10 Things To Do In Bologna, Italy: A First-Timer’s Guide

VIsually stunning and Instagrammable (credit: Bologna Welcome)

The number of things to do in Bologna, Italy, is almost infinite. We’ve visited at least five times and were only limited by the length of our stays. 

Here is a list of some unique experiences in Bologna that we never tire of and repeatedly return to. It is probably too long for one visit, but we hope it offers some ideas that pique your interest or appetite. You are likely to find your own favorites! (It’s the same personal list that I gave to a friend about to leave on her trip.)

The list is unapologetically food-centric because Bologna is known for having the best food in Italy. You’ll also love the architecture and porticoes throughout the city. 

Explore the Piazza Maggiore

Piazza Maggiore, a gathering place that is the heart and soul of Bologna
Piazza Maggiore, a gathering place that is the heart and soul of Bologna

The city’s virtual living room is the magnificent Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square. 

Look at the wonderful architecture in the square and the historic buildings surrounding you, and then walk inside the magnificent Basilica of San Petronio. Dedicated to the city’s patron saint, it is the sixth-largest church in Italy. 

Basilica of San Patronio with its half-finished facade
Basilica of San Patronio with its half-finished facade

Make a Beeline to the Bologna Welcome Tourist Office

Bologna Welcome Card
Bologna Welcome Card

Piazza Maggiore is also the home of the tourist office and the point of departure for many tours, including the Big Red Bus hop-on/hop-off tour. 

The Big Red hop-on hop-off Bus in Bologna
The Big Red hop-on hop-off Bus in Bologna

We highly recommend purchasing a Bologna Welcome Card at the office. It offers discounts on museums, walking tours, and other activities. Two types of cards are available. The more expensive one includes access to the City Red Bus.

The bus tour is a great way for a first-timer to get an overview of the city and its major attractions. You can catch the bus at the Fountain of Neptune (Fontana del Nettuno) just off the square.

Stroll Through the Quadrilateral

This captivating ancient market area, one of the most interesting in Europe, is located just off the square. Since the Middle Ages, it has been filled with businesses, including eateries, bars, and food shops. You’ll also find fruit stores, fishmongers, florists, and other specialty shops.

Tamburini, on Via Caprarie, 1, is one of the oldest and most famous of the charcuteries in Bologna. Here, you can find meats, cheeses, and prepared foods. The city is the home of mortadella, which got the name bologna when it was transported to the United States.

Window at a salumeria in the Quadrilatero in Bologna (credit: Jerome Levine)

Window at a salumeria in the Quadrilatero in Bologna (credit: Jerome Levine)Whenever in Bologna, our favorite place to eat upon arrival is La Baita Vecchia Malga at Via Pescherie Vecchie, 3a. Just peek at the window, and you won’t be able to resist. Order a tagliere (cured meat platter served on a cutting board) and drink the house wine. Also, order a warm dish: the rosette, baked egg noodles with prosciutto and a dreamy sauce. 

Rosette at La Baita in Bologna
Rosette at La Baita in Bologna

Although you can eat outside, avoid the crowds and ask for a table above the deli to view the area below and smell the shop’s wonderful wafting aromas.

Our favorite not-to-be-missed bakery is Paolo Atti & Figli at Via Caprarie, 6, in business since 1868. It is one of only four places in Bologna listed by the Association of Historical Places of Italy.

Check Out The Churches

Piazza Santo Stefano in Bologna
Piazza Santo Stefano in Bologna

Most churches in Bologna are filled with artistic treasures. Tour the churches at Santo Stefano on Piazza Santo Stefano. Although the complex once included seven churches, now there are four. But they are still called the “seven churches.” Notice the beautiful porticoes on your way there and stop at the museum.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vita, Via Clavature, 8/10, is a very small but beautiful church off the main square. Its Baroque architecture, with a huge dome, is amazing. Upstairs are many historic murals and sculptures.

Visit the Sanctuary of San Luca on a hill, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The portico leading to the church is the longest in Bologna (and the world). It is almost 2.4 miles long and has 664 arches. It has religious symbolism and provides a protected path to the sanctuary. From the top, you can see the city and views of the Bolognese Hills.

Portico San Luca
Portico San Luca (credit: Bologna Welcome)

Wander the Shops & Attractions on Nearby Streets

The pedestrian-friendly historic center is made for wandering. The streets emanating from the center are filled with ancient shops, bars, coffee shops, boutiques, museums, and restaurants. 

