Silvia Donati was born and raised in the Italian city of Bologna but now splits her time between her home city and Los Angeles where she works as a freelance journalist. Her travels away from home have given her a new found appreciation for Bologna and its art, history and cuisine and have inspired her to set up the website Bologna Uncovered. On the site, she shares travel tips about Bologna and Emilia-Romagna, a region she believes is overlooked by many visitors who travel to Italy. We recently caught up with Silvia to find out what she recommends in terms of must -see sights, food and free attractions when exploring Bologna...
“When a friend comes to explore Bologna, the first place I take them to is the city’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, because it is the heart of town, the centre of social life, and has been since the 13th century. One of Italy’s biggest and oldest squares, Piazza Maggiore is surrounded by several historic buildings dating to the Middle Ages, including the first seat of local government, Palazzo del Podestà, and the Basilica of San Petronio, one of the world’s largest Catholic churches. I always suggest visitors linger a bit here to take in the atmosphere, perhaps sitting at one of the outdoor cafés, or on the steps of San Petronio, as the locals do. The piazza is especially beautiful at night and transforms into an outdoor cinema in the summer.
Autumn is the best time of the year to explore Bologna because the weather is usually nice, but no longer as hot and humid as it gets in the summer. In addition, many food festivals take place around this time, in and around Bologna, so it is a great chance to taste the delicacies this area is famous for, especially the famous mortadella sausage, handmade egg pasta, Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, Lambrusco, Parma Ham and culatello cold cuts.
You get the best view of Bologna from the Prendiparte Tower, a 12th century tower in the city centre (Sant’Alò square). You have to climb eleven floors using stairs and ladders to get to the rooftop terrace, but it’s worth it! Once you’re at the top, you can see all of Bologna, with its signature red roofs, medieval buildings, towers and verdant hills in the background.
All over the historic city centre area you’ll find lots of good restaurants. Bologna is considered one of the gastronomic capitals of Italy and this is reflected in the large number of places to eat, especially in the wonderful, non-pretentious osterie, where you also have the chance to mingle with the locals.
Caffè Terzi (at Via Oberdan 10/d) is great for coffee because their coffee, both single origin and their own blends, is excellent and, besides the classic espresso and cappuccino, they offer lavish coffee creations, such as Caffè alla nocciola, made with espresso, hazelnut cream and chocolate shavings.
Colazione da Bianca (Via Santo Stefano 1) is my favourite breakfast spot in Bologna because it offers a wide array of delicious treats, from the classic “cornetto” to cakes, pastries and cookies, accompanied by great cappuccino, or a vast selection of teas, if that’s more of your thing. I also really like the décor and ambiance of the place, with its pastel-coloured walls and cosy feel. Plus, it is right in the city centre, only a few steps from the famous Two Towers (Due Torri).
The historic Mercato di Mezzo (two entrances, on Via Clavature and Via Pescherie Vecchie), recently renovated and reopened, is perfect for lunch. This 700-square-metre space on three levels, right in the heart of the “Quadrilatero”, Bologna’s open-air medieval food market, features several food stands offering the local specialties: fresh pasta, platters of local salumi (cold cuts) and cheeses, accompanied by piadine and tigelle (typical breads of the area), wines from the Enoteca Regionale Emilia-Romagna, craft beer, gourmet sandwiches, and sweets. Take my advice and order fresh egg pasta such as tortelloni and the salumi and cheese platters.
Cantina Bentivoglio (Via Mascarella 4/b) is a fantastic place for dinner in Bologna because it is a ristorante(restaurant), enoteca (wine bar) and osteria (tavern) combined, offering mouth-watering dishes of the Bolognese tradition (tagliatelle al ragù, anyone?) and an excellent wine list in a unique setting – the ancient wine cellars of the Bentivoglio Palace. It is also a popular spot for jazz fans from all over Italy as it hosts many jazz events throughout the year with leading international artists, as well as up-and-coming ones.
Before exploring Bologna you should read something about the city’s long and varied history. Bologna’s history can be traced back to the Etruscans, when it was called Felsina, it was later conquered by the Romans (Bononia), and was a thriving city in the Middle Ages. It is home to the oldest university of the western world, founded in 1088, the University of Bologna, which can boast Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio among its students. It was the first city in Italy to abolish slavery, in the 13th century, and, in the Middle Ages, allowed women much more freedom than other cities.
A good book to read before or carry with you during your trip is “Bologna Reflections – An Uncommon Guide”, by American writer and Bologna enthusiast Mary Tolaro Noyes. Also, when you’re in town, pick up a copy of the free English newspaper Bologna Press for the latest news and events.
The beautiful Anatomical Theatre inside the Archiginnasio, the first seat of the University of Bologna, is somewhere that not many visitors know about but they should go there because it will transport them back to the time when the first scientific studies of the human body took place, through the dissection of corpses by candlelight (it is less eerie than it sounds). Completely carved from spruce, the anatomical theatre is decorated with statues of important physicians from the ancient world like Hyppocrates and Galenus, and the famous “Spellati”, anatomical models displaying the muscles beneath the skin.
The best thing to do for free when exploring Bologna is walking around the city centre. You can appreciate the lively, relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the town as well as admire its terracotta buildings, large network of porticoes (38 km of these porticoes are nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage site), as well as charming piazzas, medieval towers and historic food shops. My favourite thing about Bologna is the Bolognesi locals and their love of all the good things in life. Bologna is known as la grassa, la dotta, la rossa(the fat one, the learned one, the red one), in reference to its delicious cuisine, the oldest university in the Western world, and its left-leaning politics. I think these elements best summarise what the city is about: a liberal town, culturally dynamic, which appreciates good food enjoyed in the company of friends.”
Flights to Bologna