Emilia’s capital, Bologna, is a thriving city whose light engineering and high-tech industries have brought conspicuous wealth to the old brick palaces and porticoed streets. It’s well known for its food – undeniably the richest in the country – and for its politics. Bologna is certainly one of Italy’s best-looking cities.

The best travel tips for visiting Bologna

There is a reason why this is one of the most visited cities in Italy. Bologna's centre is startlingly medieval: a jumble of red brick, tiled roofs and balconies radiating out from Piazza Maggiore. There are enough monuments for several days’ leisure exploration here, including plenty of small, quirky museums, some grand Gothic and Renaissance architecture, and the Due Torri, the city’s own “leaning towers”.

Thanks to the university, there’s always something happening – be it theatre, music or just the café and bar scene, which is among northern Italy’s most convivial.

“Red Bologna” became the Italian Left’s stronghold and spiritual home, having evolved out of the resistance movement to German occupation during World War II.

Consequently, Bologna’s train station was singled out by Fascist groups in 1980 for a bomb attack in Italy’s worst postwar terrorist atrocity – a glassed-in jagged gash in the station wall commemorates the tragedy in which 84 people died.

In subsequent decades, the city’s political leanings have been less predictable, although its “leftist” reputation continues to stick.

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Basilica of San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore in Bologna © Shutterstock

Basilica of San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore in Bologna © Shutterstock

Best things to do in Bologna

From the 16C Neptune Fountain to one of the finest Gothic brick buildings in Italy; the church of San Petronio, there’s plenty to do in Bologna. These are the highlights.

#1 Gawp at The Neptune Fountain

At the centre of Piazza del Nettuno, the Neptune Fountain, one of the most celebrated symbols of the city, was created by Giambologna in the late sixteenth century.

Its extravagant – and, when first unveiled, highly controversial – composition sees a trident-wielding Neptune sat atop a pile of putti and mermaids – who are arranged rather indelicately astride dolphins with water shooting from their breasts.

Beside the fountain is a wall lined with photographs of partisans who died in World War II, near a memorial to those killed in the 1980 train station bombing

Fountain Neptune in Bologna © Shutterstock

Fountain Neptune in Bologna © Shutterstock

#2 Spot the huge Pope Gregory XIII statue on Palazzo d’Accursio

On the piazza’s western edge, the Palazzo d’Accursio (or Palazzo Comunale) gives some indication of the political shifts in power, its facade adorned by a huge statue of Pope Gregory XIII as an affirmation of papal authority.

The palazzo’s upper storey houses the municipal art collection, the Collezioni Comunali d’Arte.

#3 Check out the ornate furniture and paintings held at Collezioni Comunali d’Arte

The Collezioni Comunali d’Arte forms one third of the city’s Museo Civici d’Arte Antica, along with the Museo Davia Bargellini and the Museo Civico Medievale.

Its galleries of ornate furniture and paintings include the heavily decorated Sala Urbana (1630), a late Tintoretto, works by Francesco Raibolini (“Il Francia”), Vitale da Bologna, and others of the Bolognese School, and a fascinating model dating from 1917 of mediaeval Bologna with its many towers.

#4 Seek out San Petronio, one of Italy’s finest Gothic buildings

On the southern side of Piazza Maggiore stands the church of San Petronio, one of the finest Gothic brick buildings in Italy.

This was originally intended to be larger than St Peter’s in Rome, but money and land for the side aisle were diverted by the pope’s man in Bologna towards a new university and plans had to be modified.

This explains the half-finished look of the building, with the beginnings of the planned aisles clearly visible on both sides. There are models of what the church was supposed to look like in the museum.

Basilica of San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore in Bologna © Shutterstock

Basilica of San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore in Bologna © Shutterstock

#5 Discover the best Etruscan display outside Lazio in Museo Civico Archeologico

In the Palazzo Galvani, the Museo Civico Archeologico has excellent displays of Egyptian and Roman antiquities, while the Etruscan section upstairs is one of the best outside Lazio, with finds from the settlement of Felsina, which predated Bologna.

There are good introductory panels to the Etruscan section in English, but you’ll need the English audio guide for more information.

#6 Drool at the food shops along Via Clavature

Via Clavature – together with nearby Via Pescerie Vecchie and Via Draperie – is lined with food shops that make for some of the city’s most enticing sights.

In autumn, especially, the market is a visual feast, with fat porcini mushrooms, truffles in baskets of rice, thick rolls of mortadella, hanging pheasants, ducks and hares, and skinned frogs by the kilo.

At no. 10, the church of Santa Maria della Vita holds an outstanding Compianto del Cristo Morto by Niccolò dell’Arca – seven life-sized terracotta figures that are among the most dramatic examples of Renaissance sculpture you’ll see.

#7 Visit Europe’s oldest university, The Archiginnasio

Bologna’s old university – the Archiginnasio – was founded at more or less the same time as Piazza Maggiore was laid out, predating the rest of Europe’s universities.

Although it didn’t get its own home until 1565, when Antonio Morandi was commissioned to construct the present building on the site until then reserved for San Petronio.

You can wander into the main courtyard, covered with the coats of arms of its more illustrious graduates, and visit the library and the heavily decorated Sala dello Stabat Mater, where Rossini’s work of that name was first performed in 1842, conducted by Donizzetti.

Archiginnasio Bologna © Shutterstock

The Archiginnasio, Bologna © Shutterstock

#8 Teatro Anatomico, a seventeenth-century dissection theatre

The Archiginnasio’s most interesting feature is the Teatro Anatomico, the original medical faculty dissection theatre dating from the seventeenth century, but re-created after suffering heavy damage in an Allied bombing raid in 1944.

Tiers of seats surround an extraordinary professor’s chair, covered with a canopy supported by figures known as gli spellati – “the skinned ones”.

