Last Updated on December 22, 2023
Bologna is a popular northern Italy tourist destination known for its long history, vibrant culture and culinary delights. Its central location makes the city an ideal hub to enjoy the riches of the Emilia-Romagna region while offering plenty of landmarks and monuments that attract visitors worldwide.
My biggest regret while living in Italy is that my time in Bologna was largely spent passing through on road trips to other Italian and European destinations. In doing so, I missed out on a magnificent Italian treasure.
While one million people call this place home, the city draws many visitors to view its famous medieval towers, impressive churches, magnificent architecture, and enjoy Bologna’s rich shopping and Italian food treasures.
If you’re planning to visit this wonderful Italian metropolis, here are some of the best things to do in Bologna that will make your trip one you’ll never forget.
- Piazza Maggiore
- University of Bologna
- Architectural Sites
- Fontana di Nettuno
- Basilica Di San Petronio
- The Archeological Civic Museum of Bologna (MCA)
- Bologna Cathedral
- Biblioteca Salabrosa
- Archiginnasio City Library
- Via dell’Indipendenza
- Teatro Anatomico
- Pinacoteca Nazionale
- Museum of Modern Art of Bologna (MAMbo)
- Motor Valley Sports Car Museums
- Culinary Delights
The Piazza Maggiore is Bologna’s world-famous main square, a social hub for locals and tourists alike. Surrounded by historic buildings and monuments, you can relax at one of the many charming cafes, enjoy breathtaking architecture, and watch the world go by while sipping a palate-pleasing cup of rich Italian caffè.
Notable buildings include the Basilica di San Petronio, Palazzo Comunale (City Hall), Palazzo d’Accursio and the Palazzo dei Notai.
The square is hundreds of years old yet has retained the same layout as it had in the 15th century, giving it an authentic historical feel where it seems as though time stands still.
University of Bologna
The University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is considered one of the oldest universities in the world. The university has a storied history and its presence adds an intellectual atmosphere to the city. Full of historic buildings, libraries, and museums, visitors flock to this magnificent edifice of education.
Visitors can explore the Archiginnasio, the oldest university building, and the beautiful Oratory of Santa Maria della Vita and bask in the glow of centuries dedicated to the expansion of human knowledge and understanding.
Bologna has a well-preserved historic center with numerous medieval and Renaissance buildings. The Two Towers are iconic symbols of Bologna. Built in the 1100s to defend the town, they stand as proud sentinels of its medieval past. Named Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, the towers dominate the city skyline and visitors can climb the taller of the two, Torre degli Asinelli, for fabulous panoramic views.
Bologna is renowned for its porticoes and lovely covered walkways, functioning not only to provide shade and protection from the weather, but perhaps more importantly add a unique charm to the urban landscape. The longest portico, Portico di San Luca, leads to the Basilica of San Luca on a hill.
The Piazza Maggiore (main square) is surrounded by historical buildings such as the Basilica di San Petronio and the Palazzo Comunale. Palazzo del Podesta, the oldest structure on the square dates back to 1200 when it was the main seat of local government. The Palazzo dei Banchi, designed by Vignola was built in the 16th century.
Fontana di Nettuno
Neptune’s Fountain, a beautifully-created artistic structure is located in the middle of Piazza del Nettuno adjacent to Piazza Maggiore. One of the city’s recognizable landmarks, this stunning fountain was created by Flemish artist Giovanni da Bologna in the mid-1500s. Not only a magnificent piece of art, the fountain also served utilitarian needs for merchants to wash their goods here.
At the fountain’s center, a bronze statue of Neptune rises. Wielding his trident, the god stands on a square platform with the corners representing the four corners of the Earth. Cherubs and dolphins also decorate the fountain and underneath mermaids squirt water from their breasts.
There is a long-held Italian tradition that students hoping to pass an exam need to run two counterclockwise laps around the fountain or they will fail.
Basilica Di San Petronio
Named in honor of the city’s patron saint, St. Petronio, the Basilica is Bologna’s main church that also holds his relics. Construction began in 1390, and if built according to plan, it would have been larger than St. Peter’s in Rome had the Pope not intervened. Completed in 1663, the church is still one of the largest in the world.
The façade was never fully completed and remains plain except for the portal adorned with sculptures and bas-reliefs. Don’t let outward appearances fool you as the interior is much more impressive.
Highlights include Lorenzo Costa the Younger’s Madonna with Saints, Amico Aspertini’s Pieta, and stunning stained-glass windows. In the 15th century, a choir and the nave were added, covered by a vaulted ceiling painted by Girolamo Rainaldi.
