Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region in northern Italy, and a fabulous city to explore. Also known as the Capital of Italian Food, Bologna and the whole of the Emilia Romagna Region is renowned for excellent produce and cuisine, unique to this part of the world. If you only have one day in Bologna, I’ll show you how to experience the very best of Bologna in one day, with a range of things to do in Bologna to suit every taste. However, if you have more time to spare, I’d highly recommend spending a least two days in Bologna, so I also included suggestions for a Bologna itinerary for two or three days in Bologna. You’re welcome!
What is Bologna Famous For?
For me, Bologna is synonymous with Italian food. You may have heard of a popular Italian dish called Spaghetti Bolognese? Well, shockingly the dish originated here in Bologna – but not quite as you imagine! In Bologna, they use tagliatelle pasta instead of spaghetti, and the Bolognese sauce is simply called ‘ragu’, meaning a rich meaty sauce. There is nothing better than a tagliatelle al ragu in Bologna I swear! Bologna is also the traditional home of what Americans know as baloney – but here the mortadella is of a much higher quality than you’d get back home! Bologna was also the home of the first gelato machine, and the region is well known for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and balsamico balsamic vinegar, so you simply MUST try as much food in Bologna as you can!
Aside from the food, Bologna is a pleasant city to visit and is remarkably walkable.
Things to do in Bologna in One Day
You can cover a surprising amount of ground with just one day in Bologna, as the city is compact and easy to walk around. Depending on where you are staying in the city, you can adjust this itinerary to suit your needs.
Mercato delle Erbe
I was staying quite close to the station, so if you are spending the night around there, or coming straight from the train station, I’d suggest starting your day at the Mercato delle Erbe, where you can pick up some fresh fruit for breakfast or some cheese and cured meats for a snack. This is very much a locals’ market, and although it is quite small, I enjoyed poking around here and admiring the variety of produce. I visited Bologna at the beginning of October, when there were piles of juicy figs, plump peaches and scarlet tomatoes.
From the market, it is a short walk along Via Ugo Bassi to the Piazza Maggiore. This huge piazza is lined with Medieval and Renaissance buildings and is home to the Fontana del Nettuno. Neptune’s fountain is a large fountain with a statue of Neptune, naked and brandishing a trident (which would be adopted by Maseratti as their logo). Below Neptune are mermaids shooting water out of their nipples and looking very happy with themselves. Trust me, you have to see the fountain to believe it!
A Food Tour
If you are a foodie and want to learn more about the history of the city and its cuisine, I’d highly recommend taking a food tour in Bologna. I joined a Bologna Food Walking Tour with Amazing Italy which was a fabulous way to see the city and eat some delicious food! The tour began at 10 am, meeting at Neptune’s Fountain.
If you do decide to take the food tour then your guide will lead you through the Quadrilatero market area, up to La Piccola Venezia and to the Two Towers, so you can plan the rest of your day accordingly. The tour is scheduled to last about 3 hours but allow about 4 hours before you plan anything else in case of delays. Food in Italy is not to be rushed!
Basilica di San Petronio
At the far side of the Piazza Maggiore, the huge Basilica di San Petronio dominates the square. It is nowhere near as beautiful as the Duomo di Milano, but it is worth a look inside. It is free entry, but they have a strict dress code so make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. You can buy a cover-up inside for €1. Photos are also not allowed unless you pay a €2 photography fee, which goes towards the renovations of the Basilica.
The roof and much of the outside of the basilica was covered in scaffolding, but that doesn’t stop the church offering rooftop visits with panoramic views for €3 per person. The views are lovely but be warned that it is not for the faint-hearted. Before going up you have to sign a disclaimer to say you won’t hold the Basilica responsible should anything happen to you – which hardly filled me with confidence. The lift up to the top is basically a workmen’s lift, attached to the scaffolding, or you can climb the metal steps up which seemed even more rickety! It was nerve-wracking and I was glad to come down, although the views are lovely. The roof terrace is open daily from 10 am – 1pm and from 3pm to 6pm.
The Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio
I deliberately haven’t included any museums on this one day in Bologna itinerary as you could easily spend several hours exploring a good museum. However, this small museum is only €3 and is just off the Piazza Maggiore so it won’t take up much of your precious time. It is an interesting snapshot of the educational history of Bologna, which was home to the first university in the world, founded in 1088. This building isn’t that old, but it is still fascinating to take a peek inside. The ticket gives you access to two different rooms in the palace building; the Anatomical Theatre, which has a marble slab in the centre where students were taught anatomy using a real body, and a lecture hall, which has a (closed) gate where you can see part of the original classrooms.
This is where the food magic happens. A block of narrow streets filled with food shops and market stalls where Bologna has been producing and selling food for hundreds of years. Stroll along Via Peschiere Vecchie to Via Drapperie and the surrounding streets where you can stop somewhere for lunch (if you’re not on a food tour!). There are lots of options to grab a table outside to get a good spot for people-watching, but if it’s too busy then step inside the Mercato Mezzo which also has seating upstairs.
