Postcards from Italy

Bologna: The Stopover Worth a Stay

Though Bologna is perfectly positioned as a stopover between Florence and Venice, this bustling university town—the largest in Emilia Romagna—can easily be considered a destination itself.

Street view in Bologna

(Photo by Kosala Bandara via Flickr)

Famous for its excellent cuisine, home to the world’s oldest university (and with a history shaped by the millenia-long conflict between the secular academic world and the religious Catholic one), and with an elegant city center offering excellent shopping and sightseeing, take time to spend an overnight here before moving on either north or south.

Where to Stay

Grand Hotel Majestic: When we visit Bologna, we love to settle in the sumptuous rooms in this historic hotel, with its Grand Tour aesthetic, antique furnishings, and perfect location right in the heart of the center. The city’s main sights are all within walking distance, as are the shopping districts, and there is a pretty terrace with a view when you need to retreat and rest from your day’s exploration.

Hotel Touring: If you’d rather dedicate your travel budget to Italian shoes (see below) than Italian hotels, opt for this more moderately priced B&B. An excellent price/quality ratio, chic modern furnishings, and a rooftop jacuzzi make this the perfect base to explore the city.

Where to Eat

Ah, Bologna! We could wax on for hours about the culinary delights of Emilia Romagna in general and Bologna specifically, but here are a few of our favorite spots in the city center.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Drogheria della Rosa: This is perhaps one of our favorite informal eateries in all of Italy, not just Bologna. The authentic trattoria feel, the café tables set along one of Bologna’s iconic porticoed walks, and the straightforward classic local dishes served with a bit of modern flair make this everything an Italian restaurant should be.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Tamburini: If you’re looking for something lighter than a full meal, we suggest a stop at this gourmet deli. You can pick up some of Emilia Romagna’s best food to take home, and sample this region’s excellent charcuterie in the wine bar (remember: you can’t take pork back to the US!). If the packed shelves and display cases pique your appetite, there is a cafeteria-style casual dining room in the former butcher shop section of the deli, serving the best of Bologna’s fresh pasta at lunch.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Caffè Zanarini For the best aperitivo in town, grab a table at this café/pasticceria in Piazza Galvani. You can have drinks with elegantly presented finger food while you watch the chic Bolognese stroll elbow to elbow with radical students and a melting-pot mix of international residents.

Where to Shop

Much of Bologna’s center is given over to shopping, with everything from high end designer boutiques to hip home decor. Maria Gabriella especially loves the city’s many fabulous shoe stores, and puts aside at least a few hours during each visit to—ahem—browse.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

For gourmands, head to (or steer clear of, depending upon the space in your luggage) the landmark gourmet shop Drogheria Gilberto, which stocks some of the region’s best balsamic vinegar, wine, and other regional specialties.

Where to Go

Bologna is a very walkable city, with its kilometers of porticoes and wide squares, and most of its most interesting sights are easily reached by foot.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Basilica of Santo Stefano: Only four churches of the original seven that once made up this stylistic hodgepodge of buildings remain, and a visit is a stroll through centuries of religious architecture. Set on the sweeping, triangular Piazza di Santo Stefano, visitors enter first through the 11th-century Chiesa del Crocifisso (where the remains of Bologna’s patron saint, St. Petronius, lay until the year 2000 when they were transferred to San Petronio) and continue through a maze of pretty courtyards and winding passageways to the Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro, the Chiesa della Trinitá, and the Chiesa Santi Vitale e Agricola, where Roman fragments of flooring and stonework pilfered and reused during construction of the church in the 11th century can be seen.

DSC_6930 Bologna  (Italy) 4 marzo 2012, Piazza Santo Stefano

(Photo by Tiberio Frascari via Flickr)

Le Due Torri: During the height of power in the 12th and 13th centuries, Bologna’s skyline was pierced by around 100 towers; today fewer than 20 are still standing. Most famous among these are Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, each listing charmingly in the city center and named after the families who built them in the early 1100’s. Visitors can climb the taller of the two, Torre degli Asinelli, using the internal wooden staircase (dating to a much more modern time, though its state of repair may lead you to suspect otherwise) and enjoying a well-earned view from the top over the city.

The Basilica di San Petronio: Dominating Bologna’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, the original plans for this unfinished cathedral would have made it dwarf Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome…a bit of a slight to the Vatican and probably the reason that construction was halted by Pope Pius IV in the 1500’s, two centuries after it had begun. The church was the object of centuries of contention between fundamentally secular Bologna, which held its communal powers dear and funded the building’s construction from city coffers, and deeply religious Rome, which spent much of the past few centuries attempting to assert its power over upstart Bologna. The church was finally transferred from the city to the diocese in 1929, consecrated in 1954, and became home to the remains of Saint Petronius in the year 2000.


(Photo by vic15 via Flickr)

The basilica’s rough, unfinished façade has become a symbol of the city, though mention has been made of finishing the marblework according to the original plans in the near future. Inside, note the unique 15th century fresco by Giovanni da Modena depicting the scene from Dante’s Inferno in which the prophet Muhammad is devoured by demons in hell, and the largest sundial in the world, calculated and designed by the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini in 1655 using holes in the ceiling and the meridian line inlaid in the paving of the left aisle. This was uniquely precise at the time, and a poignant symbol of the coexistence between university and church throughout Bologna’s history.

The Anatomical theater of the Archiginnasio: Home to the oldest university in the world, Bologna is also home to a fascinating anatomical theater built between 1733 and 1736 where students of medicine could witness dissections and medical procedures. Completely covered in wooden paneling, inlays, and statues of famous docents from Ancient times to the Middle Ages, the theater was heavily damaged during the Second World War, but later rebuilt from the original pieces recovered from the rubble.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Our Tips

Bologna is one of Italy’s cities which virtually closes down completely in the months of August and much of July, as the population escapes the muggy city and escapes to the seaside. If you visit then, you’ll find many of the shops and restaurants closed.

Each year for a week between June and July, the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna holds a vintage film festival featuring newly restored works dating from the dawn of cinema to about the mid-1970’s.

Later in the fall, Bologna hosts an excellent jazz festival with live concerts starring Italian and international musicians.

Travel Specialists

Maria Landers

Brian Dore