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Bologna would be much more well known, and visited, if it wasn't sandwiched between three rather famous cities: Milan, Florence, and Venice. These three cities form a triangle around Bologna, their brilliant sites and histories casting Bologna into a shadow for the average tourist. In my opinion, the average tourist misses out on a lot by passing by this ancient - and yet modern - city. This guide contains information gathered over my ten month stay in the city. The guide is centered on three things: the sites to see (including the porticos), the food, and the nightlife.
But first a preface: Bologna is a hugely beautiful city. However, like everywhere else, it is not perfect. There are a lot of derelicts, bums, druggies; and there is a lot of dog poop, noise, and smog. Bologna is a real, bustling city, and thus has all the issues that big cities possess. To enjoy Bologna, you have to either a) look past the gritty aspect of the city, or b) accept the grit as a part of the city's charm. And, all that being said, these issues are mostly confined to specific parts of the city, namely the university quarter and the area around Parco Montagnola. Is Bologna the Naples of the north? No. It's an extremely safe place.
On the plus side, like most big cities, Bologna possesses a ton of energy. A real palpable pulse that you can feel every night. The city is young, and thus it is as lively as any place I have yet visited. It is set in buildings and architecture hundreds of years old, but it is very much, as the Italians say, the youngest city in Italy. Why is very simple: it houses the one of the largest universities in Europe. 100,000 people attend the University of Bologna, 80,000 of them living in the city.
So if you are adventurous, enjoy having a good time at night, and are able to accept the city for what it is, you'll have a great time. There is a lot of great history here, and many interesting 'touristy' spots that a visitor would have a great time visiting.
45km of Shade
The porticos are probably the first thing people notice about the downtown of Bologna. They dominate every street, and if stretched out in a straight line, would measure over 40 kilometers in length. The walkways under the porticos are perhaps the widest of any city in Italy, making for great strolls, and an incredible passeggiata at night. The Sunday passeggiata is perhaps the best, with the entire city seemingly on the streets during the evening.
The history of the portico is interesting. The Bolognese had begun to find themselves to be rather well off, and at the same time finding the population of their city to be rapidly rising. Bologna's world famous university, Europe's first, had attracted thousands of immigrants. Thus, in order to create more living space, the people began building extensions to their buildings. With not much room inside the walled city with which to build, these extensions were built out over the sidewalks. And so, porticos were born. The first officially documented portico dates to 1211. Before long (in 1289), they became a mandated feature of the city: if you built a new building, it had to incorporate a portico.
If one wants to see how the portico gradually evolved, it can be witnessed by walking down Via Santo Stefano. If walking towards Piazza Santo Stefano from the towers (see below), first one notices the very large wooden porticos outside the Pappagallo restaurant. These wooden porticos are the second evolution of the portico, as the original version evolved into something more expansive. Continuing towards the piazza, on the right side will be a small vicolo (alley) where you can see the original style of portico. The second story of the buildings on this alleyway are extended out from the main body of the building by only two or three feet, with no support below. This is the first example way the porticos were built, called a sporto. The stone porticos that one sees everywhere else are the third evolution of the portico, allowing a much larger and heavier building extension than the wood or non-supported porticos offered.
Another good place to view the older porticos are on Via Clavature and in the Jewish Quarter.
The main sites of Bologna rest upon an almost linear stretch of road, from Via Santo Stefano west to Via Pratello. In between are the major streets of Bologna: Via Rizzoli and Via Ugo Bassi. On this line are three churches: Basilica di Santo Stefano (the 7 church complex), Basilica di San Petronio, and Chiesa di San Francesco. Also on this stretch are Piazza Maggiore, Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune's Fountain), Palazzo di Re Enzo, Palazzo Comunale, the Archiginnasio, and Le Due Torri (The Two Towers). Sounds like a lot but it is all easily seeable in one tranquil day of walking.
Starting at the west end, la Chiesa di San Francesco is a beautiful building architecturally. It was finished in the 13th century and probably is the most unique looking church in Bologna. It features very interesting French Gothic architecture (really neat looking wings on the north side). Outside on the church grounds, are the white tombs of the law professors of the University, dating back hundreds of years. The interior of the church is not quite as stunning as the exterior, but deserves a few minutes of musing.
