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15 insider tips to make living in Bologna even better

The northern Italian city famed for its rich food, world heritage porticoes and historical university is an attractive place to move to. Here, Bologna resident Karli Drinkwater shares some tips for making the transition smooth, simple and fun.

15 insider tips to make living in Bologna even better
Photo by Max Nayman on Unsplash

Bologna counts among the top ten places to live in Italy, according to a recent study.

It doesn’t draw in the same huge crowds of tourists as its northern neighbours Florence and Venice, but this is exactly what makes the city so livable.

READ ALSO: 15 simple hacks to make living in Rome better

As a resident of the so-called ‘la rossa’ (the red – named after both its red buildings and left-wing politics), you’re surrounded by history, Unesco-listed medieval porticoes, one of the oldest universities in the world, and a fresh, cosmopolitan vibe. It’s a city where you can feel like a local and won’t find yourself held up by the ‘Instagrammers’ intent on getting a good shot.

But any new city can take some getting used to. Here’s what you need to know about moving to Bologna if you think this is the place for you.

Check out the comune’s website (or office)

Hold the aperitivo and delicious cuisine for just a moment. If you want to move to Italy in general, you’ll need to make peace with its bureaucracy.

While it can be frustratingly slow and complicated, my experience of getting paperwork done is usually relatively efficient in the region of Emilia Romagna, compared nationally at least. However, it’s likely to be very different from how things work in your home country.

Head to the city’s council website, which is a good first port of call for information on administration and what’s happening around the city.

Or you can pop over to the comune (town hall) of Bologna’s central Ufficio Relazioni per il Pubblico (Office of Public Relations), commonly referred to as the URP, located in Bologna’s main square, Piazza Maggiore.

Know your district

If you live in the city of Bologna itself, you’ll need to get acquainted with the six quartieri – or districts – that make up the city.

Bologna’s International Women’s Forum has created a map of the six neighbourhoods to help you find your bearings.

They are from top clockwise, Navile, San Donata – San Vitale, Savena, Santo Stefano, Saragozza and Borgo Panigale and Reno.

Map: IWF Bologna

There are also municipal offices in each area, called sede del quartiere (neighbourhood offices), where you can carry out administrative tasks such as registering as a resident or signing your child up for school, for example.

Buy your bus ticket before boarding

Bologna’s city centre is crowded and travelling around by bike, bus or on foot is recommended rather than trying to drive. The streets in the centro storico (old town) are a ZTL, or zona a traffico limitato (restricted traffic zone), meaning you’ll get fined if you drive through them in a car without a residence permit.

As someone who’s been stung by the ZTL system, it’s important to remember that after the cameras have caught you, it can take weeks for a fine to arrive, meaning you may build up penalties before realising you’ve been taking the wrong roads.

Public transport or walking it is, then.

If you travel around Bologna by bus, you’ll need to buy your tickets before boarding. Some bus drivers on certain routes did accept cash if you hadn’t previously bought a ticket, but Covid-19 protocol has now put a stop to this.

You’ll need to buy a ticket from the tabaccherie (tobacco shops) and the City Pass is valid for 10 rides, with each journey coming in at a discounted cost. You can find information on prices for tickets and other passes here.

Photo by Max Nayman on Unsplash

Buy a cheap bike

Getting around Bologna by bike is a cost-efficient and eco-friendly way to travel, especially as pollution in the city is unfortunately a problem.

Bikes are perfect for navigating those narrow, crossing alleyways and most people will tell you it’s a much faster mode of transport than a car. The same goes for a scooter, which is exempt from most ZTL roads too.

If you buy a bicycle, don’t bother splashing out. There are a lot of bike thefts in Bologna, so don’t attract too much attention with a flashy set of wheels. Get a really secure lock too – you can find locks at the ferramenta (hardware store).

Save money on furniture and haggle in second-hand stores

Furnishing your new home needn’t cost the earth – nor do you necessarily need to trek to Ikea to get some value-for-money items.

For a touch of charm, you can check out the stores in and around Bologna that sell inexpensive used furniture.

IWF Bologna said, “Be prepared to hunt as there is often a lot of junk to sift through. Turnover is high, so come back regularly to find new gems. Most stores close for lunch and at least one morning or afternoon a week, so call first to check on business hours.”

Photo by Ubaldo Bitumi on Unsplash

See Roman ruins in the library for free

Bologna is a living museum, no matter where you turn. If you enter the city’s public library, Biblioteca Sala Borsa, you can see what remains of Roman architecture under the transparent floor in the main room on the ground floor. Some of the excavations trace back as far as the 7th century.

