16 Unmissable Things to Do in Bologna, Italy

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Historic building facade with pedestrians in Bologna, Italy

Discovering Italy’s hidden gems often leads travelers to Bologna, a city in the picturesque Emilia-Romagna region. Despite its beauty, Bologna is one of Europe’s most underrated cities, often overshadowed by places such as Rome and Milan. Situated in northern Italy, Bologna is a lesser-known locale waiting to be explored.

As the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna has a rich history and culture. Its medieval buildings, busy markets, and winding narrow streets tell stories of the past, giving visitors a glimpse into Italy’s history.

But Bologna isn’t just about its past. The city is famous for its amazing food, which includes classics like Bolognese sauce, tortellini, and mortadella. Each dish reflects the region’s culinary traditions and is bursting with flavor.

In this guide, we’ll take you on a journey to discover the wonders of Bologna. Come along as we explore the charm and beauty of this Italian city, discovering the best things to do in Bologna, Italy.

TL;DR

Category Recommendation
Must-See Landmark Basilica di San Petronio
Park Giardini Margherita
Free Activity Santuario Madonna di San Luca
Activity for Kids San Luca Express
Activity for Adults Bologna Food Tour
Place to Eat Mercato delle Erbe
Place to Stay The Social Hub Bologna

Things to Do in Bologna, Italy

1. Bologna Food Tour

Window display of a traditional food shop in Bologna, Italy featuring mortadella, tortellini, and other pastas
Brittney Liu / ViaTravelers

I believe the best Italian food originates from Bologna and the Emilia-Romagna region. Some of the most well-known regional and local specialties and foods include Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, Bolognese meat sauce, mortadella (more commonly known as bologna to us Americans), and tortellini. See some of your favorites? I thought you might!

So when you visit Bologna, the best way to eat through the city and indulge in delectable local food is by going on a food tour. This tour, operated by Secret Food Tours, takes you around the entire city, starting with breakfast.

You’ll also get to sample some of the best gelato and taste local cheese, cured meats, and wine. It’s an ideal way to spend a day in Italy’s foodie city!

Alternatively, a fantastic way to truly immerse yourself in the culture is by signing up for a cooking class. Learn how to make fresh pasta in this amazing cooking class and be rewarded with delicious tortellini, tagliatelle al ragu, and tiramisu!

2. Archiginnasio di Bologna

Biblioteca de Communale dell'Archiginnasio
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Address: Piazza Galvani, 1, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy

Bologna is home to the oldest university in the Western world—the stunning University of Bologna. The university was founded in 1088 and was the first school to award degrees in higher education. Today, the school’s students definitely give Bologna a “university town” feel, juxtaposed with its ancient buildings and institutions.

While visitors can’t exactly crash classes, one part of the university is open to the public. The Archiginnasio di Bologna was once the main building of the University of Bologna, located in the city’s historic center. Today, the Archiginassio houses the municipal library and the Anatomical Theatre.

Bologna is full of interesting history; the best way to learn about it is from a local guide. This Bologna city walking tour hits several fascinating sites around the city center, including the Archiginassio di Bologna. Other significant landmarks, including the Due Torri and Piazza Santo Stefano, are within walking distance.

The Archiginassio di Bologna is located in the city’s high-end shopping district. If you love shopping as much as you love history, stay nearby at the Art Hotel Commercianti. This Bologna hotel is housed in a building that dates back to the Middle Ages and is conveniently located in the city center.

3. Basilica di San Petronio

Historic building facade with pedestrians in Bologna, Italy
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Address: Piazza Maggiore, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy

The Basilica of San Petronio is Bologna’s largest and most important church. It is dedicated to the city’s patron saint and is located in the bustling Piazza Maggiore.

Construction on the church began in 1390. While the exterior remains unfinished after partially being covered in marble, the interior is stunning.