Moving down to via Ugo Bassi, one walks under the porticos past some nice clothing shops. At the end of the via, to the right, is Piazza Del Nettuno, which houses the beautiful fountain in the center. A unique statue of Neptune rises above the fountain, and has an interesting story behind it. The sculptor of the statue, Giambologna (a Frenchman!), carved a Neptune that was rather.. well endowed. The Pope at the time was not thrilled by this, and ordered him to change it. Well Giambologna did, but managed to get around this by using an interesting angle: if you stand just in the right spot, the outstretched finger of Neptune appears to be his erect penis. I guess the Pope never caught on to that one.
On the left side of the piazza is the Palazzo di Re Enzo (Palace of King Enzo). Here poor Enzo (a Sicilian king) was imprisoned for 20 years. If you walk underneath the passageway, there is a small, very symmetrical center room. Have a friend put his ear in one of the corners, and if you whisper into the other, the sound travells up the arch and down into your friend's corner. Neat acoustical trick. I, by the way, do not recommend the gelato shop that you find at the end of the passageway.
On the left side of the piazza is the Palazzo Communale. It's quite a long building, housing the public library and a couple museums (one devoted to the Bologna painter Morandi). The building dominates the western side of Piazza del Nettuno and Piazza Maggiore. Go inside briefly to see the wide staircase that leads to the second story: the Pope had the stairs built with wooden planks at set intervals so that a horse drawn carriage (presumably his) could ride up to the second floor. It's really more of a very wide stone ramp with wooden planks set every yard or so. An interesting feature of the library is the entrance area: the floor is made of clear plexiglass, allowing you to view the Etruscan ruins lying beneath. Tours are done but not on a regular basis.
Piazza Del Nettuno opens up into the largest piazza of the city, Piazza Maggiore. Really a display of the city's wealth, the expansive piazza features a grid square white and pink stone center. At the south side looms the giant Basilica di San Petronio, the 5th largest church in the world. The building of the church commenced in 1392, but was never finished: a fact that is glaringly obvious to the eye. What could have been one of the most beautiful churches in all of Italy instead became one that could be described, at best, as having "character". The base of the church is constructed in beautiful white and pink marble, but the vast majority of it is left unfinished (the Bolognese ran out of money), with brown stone studding the facade. To me, it's a shame. However, I suppose it does make the church unique: I cannot think of any other church of its magnitude that has been allowed to sit unfinished for centuries.
Originally designed to be bigger than St. Peter's in Rome (the Bolognese thought big), the Pope at the time decreed this to be prohibited. To enforce this decree, he built university buildings across from the eastern flank of the church, in essence blocking the designed extension of the building. One of these buildings is the Archiginnasio (see below). One can see where the construction on this wing was abruptly halted: the edge of the flank was left rather rough, with two large half windows and a giant pipe sticking out of the middle of the wall. Definitely worth a glance and a chuckle as you do your walk.
Inside the basilica you get a feeling of how cavernous it really is. A largely undecorated affair, it is kind of reminiscent of the duomo in Florence. There are a few frescoes, and some interesting stained glass. My favorite part is the sundial, on the eastern side of the church. It's odd to see such a scientific item be included in a place of worship, especially considering the Church's past history with such things. However, the sundial was built in the middle of the 17th century, so I suppose at the time the rules were more relaxed.
On the via del Archiginnasio lies both the Archiginnasio and the Museo Civico Archeologico. The museum would be of particular interest to those who enjoy Etruscan history. It has a massive collection of items (one could go dizzy from it all). By far the coolest parts are the two burial chambers, complete with the two resident's skeletons. The museum also houses some neat Egyptian and Roman artifacts.
The Archiginnasio, as stated previously, was created in part to block the construction of San Petronio. It serves today as a library, and was the first site of the city's university. The frescos inside the courtyard are being restored, and by now should be mostly completed. The main attraction however is the anatomy theatre, Italy's second (behind Padova), where human dissections took place as Renaissance science was determined to investigate the human body. The theatre is carved entirely out of wood, and was first built in 1647. I say "first built" because a stray bomb in World War 2 blasted the center of the Archiginnasio, tearing apart the complex. Thus the room you see now is a copy of the original, but is still very very cool. Especially so when you check out the carved figures that hold up the lecturer's chair: skinless nude men, complete with etched muscles and ligaments. On the site are photographs of bomb damage and the reconstruction effort.