The library is a must for any Bologna resident, as study and learning are at the heart of the city. Also known as ‘La Dotta‘, (The Learned), Bologna is one of Italy’s most academic cities with a university that dates back to 1088.

Save money on tourist attractions with the Card Cultura

Instead of paying per entry, the local tourist board Welcome Bologna has created the Card Cultura – perfect for residents as it’s valid for one year and grants free access to plenty of museums and cultural attractions, as well as reduced rates on events and festivals.

As there are different exhibitions and talks during the year too, there’s always something new to use the card for. It’s also handy for when people come to visit and they want to visit those hotspots that you might begrudge paying entry for – again.

Try out Bologna’s international cuisine scene

The city is famed for its cuisine, both nationally and internationally, and the Bolognese people take their food heritage very seriously. This brings us to the last moniker of Bologna – ‘la grassa’ (the fat one).

Wander through the streets and you’ll hear animated discussions on how best to cook the brodo (meat juices) for the perfect bowl of tortellini.

You’ll also see its famous filled pasta being made by hand in the restaurants ahead of the lunch and dinner rush. Or you’ll smell the cold cuts of mortadella, a type of ham, as you the city charms you through its winding alleyways.

Ask an expert: What’s the difference between Italian tortellini and tortelloni?

But Bologna has more to offer. Its international and student population have seen the city diversify its culinary offering more and more. When you’ve lived here a while, you just might fancy a different taste from another part of the world – luckily, unlike most of Italy, Bologna has plenty to satiate those cravings.

The Greek restaurant ‘To Steki‘ is always packed, offering dishes from Greece in an informal atmosphere at very reasonable prices.

If Chinese is what you’re hankering after, the tourism experts at Bologna Welcome recommended La Cucina di Peng in the area of Bolognina – there’s no website, which probably means it’s a hidden gem and well worth checking out.

They also rated Babilonia for the best kebabs, India for Indian, Naga Thai for Thai, Pars for Persian, Soon for Korean and Yuzuya for Japanese.

Get out of the city and explore Bologna’s surroundings

There’s so much to see and do in Bologna’s wider metropolitan area, perfect for when you want a change of scenery but without having to travel far.

The Rocchetta Mattei is an unusual castle and spectacular example of architecture. It owes its name to Count Cesare Mattei in the mid-19th century, who had it built on the ruins of an ancient building dating back to the 13th century. The building is a labyrinth of towers, monumental staircases, reception rooms and private rooms in different styles, from neo-medieval to neo-Renaissance, from Moorish to Art Nouveau.

Just 30 minutes outside Bologna’s centre is the must-see village of Dozza, an open air museum thanks to all the murals painted by artists. Giants, dragons and skyscapes follow you through the streets.

Photo by Petr Slováček on Unsplash

The best views might not be where you think

You can’t miss those striking two towers (Le Due Torri) in Bologna – they’re commonly recognised as a symbol of Bologna and stand in the heart of the city at the entry point of the ancient Via Emilia.

Built during the Middle Ages, they had a military function – namely signalling and defence. The higher of the two, the Torre Degli Asinelli reaches up to 97.2 metres high and you can pay to climb it and look out at across the whole city.

But if you’re at the top of the tower, you can’t see it, one of the most iconic landmarks of Bologna. To see the whole cityscape, towers included, head to the city’s clock tower instead, the Torre dell’Orolgio.

Where to find the city’s green spaces

I’ve often heard people say Bologna is a ‘hardscape’, but the longer you spend here, the more green spaces you find.

Villa Ghigi, for example is a favourite among strollers and dog walkers, giving you amazing views across the whole of the city and countryside. This large park can be found outside Porta San Mamolo and was once the property of a wealthy Bolognese family.

Find more green spaces from the IWF, who’ve been hunting them out for over 20 years.

Make friends through aperitivo

It’s a ritual in Italy and Bologna is no exception. Mingle and make friends over aperitivo, a post-work opportunity for drinks and snacks to whet your appetite before dinner.

“For aperitivi, students tend to congregate in the university quarter and in via del Pratello while professionals head for the pedestrian area around Piazza Maggiore, Piazza Santo Stefano and Corte Isolani,” said the IWF.

