How to get off the beaten path in beautiful Bologna
Bologna has had to compete for tourist attention over the years with the more popular Italian cities of Venice, Florence and Milan. Yet, more and more people are discovering why it’s one of Italy’s most authentic and interesting cities. Bologna’s growing popularity is not just for its historic attractions, winding medieval streets and piazzas. Bologna is renowned for being the culinary capital of Italy and it absolutely lives up to its reputation. Although it fills up midday with day-trippers from Venice, Florence and Milan, it really deserves more time for exploration, especially when it’s such a great city to get off the beaten path. At least 2 days in Bologna is an ideal amount of time to really savour its atmosphere, beautiful architecture and incredible food without any rush. If you want to know how to get off the beaten path in Bologna, then read about how we spent our 2 days in beautiful Bologna.
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Accommodation in Bologna
Thanks to Neil, surprising me for my birthday and whisking me to Italy for a two-week trip, our itinerary included 2 days in Bologna, 2 days in Milan and 9 days campervan hire. Our budgets are always on the tighter side so after some research, we decided to use Airbnb (use the link to get our special discount) to find a budget stay in Bologna, Booking.com for our apartment share in Milan and Yescapa for our campervan hire. This combination of accommodation options worked out really well for us (we’ll be sharing our wander around Milan and our epic road trip through Tuscany very soon). Our Airbnb in Bologna was great value, in a really interesting neighbourhood. Laverne, our host, is incredibly kind, helpful, and full of local knowledge and handy tips. The neighbourhood itself is popular with students attending the University of Bologna and bustling with activity (it was noisy but we had earplugs!). Staying here gave us an opportunity to experience authentic local life in a busy Italian city and we were within easy reach of Bologna's main attractions while still being able to wander and find our own hidden gems, off the beaten path.
Getting around Bologna
Generally, our feet take the lead on any of our city breaks and they usually take us off the beaten path. Unless we need to cover large distances, we tend to walk everywhere. Just like our first time in New York, we used Google Maps before our trip to save a few places that we read about on fellow travel bloggers’ posts, which gave us a rough itinerary to guide us with a lot of wandering in between. Getting around Bologna is best done on your own two feet, especially for getting off the beaten path.
It offers flexibility and encourages a slower pace which is the perfect approach to Bologna. It truly is one of those special cities you would choose to get lost in, with beautiful architecture along every step you take and no shortage of delicious food to sample on the way. Even if it's raining, Bologna is a maze of porticos, which means your stroll along its streets guarantees you shelter under beautiful stone canopies.
Finding coffee in Bologna
Our flight from Dublin landed close to midnight so the journey by taxi from the airport to our accommodation didn't reveal much of the city. The fleeting glimpses, however, got us excited enough to be up bright and early for our first day in Bologna. As always, our main concern first thing in the morning is to find a good coffee! In the warmer countries of Europe, ordering a latte or a cappuccino can lead to dreadful disappointments of lashings of UHT milk. Yuk! In Bologna, however, you'll find cafes that use real creamy milk produced by the fertile farms of the Emilia Romagna region. Our top pick is Cafe Aroma on Via Porta Nova. The coffee itself is strong and flavourful and the baristas carefully steam the milk at the perfect temperature. The pastries here are as equally decadent. We had the croissants filled to the brim with real pistachio cream - our ideal continental breakfast!
Piazzas and Porticos
After our gorgeous coffee, we wanted an easy stroll, off the beaten path so we avoided the more popular and much busier route to Piazza Maggiore in exchange for the quiet and peaceful Piazza San Francesco. Dominated by the beautiful French Gothic style church, Basilica di San Francesco, built by the order of Franciscan friars in the 13th century, the square is populated by just a few chattering locals during the day. It's well worth stepping inside the church to admire the vaulted ceiling and the marble altar created by the Masegne brothers in the 14th century.
Continuing our stroll through the many porticos that cover the streets of Bologna, we just had to join the locals at ScemuÁ bistrot for an espresso. We swear it wasn't just for instagram!
Bologna, The Fat
It’s always difficult to truly translate the divine moments that are gifted to us by eating food! If food is your religion, as it is for us, then Bologna is heaven! No wonder one of the nicknames bestowed on Bologna is “La Grassa”, meaning "The Fat"! The rich fertile lands of the Emilia Romagna region, of which Bologna is the capital, ensured its position as the "food basket" of Italy for centuries and the influx of students from all over the world to attend its University, resulted in an international mix of culinary styles and flavours. In Bologna, it's difficult to eat something and not love it! Our favourite part of each day in Bologna was picking out delicious produce from one of the outstanding food markets dotted around the city. The vendors at Mercato Delle Erbe had absolutely everything we wanted for a picnic.
Mortadella, Bologna's famous ham, studded with flavours such as black pepper and pistachio, creamy buffalo mozzarella and the sweetest cherry tomatoes, accompanied by a refillable bottle of red wine...there are no words! Apparently there's an emoji for "Italian chef kiss" so just picture that! To enjoy our picnic lunch we joined the locals and students at the shaded tables and benches at Parco 11 Settembre 2001.
