I first visited Bologna in 2010. It was the start of a two-month trip across Europe and I had managed to secure a cheap flight from my adopted home in Edinburgh. Hostel options were non-existent and I, therefore, decided to only spend one day in Bologna before catching a train elsewhere in Italy.
I spent my one day in Bologna walking around aimlessly. I vaguely remember stumbling across some grand piazzas and interesting monuments, however, my takeaway from my time in Bologna was that the city had an undeniable energy that I knew would surely require a return visit one day.
Over the years, I heard Bologna being whispered more frequently in the travel community. “Underrated,” “undiscovered” and “hidden gem” were common phrases used to describe this northern Italian city.
As we planned our trip to Italy earlier this year, Bologna once again drew me in due to the cheap flights available from the UK. However, this time around I was adamant to try and get to know the city better. And after exploring the city for a few days, I quickly discovered that those common phrases were certainly no exaggeration when compared to some of Italy’s other popular destinations.
Given many travellers will only spend one day in Bologna (probably as a logical stop between Florence and Venice), I have created this Bologna itinerary to help maximise your time in the city. However, I hope that some of my other suggestions will convince you to spend at least two days in Bologna or maybe even more!
What to do in Bologna in one day
1. Start your morning with a coffee and pastry
During our time in Italy, we quickly adopted the northern Italian morning ritual of having a coffee and pastry at a local pasticceria (pastry shop). Many of these shops are standing room only meaning you choose your pastry from the display, order a coffee and then find a standing spot at a bar to enjoy your breakfast. A pastry and a cappuccino shouldn’t cost more than €2-3 and there’s simply no better way to fuel up for your one day in Bologna!
2. Explore Piazza Maggiore
In Italy, all roads might lead to Rome however in Bologna all roads lead to Piazza Maggiore. As we spent our days exploring Bologna, on multiple occasions throughout the day we would end back at Piazza Maggiore and inevitably spend some time basking in the sunlight, enjoying the energy of the place and listening to some buskers.
There are also some interesting sites to explore around the piazza. The most popular attraction is the Fountain of Neptune – an impressive fountain that has a statue of Neptune at the top and is surrounded by angels, dolphins and naked women.
While exploring Piazza Maggiore, if you stumble across people facing an arch and yelling at it – don’t fear, you haven’t stumbled across crazy people! Rather, you’ve come across Voltone del Podesta, a place where the architectural design allows you and a friend can stand in opposite arches, speak into the walls and be able to hear each other from several yards away!
3. See the two towers of Bologna
You don’t need to travel to Pisa to see a leaning tower in Italy!
The Two Towers in Bologna, arguably Bologna’s most famous landmark is only a short walk from Piazza Maggiore and offers you the opportunity to see a leaning tower and a slightly less leaning version of another nearby tower. The two towers – Asinelli and Garisenda – are the most prominent remains of a group of around 180 towers (known as the towers of Bologna) that existed in the 12th and 13th centuries in Bologna.
Over the years some of these towers collapsed, while others were demolished and today there are still a handful of smaller towers around the two main towers of Bologna as a reminder to what once existed in this city.
You can climb Asinelli tower’s 498 steps all the way to the top for spectacular views of Bologna. Tickets cost €5.
4. Visit Bologna’s university area
The University of Bologna opened in 1088 is considered the oldest university in the Western world and today continues to draw students in from around the world making Bologna a lively student city.
To understand more about the daily lives of many Bolognese students it’s worth venturing into the student area, both to explore some of the university’s buildings, pop into a student cafe or bar or hang out in one of the popular student meeting points.
One such place is Piazza Verdi which is considered the main meeting point for local students and is filled with street art, particularly political pieces that serve as a reminder to Bologna’s strong anti-fascist history.
5. Have aperitivo on Via del Pratello
If students aren’t hanging out in the university area, then chances are you’ll find them on Via del Pratello particularly in the evening for aperitivo!
If it’s your first time in Italy, you’ll quickly warm to the ritual of aperitivo – an evening tradition where bars and cafes serve complimentary food when you order a drink. It’s not a huge surprise that a city full of students embraces aperitivo vigorously!
Via del Pratello is a trendy street in the Western part of the city, with plenty of cool street art and a number of great options for a glass of wine or Aperol Spritz in the evening. It’s also a great place for a lunch or dinner as there are a number of cheaper options here compared to the central part of the city.
