It’s a shame Bologna doesn’t make it onto the radar of many city breakers. Between its excellent eats, pretty streets and serious day trip potential, the birthplace of ragu (not bolognese) has a lot to love. Here’s why your next European city break should be in Bologna.
It’s the food capital of Italy
In the ‘belly of Italy’, there’s one thing you have to do: eat. Eat a lot.
Even regionally-proud Italians can admit that Emilia-Romagna is the cradle of Italian cuisine. Balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, prosciutto, Sangiovese wine… if you’re drooling already, you have the region to thank – it’s responsible for some of Italy’s best exports.
In Bologna, though, prepare for a heartier plate, piled high with tagliatelle al ragu bolognese, meaty lasagne or filled pastas such as tortellini in brodo.
Sample the best of the region over a long lunch in Il Quadrilatero, a medieval food market that’s stuck around for centuries, or enjoy an aperitivo (snacks included) at Mercato delle Erbe before setting out in search of the best ragu. We can vouch for no-frills Osteria dell’ Orsa, about a 15-minute walk away.
You’ll actually want to walk off your food coma…
Speaking of walking, you’ll want to do a lot of it in Bologna. Its sunburnt terracotta-red buildings, the literal embodiment of the city’s nickname La Rossa or ‘The Red’, are as striking from ground level as they are from the top of Bologna’s own leaning tower, the Torre degli Asinelli.
Then, there’s the 38km of pretty, portico-shaded streets that run through the city, a medieval architectural legacy that fell out of fashion (and so, demolished) elsewhere in Europe. They make the already walkable city even more pleasant to wander, whatever the weather, and they’re totally snap-worthy to boot.
If that’s not enough, on the outskirts of Bologna, you’ll find more. The road to the hilltop Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, is lined with 666 arches from the base to the crest. As a near-4km walk, it’s a serious uphill trek, but you’ll be rewarded with beautiful countryside views.
And test your pasta-making skills yourself
Bring a bit of Bologna home with you by taking a pasta-making class. Unsurprisingly, there’s heaps across the city, covering everything from your basic egg tagliatelle and filled pastas, to a combined market and making tour.
At Il Salotto di Penelope and Taste Bologna, you can choose to do either and enjoy the pastas of your labour with a glass of regional vino. Cook Italy goes a little further, and owner Carmelita proves you don’t need to be a Bolognese to master the art of pasta. She’ll help you create a custom three-course menu before you both set our to source the ingredients at a local market.
It’s an excellent base for a multi-city break
While you could easily spend a city break in Bologna eating your way through a menu of local specialties, you’d be missing out.
Head northwest to find Emilia-Romagna’s other famous food hubs: Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma. Modena, famous for its sparkling red (Lambrusco) and sweet balsamics, is also home to the Ferrari museum, while in Parma and Reggio Emilia, you’ll find laidback local life, refreshingly free of foreign tourists. Southwest is Ravenna, the capital of the Western Roman Empire for some 70 years before its collapse. Incredibly well-preserved mosaic-filled churches and other early Christian monuments – eight of which are UNESCO-listed – are the city’s claim to fame.
TrenitaliaTPER runs from Bologna Centrale to all four cities in under an hour, making a multi-city break from Bologna a breeze.
Its secrets are easy to discover
One street away from Bologna’s main shopping strip, a small padlocked window (Finestrella) swings open onto an unusual backyard – one of the city’s few visible canals. This literal window to Bologna’s medieval past, when some 60km of canals connected the city to main waterways, is the first of the city’s ‘secrets’.
There’s seven in all, ranging from the picturesque Finestrella to the provocative: stand at the right spot behind the Fountain of Neptune, and the sea god’s outstretched finger looks more like a phallus than a phalange.
Not far away, at Palazzo Podestá, a whispering gallery sends your spoken secrets from one side of the archway to its diagonal counterpart. It’s believed this architectural trick was used by lepers to confess their sins while remaining at what we’d now call a ‘social distance’ from percipient priests.
You can find all seven here.