The city became famous as home to the oldest university in the world, but Bologna has managed to earn all sorts of monikers over the years. Life in Bologna started way back in the 6th century BC. Over the years, the city witnessed all sorts of dynasties and rulers, ranging from the ancient Gaul tribes and the Great Roman Empire to the conquering Huns, Goths and Lombards. It was then conquered by Papal troops in the year 1506, who controlled it until the arrival of Napoleon. Bologna finally managed to get the stature it deserved as a part of the new Kingdom of Italy in the year 1860. Most would have thought that the worst was over, but WWII changed all that. Close to 40% of the city was completely destroyed during the war, however, its historic city centre miraculously managed to survive damage.
Modern day Bologna looks like it has somehow managed to develop a split-personality. There is one side of the city that is extremely contemporary and home to some of the finest restaurants and theatres in the country. And then there is the other side that is dominated by the university and is full of medieval piazzas and carefree students. It is one of those cities where you can feast in a traditional Italian style one moment and discuss beauty and fashion tips with university-going teenagers the next. Irrespective of where your interests lie, rest assured that the city has something in store that is just perfect for you. And since Bologna is less visited than Rome or Venice it can be a great place for a holiday in Italy as there are fewer people. We have picked our favourite things to do in Bologna.
Piazza Maggiore, Bologna
Piazza Maggiore began its Italian journey in the 13th century as the place where people gathered and markets were held. It was the most important project undertaken by Medieval era Bologna and was created as a marketplace and a public display of the wealth of the city’s government. The piazza is flanked by the fifth largest cathedral in the world as well as a number of renaissance era Palazzi. No wonder the architectural beauty on display is simply stunning. Today, Piazza Maggiore isn’t just the main square in Bologna, it is also the liveliest place in the city. Considered to be a must-see on any visit, the piazza is the perfect place to people watch or enjoy some great outdoor music while sipping on late night drinks. There is always something or the other going on here, particularly during the weekends.
Towers of the Asinelli and Garisenda, Bologna
The Towers of the Asinelli and Garisenda are an unmistakable symbol in Bologna. It is believed that there were close to 180 towers in Bologna, but just 20 remain today. Torri degli Asinelli is the most famous of the remaining towers. It is the tallest medieval era tower, rising to a height of 330 feet. Legend has it that the Torri degli Asinelli was the dowry asked for from a nobleman for his daughters’ marriage. It is still possible to walk inside the tower, as long as you’re willing to climb the 498 steps that take you to the top. The climb can be extremely challenging, but a journey to the top offers unparalleled views of Bologna. If you’re willing to brave the ordeal to the top of the Asinelli tower, time your visit to reach the top just before sunset, as the sunset views are delightful and absolutely beautiful. The Garisenda Tower was once known to be taller than the Asinelli tower, but half of it was cut off due to security concerns. It now stands at a height of 167 feet and is still considered to be unsafe to enter, so remains closed to the public.
Santo Stefano Basilica, Bologna
The Basilica of the Seven Churches, or St. Stephen’s Basilica, is one of the most special attractions in Bologna. It is an extremely peculiar complex that has hosted seven different churches (only four remain today). Each church was created using a variety of different styles – Early Christian, Ottonian, Lombard, Roman, Byzantine and Franco. The origins of Santo Stefano Basilica have always been a source of dispute. Some believe that it was built in the year 430 by Bishop Petronio while others believe that it was built on the ruins of a pagan temple on behalf of Saint Petronio. Visit this magical complex to transport back in time and walk through centuries of history. Entry into the complex is through the 11th century Chiesa del Crocefisso, the place where San Petronio’s bones are housed. Each church is immensely beautiful in its own right and the monks who have been in charge of maintaining the complex have kept them intact. Take your time exploring the various courtyards, wells, gardens and artefacts and always arm yourself with a handy guidebook while visiting the complex.
To get into Bologna, fly to the Marconi Airport and take the Aerobus, which drops passengers off at the Bologna Train Station after a 20 minute ride. Another option is to fly into the Forli Airport, and choose a bus transfer that takes close to an hour. This bus leaves you at the Bologna Bus Station, a 10-minute walk from the city centre. Bologna is also well connected by trains to the rest of Italy.
Try avoiding the city in the month of August as most of the locals venture off to the seaside. The perfect time to visit Bologna is in the spring or autumn seasons, when the city is at its beautiful best. But if you are braving the scorching summer heat, time your trip to coincide with the II Cinema Ritrovato Film Festival.