Bologna is one of Italy’s most beautiful cities. While it’s not as well-known as the big names like Rome, Florence or Venice, visiting Bologna is an unforgettable experience. This gorgeous city is a brilliant short break destination and a fantastic base for some of Italy’s best day trips.
I really recommend visiting Bologna, but there are a few tips that will make all the difference to your visit.
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Dos and don’ts: tips for visiting Bologna
These tips for visiting Bologna are tried and tested from my own trip to Bologna, so please do learn from my mistakes!
Do avoid visiting Bologna on Monday (and perhaps Tuesday too)
If you’re looking at things to do in Bologna and you love the sound of all the museums, galleries and markets, you should definitely avoid making the main day of your trip Monday, as they’re almost all closed. I made this mistake myself and it was pretty disappointing not to do some of the activities I’d planned.
There are a few things that are open on Mondays, for example the Asinelli Tower, one of Bologna’s famous towers (you’ll need to book in advance for a dedicated timeslot), but they’re in the minority. Walking around Bologna is a lovely activity in itself, and there’s still plenty to see, but if you can plan your trip to Bologna for a day other than Monday then do.
Tuesdays aren’t quite as quiet as Mondays, but there are a few museums and galleries that are closed on Tuesdays too, so it’s best to check before you book your trip to Bologna that the attraction you want to see will be open. Since Bologna is so famous for its food, I wanted to visit the Mercato di Mezzo in the city centre – I missed out by visiting on a Monday but if we’d been here on Tuesday it would have been open.
Do avoid visiting Bologna when there’s a big conference or exhibition in town
Yup, I failed on this one too. Bologna hosts a number of large conferences and I managed to visit Bologna when one of the biggest trade shows was in town. If your visit does coincide with one of these exhibitions, hotel prices go up and there could be much less choice of where to stay, you might find it more difficult to book train tickets and your flight could be more expensive too. (Check, check, check for my trip – I think I got the last hotel room under 200 euro a night in the city centre.)
You can check whether the dates you’re planning for your trip to Bologna coincide with a trade fair by visiting TradeFairDates.com.
It’s worth saying that if you have managed to get a good deal on a hotel but it’s at a time when there’s a trade fair on, then don’t worry too much about it disrupting your trip. My visit to Bologna coincided with the Cersaie ceramics fair which had over 90,000 attendees, but the city centre wasn’t too busy at all.
Do go ready to eat
Bologna is known by its three nicknames: La Dotta (the learned, for its university), La Rossa (the red, for its buildings and its traditionally left-leaning politics) and La Grassa (the fat, for its food). Everywhere you turn in Bologna there are tempting places to eat. Butchers’ shops with piles of mortadella sausage in the window, pavement cafes serving up amazing, crisp pizza, and restaurants where you can try handmade tortellini pasta.
What you won’t find on menus is spaghetti bolognese – while you will see the tomato and meat-based sauce, it’s called ragù in Italy and it’s more commonly served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti. A former mayor of Bologna went so far as to say that spaghetti bolognese “does not exist” and described it as “fake news”.
Do take a walking tour of Bologna
One of my favourite things to do on any city trip is to take a walking tour. If you’re visiting Bologna, taking a walking tour is a great way to get to know some of the secrets of this very atmospheric city.
Since Bologna is so famous for its food, it’s not surprising that you can combine a guided tour of the city with a tour of some of its culinary highlights on a food walking tour.
Do take day trips from Bologna
One of the best things about visiting Bologna is how easy it is to take some fantastic day trips.
While of course Florence deserves several days to do it justice, if you do want to pay it a flying visit while you’re visiting Bologna, it’s a very easy 40-minute train ride using one of the fast train services.
Be sure to book in advice for Florence’s most popular attractions, including the Uffizi (to see Botticelli’s Venus), the Accademia Gallery (for Michaelangelo’s David) or the Boboli Gardens (some of the most beautiful gardens in Italy).
If you’re visiting Bologna for the food, then you should definitely consider taking a day trip to foodie paradise in Parma, home of Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. There are plenty of food tours in Parma to choose from, some which take you to the best street food stops and some which visit ham and cheese producers where you can see how these Parma delicacies are made. Both Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano hold the coveted DOC status, which means they can only be made in this part of Italy.
There are plenty of sights in Parma to help you work up an appetite. Don’t miss the gorgeous pink, octagonal Baptistry by the Cathedral or the astonishing Renaissance Teatro Farnese.
The small city of Modena is just 30 minutes by train from Bologna, so makes a really easy day trip from Bologna. In Modena, I recommend that you take a balsamic vinegar factory tour to find out how it’s made and taste some of the products.
Modena’s other big draw is its links to Italian motorsport. Enzo Ferrari was born here and you can visit his childhood home and see beautiful examples of Ferrari cars in a stunning modern building. Big Ferrari fans should take the opportunity to go to Maranello, 18 kilometres from Modena where Ferrari has its HQ – there’s another Ferrari museum here and the opportunity to do driving experiences in one of the famous red supercars.