Twenty-two of the church’s chapels are also beautifully decorated.
The basilica is also renowned for the art of bell ringing and has two organs dating back to 1476 and 1596.
The Archeological Civic Museum of Bologna (MCA)
Located in the Palazzo Galvani, this museum consolidated several spectacular collections forming one of the country’s most important archaeological collections. Its vast holdings embrace 200,000 pieces with over 3,500 objects in the Egyptian section alone.
The museum is divided into various sections that include a Roman collection, Bologna in prehistory, the Egyptian collection, Bologna Etruscan, Bologna Gallic, a Greek collection, the Etruscan-Italic section, and the Numismatic assemblage of coins and medals making it easy to spend an entire day viewing its riches.
Known locally as the Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro, this magnificent cathedral is a must-see as it serves as the seat of the Archbishop of Bologna.
The building was erected between the 16th and 17th centuries and draws many visitors with its incredible design. The interior contains important religious art and the tombs of several notable figures.
This is the main library for the city of Bologna now housed in the northern portions of the Palazzo d’Accursio near the Piazza del Nettuno north of Piazza Maggiore.
The building features an impressive crystal floor to view an ancient archaeological site. Ancient ruins are also accessible from the basement floor.
Archiginnasio City Library
This historic library located inside the Palace of the Archiginnasio was once the main building of the University of Bologna. It was established in 1838 when a section of the building was destined to preserve books collected from the closure of the religious orders made by Napoleon.
The library is known for its beautiful architecture and impressive book collection – the largest in Emilia-Romagna. Most deal with the civil, cultural, religious and social history of Bologna and its territory from the Middle Ages to the present day.
If history is not your thing, but shopping is, then the Via dell’Indipendenza is the place to be. It seems every big Italian city has a premiere shopping district and this is Bologna’s.
Via dell’Indipendenza is the main street that runs through the city famous for its shops and eateries. Completed in 1890, it’s become an extremely popular haunt for locals and a main tourist spot.
A variety of designer and high-end street names cater to shoppers of all budgets. Since shopping is a tiring undertaking, the district offers plenty of sandwich bars and restaurants.
This unusual attraction can be interesting for the bold and inquisitive. The Teatro Anatomico is a historical site that provided anatomical training to medieval doctors. Inside, there’s a host of things related to anatomical studies.
The Teatro can be found at the university’s Palace of the Archiginnasio where it’s resided since 1637. The ceiling and wall decorations date back to 1649 with the figure of Apollo, the god of Medicine, surrounded by symbolic images of constellations carved in wood.
In the centre of the theatre stands a white table on which the dissection of human or animal bodies took place. A large, throne-like teacher’s chair is adorned by two wooden statues of the ‘Spellati’ (skinned figures).
The National Art Gallery houses an impressive collection of Italian artworks from the 13th to 18th centuries by artists with a close connection with Bologna. This includes paintings by Raphael, Parmigianino and Carracci.
Museum of Modern Art of Bologna (MAMbo)
For contemporary art enthusiasts, Bologna’s Museum of Modern Art is a must-do, featuring a diverse collection of modern and contemporary art.
The purpose-built museum houses a remarkable collection of fascinating pieces. Within the museum visitors will find yet another museum – the Museo Morandi dedicated to the work of Giorgio Morandi.
Motor Valley Sports Car Museums
If you’re an automobile enthusiast and willing to venture out, day tours are available to the nearby Motor Valley’s Ferrari, Lamborghini and Pagani Factories and Museums. This region is home to some of Italy’s most iconic luxury sportscar manufacturers. Visitors will learn about the history and production of magnificent Ferrari, Lamborghini and Pagani cars that made Italy famous.
The museums offer a treasure trove of racing and sports car memorabilia. Various packages include F1 simulator sessions, a chef luncheon and even a test drive on the streets of Maranello.
Often referred to as the “food capital” of Italy, Bologna is famous for its rich culinary tradition. This is the birthplace of many iconic Italian dishes such as Bolognese sauce (ragù), tortellini, and mortadella.
Visitors come to indulge Bologna’s delicious local cuisine, explore traditional markets, and dine in the numerous trattorias and osterias. The city is also known for pasta dishes such as tagliatelle al ragù and lasagna alla Bolognese and other traditional meat offerings.
These are just some of the things to see and do in Bologna, for this fine Italian city has much more to offer in terms of historical and cultural richness. Bologna’s charm lies in its wondrous blend of medieval architecture, cultural institutions and culinary delights.
And guaranteed, they won’t soon forget the food.