Moving down to the east, past Piazza Maggiore onto via Rizzoli, you find at the end the symbol of Bologna, Le Due Torri. These two towers lean quite precariously, especially the smaller of the pair (entrance not allowed). The much larger tower on the right (Torre degli Asinelli) is climbable however. At 98 metres high (321 feet), the ascent can wind the unfit (for reference, the bell tower next to the duomo in Florence is only 82 metres). 498 steps! The top of the tower gives you an amazing view of the city, and really shows you one reason why Bologna is nicknamed "the Red" ... its red rooftops. You can also see the 20 remaining medieval towers.
Now nearing the end of the line of sites, from the towers one continues south east, to the via Santo Stefano. About two minutes walk from the towers lies the Piazza Santo Stefano, a triangular piazza many find to be the prettiest in the city. As you enter the piazza, look up at the tops of the porticos and you will notice various statuettes set into the stone. There's even a statuette of the devil, which is ironic given that at the wide end of the piazza sits Bologna's oldest church. And perhaps the most sacred church to the Bolognese.
The church, actually churches, are called today the Santo Stefano Church Complex, or in Italian, le Sette Chiese. Originally there were seven churches, all connected as new ones were built onto the original. Today only four of the original seven are still around, and situated around them are a few courtyards, a cloister, and a crypt. The four remaining churches are called la Chiesa del Crocifisso, Chiesa del S.Sepolcro, Basilica dei Santi Vitale, and Chiesa del Calvario. The site dates back to pre-Christ times, when it was used as pagan site of worship, and you get a feeling of deep antiquity when walking inside of it. The churches you see new were constructed between the 5th and 12th centuries. They are quite spectacular in their understated beauty. You'll find no great works of art, instead an aura of silence and tranquility. On display are the bones of San Petronio, Bologna's humble patron saint, inside the Chiesa del Crocifisso.
Other Sites to See
So is that all there is to see in Bologna? Well as the title suggests, no ;-).
The first thing people go to see, aside from the places I've mentioned above, is the university district. There's nothing grandiose to find here, despite the fact that the university is over 900 years old. Unlike other ancient universities around Europe (Salamanca, for example), the university buildings in Bologna are non-descript. The one thing you will notice about the district is the young people, with college students walking about everywhere. Bologna is home to 450,000 people, and 80,000 of those are students of the university. This is one of the rougher areas of the city, with a lot of street kids milling about with their dogs. To get a real grasp on the communist undercurrent of Emilia Romagna, you really don't have to go any further than this area (roughly defined as via Zamboni, which runs west to east, and the area around it, spreading outwards north and south for a few blocks to Strada Maggiore and via delle Belle Arti). You'll see plenty of communist graffiti and other evidence of the far left's influence.
Once upon a time Bologna had a canal system. Nothing like the grand Venetian canals, but an interesting thing of note nonetheless. One piece of canal remains today. Part of it was filled and paved over to create a parking lot (can be seen on via Riva de Reno), but the remaining stretch can be seen off of via Righi. If you turn off of via Indipendenza onto via Righi, make a right onto via Piella. On the left you'll see an area where the houses split, and a small semblance of a bridge. Look over the rail there and you'll see the humble canal. The more interesting feature is that on the opposite side of the street there's a plain wall, with a small wooden square in the middle. The square is actually a mini-window, which you can open to see the other side of the canal. Not many tourists come across the little window, whether they are Italian or Americans!
From canals to parks, the Giardini Margherita is Bologna's biggest park (southeast corner of the centro). Every weekend, given the weather is nice, the Bolognese flock to the park to relax in the sun and enjoy the grass and trees. If you are into sports, you can usually find a soccer match going, and the basketball court has pickup games everyday. An interesting feature of the park is the giant hot air balloon that rises up a couple hundred feet or so in the air for a view of the city. I never took the ride myself, but I suppose it would be nice for those who don't want to climb the tower, but still want a panorama of the city.