The inside of the Basilica di San Petronio is divided into three naves, with 22 chapels decorated by various Italian artists. The most famous is the Music Chapel of San Petronio, which features an organ built in 1470 and is believed to be the oldest organ still used today.

The basilica and its museum are free to visit, though visitors must observe a modest dress code. Some chapels within the basilica require an extra fee, and guided tours are available if you contact the church in advance.

4. Piazza Maggiore

Archway Portico view of Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, Italy
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Address: Piazza Maggiore, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy

Sometimes there’s nothing better than sitting at a chic cafe on a nice day as you sip on some luxurious espresso and people-watch. There’s no place better in Bologna to do this than Piazza Maggiore. It is the largest square in the city and is located in the middle of the old town.

The piazza is flanked by restaurants, local shops, and historical landmarks. These landmarks include the Basilica di San Petronia and Palazzo d’Accursio, a former town hall and chapel now a fine arts museum. You’ll also find the tourist office and several wine bars, like Osteria del Sole, which dates back to the 14th century.

If you walk from Piazza Maggiore towards Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro, the piazza will turn into Piazza del Nettuno, which features the incredibly ornate Neptune fountain. This is a convenient starting point for seeing all the major sights when visiting Bologna.

The nearby Casa Isolani Piazza Maggiore is exceptionally beautiful and allows you to stay in the most convenient part of the city center. Guests can enjoy amazing views of the historic center and an Italian breakfast at a nearby bar.

5. Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna

Building exterior of Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
vvoe – stock.adobe.com

Address: Via delle Belle Arti, 56, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy

Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna is the city’s national art gallery. It is located in the heart of the University district, just a few minutes from the famous Due Torri. The gallery first opened to the public in 1885 and is considered to be one of the most important national galleries in Italy.

The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna includes artwork from some of the most well-known artists of the Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque periods. In addition to its vast permanent collection, the museum often holds temporary exhibitions, educational seminars, and conventions. In the same building, you can also find the Academy of Fine Arts and the Superintendence for Historic, Artistic, and Ethno-Anthropological Heritage.

The gallery is open every day except Mondays. Adults have a small admission fee, but children under 18 are free. Admission is free every first Sunday of the month.

6. Santuario Madonna di San Luca

Santuario Madonna di San Luca or the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca in Bologna, Italy
dudlajzov / Adobe Stock

Address: Via di San Luca, 36, 40135 Bologna BO, Italy

The Santuario Madonna di San Luca, located high above Bologna, has been a city symbol for centuries. It is most famous for having the longest portico in the world, and it is categorized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with all the other Bologna porticoes. The Porta Saragozza goes on for four kilometers (two-and-a-half miles) and features more than 600 archways.

The current sanctuary chapel was built in the 18th century, but the original church dates back to the 1400s. The Porta Saragozza, the longest portico in the world, connects the Santuario Madonna di San Luca to the city center of Bologna. It is an incredible place to enjoy panoramic views of the city and the surrounding area.

To learn more about the history of this magnificent landmark, book a guided tour like this one. This tour includes a guided tour of the sanctuary, an optional visit to the dome, and a roundtrip train ticket to and from the sanctuary. The San Luca Express is a fun way for kids to enjoy the city, too!

7. Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano

Exterior of Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano in Bologna, Italy
Paulo / Adobe Stock

Address: Via Santo Stefano, 24, 40125 Bologna BO, Italy

While it may not be Bologna’s largest or most significant church, the Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano is unique. Also referred to as the complesso delle sette chiese or seven churches, this church comprises several different complexes built during different eras.

Each interconnected church is dedicated to different saints and martyrs, making it a significant pilgrimage site for Christians. The oldest structure, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is said to contain soil brought from Jerusalem, adding to its spiritual significance.

Within the center of the Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano, you’ll find a tranquil courtyard and a museum showcasing artifacts belonging to the different churches. Fronting the Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano is the Piazza Santo Stefano, surrounded by restaurants and local shops.