The walled city of Ferrara, 48 minutes by train north of Bologna, is a Renaissance gem and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Top sights in Ferrara include the Estense Castle, the Jewish quarter and what claims to be the world’s oldest wine bar, Al Brindisi, which was serving the workmen building Ferrara’s cathedral in 1100.
Ravenna is a dream destination for any art and history lover. It boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has some of the most beautiful mosaics in the world, dating mostly from the 5th and 6th century. The gorgeous blue and gold night sky mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placida (one of the eight sites on the UNESCO list) is even said to have inspired Cole Porter to write the song Night and Day. The mosaic tradition has survived into the 21st century – French street artist Invader has placed 40 mini Space Invader mosaics around the city.
20 minutes from Ravenna, Punta Marina is a small beach resort and a quieter alternative to party central Rimini, just down the coast. The main draw is the golden sandy beach and fragrant pine forest; you can also visit thermal spas.
Take a day trip from Bologna into the Apennine hills and enjoy e-bike tours and thermal baths. The small town of Porretta Terme is close to Emilia Romagna’s border with Tuscany. As the “Terme” suggests, the town is famous for its thermal waters; the Romans used to bathe here and until the early 20th century it was a fashionable spa destination, popular with the Italian upper classes.
Visitors today can take guided e-bike tours to explore medieval villages, beautiful caves and waterfalls, and the World War 2 Gothic Line. Follow up your day of adventure with a thermal spa treatment at the Hotel Helvetia Porretta Terme. Porretta Terme is around an hour by train from Bologna.
Don’t take a day trip to San Marino…
…not because it isn’t worth visiting San Marino (it absolutely is!), but because it deserves more than a day trip. Staying overnight in Città di San Marino gives you enough time to explore and could be combined with a trip to the beach in Rimini.
Do book train tickets in advance
Most day trips from Bologna are an easy journey by train, but the journey times can differ a lot depending on what type of train you take. For example, the train from Bologna to Rimini (for San Marino) can take less than an hour on a Frecciarossa high speed train but well over 2 hours on one of the Regionale trains.
Unfortunately, seats on the fast trains do often sell out and you won’t be able to travel without a reservation. If you can, plan your day trips in advance and book train tickets around a week before you want to travel.
Do stay in Bologna city centre
Bologna city centre is relatively compact and lovely to stroll around. I particularly liked it in the evening, when the tables outside restaurants were full of diners and the collonaded streets felt both mysterious and buzzy. There are lots of hotels in the city centre, at every price range.
If you’re flying into Bologna or arriving by train, then the area around Via dell’Indipendenza is a convenient location. Via dell’Indipendenza is the main street which runs between Bologna Centrale station and the historic centre – it’s the area I chose as it meant we could drop our bags off on the way to the sights. I stayed at Zanhotel Regina which is a really comfortable 3 star hotel with breakfast included.
Hotel Cavour is a well-priced 3 star hotel in the same area, on a quiet street but within a few minutes’ walk of all the sights. Most rooms have been recently refurbished and are set around a central garden courtyard. Some rooms have romantic exposed beams, some even have views over Bologna’s rooftops.
If you’re looking for ultimate luxury or you’re visiting Bologna for a special occasion, Grand Hotel Majestic gia’ Baglioni, also on Via dell’Indipendenza, is probably the best hotel in Bologna. As you might expect from a hotel built out of a 1700s palace, the rooms are traditional and opulent – one reviewer said she felt like a princess.
Art Hotel Orologio is right around the corner from Piazza Maggiore in the middle of the historic centre and near the clock tower that gives the hotel its name. Rooms are elegant and individually decorated with lots of attention to detail and the staff are super-friendly and helpful.
Search for hotels and apartments in Bologna city centre using the map below.
If you’re planning to hire a car in Bologna or bring your own car, you should be aware of the Bologna Limited Traffic Zone (Zona Traffico Limitato or ZTL). This covers most of the area within the ring road; you’ll need a permit to enter and park, which your hotel should be able to provide for you as long as you can give them your car’s licence plate. Once you have a permit, on-street parking costs 9 euro per day. If you are driving to Bologna, it might be easier to choose a hotel outside the ZTL with parking.
Do consider a taxi to and from the airport
Bologna’s airport is close to the city and is linked to Bologna Centrale railway station by the Marconi Express monorail. Sounds fun right? Not so much. The little monorail cars are very, very small, and pretty much everyone has to stand. The track is very bumpy so overall the effect is a bit like a rush hour train mixed with a rollercoaster.
If you’re travelling with at least one other person, or if you have anything more than a carry on bag, I’d recommend getting a taxi. Tickets on the Marconi Express cost 9 euro per person, each way, while a taxi will cost between 16 and 25 euro, depending on traffic.
If you do take the monorail to Bologna city centre from the airport, pay close attention to the announcements about which number the car will arrive at – either number 1 or number 2. You’ll want to be standing by the right doors to have a chance of getting on.
I hope you’ve found these tips for visiting Bologna useful! Please let me know if there’s anything you’d add.