A trip to Italy would not be complete without visiting the beautiful town of Bologna in the Emilia Romagna Region of Italy. You can combine Bologna with a tour to Florence or Venice. You can also see Bologna as you travel across Italy on the way to tour the Adriatic or Liguria coastline or while on an Italian cooking tour. This amazing town has the oldest university in Europe (11th century) and is known for its culture, arts and Italian cuisine. It is also considered a culinary delight and the gastronomic center of Italy. The fertile plains are excellent for cheeses and meats such as prosciutto, mortadella and salami. Bologna’s Torte Di Riso is a custard-like cake made of almonds, rice and amaretto and is served all year long. Bolognese sauce is a delicious meat based pasta sauce served with Tagliatelle which is similar in shape to fettuccine. Bologna is located on the edge of the Po Plain at the base of the Apennine Mountains. The weather is considered humid and subtropical with Bologna temperatures ranging from 46 degrees Fahrenheit in Jan and 88 degrees Fahrenheit in August. Rainfall averages 26 inches per year.
Bologna’s historic center is made up of sandstone and brick buildings with porticoes covering beautiful marble walkways of varying patterns and designs. History tells of how, during the middle ages, the town was outgrowing itself due to the increasing number of students. The town officials knew Bologna had to grow but did not want to build onto public outdoor spaces. The solution was to build up and out – from the second floor up. The 1288 Statutes stated that all new buildings had to have porticoes with a minimum clearance of 7 feet. This would allow a horse and rider to ride under the porticoes. The porticoes served a dual purpose. Not only did it allow people to build onto their structures but it also protected its citizens from the rain and the heat of the day. There are over 24 miles of porticoes. The longest portico in the world, 12,454 feet, starts right outside Bologna’s city walls and leads to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.
Bologna is definitely a walking town and most of the sights are near the Piazza Maggiore. If you are doing a self-guided tour of Bologna remember to get one of the free city maps.
Start your tour in the heart of medieval Bologna, the 13th century Piazza Maggiore. This large pedestrian square’s center is made of enameled tiles in varying geometric patterns. Located off to the side is the Tourist Information Office. Look for the Palazzo del Podesta building. This building was redesigned by Fiorvanti, who designed the Kremlin. Amazingly the entire 15th century building’s weight is supported only by the columns visible at street level. Under the portico on the north side of the piazza is a whispering gallery. Face one of the four corners of the arch and whisper something. Anyone at the opposite corner will be able to hear your whisper. On the western side of the piazza is the Palazzo Comunale also called Palazzo D’Accursio. It is a combination of several different architectural styles including Gothic windows decorated with terracotta and a clock tower. Its “current” look is from the 15th and 16th century. Above the main portal is a statue, created in 1580, of Pope Gregory XIII. Pope Gregory was the pope responsible for the Gregorian calendar. The 16th century staircase was designed in such a way that it allowed a horse-drawn carriage to go up the staircase to the 1st floor. On the 2nd floor are two art galleries. The Colezioni Comunali d’Arte has paintings from 13th-19th century as well as sculptures and beautifully carved wooden furniture. There is also a model of Bologna during the Renaissance period. The model shows a large number of towers clouding the skyline. The Museo Morandi contains painting of the famous Bolognese artist, Giorgi Morandi, as well as personal belongings and a reconstruction of his study. Located outside the palazzo is the Shrine to the Fallen Partisans. This shrine is made up of three large panels containing photos of hundreds of partisans killed on this spot for resisting the German occupation.
The 5th largest basilica in the world is Basilica di San Petronio which is located in the Maggiore square. Its exterior is a contrast of material made up of the color of the Emilia plains and the darker color of red brick.. The façade appears to be roughly grooved and looks like it’s separated, horizontally, into two sections. The lower half is made with marble during the 16th century. The upper half is exposed brick. The sides of the basilica are made of buttresses that alternate with full length windows of speckled marble. The central doorway is decorated with bas-reliefs telling the story of Genesis. It is said that Michelangelo was so impressed by this art that he reproduced some of them in his figures in the Sistine Chapel. There are 22 side chapels containing countless works of art. When looking at the organs the one on the right was built in 1475 and is the oldest organ in existence. The one on the left is a bit younger and dates back to the 16th century. History tells how the Pope heard that Giambologa was building a church larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. The pope demanded that the building of the church cease. Yet, the interior of the church is so large that it can hold New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
Adjacent to the Piazza Maggiore is the Piazza del Neptune. The statue in the center of the piazza is of Neptune, god of the sea. The statue was built in the 16th century by Jean de Boulogne aka Giambologna. This bronze statue, in baroque style, shows Neptune stretching out his hand to calm the seas. At his feet are cherubs and dolphins. The base has four sirens. Legend tells how the artist walked around the fountain two times before deciding on his statue. Today, university students walk around the fountain two times, counter clockwise, for good luck just before taking an exam.
