Bologna or Florence – Where Should You Visit?
Bologna and Florence are two of the oldest and most historic and cultural cities in Italy. Found in the Emilia Romagna and Tuscany regions respectively, they are both home to amazing examples of art and architecture and both also have long and fascinating pasts that are tied up with some of the country’s pivotal moments.
If you’re trying to decide which of these outstanding cities to visit on your next trip to Italy, you’ve likely been faced with a very tricky decision. Both locations are pretty equally matched in their historic, cultural and architectural offering, with unique features in each that will appeal to all kinds of travellers.
To help you make your decision, here’s our guide to choosing whether you should visit Bologna or Florence.
Florence is one of the most historic cities in all of Italy. It’s found in the popular region of Tuscany and is perhaps best known as being the birthplace of the Renaissance movement in the 14th century.
While the city was initially founded during the Roman Empire, Florence didn’t actually begin to grow in prosperity until a few centuries later. Trade brought a lot of wealth and prosperity to the area and made it one of the most important places in Europe because of its location on many important trading routes.
One of the most famous aspects of Florentine history is the ruling of the Medici family, who came in and out of power for over 500 years in the city. It is largely down to their influence that Florence grew into such a famous hub of art, architecture, poetry and politics, with many legendary creative and intellectual figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio all coming to study, work and live in the city between the 14th and 17th centuries.
Florence is the best place to visit in Italy if you’re a fan of the Renaissance, with hundreds of examples of iconic art, architecture and historical artefacts found in the galleries, museums, churches and streets of the city. You won’t be short on stories to discover wherever you visit, whether you’re exploring the buildings, admiring the art or taking your time to soak up the atmosphere of the area that really makes you feel like you’ve stepped back into the past.
Bologna is a city that is just as historic as Florence, with experts tracing evidence of civilization all the way back to the Bronze Age. It didn’t become an established location for several centuries however, when the area was put firmly on the map as a key centre for trade. After being a hub of economic wealth in the Roman Empire, Byzantine and Lombard invaders took control and turned Bologna into more of a base for military operations.
One of the most important historic events in Bologna happened in 1088 when the world’s first university is thought to have been established in the city. It became one of the most influential locations in the medieval world because of this, continuing to prosper after Papal troops took control in the 1500s and built more academic buildings, churches and the famous botanic gardens.
In 1860, Bologna became part of the Kingdom of Italy. After the events of the Second World War, the city thrived as an industrial hub in Europe and is now one of the most economically and politically powerful places in the country.
Both Bologna and Florence are prime contenders for the best historic city in Italy, so whichever you pick will have an impressive historic background and plenty of different things to see and discover.
The world’s oldest university is what gives Bologna its title as one of the most cultural destinations in Italy and wider Europe, particularly after it was named a European Capital of Culture in 2000. The University of Bologna is still a leading research facility in academia because of its impressive history, and the culture of this incredible institute can be admired and soaked up whether you’re just visiting the buildings or decide to attend an event that is hosted by the university.
There is also a lot of art to be enjoyed around Bologna, with over 50 galleries and museums that offer plenty of classic cultural attractions to visit throughout the city. If you’ve come to Italy to admire Renaissance design then the National Gallery of Bologna houses plenty of iconic pieces of art, as well as there being a lot of famous paintings and sculptures in places like the university and city museums.
Florence is known as one of the best places for culture in the world, thanks to the Renaissance history of the city. It was once the richest cultural hub in all of Europe and still retains an air of sophistication and creativity that continues to bring tourists year after year.
There is a huge range of different cultural attractions around Florence, from the art galleries and museums to the fascinating churches, bridges and other historic buildings. The Duomo cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary is an iconic highlight with its huge red dome, but you also have the Uffizi Gallery that still houses a collection of art that once belonged to the influential Medici family, who were a key proponent in bringing culture to Florence centuries ago.
When it comes to culture, both Bologna and Florence are fantastic places to enjoy art, architecture, food and music. Florence might be the better choice for art lovers just because of the selection of incredibly famous pieces housed in the city, but Bologna has the legacy of its university and is still full of cultural things to see and do.
If you’re a fan of historical architecture then Florence is one of the best cities in Italy to visit. Plenty of pieces of classic Renaissance architecture have been preserved throughout the streets and suburbs, along with Gothic and medieval design in the houses, bridges and churches that make visiting a real journey back in time.
Those who decide to pay a visit to Florence to admire its architecture should spend time at the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo cathedral and the Gothic-Romanesque Palazzo Vecchio if they want to tick off the highest-rated bucket-list items. But you’ll get to admire beautiful architecture wherever you go in the city, as many tourist attractions are housed in impressive old buildings and you can stop and visit the majority of churches in Florence as well.
