The perfect weekend in Bologna, Italy’s underrated foodie capital

Advice

A marvellous medieval centre, piles of perfect pasta and a thriving university, which is Europe’s oldest, dating from 1088. Bologna ticks all the boxes for a memorable stay combining good food with cultural curiosities. There are treasures to be discovered include a peppering of medieval towers, miles of porticoes and monumental statues with intriguing stories attached.

But it is without a doubt the city’s role as gastronomical capital that has really brought it to the fore in recent years. Food is taken seriously here: more than 30 official recipes – including much-loved dishes such as tortellini, lasagne and tagliatelle – are even registered at the Chamber of Commerce and it’s the local foodie culture that makes the strongest impact, with colourful markets, historic bars and atmospheric restaurants serving traditional cuisine. The city is ideally placed and well connected for out-of-town forays too; after a day away you’ll be glad to return to the authenticity, friendliness and genuine flavours of Bologna.

For further Bologna inspiration, see our guides to the city’s best hotelsrestaurantsbars and things to do.


In this guide


How to spend your weekend

Day one

Morning

Start your day in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s beating heart. First of all, pop into the tourist office under the arches of Palazzo del Podestà to invest in a Bologna Welcome card for free entrance to many of the city’s attractions. Try out the whispering corners under the palazzo’s vault; there’s a particularly powerful view of the Neptune fountain from here too. Photos are de rigeur by the monumental fountain, a 16th-century symbol of papal power by Flemish sculptor Giambologna. 

Back on the main piazza, Palazzo d’Accursio is the next stop. Home to the town hall and its art collection, the frescoed interior and clock tower are as big a draw as the artworks. By midday (11am GMT) be sure to make it to the San Petronio basilica which dominates the piazza, to see the phenomenal effect of a spot of sunlight crossing the floor meridian which, at 67m long, is the world’s biggest.



Bologna's slightly leaning Asinelli Tower


Bologna’s slightly leaning Asinelli Tower


Credit: Alexander Spatari/Alexander Spatari

Afternoon

From Piazza Maggiore take Via Clavature to enter the grid of streets that form the Quadrilatero food market, bliss for foodies with its colourful medley of sausages, cheeses, fruit and veg, and deep yellow fresh pasta. Buy lunch supplies at the Simoni deli and 150 year-old Paolo Atti bakery and take them to the hugely atmospheric Osteria del Sole which dates from 1465. Order wine at the bar, take a seat at one of the large wooden tables and tuck into your goodies. 

After lunch, explore the so-called Seven Churches (actually four) of Santo Stefano; passing through the succession of doors to find such different architectural styles is a rather Alice in Wonderland-like experience. Pass the decorative 14th century Palazzo della Mercanzia, home to the Chamber of Commerce and find the perfect angle to photograph the 97 metre-high Asinelli tower and its steeply leaning neighbour, Garisenda (47 metres high).



Quadrilatero, Bologna


The Quadrilatero food market is bliss for foodies


Credit: Cividins/Cividins

Late

Leaving the towers behind you head down Via Rizzoli to reach the centre’s other main food market, the covered Mercato delle Erbe. Open since 1910, when the stalls, previously in Piazza Maggiore, were moved here, the market offers some delicious bites including filled piadina, the local flatbread, and pizza slices with tempting toppings, if you’re feeling peckish.

The pavement cafés clustered round the back entrance to the market are the place to be on warm evenings; order a glass of the characterful local white wine, Albana, at Bar Senza Nome. From here, stroll down cobbled Via del Pratello to Il Rovescio for a dinner of organic tagliatelle or sourdough pizza in the appealing farmhouse-style interior.

Day two

Morning

Stretch your legs and energise with an early morning walk: follow the world’s longest portico (about three miles) out of the centre via the Porta Saragozza city gate – one of 12 built into the medieval city walls that have since been destroyed – and up the steep route to the San Luca basilica. The views across the city, the football stadium just below and the hills are spectacular, even more so from the cupola. There is a land train if time or energy don’t suffice. 



San Luca Basilica, Bologna


San Luca is up a steep, three-mile walk; otherwise take a train from Piazza Maggiore


Credit: Marka

Afternoon

On the way back into town, stop for a pizza lunch at Porta Saragozza at Berberé one of the city’s best pizzerias.