Several blocks away is the Piazza Santo Stefano. This picturesque square, made of river stone paving, is home to a complex of seven linked churches dating from the 8th century. The Church of Crucifix is a simple church with one nave. The Santo Sepolcro was built in the 12th century and has the tomb of San Petronio which looks like the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. San Vitale e and Agricola have three apses and dates back to the 11th century. The complex also contains the Courtyard of Pilate and Romanesque cloisters.
The Museu civico Archeologico, built in 1880, contains one of the most important Italian archeological collections dating from prehistoric to the Roman times. The museum also contains ancient collections of Etruscan, Greek and Roman artifacts. It also has one of the most important Egyptian antiquities in Europe including mummies and sarcophagi. Its greatest treasure is Phidias’s head of Athena Lemnia, a copy of 5th century BC Greek art work.
The Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Gallery of Art) focuses on religious artwork from various artists. Raphael’s The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia, Reni’s Massacre of Innocents and St. Sebastian and Pieta as well are artwork from Giotta, Francia and more.
The Palazzo Archiginnasio contains an enormous amount of graffiti but not graffiti as we know it. The courtyard and hallway ceilings and walls are covered with over 5,000 coats of arms from both students and teachers from the 16th century to 1802. Stand in the center and look straight up and then along the walls. It is difficult to discern where one coat of arms ends and another begins. The palazzo also houses the Biblioteca dell’Archiginnasio, the Achriginnasio Library. It’s considered Italy’s most important public library and has over 800,000 volumes. All backpacks and books must be left in a secured area prior to going into the library. The only exceptions to the rule are computers and other items belonging to someone with a letter of research from a college or university.
The Duo Torre are two leaning towers, similar to the leaning tower of Pisa, and are located at the intersection of the roads connecting to the five gates of ancient Bologna. These towers were built during the 12th century when Bologna’s skyline was filled with towers. Towers were status symbols. Families based their power by the size of the tower. The more powerful the family the taller they built their tower. The Garisenda tower is 162 feet high and is 11 feet from perpendicular. Part of the tower was looped off in the 1360’s for fear of public safety. It is completely closed to the public. Its neighbor, Toree degli Asinelli, is 334ft high and is 7 ½ feet from perpendicular. Visitors can climb the 500 steps to the top of the tower for views of the ancient and newer city of Bologna and the surrounding countryside. From the top of the tower one can also see the few remaining 12th century towers that grace the skyline.
Here are a few other sights to see. The restored medieval Jewish ghetto area is located between Via dell’Inferno and its adjacent street. The original entrance is the vault connecting San Donato Church and the ancient Manzoli- Malvasia Palazzo. Look for the gargoyle head near the entrance. It is said that during celebrations residents of the palazzo would share their wine with the people by pouring the wine through a spout and it would pour from the gargoyle’s mouth. Behind the entrance to the Jewish ghetto is a maze of narrow alleys, covered bridges and artisan workshops Did you know that at one time Bologna was a town of canals? Today, the water flows underground. However, under the Porto Govese is the Finestrella di Via Piella. This square stone window looks onto the Canale della Molina. One can see the canal and buildings surrounding it and the canal bridge. This view is called “Little Venice” because of the resemblance between this canal and the canals of Venice.
For those interested in seeing the University of Bologna it is a 20 minute walk from the Piazza Maggiore. The university is home to the world’s oldest complete Torah circa 1200’s. The university has paleontological and zoological museums. The Museo Civico medievale has a Peace Plaque. This 13th century plaque is a treaty between the city government and students after the government put a student to death for insulting a lady. The Hospital of Death is where medical students used corpses of the executed to study anatomy. The Botanical Garden is one of Italy’s oldest circa 16th century. It is over five acres and contains three greenhouses, medicinal plants, an ornamental area and forests.
Interested in shopping in Italy? Via Indipendenza has small traditional shops and some major store chains. The Piazzo Agosto has a street market every Friday and Saturday. On Thursdays it has the outdoor antique market. Via Rizzali, Via Castiglione and Via Farini are considered the quadrilaterals of fashion. Via Pescherie Vecchie and Via Drapperie are known for their outdoor market stalls of fresh goods, vinegars, meats and cheeses. A short 15 minute walk from the heart of the historic center to the northwest corner of old Bologna is the Manifattura della Arti, Factory of the Arts. At one time it was a tobacco factory, salt works and a slaughterhouse. Now, it is a mix of art boutiques, restaurants and cafes. It is located between Via Don Minzoni and Riva di Reno.
Outside of historic Bologna one can visit another famous Italian museum. It’s the Ducati Museum. This museum is definitely for Ducati motorcycle enthusiasts. It traces the history of the Ducati family and includes antique motorcycles and other Ducati paraphernalia. There is also a tour of the factory. Museum and factory tours must be booked in advance.
If your interest is in churches, museums, unique features, architectural design, history or food and wine then Bologna is for you. It is definitely a must-see on any Italy Travel package whether as part of Italian escorted tour or a customized tour of Italy.