If you are interested in hiking, visit Bologna's third most famous church, the Santuario di San Luca. This church is located up on a hill outside of the walls to the southwest, and oversees the entire city and the Apennines. The walk up to San Luca is long but worth the effort, and is all under the cover of a 3.5 km long portico. This famous portico is really neat looking, especially as you see it wind up the hill. It is famous for being the longest portico in the world (it literally connects the city to the church), and its 666 arches. The church itself is pretty, they are currently restoring it and I believe the restoration will be done by next year. But one goes to San Luca for the walk and for the great view of the city and the Apennines. The site is well visited, and you often will see people jogging up to the top. How they do it I don't know. Bus #20 will pick you up from the city center and take you to the beginning of the portico (ask the driver).
There are a couple of other good museums/galleries in Bologna to visit. First, there is the Museo Medievale (Medieval Museum), located on via Manzoni. It's a modest museum in size, but it does house a pretty interesting collection of weapons, armor, torture devices, and medieval manuscripts (with beautifully illuminated pages). For art, check out the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, which houses several pieces of art by some of the more famous Italian artists, including Raphael, Giotto, Tintoretto. Giotto is especially well represented. You can find it on the aptly named via delle Belle Arti.
Bologna does have a Jewish Quarter, the population now days of around 2000. It's located north of the towers, one of the principal streets of the quarter being via del Inferno (for those wanting to find it on a map). It's a very pretty area, especially since all the streets are done in cobblestones and the porticos are largely of the older wooden variety. The best part about this area is the quiet: whereas the rest of Bologna is bustling, the Jewish Quarter is tranquil. One can find peace and quiet here. Few cars or vespas go buzzing through it, as it is mostly a residential area. It's one of my favorite areas of the city. There is a museum but it is not particularly interesting (it's quite new and not very large).
Lastly, once upon a time Bologna was completely walled. Now days most of the walls are gone, however some of the old city gates remain. The best remaining examples are found at Porta San Donato and Porta Mascarella in the northeast, and at the southeastern-most corner of the city, Porta Saragozza.
The big fruit and vegetable market (some seafood also) is Mercato delle Erbe, and is found on via Ugo Bassi. It's really big and has a great selection. It however is somewhat lacking in "exotic" foods. If you've been away from the States for awhile and are craving some Mexican food, another good market is in piazza Aldrovandi. There you can find the exotic things, such as avocados, chili peppers, limes, pineapple, and occasionally cilantro (from the stall right outside the pizzeria). Another place for cilantro is the Asia Mach grocery on via Mascarella, which stocks many other things Mexican (taco shells, taco mix, tortilla chips, salsa, tortillas, beans).
For other markets, every Friday and Saturday there is a giant flea market in piazza Otto Agosto. There is also an antiques market every Thursday on via Valdonica.
Food and Gelato
For a labeled orientation map, click here. The numbers here correspond with the numbers on the map.
I'm sure you are aware of Bologna's reputation for food. So I won't delve too deeply into that, instead I'll refresh you on what Bologna is famous for. Americans tend to associate bologna (mortadella) and spaghetti bolognese with Bologna, and correctly so. Bologna, and greater the Emilia Romagna region, is also responsible for giving the world lasagna, tagliatelle, tortellini, crescentina (a type of piadina, or flat bread, which is fried), and various cheeses and cured meats (most famous being prosciutto and coppa). Thus, when in Bologna, eat as the Bolognese do! That means save your seafood cravings for when you're on the coast, save your polenta for Trento, save your pasta alla norma for Catania, etc etc.
Here are my restaurant recommendations. Phone numbers included for reservation and hours inquiries. All of these are tried and tested multiple times, by my friends and myself. And all serve typical Bolognese food (exception of Nicola's and Bella Napoli, both Campanese). In order of average price:
1. Pappagallo - piazza della Mercanzia 3 (40 - 50 euro). Perhaps the most famous of all Bologna's restaurant (same could be said of Diana), with the highest prices to match. Bolognese fair but also a lot of creative dishes and presentations. Well known by tourists. 051-232807.
