Considered Italy’s culinary capital, Bologna is also the capital of Emilia-Romagna, one of the wealthiest regions in Italy. The city is known as La Grassa (the fat one) for its delectable cuisine; La Rossa (the red one), a reference to the color of the buildings in the city center; and La Dotta (the learned one), thanks to its renowned university, founded in 1088 and arguably the oldest in the western world.
According to our local guide, wealthy families who sent their sons to be educated at the venerable institution made sure to send them off with the proper entourage – tailors, maids, and cooks – and that is how it all started, with a large concentration of culinary experts all in one place, creating the backbone of Italian cuisine in Bologna.
Today, Bologna has it all – history and architecture, world-famous porticoes (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), enchanting alleyways alongside awe-inspiring churches, neighborhood markets, and some of the best eateries in the country. And just a train ride away, there are some more beautiful towns worth exploring. So here’s a day-by-day itinerary for your next visit to Emilia-Romagna.
Day 1: The Jewish Ghetto and some shopping
The best thing you can do in Bologna is get lost in the warren of streets and alleys of the old center, where you’ll be enveloped by the warm red and yellow colors of the terracotta bricks used to build the city.
You can walk for miles under Bologna’s most prominent feature – its porticoes – as they stretch for 24 miles in the city center alone. Some are renovated, but others retain their old feel from days gone by.
Head over to the old Jewish Ghetto, where you will find suspended passages, covered bridges, and small windows that tell the story of a community forced by the Church to live in a small, confined area from 1556.
Aside from its historical importance, the Ghetto is now home to many art galleries, cafes, and restaurants, and the vibe is young and trendy. It is an excellent place to sample local cuisine or, better still, come back in the early evening for an aperitif (aperitivo in Italian), a long-standing tradition of sipping wine or a cocktail and munching on some appetizers at a sidewalk café.
Check these out
- Osteria del Sole: A landmark 15th century bar serving regional wines
- Caffè del Mercato: An authentic taste of Italian coffee and atmosphere
You can spend the afternoon shopping, and Bologna makes it easy, as all the major brands and some local boutiques line the main drag, Via dell’Indipendenza, leading from the train station to the heart of the city, the famous Piazza Maggiore. The street is cordoned off on weekends, allowing pedestrians to stroll and window shop at leisure.
Take a break at one of the many cafés to enjoy out-of-this-world pastries and the best Italian coffee, or you can wrap up the day with Bologna’s fantastic traditional cuisine. Oh, what the heck, why not go for both?
Check these out
- Trattoria dal Biassanot: A typical trattoria serving Bolognese staples and Italian wines.
- Pasticceria Sebastiano Caridi: The most sumptuous pastries, as well as small nibbles at the bistro
Day 2 – Bologna’s main sights and a Food Theme Park
Once familiar with the lay of the land, it is time to delve in and learn more about the history, explore the main sites, and join a local tour guide for fascinating anecdotes.
Start at Piazza Maggiore, where you will also find the visitor center, Bologna Welcome, right across from Fontana del Netuno and Basilica di San Pentronio. If you’re a bibliophile or interested in restoration, archeology, and architecture, don’t miss out on Biblioteca Salaborsa, a public library right on the edge of Piazza Maggiore, where you can check out the fabulous ceiling and walk on the glass floor to take a peek at some of the ancient ruins unearthed beneath the building dating from the Middle Ages.
Speaking of libraries, make sure to visit Archiginnasio, one of the most important palaces in the city and home to its Municipal Library since 1838. Then, continue your walk down history with a visit to Bologna’s famous twin towers, dating from the 12th century. Asinelli Tower is the only one open to the public, and don’t forget to book your tickets online or buy them at the visitor center. Last but not least, check out the Santo Stefano complex, also known as “seven churches,” as it is made out of multiple buildings around a beautifully odd-shaped square.
After a dose of history, why not dive right into Bologna’s culinary scene with a visit to Fico, an Italian Food Theme Park, where you not only learn about the region and its produce, you can also sample some of Italy’s cuisines. It was initiated by the Fico Foundation, a community of farmers and growers, to raise awareness and maintain a high standard of produce and food.
The park is home to restaurants, shops, multimedia rides, outdoor areas, and a Luna Farm. It is located about 15 minutes from the city center, and you can get there with free shuttles from the city or by public transportation. Close by, you will also find an outdoor shopping center with Decathlon and other popular brands.
Day 3 – Exploring Modena and driving a Ferrari
Emilia-Romagna has much more to offer than Bologna. A short train ride away is a great day trip to towns like Parma and Modena, world-famous culinary hubs known for their cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) and dry-cured ham (Prosciutto di Parma), traditional balsamic vinegar, and so much more.
But first, let’s whet our appetite with a visit to the famous Ferrari Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from Modena’s train station, a must-see for sports car enthusiasts, James Bond fans, or anyone in love with Italian style. Located in a modern structure, the museum offers 27,000 sq ft of history, manufacturing, and design; best of all, you can get up close and personal with some iconic Ferrari models. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can test drive a Ferrari at Circuito de Fiorano or settle for a semi-professional driving simulator. All in all, a one-of-a-kind experience.
It’s time to explore Modena’s old city. First, head over to Mercato Albinelli, a small indoor market and a great place to enjoy some fresh local market cuisine.
You will find plenty of restaurants and cafes right outside the market for a quick lunch. On the 2nd floor of a modest building, Trattoria Aldina is a hidden gem serving regional classics in no-frills surroundings, right from the kitchen of an Italian nonna (grandma).
On the way to the Jewish Synagogue, an impressive building on Piazza Mazzini, you will pass the streets of the former Jewish Ghetto, lined with cobblestones, arches, as well as little eateries and boutiques. Stop for gelato at Gioelia Cremeria, and have a seat on one of the benches in the square to soak up the atmosphere and marvel at the beautiful architecture.
If you still have time, check out the art at Palazzo dei Musei Modena, and book a tour at one of the parmesan cheese factories. Then, on your way back to the train station, take a stroll through the lush Parco Giardino Estense, most exquisite during fall foliage.
Day 4 – Bologna’s markets and one last meal
Your final day in Bologna should be dedicated to one (or two) last meals and some of the best indoor markets so that you can stock up on the most delectable foodstuffs. Mercato delle Erbe is a lively and popular market, especially in the evenings, with stalls full of produce, cheese, and meats, as well as some dining options. Mercatino di piazza Aldrovandi is an outdoor market, where stalls are piled high with local delicacies, not to mention an ideal place for an aperitif underneath the porticoes surrounding the square. And last but not least, Osteria Barolini is a culinary celebration of seafood, where traditional Italian dishes with a modern twist are served in a leafy garden terrace on the grounds of a former palace.
After you have tasted the best that Bologna – and Italy – have to offer, it’s time to go home, a bit heavier on the scales and maybe in your suitcase.
Annie Dudkiewicz is a content writer, author, and journalist focusing on travel and global experiences.