or, as the rest of the world knows it, bologna - in the wine bar of dreams, Enoteca Italiana.
.Wine and a snack at Enoteca Italiana. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
Have a luxurious breakfast (and sleep)
One of the best things about weekends is indulging in a sugar-laden Italian breakfast. It’s not Sunday without a giant, flaky, chocolate-filled croissant and a cappuccino the size of my head, and I’m always seeking out the cafes with the best pastries.
We didn’t have to look far in Bologna. We stumbled into our hotel’s café-restaurant in the morning and were overjoyed to find heaps of fresh pastries and, unexpectedly, someone playing the harp on a stage. A bit over the top? Maybe. The cheapest? Definitely not. After all, this place becomes a Michelin-starred restaurant by night.
A harpist playing in the Michelin-starred restaurant dining room adjacent to the cafe at I Portici. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
Still, even the coffee and chocolate croissants were so good that we lazed around in there for nearly an hour, and I’m not telling you how many croissants I had (or how much the bill came to - yikes.)
The hotel, I Portici, has a perfect location in a grand, recently renovated historic building, between the city centre and the train station and backing onto the pretty Montagnola park. I’d go back just for the breakfast. Our room was tiny, but on the plus side, it was quite romantic to be sleeping above the porticoes, the window looking out onto the stern-faced statues of saints on the façade of the church across the road. Considering that we did almost zero research and booked at the last minute, I think we got lucky.
There's much, much more to Bologna than this, and a weekend hardly does it justice. But this city, historic yet forward-looking, down-to-earth yet sophisticated, and cheerful and inspiring even in a downpour, should definitely be high on your list of must-visit places in Italy. However much time you have to spare.
More weekend wanderlust:
- Matera, Italy's city of caves and contrasts
- A love letter to Turin, Italy
- The perfect 24 hours in Milan
- Siena and a steam train ride through wine country
Would you like to see more travel articles in The Local? If so, where and what should we be writing about? Let us know.