2. Diana - via Indipendenza (40 - 50 euro). Like Biagi, a very elegant affair. Unlike Biagi, not a particularly warm atmosphere, and cold service. Renowned for it's food ("temple of Bologna cooking"), but disliked for its bright white lighting. A place to "be seen". Very well known by tourists. 051-231302.
3. Cesarina - via Santo Stefano 19 (30 - 40 euro). Along with Da Gianni, one of the best loved restaurants in the city. One of the older establishments. Not to be confused with restaurant Da Cesari. Known by tourists. 051-232037.
4. Biagi alla Grada - via della Grada 6 (20 - 30 euro). An award winning restaurant. Their food is awesome. Unlike a lot of Italian restaurants, Biagi feels large and open, but the lights are kept nice and low. Not very well known by tourists. 051-553025.
5. Da Gianni - via Clavature 18 (20 - 30 euro). Small place. The Bolognese love it for it's great food and ambiance. You probably will too! Known by tourists. 051-229434.
6. Trattoria da Pietro - via Falegnami 18 (20 - 30 euro). Nice little traditional hole-in-the-wall style place, but upscale for its size. Really good service, unknown by tourists, but always full. The food is why. Family owned and operated, award-winning chef. 051-230644.
7. Mea Culpa..Cio! - via Mascarella 5 (20 - 30 euro). Excellent and creative Bolognese dishes, with a beautiful and fun interior. The service here was perhaps the best I've seen in Italy, and they have live music. Not ever particularly full or busy, it's a newer place. I still strongly recommend it. Unknown by tourists. 051-235424.
8. Bella Napoli - via San Felice 40 (10 - 20 euro). My favorite pizza in town, a sentiment shared by many because this place is very popular. Still run by the same family that started the business back in 1950. If you are looking for seafood, this would be the place to go also. Great spaghetti alle vongole. Unknown by tourists. 051-555163.
9. Cantina Bentivoglio - via Mascarella 4 (10 - 20 euro) Not renowned for its food, but for its live jazz music. Great atmosphere!
If I had to pick between Mea Culpa and Cantina Bentivoglio, assuming both
had music that evening, I'd choose Mea Culpa. Only known by tourists for its
music. See the website for program schedule. 051-265416.
10. Nicola's - piazza San Martino 9, intersection of via Oberdan and Marsala (10 - 20 euro). Southern Italian style cooking, (Campania specifically). Great first courses, and their pizza is also very good. Great prices. Average pasta or pizza is around seven euro. Open air eating in the summer, a rarity for Bologna. Unknown by tourists.
11. Pizza Aldrovandi - piazza Aldrovandi (3 - 7 euro). My favorite afternoon pizza place (open from noon to 1:30pm). Great pizza, good prices. Much better than any other pizzeria in the University district (trust me, I've tried them all).
First off, let me say I do not recommend the gelateria that is inside Palazzo Re Enzo in piazza Maggiore. If you are in piazza Maggiore and want a gelato, take the two minute walk to Gelateria Gianni. With that being said, Bologna has five excellent gelaterias. They are:
12. La Sorbetteria - via Castiglione 44. Perhaps the most famous gelateria in town. Well known for it's traditional flavors and atmosphere. Has won a bazillion awards. Some claim the gelato here is so good it's mystical. Nice spot to get a gelato on the way to or from Giardini Margherita.
13. Gelateria Gianni - via Montegrappa 11. Perhaps the most liked gelateria
in town (just witness the lines) and is my personal favorite. A million different
flavors, it'll take you 10 minutes just to choose one. Well known for its
innovative flavors (won many awards) and how they name them. What's not to
like about a gelateria that isn't afraid to combine white chocolate, dark
cherries, chocolate chunks, and vanilla wafers? And then name it "Inferno"?
You can see the other specialty flavors on their website.
14. Stefino - via Galiera 49. Tied with La Sorbetteria for the most
famous gelateria in town. Simply amazing chocolate flavors, you wouldn't believe
that ice cream could be so dense and rich. I repeat, really, really dense
15. Gelateria delle Moline - via delle Moline 13. Great fruit flavors. Well liked by the Bolognese, but not as famous as the above three. Also right nearby on the same road is Bombocrepe, which isn't a gelateria technically, but they make crepes to order and have a million toppings including gelato. And nutella.
