While most travelers dream of seeing Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the Colosseum, or the canals of Venice, I imagined visiting the medieval city of Bologna ever since childhood.
I was introduced to Italy’s hidden gem while reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Two kids run away to New York’s Metropolitan Museum and stumble upon a statue with mysterious origins. Their sleuthing reveals that it’s a Michelangelo from his early days in Bologna. The book is fiction, but the city’s tie to a young Michelangelo is real. In fact, the Basilica of San Domenico houses three of the sculptor’s earliest works.
Osbscure history aside, Bologna is also the birthplace of my favorite childhood lunch, the bologna sandwich. Or, more accurately, the lunch meat is an Americanized version of Italy’s prized sausage, mortadella.
While it’s worth a trip to the the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region for the food alone (don’t miss the prosciutto and tortellini, too), it’s also an ideal introduction to Italy. Void of the dense tourists of Rome or Venice, the city is a perfect place to wander the cobbled streets, shop at historical food markets, walk the halls of the oldest university in the world, or lounge at cafes.
It only took me a few hours to feel at home in Bologna. Exploring the city with a cone of gelato in hand, it instantly remidned me of Boston – the place I’ve called home for more than 15 years. The picturesque Piazza Maggiore is buzzing with students in vintage dresses and Doc Martens alongside professionals and moms with kids. The town centre, surrounded by brick buildings with miles of red roofs just feels cozy, too. It isn’t overwhelming like New York or Rome. Nor is it too small, offering all the things you want out of an urban center, but without the snarled traffic or dense city skylines.
In addition to daydreaming in ancient alleys, here’s how I spent my time in Bologna (and how you should spend yours).
Eating in Bologna
One of the city’s many nicknames is la grassa (the fat one), which refers to the meat and cheese-heavy cuisine. During one of my favorite meals in Italy, I twirled my fork around tagliatelle alla bolognese – a rich ragu of onions, carrots, pork, veal, and just enough ground tomatoes to make it saucey without being soupy. I don’t think I spoke during the entire dinner. Instead, I savored the deep flavors.
The Quadrilatero is a foodie’s dream. The maze of streets are filled with prepared food, produce and fish vendors, as well as boisterous cafes spilling onto the sidewalk.
It’s here we enjoyed a leisurely snack in the same spot that locals frequent on their lunch breaks. It’s also the best place in the city for a pre-dinner aperitivo such as Campari and soda or Negroni. From 7 to 9pm you and half the city will jostle for seats at the bar for Italy’s version of happy hour.
As part of Intrepid’s 8-day Italy Real Food Adventure tour that winds through Bologna, I was able to do more than just eat. I learned how to cook. With inspiration from meals eaten in the city’s narrow streets, and a little guidance from our chef instructor, I was able to create hand-cut tagliatelle like a pro! The tortellini proved a little more challenging.
While my finished product didn’t look quite like Venus’ navel, biting into the perfectly al dente pasta with 500 years of history was well worth the effort.
Drinking in Bologna
In addition to aperitivo culture, the city is flush with wine, beer, and cocktails. Sparkling red Lambrusco is a specialty wine of northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. While it never quite caught on in the rest of the world, the fizzy, sometimes fruity, sometimes dry wine pairs perfectly with the rich foods of the region. The best part? It’s only a few Euros a glass!
Small breweries are starting to pop up around Europe, but it’s definitely not the norm. However, in Bologna, a place so steeped in tradition, there’s a budding craft beer movement brewing. Birra Cerqua, not far from the city centre, is a tiny microbrewery producing about a dozen house ales, lagers, wheats, and even American-style IPAs. A short walk across town along the Via Del Pratello (Bologna’s nightlife district) is where we found Bologna’s craft beer hub.
Where Rome is dotted with historical buildings turned into museums and tourist attractions, Bologna is a city that actively lives within its medieval walls. As I followed locals around corners, through churches, and down storied university halls, it was clear that for them, it’s no big deal to walk the same roads as Dante, Copernicus, and Marconi. And unlike many of Italy’s other ancient cities, there’s no need to wait in line to experience more than a millennia of culture.
One of the most striking architectural details of Bologna is its 20 miles of intricate porticoes. Thanks to a 1288 law, the city boasts a vast network of open-yet-sheltered public space that makes it easy to amble from one end of the city to the other even in rain, wind and snow.
The University of Bologna, founded in 1088 is the oldest continuously operating university in the world, and worth a visit. One of the most interesting buildings is the Archiginnasio of Bologna, a 16th-century structure adorned with frescoes, and home to the original anatomical theater. The ornate amphitheater (which looks like a set from Harry Potter) was used by medical students for post-mortem demonstrations and lectures.
Steps away from the Piazza Maggiore, the Basilica of San Petronio is an unfinished architectural oddity due to a quirk of Vatican rule. Started in1390 as a gothic cathedral, it was still under construction in the 16th century when a new architect revised the plan to create a church larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (the Papal basilica). Pope Pius IV didn’t want to be outdone, and the project was halted.
There’s plenty of other historical sites, too, including a church on a hill, and a tower with panoramic views of the city. While many make Bologna a day trip from Venice or Florence, curious travelers will find plenty to fill their time, and stomachs, during a longer stay.
Check out Intrepid’s wide range of other adventures in Italy here.