One of my favourite spots for it is the lively Via Pescherie Vecchie, sometimes known as Bologna’s foodie street, where tables are pushed up against each other. It seems like everyone is in the same big, noisy, vibrant and friendly group.

For more aperitivo hotspots, take a look at IWF’s map.

Take 4th October off

Every Italian city has its own public holiday in honour of its patron saint, and Bologna’s is October 4th.

Its patron saint is San Petronio, the eighth Bishop of Bologna and after whom the impressive basilica in the main square is named after. Celebrations include a blessing of the statue of San Petronio, mass, a procession and fireworks.

Basilica San Petronio. Photo by Arno Senoner on Unsplash

Become a local and support Bologna FC

What better way to integrate than to become a fan of the local football team? On match days you’ll see hordes of fans walking through the city centre, clad in the team’s colours of red and blue.

Founded in 1909, the team is a source of local pride. Matches are played in the centre of the city at Stadio Renato Dallara (formerly Stadio Comunale), a stadium that seats nearly 40,000 spectators.

To buy tickets, the IWF advised that you can go “directly to the biglietteria (ticket office) in Piazza della Pace in front of the stadium, through the offices of the Centro Coordinamento Bologna Clubs (Bologna Clubs Coordination Center), or at any Carisbo San Paolo branch during banking hours.”

Learn some Bolognese dialect

To really become a local, throw in some Bolognese words and you’re sure to raise a smile and forge a bond. And you thought learning Italian was hard enough.

Bulgnaiś, as its known to the locals, is more than just different words, it’s got a charming accent and is full of colloquialisms.

Even though it seems to be unfortunately dying out as the younger generations lose the dialect, there are a few words that you’ll likely hear everywhere – which I first thought were Italian, but are, in fact, dialect!

Rusco means rubbish or trash, the stuff you throw out, which in Italian would be spazzatura

People also smile when I refer to pressing the button that opens the gate as ‘tiro‘ – this is also, in fact, Bolognese.

My all-time favourite, however, is soccia! or socmel! to express surprise. It means ‘suck it’, which sounds vulgar, but you’ll hear grandma saying it, so it’s definitely widespread enough for you too.

In this weather, you might proclaim, Soccia! Fa un freddo boia! (Blimey! It’s absolutely freezing!)

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Weekend wanderlust: Exploring Bologna’s hidden countryside by bike

Head away from Bologna's city centre and you'll discover secret treasures of history, art and nature. The lowlands area of 'la pianura' is home to both natural and cultural beauty, as The Local's reporter Karli Drinkwater discovered.

Weekend wanderlust: Exploring Bologna's hidden countryside by bike

While the historic centre of Bologna is known for its world-famous Unesco heritage porticoes and its surrounding hillside charm, less is spoken about its countryside to the north-east and -west.

The undulating topography of Bologna’s section of the apennine mountain range to the south usually takes all the glory, but the flatlands, known as ‘la pianura’, make for a gentle, family-friendly cycle route with many points of interest along the way.

Bologna’s strip of the ciclovia del sole route spans 50km of undemanding cycle paths, ideal for all levels of cyclists – or just when you fancy watching the world go past with little pedalling effort on your part.

And there’s even more to explore if you’re feeling extra adventurous, as the wider stretch covers Verona-Bologna-Florence.

I stuck to the section constructed on the embankment of the old Bologna-Verona railway, which can easily be done in a day or a weekend, depending on how much you stop to sightsee or go off-route to explore further little towns of the lowlands.

READ ALSO: Ten awe-inspiring routes for cycling through Italy

Little, quaint abandoned railway stations greet you every so often and there are cycle stations set up for you to have a break and pump your tyres.

The route crosses a smattering of historic centres, smaller towns that can often be missed. But although they’re modest in size, they are a treasure trove of artworks, exquisite cuisine and living proof of how these areas are rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in the area ten years ago.

The ciclovia del sole cycle path connects plenty of small towns in Bologna’s lowlands. Photo: Bologna Welcome/the crowded planet

My first stop for a wander away from the cycle path was the town of Crevalcore. It makes up one of the many municipalities that look like mini Bolognas thanks to its Roman street planning and porticoes in terracotta hues.

In fact, once you enter the centre, you step through a Bologna gate (porta) which extends down to the Modena gate, reflecting its position between the two provinces.

The town is a meeting of both cities and heritage – especially when it comes to the cuisine, which displays influences of the two.

The streets hold stories of a different world, when the town in medieval times became its own entity, with a distinct language and currency, Linda Cavicchi from Sustenia, and who collaborates with tourist board, Bologna Welcome, told us.