Not many dissections went on, owing to prohibitions of the Church, but when they did (usually around carnival time), the general public used to turn up as much for the social occasion as for studying the body.

#9 Visit the strange canopied tombs of Piazza San Domenico

A few minutes south of the old university, down Via Garibaldi, is Piazza San Domenico, with its strange canopied tombs holding the bones of mediaeval law scholars.

Bologna was instrumental in sorting out wrangles between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor in the tenth and eleventh centuries, earning itself the title of La Dotta (“The Learned”) and forming the basis for the university’s prominent law faculties.

#10 Head to San Domenico to discover the relics of the founder of the Dominican Order

The church of San Domenico was built in 1221 to house the relics of the founder of the Dominican Order.

These were placed in the so-called Arca di San Domenico (on the right-hand side of the nave), the creation of Nicola Pisano, but also bearing three figures by Michelangelo (the display by the chapel tells you which are his).

While you’re in the church, look into the Museo di San Domenico, displaying a very fine polychrome terracotta bust of St Dominic by Niccolò dell’Arca along with paintings, reliquaries and vestments, and, beyond, the intricately inlaid mid-sixteenth-century choir stalls.

Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna, Italy © Shutterstock

Basilica of San Domenico with the canopied tomb, Bologna, Italy © Shutterstock

#11 Check out the art at MAMbo – Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna

Known, inevitably perhaps, by the acronym MAMbo, the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna is Bologna’s answer to Bilbao’s Guggenheim, with its large white galleries offering a thought-provoking overview of Italian art from the 1950s onwards.

Opened in 2007, it forms the centrepiece of an ambitious cultural complex, the Manifattura delle Arti (Factory of Arts), which is also home to an arthouse cinema and film archive and performance spaces belonging to the university.

MAMbo currently also houses the Museo Morandi while its home in the Palazzo d’Accursio is being restored. The museum is dedicated to one of Italy’s most important twentieth-century painters, Giorgio Morandi, who was best known for his captivating still lifes.

#12 Climb The Due Torri

Via Rizzoli leads into the student district from Piazza del Nettuno, ending up at Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, where the Torre degli Asinelli and the perilously leaning Torre Garisenda next to it are together known as the Due Torri, two of the hundreds of towers that were scattered across the city in the Middle Ages.

The former offers fantastic views, but it is not for the faint-hearted as its 498 steps go up around an open well.

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Bologna with the famous Due Torri © Shutterstock

Best places to stay in Bologna

Bologna’s accommodation mostly caters for business travellers with only a few inexpensive hotels. During the trade-fair peak (March to early May & Sept–Dec) prices can more than double.

Many hotels prefer to take block bookings during these times and making an individual reservation can be tricky. Here’s where to stay.

Centro Storico

Bologna’s historic centre is chockfull of hotels that offer everything from five-star luxury to well-heeled business hotels. They are priced accordingly.

Santo Stefano

This neighbourhood offers a little more calm and better prices than the city centre. You’re likely to find guesthouses, B&Bs and a more local experience.

North of Bologna Centrale

North of the train station is the best bet for budget travellers. You’ll find cheap hostels, plenty of guesthouses and a handful of boutique business hotels.

Browse the various accommodation options in Bologna.

Bronze statue of Bolognese Pope in Accursio Palace, Bologna © Shutterstock

Bronze statue of Bolognese Pope in Accursio Palace, Bologna © Shutterstock

How to get around

The best way to enjoy Bologna is on foot, strolling beneath some of the city’s beautiful porticoes, but bikes and buses are helpful too.

The tourist office has details of guided walks. Demetra Social Bike at Via Capo di Lucca 37, near the bus station, rents and repairs bikes. Buses are fast and frequent. Tickets are sold from tabacchi, newsstands and bus info kiosks, or from ticket machines on board.

The open-top, hop-on-hop-off City redbus makes a tour of the city starting from the train station.

How many days do you need in Bologna?

Most travellers take around 2 to 3 days to explore Bologna. This is enough time to walk around the city's historic center, taking in medieval architecture, food markets, and the city's rich cultural heritage.

You'll have time to visit landmarks such as the Two Towers (Asinelli and Garisenda), Piazza Maggiore, and the Basilica di San Petronio. Don't miss the chance to try authentic Bolognese dishes like tagliatelle al ragù (Bolognese pasta) and mortadella, either.

With 3 days, can explore at a more leisurely pace, enabling you to delve deeper into the city's museums, such as the Museo Civico Archeologico and the Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna. Additionally, you could head to Modena or Parma on a day trip using Bologna as a base.

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The teatro anatomico in Bologna © Shutterstock

The Teatro Anatomico in Bologna © Shutterstock


What is the best time to visit Bologna?

The best time to visit Bologna is during the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. These seasons offer pleasant weather, fewer crowds, and a chance to experience the city at its finest.


When the weather starts to warm up in spring (March to May), the city wakes up to average temperatures that range from around 10°C to 20°C (50°F to 68°F), ideal for wander the streets.

Autumn (September to November) is also a good time to visit Bologna with mainly warm, dry weather and pleasant temperatures from 12°C to 24°C (54°F to 75°F). Autumn is also harvest season and Bologna brims with its fresh food festivals.

Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.


How to get here

Marconi airport is northwest of town, linked to the centre and the train station by the Marconi Express monorail


If you're planning to get here by train, the station is at Piazza delle Medaglie d’Oro. All long-distance buses terminate at the bus station (autostazione), 300m from the train station

Avoid bringing a car into central Bologna if possible: there are traffic restrictions all over town and the city centre is closed to private traffic between 7am and 8pm every day.

If your hotel is in the historic centre you’ll be allowed to bring your car in, but you’ll need to inform your hotel first.

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written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 11.10.2023

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