Spend the rest of the afternoon delving into the lesser-known history and culture of the city, first at the grand, art-filled San Domenico basilica which has the tomb of the Dominican order’s founder adorned with works by Michelangelo, then at Palazzo Pepoli, where thematic, multisensorial displays bring to life aspects of the city you’d never have imagined existed.

Late

From the museum make your way past the Two Towers and through the alleys of the former ghetto, where the 16th-century Jewish community was obliged to live, to reach InCantina Enoteca nel Ghetto (see below). Relax over a glass of local wine before proceeding to the cosy, family-run trattoria Serghei just round the corner for dinner. Try stuffed courgettes with meatballs, one of Bologna’s less famous, though typical dishes.

When you leave the restaurant, stop at the window in the wall just beyond for a glimpse over one of the city’s underground canals, then carry on to the university district and end the evening with a dessert (such as mascarpone with dark chocolate) or wine from the impressive selection while watching live jazz at Cantina Bentivoglio.



Serghei restaurant, Bologna


It’s surely to places like tiny trattoria Serghei that Bologna owes its fame as Italy’s foodie capital.


Insider tips

City hack

The basic version of the Bologna Welcome card (€25/£23), available at the tourist office in Piazza Maggiore, provides free entry to many of the city’s museums and sights such as Palazzo Pepoli and the Asinelli tower; you can also join a free walking tour of the centre and enjoy discounts at numerous bars, restaurants and shops around town including Cantina Bentivoglio and Camera a Sud.

Attractions

Bologna’s admirable network of municipal museums include the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MamBO; pictured), the Museum of Music and the fascinating Museum of Industrial Heritage located in a former brickworks. Admission to all, plus other attractions, is included in the Bologna Welcome Card.

Neighbourhood watch

For some impressive street art, stroll down picturesque Via del Pratello, which comes to life each evening with a multitude of boho bars and restaurants such as the Mutenye pub that stay open late into the night. Nearby you can see a section of canal and visit a restored mill complex Opificio delle Acque.



San Domenico Bologna


The Basilica of San Domenico was built by the Dominicans over the smaller church


Credit: Lonely Planet Images
lpi@lonelyplanet.com.au
Tel: +61 3 8379 8181 (Lonely Planet Images
lpi@lonelyplanet.com.au
Tel: +61 3 8379 8181 (Photographer) – [None]/Max Paoli

Hotels

Enjoy a drink with a view over the towers, church domes and terracotta roofs of Bologna at the Mattuiani Terrace – the open-air rooftop bar of Hotel Touring. Although priority is given to hotel guests for the terrace’s whirlpool tub corner (only available in summer) the rooftop bar area is open all year round, also to non-residents. (booking required).

Did you know?

Despite the inscription to local patron San Petronio, the statue over the entrance to Palazzo d’Accursio in Piazza Maggiore actually depicts Gregory XIII, the pope born in Bologna in 1502 who introduced the Gregorian calendar. To save it from destruction during Napoleonic rule, the statue’s real identity was temporarily disguised with a bishop’s mitre and crosier and the false name plaque added.


When to go

While Bologna is beautiful all year round and the pavement porticoes shelter pedestrians from the elements, spring and autumn are undoubtedly the best times to visit, when temperatures are moderate and pleasant. Winters can be cold but the festive decorations and seasonal markets are attractive during the run-up to Christmas. Avoid the height of summer, especially August, when it gets hot and humid and many bars, restaurants and even some shops, close for a couple of weeks. When booking your trip try to avoid coinciding with major trade fairs (such as Cosmoprof and Cersaie) as hotel rooms are scarce and expensive.


Where to stay

Luxury Living

The 18th-century palazzo which houses Grand Hotel Majestic già Baglioni was originally built as a seminary by a locally-born pope-to-be (Benedict XIV), and transformed into a hotel over 100 years ago. It attracts visiting royalty, politicians and celebrities, and interiors live up to expectations with splendid antique furniture, sculptures, paintings and prints, along with fresh flowers, rich fabrics and marble floors. Each of the 106 rooms is different. The hotel restaurant, I Carracci, one of the city’s most refined, features stunning ceiling frescoes by the 16th century Carracci family of artists.