The Bologna gateway to Crevalcore. Photo: Bologna Welcome

Some of the town’s highlights, like many places in the Bologna province and Emilia Romagna beyond, are still rebuilding from the earthquake in May, 2012.

Scaffolding greets you on many corners, while other buildings look freshly painted, signalling the area’s rebirth and strength.

READ ALSO: 15 insider tips to make living in Bologna even better

Crevalcore also alleges to have the world’s smallest museum, proudly staking claim to the title with a plaque outside.

The Leo Preti puppet museum is, indeed, tiny. You walk in and it immediately stops. This miniscule room of a few square metres houses puppet townsfolk, witches, devils and animals by the puppeteer Leo Preti, who came from the area, along with the various backdrops to make the stories come alive.

The museum’s sign claiming to be the world’s smallest. Photo: Karli Drinkwater

Depending on your perspective, you may think these are mini masterpieces or simply creepy by today’s standards.

Either way, there’s no denying the precise craftsmanship and its impressive preservation, giving you a glimpse of life and entertainment in times gone by.

Leo Preti’s puppets. Photo: Bologna Welcome / the crowded planet

Keeping off the cycle path for a little longer, it’s worth a detour to Villa Ronchi just outside Crevalcore centre to see an astonishing amount of frescoes in the middle of the flatlands.

Its fairly remote location means it often goes unnoticed, even by Crevalcore’s inhabitants, the owner Mauro Caselli told us.

He claims the villa has the most fresco paintings in Emilia Romagna, which restoration works confirmed were created by Bologna-born 16th century Italian painter Agostino Carracci.

Villa Ronchi’s frescoes, currently hidden from public view. Photo: Karli Drinkwater

As abundant as they are intricate, they are hidden from public view while this villa, too, still undergoes renovations, ten years after the earthquake.

“It was devastating. The morning after the earthquake we came to the villa and saw the damage. I fell to my knees and cried,” Mauro said.

Once splendid, the 16th-century manor house inside is currently inaccessible, for now, waiting to show off its Baroque artwork and chandeliers made from Murano glass. Mauro expects to re-open the doors to its hidden art and history within around a year.

How Villa Ronchi was before the earthquake. Photo: Mauro Caselli

In the meantime, the spirited host never gave up on his clearly beloved livelihood, hosting re-enactments and weddings in the villa’s surrounding parkland.

The theme of rebuilding and looking forward to a new chapter runs throughout the lowlands of Bologna’s province.

Not only are historic buildings and artworks being returned to their former glory, but so too is nature, with a drive on restoring diversity that has been lost due to the area’s heavy farming and construction industries.

Within the vicinity of the villa is an oasis built on the former tanks of a sugar factory – an industry inherent to the region.

It’s now an ecological rebalancing area, where you can observe various species of birds, including a pair of storks who chose to make this their home, creating a nest on an old telephone pole and producing young every year.

An old sugar factory is now home to wildlife. Photo: Bologna Welcome

Themes of rebalancing nature and working in harmony with the environment has trickled down to businesses across the flatlands.

Valle Torretta is boldly stepping away from Bologna’s beloved meat-loving scene and has opened a vegan cafe to complement its agriturismo farm stay. Growing its own produce and showing others how to do the same is all part of the company’s drive to reduce our environmental impact.

The owner, Steven Uthayakumar, admits it’s a hard sell when I asked him how people from Bologna, the home of tortellini and mortadella, reacted to such a meat- and dairy-free menu.

READ ALSO: Ask an expert: What’s the difference between Italian tortellini and tortelloni?

But he is noticing a change too and said that people from the city enjoy escaping for a taste of the wholesome, organic, sustainable life. And on sampling their homemade cherry crostata, a kind of pastry cake, you’d be hard-pressed to say that it contained vegan ingredients.

Continuing on my journey, I found more protected spots of nature along the cycle path. ‘La Bora’, a nature reserve just on the outskirts of San Giovanni in Persiceto has a programme to boost indigenous turtles, as they face being wiped out by their invasive American counterparts.

If you look in the waterways and lakes across much of Bologna’s province, you’ll see hundreds of American turtles that were released illegally into the wild and reproduced in striking numbers. 

Restoring native species is part of La Bora’s remit. Photo: Bologna Welcome / the crowded planet.