6. Eat an amazing dinner
Speaking of eating, somehow I haven’t yet mentioned in this article of the most important reasons to visit Bologna – the amazing food!
If there’s one thing you have to make sure you do during your one day in Bologna, it is to eat as much food as you can! The best way to ensure you end your one day in Bologna on a positive note is to splurge on a nice meal at one of Bologna’s many great restaurants.
If you’re already having aperitivo on Via del Pratello, then one place we can highly recommend is nearby Casa Monica. The restaurant is homely, cosy and serves fine dining quality food at reasonable prices. If it’s still on the menu – don’t pass up on the cuttlefish cordonetti pasta!
Bolognese people love to eat out so if you’re only in Bologna for a day, be sure to make a reservation as many popular restaurants book out!
Why you should spend more than one day in Bologna
1. Understand more about daily Bolognese life
One of the main reasons we recommend spending more than one day in Bologna is to give yourself the opportunity to learn more about life in this city. One of the best ways to do this is to join a free walking tour in Bologna. Free Walking Tour Bologna runs four times a week on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and starts at 11 am.
If you’re not able to make the free tour then another good option is to take a paid walking tour. This Bologna City Walking Tour runs daily at 10:30 am and 3 pm which allows you to have a bit more flexibility, particularly if you’re only spending one day in Bologna. Click here to check availability for your travel days
2. You will discover a lot when you wander around aimlessly
Bologna is a city that lends itself to aimless wandering. As we walked around each day, we were always pleasantly surprised by some of the great monuments and sites that we would discover by accident.
Some of our favourites included La Piccola Venezia, a lovely canal that brings a slice of Venice to Bologna and Pozzo dei desideri, a small square located not far from Piazza Maggiore with an old well in the middle and a lovely park to relax in.
Bologna has a number of these hidden gems that you will undoubtedly discover if you spend long enough in the city which is why I recommend spending more than one day in Bologna!
3. Eat more amazing food!
In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear yet in this article, Bologna has amazing food. In fact, one of the nicknames for the city – La Grassa – translates to ‘the fat’, highlighting the unfortunate consequences of indulging too much in arguably Italy’s gastronomic capital!
Therefore, if you only spend one day in Bologna you will undoubtedly have to limit yourself to the amount of great food you eat in the city. By spending some extra days in Bologna we were able to eat at a number of other great restaurants including Va Mo Là (a restaurant and library in one!) and Balotta – a brilliant panini and deli platter bistro.
If Bologna is your only stop in Emilia Romagna then you should also consider doing a food or wine tour to enjoy local specialities like Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano and Lambrusco wine. I recommend checking out this 3 Hour Secret Food Tour which includes 6 stops where you sample a variety of Bologna’s most famous foods and get to learn a lot about the history of Bolognese cuisine. Click here to check availability for your travel days.
4. Bologna is a great base for exploring Emilia Romagna
If you have only two days in Bologna then I recommend spending them in the city itself, however, if you have three days in Bologna or even more then you can also easily use Bologna to explore other great cities in Emilia Romagna like Modena, Parma and Ravenna.
One of the other reasons why Bologna is a great base to explore this region is that there a number of accommodation options for different levels of budget.
If you’re after a hostel, then Dopa Hostel is a great option located in the heart of Bologna. They offer dorms and private rooms, free breakfast and their bunk beds even have curtains for that extra bit of privacy. Click here to see their latest prices.
Due to Bologna’s large student population, there are also a number of very budget-friendly Airbnb options where you can find private rooms in the centre of the city for around €30-40 per night. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, then click here to get up to $40 off your first stay!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Then click here to find the best deals for a hotel in Bologna!
Bologna might be beginning to shed its image of being an undiscovered city however that shouldn’t stop you from visiting. Bologna is undoubtedly one of my favourite cities in Italy to explore and deserves to be treated as much more than just a short stop on the Florence to Venice route.
Before visiting Bologna make sure you have a valid travel insurance policy. We personally used World Nomads for our trip, however, it’s important to read the policy details to ensure it’s right for you. Click here to get a quote from World Nomads!
Are you planning a trip to Bologna? How long are you planning on spending in the city? Let us know in the comments below!