I recommend taking this private tour to understand the rich history behind this church complex. You’ll discover all the hidden gems of this iconic landmark while learning more about its interesting history.

Afterward, enjoy food tastings with your local guide. And don’t forget to save room for dessert! Walk a few blocks down Via Santo Stefano to Cremeria Santo Stefano for some incredible pistachio gelato to knock your socks off!

8. Le Due Torri

Asinelli Tower in Bologna against a blue sky
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Address: Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, 40126 Bologna BO, Italy

Le Due Torri, or Two Towers, is one of the most iconic landmarks in Bologna. The taller of the two towers, the Asinelli Tower, is the tallest medieval leaning tower in the world. It was built between 1109 and 1119 and allows visitors to admire stunning panoramic views of the city — so long as they can climb the 319-foot-tall tower’s 498 steps to the top.

The other lesser-known tower is the Garisenda Tower, which stands 157 feet tall. Soon after construction, the ground below the two towers gave way, giving them their famous lean.

Currently, the steps to the top of the Asinelli Tower are closed for repairs, but check out their website to see updated open hours. Tickets can also be purchased through the website, and reservations should be made beforehand.

Stay nearby at the beautiful Hotel San Donato – Bologna Centro. This hotel boasts a great central location and a terrace with spectacular views of the Two Towers of Bologna.

9. Mercato delle Erbe

Stall on Mercato Delle Erbe in Bologna, Italy
Fotokon / Adobe Stock

Address: Via Ugo Bassi, 25, 40121 Bologna BO, Italy

The Mercato delle Erbe is the largest indoor market in Bologna and is located within the historic center. This market, once only for fruits and vegetables, has taken place for centuries before it was indoors in 1910. The current market hall was built in 1910 but was mostly rebuilt after World War II in 1949.

This bustling market showcases great food, fresh produce, and many food stalls with great food. Food shops range from fresh pasta to local cheese, fruits and vegetables, and even sushi. There are market stalls on the inside of the building as well as the outside, so don’t forget to check out shops on the exterior as well!

Mercato dell Erbe is open year-round from early morning until the evening. It is open every day except Sundays, so keep that in mind if you plan to visit. In addition to the food shops, several restaurants and wine bars are located here, making this the perfect stop for lunch or dinner.

I love this part of the city. Aside from the market, there is a ton of great shopping, and it is located just on the outskirts of the old town. You can stay at the Hotel Palace Bologna, which is close to the market and just a short walk from Piazza Maggiore.

10. Giardini Margherita

Giardini Margherita City Park in Bologna, Italy
PhotoHunter / Adobe Stock

Address: Viale Giovanni Gozzadini, 40136 Bologna BO, Italy

If you’re looking for a quick respite from the bustle of the city, stop by Giardini Margherita, just to the south of the city center. This is the largest park in Bologna. It features several walking paths, a lake, fantastic children’s play areas, and lots of gorgeous green spaces.

Giardini Margherita covers more than 64 acres and has remained in the same layout since it was first opened in 1879. The park’s design is inspired by traditional English gardens and boasts plenty of large grassy areas for sunbathing and picnics.

You’ll find part of the ancient hidden canals that once characterized the city near the park’s lake. Also next to the lake is a small cafe where you can enjoy a cocktail on a nice summer day.

Porta Castiglione and Porta Santo Stefano are not far from the park, two medieval gates that were once the entrances to the city during the Middle Ages.

11. Archaeological Museum of Bologna

Archaeological Museum of Bologna Square in Bologna, Italy
Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock

Address: Via dell’Archiginnasio, 2, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy

The Archaeological Museum of Bologna is next to the Basilica di San Petronio, making a fascinating quick stop to learn about Bologna’s history. This museum features one of Italy’s most significant archaeological collections, much of which had been excavated during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Aside from its expansive collection of local and Etruscan-Italic objects, the Archaeological Museum of Bologna is renowned for its large collection of Egyptian and Greek artifacts. It boasts the third-largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in Europe. In all, the museum’s permanent collection includes more than 200,000 objects.