Check out the iconic Two Towers on Piazza di Porta Ravegnana that have come to symbolize the city. Cordoned off for reconstruction, the Garisenda Tower has been in the news lately because it has been leaning more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Majani Chocolate Shop at Via de’ Carbonesi, 5, is a culinary shrine in business since 1796. Buy the Cremino Fiat chocolate cubes (Majani’s most famous chocolate), but also check out the Belle Epoque furnishings and artistic packaging. This company was the birthplace of Italy’s first solid piece of chocolate. Also, taste the scorza (chocolate bark).

Music lovers shouldn’t miss touring Teatro Comunale, one of the first opera houses in Italy to be supported by municipal funds from the Pope. The interior is stunning.

Teatro Comunale in Giuseppe Verdi Piazza
Teatro Comunale in Giuseppe Verdi Piazza

Visit the Teatro Anatomico, the oldest operating theater in the world, at the University of Bologna. It is located inside a palace, built of carved wood, and used to teach anatomy. Bologna is known for having the oldest university in the Western world. It is a university town filled with students (although its population declines in summer).

Many designer pocketbook and leather stores, such as Borbonese (made in Bologna), Fendi, Mandarin Duck, Cucinelli, Piquadro, and more, are on the shopping streets and in the mall. 

Mangia, Mangia, Mangia

If you are interested in cooking (or eating), the Cesarine program is an amazing network of 400 home cookies that began in Bologna. You can cook an authentic local recipe in someone’s home and eat what you’ve cooked afterward. We strongly recommend that you make reservations in advance through the website. 

Before dinner, enjoy an aperitivo. Two of the most popular spots for aperitivi are the square at Santo Stefano and Via Pescherie in the Quadrilateral.

Scalinatella Ristorante Pizzeria is at Via Caduti Di Cefalonia, a small pedestrian street about three minutes from Piazza Maggiore. We loved their authentic Neapolitan pizza. They also have a large menu with wonderful salads and pasta and an impressive antipasto display.

Fresh pizza at Scalinatella Ristorante
Fresh pizza at Scalinatella Ristorante

Regina Sofia is also on Via Clavature 1/C, a contemporary pizza restaurant with two floors of seating and many other dishes and desserts.

You’ll need reservations to eat at Trattoria Da Giampi e Ciccio at Via Farini, 31b. Wonderful regional food. Be sure to order the gramigna curlicue pasta! There’s a luxury designer mall and shops on the same street.

There are many wonderful shops for a cappuccino in the morning (with a sweet, of course), but one of the nicest is Caffe Terzi at Via Guglielmo Oberdan.

Trattoria Da Gianni, via Clavature 18, is a hole-in-the-wall terrific little eatery always busy with great food. To find it, you have to take the alley off the street.

The Culinary Institute of Bologna (CIBO) is on Via Augusto Righi, 30. This oldest cooking school in Bologna offers classes in cooking and eating lunch.

If you want to take a short taxi ride out of town for a wonderful meal without tourists (mostly businessmen while we were there), head to Danilo E Patrizia on Via del Pilastro, 1, near the Hotel Country House Savoia. The pasta here is homemade.

Tortelloni and truffles at Danilo E Patrizia
Homemade tortelloni and truffles at Danilo E Patrizia

Don’t Overlook Dessert

Exquisite pastries on display at Gamberini
Exquisite pastries on display at Gamberini

A short walk from the center, Sorbetteria Castiglione at Via Castiglione 44 is an artisanal gelato shop near one of the ancient city gates. Cremeria Santo Stefano, Via Santo Stefano, 70, is also a favorite.

If you want a more in-depth gelato experience, visit the Carpigiani Gelato University, where you can learn to make gelato and visit a museum explaining its history. It’s a taxi ride from the town center. Carpigiani is one of the largest makers of gelato machines across the globe. You can ask how to sign up at the tourist office. It’s also on TripAdvisor. Make arrangements in advance! It was one of our favorite activities.

The place for pastry is Gamberini at Via Ugo Bassi 12r. Whether you want coffee or a drink, this is a terrific bar and pastry shop. Established in 1907, it is the oldest pastry shop in Bologna.

Get Out Of Town

The high speed train from Bologna to Florence only takes about 35 minutes.

One of the painted walls in Dozza
One of the painted walls in Dozza (Credit: Jerome Levine)

But if you want to travel slowly and get a sense of the rich Italian culture and lifestyle in Emilia Romagna, visit one of the smaller villages and towns surrounding Bologna. One of our favorites is Dozza. This colorful town sponsors a biennial art contest to paint its walls and doors. 

Walking through the medieval town, named one of the most beautiful villages in Italy (Borghi più belli d’Italia) is a real treat. Also make a stop at the Enoteca Regional Enoteca, a wine bar in the Dorza Castle that sells wines and offers tastings.

All photo credits: Jerome & Irene S. Levine

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