16. Il Gelatauro - via San Vitale 82. Everyone seems to love their crema flavored gelato. It's pretty good, as are the other flavors.
For a labeled orientation map, click here. The numbers here correspond with the numbers on the map.
And so you've had your nice dinner, and are ready to go out for a drink. Or drinks. As a general orientation, you can find a myriad of bars on via Zamboni in the university district. They are mostly frequented by college students and has a raucous atmosphere. Via Pratello is another street that hosts a large number of nightspots, where the older and younger generations mix a bit more. Another big thing amongst younger people is to relax at night in the various piazzas around the city. The most popular for this are piazzas Santo Stefano and San Domenico. Fun atmosphere in both.
Most osterias, cafes, and places that serve food close at 1 am, bars at 3:30 am, and clubs at 5 am. Bologna is blessed with a very nice nightlife, so the possibilities are many:
Cafes and Osterias
17. Osteria del Orso - via Mentana 1F. Popular place for people to gather and have a drink prior to leaving for a club or bar. Rustic. Good sandwiches.
18. Osteria del Montesino - via Pratello 74. Very nice little Sardinian tavern/restaurant, serving food and drinks until 1 am. Their antipasti are great, and has some good Sardinian specialties.
19. Golem - piazza San Martino, intersection of via Oberdan and Marsala. Chic cafe. Really good food, and a popular place to gather before hitting the clubs. Classy interior, dark lighting. Open late (1 am).
20. La Scuderia - piazza Verdi, university district. Another very
classy cafe, just opened last year. Large inside, good music. Serves food
and drink until 1 or 2 am.
Via Zamboni. Not my favorite nightspot, but if you're looking for a college style street party environment, this is it. Via Zamboni is essentially the heart of the university district, and has three English/Irish style pubs that draw mobs of people. The most famous of the three is...
21. Clauricane - via Zamboni 18. Not my favorite Irish pub in Bologna (see the Celtic Druid below), but it is a good spot for watching soccer matches. If a big match is going on, get there early if you want a seat. One nice thing about Clauricane is they have an outdoor beer station, so you can grab a beer and then sit under the porticos and relax.
22. Celtic Druid - via Caduti di Cefalonia 5. By far the best Irish pub in town. Laid back, low key affair with great beers and a fun atmosphere. No loud music, just a nice relaxed spot to enjoy a few beers and conversation.
Link (check website for directions). Located just outside of the city
center, behind Bologna Centrale, is this fantastic club that features live
music twice a week. Check the website for their calendar, but the live shows
generally are Thursday and Saturday. This spot is known in Bologna as the
best "alternative" nightclub, and is mostly frequented by twenty and thirty-somethings.
If clouds of hash smoke aren't your thing, you might want to pass on this
place. If you don't mind, you'll find great dancing and music.
23. Havana Club - piazza Azzarita 3, take via Val d'Aposa south and turn right on via dei Griffoni. Little spot. Features salsa music on Wednesday and on weekends. Always full and a fun, sweaty atmosphere. I would recommend calling to make sure of the evening's music theme, they sometimes do other ethnic styles: 051-6430446.
24. Hype - via Santa Margherita 2. For hip-hop (Saturday nights), this is a place to head to. Features a pretty pricey cover (13 euro for guys, girls get in for 5), but there aren't many options for hip hop in Bologna so if you want it, this is where to go.
25. Il Vicolo - via Sampieri 3. Packed dance club and bar, features international nights every Wednesday (free for int'l students). Very popular. You'll run into a 8 to 10 euro cover.
26. Corto Maltese - via Borgo San Pietro 9. Not my favorite spot, but it's always full and can be fun. Smallish. Wonderfully close to Bombocrepe.
27. Kinki - via Zamboni 1. I don't particularly like this place at
all, features an expensive cover and awful techno music. But if your thing
is blaringly loud techno in an industrial setting, this is your place. A lot
of tourists end up at this discotheque.
Matis - via Rotta 10. Ruvido - via del Roncrio 10. Matis and Ruvido are the best and most famous discotheques in Bologna. Both are big, multifloored dance halls with good music and a very chic crowd. Both are however located outside of the city center. For directions, call Matis at 051-565308; Ruvido 051-582133.
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