Secret doors and gelato gems of Bologna
Full from that decadent picnic, we took a sneaky nap back at our accommodation just to digest it all and make room for more! On our second slow stroll of the day, we crossed the road to Via Piella and noticed a couple of tourists wandering up and down, looking a bit lost. It turns out they were looking for a glimpse of one of Bologna's last remaining canals. Behind a secret little door on an unassuming wall, lies, "Little Venice" (La Piccola Venezia) and it feels like a window into Bologna's past. The city, like Venice, used to rely on a network of canals which are now all sadly hidden underground. It was a lovely surprise as we hadn't heard of it before.
So we celebrated with gelato! Another surprise, as neither of us, had ever tasted the real deal before. Sure, you can get it even in Ireland but the genuine article needs to be experienced. Gelateria Delle Moline was full of locals, which is usually a very good sign and indeed it was. Never in our lives have we ever tasted pistachio gelato like this before, a perfect balance of sweet and salt, for the few moments it survived, transcended us beyond reality!
Bologna's beaten path
Although our wanderings were mostly keeping us away from Bologna's beaten path, naturally our route took us passed the alluring Neptune Fountain and the huge, but unfinished, Basilica di San Petronio, overlooking Piazza Maggiore.
These sights are unmissable but they can be very busy during the day, especially the statue with its irresistible opportunity for some unusual selfies involving Neptune's sea nymphs and oddly placed but effective water spouts. It's so surprising to see such a provocative sculpture, given that it was actually commissioned by Pope Pius IV to give Bologna a public fountain.
The Pope was seemingly quite happy to be portrayed as a powerful pagan god like Neptune, holding absolute power over the world, his dolphins at each corner of the fountain representing the four main waterways, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Nile and the Danube.
Follow the crowds across Piazza Maggiore, to the Quadrilatero, Bologna's food market for hundreds of years. Dazzling with bold and bright colours of fruit, vegetables and all the gorgeous produce that pours in from the surrounding countryside, it’s yet another irresistible sight but we continued on through the side streets to discover more porticos and hidden gardens behind walled palazzos.
A view of Bologna at sunset
Our ultimate destination was a church, high above the city, to capture the epic golden hour light overlooking the red roofs of Bologna. It's a tough but rewarding climb up to the Church of San Michele in Bosco, especially if you're armed with more Mortadella, creamy pecorino and delicious red wine to wash it down for your picnic! All the local kids hang out up here with a large group of boys at one end of the church grounds and the girls catching their eyes at the other end. Lots of showing off with football tricks, mopeds and music, which sounds annoying but was a nice slice of local teenage life and all very innocent. They didn't stay long, beckoned by parties elsewhere or curfews at home leaving us, along with romantic couples and some fellow photographers alone to enjoy the sunset.
Ragú in Bologna
All the walking we did back towards home for the night gave us a nice healthy appetite to have some late-night Ragú. Just a little off the beaten path, away from the tourist eateries of the main square, is L’osteria del l’orsa. It stays open late, serves a delicious but cheap house red and serves generous helpings of Tagliatelle al ragù which tastes of the long, slow-cooked, tender, loving, home-made care that tells you you've come to the right place. The deep-red, delicious sauce clings to perfectly cooked pasta ensuring you get equal amounts of carb and saucy meat in every mouthful. This place won't be a hidden gem for long we think!
Rolling out with wide smiles, we couldn't go to bed just yet. Another couple of glasses of red to linger over in Fabrik gave us enough time to digest one of the finest pasta dishes we've ever had.
Market day in Bologna
With a bit of a pasta hangover (we swear it’s not the wine!), we were a little lazier getting up but it worked out well. Laverne needed us to hang back and wait for a parcel arriving for her friend’s birthday and we were happy to oblige. Our first port of call was Bologna’s famous weekly market in Parco della Montagnola held every Friday and Saturday which dates as far back as the 13th century. A tremendous riot of colour and activity, the market is huge and takes up all of Piazza dell'8 Agosto and the bottom half of the park. Everything from vintage clothes to vegetables, hippy clothes and incense, knock-off designer gear and second-hand knick-knacks, the mix of street traders and shoppers from near and far, it’s really easy to spend an hour enjoying the atmosphere. I picked up a lovely dress for €1 which I wore all over Tuscany - what a bargain!
Pizza and Pastries in Bologna
You know what they say, “When in Rome...”. Well, we weren’t in Rome, but we just had to try the Rome-style pizza served up in Pistamentuccia on Via Riva di Reno, sure it was on the way to our favourite food market. Food, food, food! A bit obsessed at this point but that’s what’s so awesome about Bologna, everywhere you turn you just have to sample more!
On this street, not only can you savour seriously scrumptious pizza, washed down with Roma blonde ale, next door at La Borbonica, the pastries are to die for! We indulged in several before rolling on down through more beautiful porticos back to our food market. Restocking our reusable wine bottle, we bought double the amount of mortadella, some focaccia and some cheeses we hadn’t tried before.
