Beautiful Bologna in northern Italy doesn’t always get as much attention as its well-trodden neighbours, arty Florence to the south and watery Venice to the northeast. But Bologna is certainly worth a closer look, from its historic university and medieval grid of red-roofed structures, to its edgier side, where a radical counter-culture surfaces to give this city its one-of-a-kind identity.
Explore a lively centre punctuated with towers and domes, sunny squares and shady arches. Enjoy the rich, meaty cuisine the city is famous for, with restaurants aplenty in which to sample the original Bolognese sauce and the best stuffed tortellini you could wish for. Then make a beeline for a scruffy secondhand book store and an open-air film screening. Here’s our handpicked list of unique things to do in Bologna.
Plan your trip
One of the advantages of Bologna being a little way off Italy’s well-trodden tourism path is that the accommodation options here tend to be far more affordable than in some other cities. So whether you’re drawn to Bologna by the mouth-watering food, the grand history or the edgy urban scene, if you’re on a budget you’re certain to find something that suits your needs. Check out our list of some of the best cheap hotels to be found in Bologna here.
1. Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio
Deep in the bowels of the Western world’s oldest university, which dates back to 1088, the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio remains a grisly reminder of a time when human autopsies took place in far less sanitary conditions. Back in the 16th century, when the theatre was built, it was used to teach university students about human anatomy, and with coolers not yet invented bodies were freshly dissected as students observed from the wooden tiers. According to folklore, seats were made to be uncomfortable so that students wouldn’t fall asleep. Today visitors can see the well-preserved theatre during tours of the university.
LOCATION University of Bologna, Via Zamboni, 33
2. Museum for the Memory of Ustica
There’s no denying that plane crashes elicit a macabre fascination, and in Bologna the remains of a conspiracy-shrouded Italian airplane are the setting for a unique site of interest. The Museum for the Memory of Ustica is home to a tragic display of wreckage and remnants from Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870, an Italian commercial airliner that suffered an in-flight explosion while en route from Bologna to Palermo in 1980, killing all 81 passengers. While no definitive explanation for the explosion has ever been confirmed, the case has remained embroiled in controversy and scandal, with most people now accepting that it is likely that a missile launched by the Italian military was to blame.
LOCATION Via di Saliceto 3/22 HOURS Fri-Sun 5pm-8pm
3. Bologna Zoological Museum
Monkeys baring their teeth, fearsome cheetahs, and a cuddly-looking polar bear are just some of the occupants of this historical Zoological Museum located in the heart of Bologna. In fact, the museum’s origins are almost as fascinating as its inhabitants, laying claim to being one of the world’s first natural history museums and once home to over 18,000 taxidermy pieces. Today many of the original zoological items collected by its founder, an eccentric character named Ulisse Aldrovandi, who once served a prison sentence for heresy and is thought to have coined the word ‘geology’, can still be found here.
LOCATION Via Zamboni 33 HOURS Tues-Fri 10am-4pm Sat-Sun 10am-6pm
4. Osteria del Sole
Dating back to 1465, this is one of the oldest standing osterias (effectively the Italian word for ‘pub’) in Italy today. In fact, everything in the place, including the walls, the courtyard, the garden, and the stairs that lead to the cantina, are over 500 years old. Contrary to what you might think, you actually can’t order any food here. The only thing you can order is wine, beer, or esoteric Italian digestives and amari. But that does nothing to prevent it being perpetually busy, offering one of the most unique experiences to be found in Bologna.
LOCATION Vicolo Ranocchi, 1/d HOURS Mon-Thur 10.30am-9.30pm Fri-Sat 10.30am-10pm Closed Sundays
5. The Torre Prendiparte
It’s probably an unlikely pub quiz question, but should it ever crop up you now know the answer. Europe’s most vertiginous Bed & Breakfast can be found in Bologna, housed within a 13-storey medieval tower called The Torre Prendiparte. Once a prison (with graffiti daubed on the walls a legacy of this time), the 900-year-old edifice now features antique-filled guest rooms stacked one on top of the other and with one suite even spread over the first three floors. At the top you can enjoy wonderful views of the city. When not being used for accommodation, the building can also be hired out for private events such as cocktail parties, gala dinners and birthday parties.
LOCATION 40126 Bologna
6. Food Tour of Bologna with Yummy Italy
Bologna is becoming an increasingly popular destination for the more serious food-loving tourist. The classic food ‘holy trinity’ producers of Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar are popular destinations, but there is a distinctly ‘gourmet’ area that is widely overlooked. The wines of the region are still relatively unknown and their quality has dramatically increased over the last 30 years ago, with some gaining extremely positive international recognition. With two DOCG white wines, Albana and Pignoletto Classico and Sangiovese that compete admirably with the Tuscans, Yummy Italy, headed by Helena Kyriakides-Brancaleoni, Sommelier as well as a National Cheese and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar taster, offers unique wine experiences with small, artisanal wine producers in the region. Each winery is personally selected based on the quality of their wines, the individual personality of the winemaker and the possibility to walk through the vineyards and get to spend time with the winemakers themselves.
CONTACT Website www.yummy-italy.com Email firstname.lastname@example.org Telephone +39 338 122 7399
7. Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo
Nestled along Via Drapperie, Bologna’s main market street, this shop causes plenty of double takes from passers-by who catch sight of the window front housing such items as camouflage gear, mace, switchblades and axes. Opened in 1783, the store’s incredible array of cutting utensils of every size and style originally drew hunters here, but venture inside today and you’re more likely to find a middle class foodie seeking the perfect steak knife than someone looking for a live kill. Whatever your intentions, this store is well worth a look around.
LOCATION Via Drapperie, 12/b HOURS Mon-Sat 9am-7pm Closed Sundays
8. Carpigiani Gelato Museum
Located just outside Bologna is a museum dedicated to the history of gelato and the innovators who have driven the evolution of this enduringly popular frozen treat. Visitors can join workshops where they get to make their own artisan gelato, or they can take tours of the museum (all offered in English) and discover an 11th-century Arab pomegranate sorbet recipe before hearing how the birth of gelato in Italy came about some 500 years later. Throughout the museum there are screens showing video interviews with aged Italians discussing the rise of gelato during their lifetime. Tours conclude in the tasting area, where visitors can sample numerous types of gelato.
LOCATION Via Emilia, 45 HOURS Tues-Sat 9am-6pm
9. The Time Machine at the Museum of the History of Bologna
In a city known for its ancient landmarks, the last thing you might expect to find when exploring one of its most distinguished museums is a monument to the 21st century computer technology known as Virtual Reality. And yet, tucked away in the basement of the Palazzo Pepoli Vecchio, home of the Museum of the History of Bologna, is an intriguing immersive artwork called The Time Machine that showcases the city’s capacity to embrace the future as well as the past. Here, a beautiful blue wire frame clads the arches, and an electronic projection of a river runs beneath your feet, making virtual ripples wherever your foot falls.
LOCATION Palazzo Pepoli Vecchio, Via Castiglione HOURS Daily Tues-Sun 10am-7pm Closed Mondays
10. Asinelli Tower
It may be less well known than its Pisa counterpart, but Bologna’s very own leaning tower still stands tall and proud (if not straight) as one of the city’s most notable landmarks, along with its neighbour the Torre Garisend. But while construction of the latter was never fully finished, the 97.6-metre Asinelli Tower (has, in all its glory, been a prominent feature on the city landscape for over 900 years. Visitors who climb its 498 narrow, wooden stairs are rewarded at the summit with magnificent views of the ancient city’s famously red-tiled rooftops.
LOCATION Piazza di Porta Ravegnana HOURS Mon-Sun 9am-7pm