The Archaeological Museum of Bologna is open every day except Tuesdays. Tickets are affordable, and the ticket office closes one hour before the museum closes, but I recommend buying your ticket online if you can.

See Related: Florence and Bologna Travel Itinerary

12. Teatro Anatomico

Teatro Anatomico or the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio in Bologna, Italy
Santi Rodríguez / Adobe Stock

Address: Piazza Galvani, 1, 40124 Bologna BO, Italy

While the Teatro Anatomico is located within the Archiginnasio di Bologna (#2 on our list), it deserves its own spot. This stunning former anatomy lecture hall dates back to the 17th century and is one of Bologna’s most aesthetically pleasing architectural features.

The lecture hall is covered in spruce wood with statues depicting 12 famous physicians and 20 famous anatomists. At either side of the lecture desk are two statues known as the “skinned men”, sculpted in 1734 by Ercole Lelli. On the ceiling, visitors can admire paintings of astrological symbols representing Apollo, the protector of medicine.

This room was extremely damaged during World War II but, fortunately, the statues and sculptures could be recovered. The Teatro Anatomico is undeniably gorgeous but also has a bit of a creepy past. As it was a lecture hall for anatomy, public human body dissections were held there under the supervision of an Inquisition priest.

The Archiginnasio di Bologna offers English tours of the Teatro Anatomico. I highly recommend going on one, especially if you are a history buff or interested in medical science.

13. Lamborghini Automobile Museum

A rare car at the entrance of the Lamborghini Museum in Bologna, Italy
Brittney Liu / ViaTravelers

Address: Via Modena, 12, 40019 Sant’Agata Bolognese BO, Italy

As someone who is not a car enthusiast, it definitely surprised me that one of my favorite Bologna attractions was the Lamborghini Automobile Museum! It was fun and fascinating to see all the different cars Lamborghini has created over the years and how far the automobile industry has come.

When you arrive at the Lamborghini Automobile Museum, you can choose to go on a guided or self-guided tour. My husband and I opted for the self-guided option, and I was happy with our decision. It allowed us to explore at our own pace, and each car had a placard with interesting facts and information.

The museum is home to old, new, rare, and even one-off projects made by Lamborghini. It is open daily and even offers interactive experiences for visitors to immerse themselves in the world of Lamborghini.

The Lamborghini Automobile Museum is located in the countryside of Bologna, not in the city center, so it’s better to drive there. Check out Rentalcars.com to find the best deals on car rentals.

14. Enzo Ferrari Museum

Aerial view of the Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, Italy
DVisions – stock.adobe.com

Address: Via Paolo Ferrari, 85, 41121 Modena MO, Italy

Maybe you’re not a Lamborghini person but a Ferrari person. Then don’t fear, my friend! There’s also a Ferrari museum not too far from Bologna. The Enzo Ferrari Museum is in Modena (home of the iconic balsamic vinegar), a 30-minute train ride from Bologna and an awesome day trip destination.

The Enzo Ferrari Museum showcases several permanent and rotating exhibitions. Visitors can learn about the history of Ferrari and see an incredible collection of the most iconic racing cars. The most fun part of the museum is the Ferrari GT simulator!

Free guided visits to the museum are held every first Sunday of the month. If you hadn’t gotten your fill of Ferrari here, there’s another Ferrari Museum less than 15 miles away in Maranello. You can also purchase a combination ticket for both museums online here.

The Ferrari Museum in Maranello also offers a tour of a Ferrari factory as well as a race track tour. These tours are an additional fee but could be worth it for big fans of the luxury race car brand.