Basilica di Santo Stefano
From the market, head down via Santo Stefano to the Basilica di Santo Stefano. This Basilica is actually a collection of 7 separate churches, connected by courtyards and cloisters. It is free to go inside, although donations are greatly received (and a gruff-looking monk may persuade you to drop a coin in the box!). There is also a reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which has inside a relic, a rock from the original Holy Sepulchre. The square in front of the Basilica is a pleasant spot to sit and relax or have a drink at one of the restaurants here.
This huge privately-owned building was once a home, which is now converted into a shopping centre. Walk through the Corte from the Piazza Santo Stefano to the entrance on Str. Maggiore, where you’ll find the oldest porticoes in Bologna, dating from the 13th century. From there, walk left along Str. Maggiore to the Two Towers.
The Two Towers
No, it’s not Middle Earth, it’s Bologna. The tallest building in the city is the Torre degli Asinelli, which you can climb up for stunning views of the city. There are A LOT of steps up though (498 to be exact), so you need to be fairly fit to manage the climb, and not afraid of heights! The view is definitely worth the effort though, and if you can time your visit to catch the sunset from the top, you are in for a treat.
There are a limited number of people allowed up the tower in each available time slot of 45 minutes, so book your ticket in advance either at the ticket office or online here. Tickets cost €5 per person.
La Piccola Venezia
If you have time and aren’t too tired of walking, then you could also walk up to La Piccola Venezia. Bologna had canals too and at one time the two great cities of Bologna and Venice where joined by canals, opening up important trade routes for Bologna. Now, most of the canals are covered up or have disappeared altogether, except for a small part, now dubbed Little Venice. You can look through a convenient window-sized hole to see one of the remaining canals, or cross the road and look over the bridge.
A Note About Porticoes in Bologna
Bologna has over 30 miles of porticoes, covered walkways which were designed to extend the living quarters of houses, without encroaching on the roads below. This way, the first floors of the homes could be extended, without the owners paying extra taxes for taking up more land. The porticoes around Bologna range from antique wooden porticoes like the ones at Corte Isolani, to beautifully painted archways all the way through to modern functional (and ugly!) porticoes. As you stroll around Bologna, don’t forget to look up and see what kind of porticoes you are walking under!
Bologna Itinerary for Two Days in Bologna
If you are able to spend a little more time here and have two days in Bologna, then you can afford to spend more time in museums in Bologna like the Medieval Museum, MAMbo Modern Art Museum, Palazzo Poggi Museum or any of the splendid museums in the city. Foodies might also consider a cooking class, or a food tour outside of the city to see more of the Emilia Romagna region and food producers including parmesan cheese, Modena balsamic vinegar and wine.
Day Trips from Bologna
With three days in Bologna (or even more!) then you should also have time for one of the many day trips from Bologna which will allow you to see more of the region and explore Italy on your own. Bologna is well connected with direct trains to Verona, Ravenna, Modena, Parma, and even Venice, so you could use Bologna as a base to visit more cities and local towns too.
Where to Stay in Bologna
If you are only visiting Bologna in one day, you might be heading off in the evening back to your base elsewhere or continuing your journey backpacking around Italy. However, if you decide to spend the night in Bologna here are a few suggestions for you.
Hostels in Bologna
There are a few hostels in Bologna which make a great way to save money if you are backpacking in Italy or are visiting Bologna on a budget.
The highest-rated hostel on Hostelworld has dorm beds and private rooms to choose from, but it is a popular place so book as far in advance as you can to bag the bed you want – it was fully booked when I was in Bologna the first time. It’s close to the centre of Bologna, about 10 minutes’ walk from the Two Towers and about 15 from the Piazza Maggiore and includes free breakfast and sturdy bunk beds with a privacy curtain.
This hostel gets good ratings and guests love the staff and atmosphere here. It is close to the train station but a long walk from the centre of town which put me off – as a solo female traveller I didn’t want to walk back alone after dinner so chose somewhere closer – but if there are a couple of you it’s a good option if Dopa is unavailable.
Hotels in Bologna
Hotels in the centre of Bologna can be pricey, so if you’re prepared to walk a little you will find some much cheaper options. However, if you’re willing to splurge then the 5 Star Grand Hotel Majestic gia’ Baglioni is a few steps from the main square (a girl can dream!). If you’re more on a budget like me, BuonHotel is also in a good location and gets great ratings but won’t break the bank.
I stayed in Bologna Center Town, a small B&B in between the train station and the Mercato delle Erbe, which was fine but not amazing. There were only a few rooms and it was basically a converted apartment. The owner, Mario, was friendly and provided breakfast in the morning and overall I was happy with my stay, as the room was large with a comfy bed. However, my room did look out over a busy road which was noisy even with earplugs, and there were no social areas at all. For a couple of nights as a base to sleep it was great, but next time I would prefer to stay in a hostel.
Airbnbs in Bologna
If you have never used Airbnb before, use this link to sign up & get up to $40 credit to use on your first trip! Read more about the Airbnb first time discount code and my full Airbnb guide or click below for your Airbnb coupon.
So that’s about it for exploring Bologna in one day. I’m planning more posts to help you discover the food in Bologna and more about the city and the Emilia Romagna region so watch this space! If you have any questions or comments please leave them below, I’d love to hear from you!
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