The reserve’s manager, Andrea Morisi, spoke with passion about doing more to expand the area’s biodiversity as so much of it has been lost to industry. In this particular curated wild spot, more species of plants and animals can thrive due to the young forest they began proliferating just 30 years ago – a blink of an eye in terms of forest age.

Although small, this piece of protected nature is a nod towards a hope of bringing back much-needed balance to the area.

Cycling into the centre of the town surprises you with artistic discoveries once again – bright and bold murals by local artist Gino Pellegrini can be seen in Betlemme Square.

Also called Piazzetta degli Inganni (the square of deceptions), the walls are covered in intricate details depicting local wildlife and flora in a work entitled Trompe l’oeil. Keep looking and you’ll find another creature, another story about the local environment, such as the mosquito, a sometimes unfortunate feature of the lowlands, or the great oak tree, as this species used to thrive here.

Fairytale murals in San Giovanni in Persiceto. Photo: Bologna Welcome / the crowded planet.

The artist certainly broadened his horizons, working in the US as a Hollywood set designer and collaborated on films such as Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and – one of my all-time childhood favourites – Disney’s ‘Sword in the Stone’.

As this town is one of the oldest in the area, history awaits you on every corner, such as the municipal theatre that dates back to 1795. You can find it if you go into the town hall, which in itself traces back to the 15th century. It’s something of a shock to see such dramatic grandeur in the same building as where you’d go to get your codice fiscale.

San Giovanni in Persiceto’s municipal theatre. Photo: Bologna Welcome

Churches going back hundreds of years, some to the 14th century, are around every corner. Not only can you find art that would rival pieces found in the cities, some of these buildings have merged the past with innovation, such as the physics museum that’s housed within the San Francesco church and cloister.

So much touring calls for nourishment, however, and San Giovanni in Persiceto boasts some of the region’s richest and heartiest dishes. I caught my breath and refuelled at Osteria del Mirasole, where they’re famous for their signature dish, tortellini alla panna d’affioramento.

Tortellini alla panna d’affioramento. One pink tortellino to welcome the family’s new baby girl. Photo: Karli Drinkwater.

The recipe is said to be steeped in the area’s history, ancient crafts and authentic rural tradition. It’s also a tad controversial as the Bolognese always cook the meat-filled tortellini pasta in brodo – essentially, stock and meat juices.

To put tortellini in cream might be something the Bolognese do privately at home, but almost never in restaurants. However, this osteria proved that it’s worth making a rich pasta dish even more sumptuous with cream – and not just any cream. It’s made from milk drawn in the evening and left to rest until the morning, before being used to make the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano.

To hell with the calories, and the fact this is probably one of the most expensive bowls of pasta you’ll find in the region. It’s just the tonic for tired legs and educating your mind.


My last stop detoured away from the main cycle path, but the diminutive town of Pieve di Cento, home to around 7,000 inhabitants, is worth seeing. It’s all flat, so getting around these towns is relatively easy, after all.

Also reminiscent of Bologna for its long porticoes, this town’s moniker is, in fact, ‘little Bologna’.

Within its walls are centuries-old stories, with some buildings such as the parish church dating back to the 9th century.

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Notable highlights are the Collegiata church of Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest church in Pieve di Cento and built between 1702 and 1710. Inside are impressive artworks – clearly so much so that documentary filmmakers want to tell their story as filming was taking place when I looked inside.

Collegiata di Santa Maria Maggiore’s home to the painting, Annunciazione del Guercino. Photo: Bologna Welcome

Italian Baroque painter Guercino’s art can be seen here after the church underwent restoration from significant earthquake damage.

While wandering around this Bologna in miniature, other stops worth making are the Oratorio della Santissima Trinità with its superb frescoes, hidden to the back of an unassuming church, and the town’s art museum, located in a building that was once a school.

The Oratorio SS Trinità. Photo: Bologna Welcome.

The Pinacoteca Civica features 17th century paintings made by Guercino as well as contemporary artists from the area in what is, once again, a hidden delight of surprising historic riches.

If you have more juice in the tank, you can continue on the cycle path. Or, in my case, it was time to put my feet up, leaving with an appetite for seeing more of the area another weekend.

To my shame, this is the place I call home and yet I had no idea so much was lurking around every corner. I had dismissed the vastness of the lowlands as an empty space between the headline-grabbing, tourist-enticing cities.

But, as is often the case with Italy, there is history and beauty to be found in all corners when you take a detour away from the crowds, especially when you have the freedom of two wheels and enough curiosity to look twice.