15. Museo per la Memoria di Ustica

Museo per la Memoria di Ustica in Bologna, Italy
Palickap / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Address: Via di Saliceto, 3/22, 40128 Bologna BO, Italy

If you suffer from flight anxiety, this may not be the best Bologna museum for you. The Museo per la Memoria di Ustica is dedicated to the 77 passengers and four crew members who lost their lives in the mysterious crash of Itavia Flight 870 in 1980.

The flight from Bologna to Palermo reported no issues but completely lost contact about one hour into the flight. Unfortunately, the plane crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea between the Italian islands of Ponza and Ustica. While there have been many investigations, the perpetrators remain unnamed.

There are two main theories as to what happened to Itavia Flight 870. The first is that there was some explosion on board caused by a terrorist attack. The second, possibly even more disturbing theory is that the plane was mistakenly shot out of the air by the Italian or French military.

The Museo per la Memoria di Ustica opened in 2007 and includes most external fuselage. Along with large portions of the wreckage, the museum also houses some personal belongings that were found as well. Things like shoes, snorkels, glasses, and other objects are organized into different crates surrounding the plane.

As visitors walk through the museum, loudspeakers announce phrases like “When I arrive I will go to the beach” for example. These are things that the passengers probably thought while on the flight, not knowing that they would ultimately never arrive in Palermo.

It’s truly a chilling experience but also very touching and respectfully done. Visitors must book a time slot (you can do that here), but the museum is free to visit. It is not open daily, so be sure to check out the website to see their opening hours.

16. Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna

Exterior and entrance of Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna in Bologna, Italy
Claudio Caridi – stock.adobe.com

Address: Via Don Giovanni Minzoni, 14, 40121 Bologna BO, Italy

The Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, also known as MAMbo, is a fascinating art museum in the heart of Bologna, Italy. It’s a lively hub of creativity and culture, showcasing an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art.

The museum’s current location opened in 2007, but curation of the collection began in the mid-1970s. It is home to works of art from World War II to today. One of its most popular collections is the Museo Morandi, the largest collection of works by Italian painter and graphic artist Giorgio Morandi.

Beyond its impressive collection, MAMbo also hosts a variety of exhibitions, workshops, and events throughout the year. The Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna is open every day except Mondays. It is located just a few blocks from Bologna’s main train station.

This is an incredibly convenient city area, especially if you plan to visit multiple destinations across Italy. Consider The Social Hub Bologna for a convenient location, great amenities, and affordable rooms.

FAQ

What is Bologna, Italy, best known for?

Bologna, Italy, is best known for its rich culinary traditions, particularly its famous Bolognese sauce, a staple in Italian cuisine worldwide. Additionally, the city is renowned for its well-preserved medieval architecture, including iconic landmarks like the Two Towers (Due Torri) and the Basilica of San Petronio. Bologna is also home to one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Bologna, founded in 1088.

Is one day enough to see Bologna?

Bologna is a relatively small city, so one day is enough to see Bologna’s highlights and top attractions. With just one day, prioritize visiting key landmarks such as Piazza Maggiore, the Two Towers, and the Basilica of San Petronio while indulging in local cuisine. If you would like to enjoy a walking tour, food tour, cooking class, or day trips to the surrounding region, consider spending at least two to three days in Bologna.

Which is better to visit – Milan or Bologna?

Milan is better for first-time visitors to Italy to get that quintessential tourist experience. Getting to Milan from the United States is also easier and generally cheaper. If you have more time or have been to Italy before, Bologna is an awesome destination for a more culturally authentic experience. Milan is the one for you if you’re into art and fashion. If you’re a foodie, it’s hands down has to be Bologna.

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Brittney Liu
WRITTEN BY

Brittney Liu

Brittney is a lifelong traveler from Oahu, Hawaii. She has visited more than 35 countries and is continually researching new places to explore - even though she hates flying. Her favorite destinations have one thing in common: they're warm. With expertise in French Polynesia, Hawaii, and the Mediterranean, you can follow along as she checks out the cleanest beaches and clearest water on the planet. Brittney has also spent most of her 20s living in the South of France.

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