Bologna, The Red
Another nickname for Bologna is “La Rossa” ("The Red") for its tradition of politically leaning to the left. As far back as the middle ages, it rebelled and remained an independent ‘comune’ during the powerful reign of the Holy Roman Empire. It was during the rise of fascism in Italy and the subsequent world wars that Bologna fought its hardest. Resisting Mussolini and his fascist death squads even before he came to power, then facing torture, execution and mass murder during his reign of terror and fighting the Nazis with what little resources they had left, the people of Bologna continued to fight for people’s rights, keeping the Communist Party in power for decades after WWII ended. The best place to learn about this period of Bologna’s history is in the excellent and free Resistance Museum (Museo della Resistenza di Bologna) on Via Sant'Isaia. It’s very much off the beaten path but well worth a visit. Click here for more information.
The longest portico in the world in Bologna
While engrossed in the videos and displays in the museum it started to bucket down with rain and a loud thunderstorm rolled in over the city. It didn’t stop us in our tracks by any means. The porticos did a fine job of protecting us on our way to Porta Saragoza, the Saragoza gate, of the only ones left that once guarded the entrance to the medieval walled city of Bologna.
It also marks the start of one of the longest porticoed arcades in the world, Portico di San Luca. About 4km long with nearly 700 arches, it was built to protect the procession of the Madonna di San Luca on its way from the Basilica di San Luca into Bologna, a ritual that takes place every year. Unfortunately, we didn’t take the arduous climb uphill to the Basilica but it’s definitely something we’d like to do on a return visit. It is possible to take the bus most of the way but we felt that would miss the point of the walk. A poor excuse was the thunderstorm booming overhead but it’s an excuse nonetheless!
Michelangelo in Bologna
Little did we know when we entered the Basilica of San Domenico that we’d find the works of Michelangelo decorating the Arca di Domenico, the tomb of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. This beautiful shrine to St. Dominic took over 500 years to complete as it was added to and elaborately decorated by many contributing artists, including three statues by a young Michelangelo, San Petronio, the patron of Bologna, San Procolo and one of the two angels kneeling at the foot of the tomb.
The church itself has an unassuming entrance but once inside, the size of the complex along with the stunning frescoes on the dome interiors above are breathtaking.
Continue to walk through, you’ll find an entrance (€1 fee) to the carved wooden choir stalls which are absolutely worth visiting. Beyond the choir stalls is an inner courtyard and garden that offers stunning views of the church framed by beautiful flowers in an utterly peaceful setting.
Enjoy the outdoors in Bologna
Margarita Park (Parco Giardini Margherita) is Bologna’s biggest and best green space, with loads of space to enjoy a stroll or a jog if you’re trying to stay fit. There’s plenty of shade offered by the trees, lovely fountains to cool the air and a large pond with birdlife and turtles.
There’s plenty of kiosks to grab a drink or a snack or if you want a late night dinner with some cocktails Chalet dei Giardini Margherita, is an ideal location with terraces built out over the water to watch the turtles mill around. Our bags were filled with all the lovely produce we bought in the market so we found a shaded bench and spread out our picnic. Plenty of people watching and in a lovely natural setting, we highly recommend having a bring-your-own-dinner here for sunset.
Hunting for medieval arrows in Bologna
How often have you heard of the beauty of a woman distracting a man from his duties? Even a highly trained assassin? So the legend goes of the three mysterious arrows that are still lodged in the rafters of a medieval portico, outside the 15th Century Corte Isolani buildings, on Strada Maggiore. A nobleman was the target but a naked woman standing in the window above the portico made the assassins misfire their arrows into the wooden beams below. It takes a while to find the arrows and you’ll see other people craning their necks to do the same. It just blew our minds to see a legend brought to life, with these arrows still in place as if they’d just been shot from the assassin’s bow. It’s off the beaten path as it takes a lot of patience and searching to see it but it’s a quirky bit of fun all the same.
Romantic Bologna at night
After the sun has set and the daytrippers have left the city, Bologna is truly a very romantic and atmospheric place to be. One of the main tourist attractions in Bologna is to climb the Asinelli Tower for views of the city (especially at sunset) but we knew it would be very busy and we didn’t fancy joining the pack on the 498 steps to the top.
We experienced a similar crowded climb on our visit to Porto and it wasn’t pleasant. Instead, we enjoyed the calm of the evening settling in, looking up at the striking towers, silhouetted against the cobalt sky of the blue hour.
As the night passed by, we spent our time sitting on the steps of the Basilica di San Petronio in Piazza Maggiore with the last of our picnic wine. It was the perfect spot to people watch and take in the beauty of the architecture around us as we reminisced about our 2 days in Bologna. It had been a mighty fine introduction to Italy and we’d only scratched the surface. Already falling in love with the culture, the people and the food, our Italian affair had just begun!