Bologna is about to be “discovered.” Over 175 travel experts recently named it the most underrated city in the world which is poised to become the new “hot spot” for travelers. Bologna is the capital of the region of Emilia Romagna and is located north of Florence between the Reno and Savena rivers.
It is the seventh most populous city in Italy, with about 400,000 inhabitants and 150 different nationalities. It is often referred to as La Rossa (for its Spanish-style red tiled roofs and beautiful earth tones of its walls). The city also became associated with the color red because of the political atmosphere since the local government was strongly socialist/anti-fascist from the second world war to the brink of the millennium.
Bologna is also known as La Grassa (the Fat City) for its rich and varied cuisine and also La Dotta (the learned) as it is home to the oldest university in the world. The city was originally Etruscan, and was an important urban center for centuries, ﬁrst under the Etruscans (who called it Felsina), then the Celts as Bona, and later under the Romans (Bonōnia). In the Middle Ages, it was a free municipality and later signoria, when it was among the largest European cities by population.
Piazza Maggiore, a scenic and historic public square, is a focal point of the city for locals and visitors. The square is bordered by the fifth largest cathedral in the world as well as elegant renaissance palaces. The square was created in the 13th century as a meeting point for merchants arriving in the city.
The city is famous for its vibrant porticoes, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2021. They offer residents and visitors alike a respite from the heat and when it rains. These porticos cover a bit over 38 miles and were built in medieval times during an urban expansion when it became popular to build the first floor out over the street on wooden supports. These were later replaced by stone columns. In 1288 city officials insisted on porticoes for all new buildings, high enough for a man to ride under them on a horse. The historical center is well preserved thanks to a careful restoration and conservation policy which began at the end of the 1970s. In 2000 it was declared a European capital of culture and in 2006, a UNESCO “City of Music.”
Bologna is home to the oldest university of public research in continuous operation, the University of Bologna, established in A.D. 1088. The large student population gives it a cosmopolitan feel. With over 90,000 students, it offers 11 schools of programs and is the second-largest university in Italy after La Sapienza in Rome.
Bologna is also famous for its rich cuisine. Food lovers can enjoy open-air markets and hidden pastifici (pasta shops) and dine at restaurants that have created well-known dishes like pasta Bolognese and Tortellini. Visitors can also spend a day at FICO Eataly, a theme park entirely devoted to Italian cooking. Bologna’s pride and joy is its mortadella, which is a staple on most menus as well as favorites such as fried cotoletta (veal) cutlets in melted Parmigiano sauce and pasta freshly rolled by un mattarello (rolling pin).
The city is also the birthplace of lasagna and tagliatelle al ragù. Tortellini Bolognesi in brodo (broth) is a favorite as well as a lesser-known specialty, Passatelli in brodo.
This dish is often referred to as a “poor man’s dish” with dumplings made from bread, eggs, and cheese in an enriched meat broth. Also popular is Gramigna, a squiggly-shaped, tubular rounded pasta from Emilia-Romagna. It was named after the Italian word for a type of curly grass that grows in the area.
The walls of the medieval city surround an area full of churches, museums, schools, stores, restaurants and museums. The city also boasts 24 medieval stone towers, including Bologna’s most iconic landmark, the Two Towers. There are two towers open to the public, one is the Asinelli Tower, noted as the tallest medieval leaning tower in the world.
One of the most important religious sites is the Basilica of San Petronio where the relics of the patron saint Petronius have been kept since 2000. They were previously housed in the Basilica of Santo Stefano, a complex of religious edifices locally known as the Sette Chiese (“Seven Churches”) and Santa Gerusalemme (“Holy Jerusalem”). San Petronio is a minor basilica which dominates Piazza Maggiore and is a trove of frescos and statues but is also famous for a marking in the form of a meridian line inlaid in the paving of the left aisle in 1655.
While most visitors might bypass the libraries in the city, if one wants to view ancient Roman ruins then plan to visit the Biblioteca Salaborsa. During the 1990s, excavations in the historic center unearthed the two main streets built during the Roman Empire, still intact beneath the gorgeous library. You can see the ruins through the glass panes on the library ﬂoor or for a closer look go downstairs to a small museum to learn more about the history and get a closer view.
The enticing sound of water and the artistic design draws many to Piazza del Nettuno next to Piazza Maggiore to admire the Fountain of Neptune. It is a monumental fountain which was funded by public money with construction of the base beginning in 1565. The over-life-size bronze ﬁgure of the god Neptune was completed and put in place around 1566. The statue was an early design by Gamboling who had submitted a for a fountain of Neptune in Florence but lost the commission to Baccio Bendinelli.
The city is also home to a number of museums. One is the Museo Civico Archeologico with a collection formed by merging the collection at the University of Bologna, the antique collection of Pelagio Palagi and various archaeological ﬁndings from in and around Bologna. The museum is one of the country’s most important archaeological museums. There are over 200,000 pieces divided into the Roman collection; Bologna in prehistory; an Etruscan collection from the area, the Egyptian collection; Gallic artifacts and a Greek collection. The timeline of artifacts ranges from the prehistoric period to the ancient Roman age.
For art lovers, the Pinacoteca Nazionale is a must-see. This national picture gallery is housed in a 15th century church complex of Sant’Ignazio together with the Fine Arts and Historical, Artistic and Ethno-anthropological Institution. Included are masterpieces by Raffaello, Tintoretto and Perugino as well as many others who were connected to the city, Highlights include El Greco’s The Last Supper (1568); Raphael’s The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia (1518) Giotto’s Bologna Polyptych (1330); Titian’s Christ and the Good Thief (1566) and The Visitation by Tintoretto (1549).
It is always fun to learn a bit of local lore before visiting a new city and Bologna is no exception. The city has its own version of Romeo and Juliet with the story of Virginia Galluzzi and Alberto Carbonesi, children of two of the most powerful families of the city, the Galluzzi and the Carbonesi. There was deep hatred between the two families, but this did not stop Virginia and Alberto from meeting and falling in love. They married in secrecy but were discovered by Virginia’s father who then killed Alberto. A heartbroken Virginia then hung herself from a window in her house so their love would be eternal.
The Torre degli Asinelli also comes with a legend. It is said that around 1100 a modest bricklayer was working with his donkeys (asini) when they started acting strangely. When he went to check why they were pawing out the ground he found a treasure of gold coins. He kept his good fortune secret until years later his poor son met a beautiful girl whose wealthy father refused to let her marry the young man unless he could build the tallest tower in the city. The father then offered the money to his son he could build the Torre degli Asinelli and marry his love.
Visitors should also remember to check out lesser-known sites which can be just as fascinating as those that are more famous. In Bologna you can actually see an ancient Roman road from the lower level of the department store Roche Bobois, ﬁnd a great panoramic view at a place called San Michele in Bosco and check out some of the canals which used to connect the city to the Po River. The most popular canal can be seen from Via Piella through a secret window right next to Trattoria dal Biassanot.
During any visit to a new place make sure to ask for local recommendations for restaurants, bakeries, and historical sites. Your visit will be better with a bit of local ﬂavor!