Via Indipendenza 8; 00 39 051 225445

From

£
300

per night

Rates provided by
Booking.com



Grand Hotel Majestic già Baglioni, Bologna


Private terraces are a bonus for fourth-floor rooms

Boutique Beauty

Phi Hotel Bologna Al Cappello Rosso captures the essence of today’s Bologna: an appealing combination of traditional and contemporary with a warm and friendly atmosphere. The hotel (and restaurant) has undergone many changes since it first opened in 1375 and nowadays most of the bedrooms have thematic décor. The JFK room, for example, is one of several created by set designer Mauro Tinti, and has a red, white and blue theme with a star-studded ceiling, photographs and a reproduction of the American president’s rocking chair and others have been personalised in fresh and light-hearted ways by artists in residence for the city’s annual international comics festival, BilBOlbul.

Via de’ Fusari, 9; 00 39 051 261891

From

£
121

per night

Rates provided by
Booking.com

Budget Beauty

The cheerful, hospitable nature of the Stegani family, who have run Hotel Touring for decades, comes out in the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the hotel. The overall look is smart and contemporary. The lounge has a selection of photographs from a local gallery, the walls at reception are hung with works of contemporary art and even the ground-floor loo is worth a look for its Fornasetti décor. The view from the roof terrace is a work of art in itself, and a sunset aperitivo is an experience to be remembered. A three-seater whirlpool tub in a secluded corner of the terrace can also be reserved in summer.

Via de’ Mattuiani 1/2; 00 39 051 584305

From

£
86

per night

Rates provided by
Booking.com



Hotel Touring , Bologna


Hotel Touring has a pretty rooftop terrace complete with a whirlpool tub


What to bring home

For a real reminder of Bologna when you get back home it has to be a foodie souvenir. Cheeses, including exceptional aged Parmigiano Reggiano from mountain producers, can be vacuum-packed at the long-standing family-run Formaggeria Barbieri at Mercato delle Erbe. The family’s personal-recipe vermouth, Emilio, makes a perfect partner for the cheese. 

Majani, founded in Bologna by Teresa Majani in 1796 and still run by the Majani family, is one of Italy’s oldest chocolate manufacturers. Their shop continues at the original premises (Via de’ Carbonesi 5) selling classics such as the FIAT bite-sized chocolate cube, first made to celebrate the launch of the FIAT Tipo 4 car in 1911 – a must for chocoholics.



Simoni, Bologna


You can have your sausages vacuum-packed at traditional Salumeria Simoni


Essential information

Local laws and etiquette

  • Flight time: About two hours from London
  • Currency: Euros €
  • International dialling code: 00 39 051 

The basics

  • Bologna does not have any particular safety issues and it’s a pretty relaxed city, though covered shoulders are respectful in the churches.

  • While tipping is not expected and most restaurants have a service charge, staff will be pleased if you decide to tip (around 10 per cent) for particularly good service. Evening meals at traditional trattorias are not usually served before 7.30pm or 8pm though some restaurants in the centre now offer all-day dining.

  • The main sights of the centre are within easy walking distance of each other but a day pass or 10-ride bus ticket might be useful if you are based out of town. Bus services are excellent and frequent during the day and there are hourly night buses with more at weekends (tper.it). The Marconi Express takes passengers from the airport to the station in seven and a half minutes.

  • Taxis are usually plentiful at the airport and station and there’s a taxi rank in the central Piazza Maggiore. For taxis elsewhere contact local firms CAT (00 39 051 45 90; taxibologna.it/en/taxi-bologna-en) or Cotabo (00 39 051 37 27 27; cotabo.it).

  • If you’re driving be careful to avoid the limited traffic zone (ZTL) unless you have an arrangement with a hotel or private garage. Parking regulations include blue lines for paid public parking.

  • Bologna makes an ideal base for day trips and rail connections are plentiful. Aim to buy tickets in advance for any high-speed trains you plan to take for the best fares.

Author bio

Sarah has lived in and around Bologna for over 30 years and is married to a local. She is a licensed guide and sommelier and takes wine and food tours in Bologna and the nearby countryside.

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