From palaces to squares, churches to stations and all kinds of houses, museums and galleries, there is also a huge range of both historical and modern architecture to admire in Bologna. Classic styles from across the centuries are showcased around the streets, including the iconic towers that are a symbol of the city and were built back in the Middle Ages.
Another key architectural highlight of Bologna is the long porticoes that cover the city centre and turn the streets into almost 40km of covered arcades. Not only are these a great way to shelter from the heat if you visit the city in the summer, but they provide a covered pathway that leads you around some of the best sightseeing spots in the city, offering a lovely route for an afternoon stroll.
As with history and culture, there is no clear winner when it comes to the decision between Bologna and Florence. Both cities are iconic destinations filled with historic buildings and design, so whichever you visit you’ll have plenty of attractions to choose from.
Bologna is frequently described as the gastronomical capital of Italy, found in Emilia Romagna is thought of as one of the best Italian regions for food. There’s no better place in the country to come for exceptional dining experiences, and the city has actually been nicknamed ‘La Grassa’ (the fat one) because of how visitors are said to put on so much weight from all the food they try.
If you do choose to visit Bologna, the most famous dish from the area is the namesake bolognese pasta, or tagliatelle al ragù, which is an absolute must-try if you eat meat. We recommend that you embrace the culture of ‘La Grassa’ when you visit and take this opportunity to try as much delicious food as possible – you are on holiday after all!
Tuscany is also famous for the exceptional local ingredients that are grown in the countryside around Florence, so if you are visiting the city you’ll get the chance to benefit from plenty of examples of these fresh flavours. A Florentine steak is perhaps the most iconic dish from this area, but you should also seek out any meals that include truffles, olive oil, cheese and vinegar, as well as indulging in wine from the Chianti region in Tuscany that is revered all over the world.
Both Tuscany and Emilia Romagna are famed for being outstanding Italian regions for food, but in this case, Bologna just pips Florence to the post because of its reputation as one of the best places for food in the country.
Neither Bologna nor Florence are particularly outstanding locations for shopping, although both cities have a good selection of different shops that sell everything you need for a vacation or to enjoy a foreign shopping spree. Florence is very geared up to tourists with plenty of souvenir shops and stores for international brands, whilst Bologna has a lot of local markets held around the city that are a great place to go food shopping and sample some of the delicious ingredients that the Emilia Romagna region is famous for.
Despite the wealth of history, art, culture and food on offer in Bologna, it’s not one of Italy’s most popular places to visit on vacation and therefore is a relatively cheap part of the country to visit. Accommodation and travel around the area are quite cheap, and whilst there are some very expensive restaurants it is also possible to eat out on a budget in the city and still enjoy brilliant food.
Florence is more of a tourist hotspot than Bologna, and for this reason does tend to be a bit more expensive to visit. However, there are hostels and public transport options that make a budget trip to the city quite easy to organise, although you should avoid the peak tourist season if you’re looking to get the best deals.
THINGS TO DO
If you’re looking to fill your vacation itinerary with sightseeing then Bologna is a great place to visit, especially as so much of the city centre is undercover and therefore suitable for exploring in all weathers. If your idea of a good trip abroad also involves a lot of food then the city is an ideal place to stay, whether you’re eating out the whole time, sampling ingredients in local markets, or taking part in Italian cooking classes run by some of the region’s best chefs.
Though Florence is a relatively small city, there are exciting things to see and do around every corner, so it’s another good destination to enjoy a lot of sightseeing. History fans will have the time of their lives, as will travellers who like to admire art and culture when they visit somewhere new. Florence’s position within Tuscany is also useful if you’d like to spend some of your trip in the beautiful countryside to enjoy the best of the city alongside the peace of the rural areas in the region.
Both Bologna and Florence are packed with different things to do, so whichever you decide to visit may depend on which region of Italy you are keener on visiting.
If you’re a food lover then Bologna is definitely the best choice for an Italian holiday, with its reputation as a gastronomic hub meaning you can basically spend your whole visit just enjoying the different local dishes and ingredients. It’s also a great place to stay if you’re interested in academic culture because of the university and has plenty of examples of architecture from across the ages.
If you’re visiting Italy for the first time then Florence is the more obvious choice as a vacation destination, with plenty of the country’s most iconic landmarks that you can tick off your list. There’s more to do here that is geared towards tourists, and it’s also the clear best destination if you’re a fan of the Renaissance period of history.
Whether you decide to pay a visit to Bologna or Florence, at Italy4Real we can help you plan your perfect trip. Get in touch with one of our team to find out more.