Bologna at the foot of the Apennine mountains is a less known travel destination that easily compares to Florence and other cities. Bologna’s 38 km of arcaded streets, red and ochre-colored houses and long culinary traditions make it the perfect weekend destination.
Bologna arcades are listed in the UNESCO and so is the whole city, as a city of music.
I went to see what the red-roofed city is like and will now show you the best sights of Bologna by walking around Bologna’s historic center Centro Storico.
Bologna’s arcades in Piazza Santo Stefano
I will show you a walking itinerary that takes you to Bologna’s most sights and I also marked my itinerary on the map.
Mediterranean colors of Bologna arcades
Bologna Walking Itinerary on the Map
Self-guided walk in Bologna: the map
We will start and end at Piazza Maggiore, the central square of Bologna. First we will head to the narrow lanes south and north of the square and stroll around aimlessly to see the narrowest little alleys.
After some walking we will look at Piazza Maggiore sights and then head to the leaning towers in the east. Maybe you want to climb the higher tower, the Torre Asinelli?
After this we will follow the main street Strada Maggiore and see long arcades, historic university buildings and a pretty church after which we will take some side streets and return to Piazza Santo Stefano and back to Piazza Maggiore.
This will be a 4 to 6 km walk depending on how much you go away from my route. Reserve at least half a day – and enjoy the Mediterranean capital of Emilia-Romagna!
Bologna portico in Piazza Maggiore
This is one of the arched walkways facing the Piazza Maggiore of Bologna. Luxury and fashion shops to all tastes, but we are heading to side streets, to a district called Quadrilatero that sells other things than fashion.
Quadrilatero District used to be the city’s open air market and it still is that. Each street had a different purpose which you can still read in the street names (provided you understand Italian).
Small shops and stalls sell fresh vegetables and traditional local delicacies directly to the street. There are rows of nice trattorias, enotecas and specialist food shops. This is where we had our lunch, dined in evenings and also bought what we needed to our apartment that was located right here, above the roofs of this most central part of Bologna.
One of the narrow Bologna alleys
North of Piazza Maggiore is another old district you should see. It’s a more quiet area but equally beautiful. This part of the city is the former Jewish Ghetto. Red and yellow houses here too, and a lot of arcades.
This is a mixed photo gallery with photos from both areas, click on the small photos to see them in a slide show:
The historic old town of Bologna
I now have to show a different view of the Centro Storico,a bird’s eye view from our roof balcony.
Santa Maria della Vita, San Petroneo, town hall and Palazzo del Podesta. And right below us are the city’s main dining street Via Clavature, Via Drapperie, Via Caprarie and Via degli Orefici.
Via degli Orefici, Bologna’s dining street
Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore of Bologna and town hall Palazzo Comunale
Via Orefici ends in the Piazza. Piazza Maggiore looks fantastic with all those historic buildings. First there is the white and brown Basilica of San Petroneo, the fifth largest church in the world.
Then there is the former governor’s palace Palazzo del Podesta and behind it Palazzo di Re Enzo that is for meetings and conferences. In fact my husband Clas spent most of his time in Bologna inside that building…
The Piazza Maggiore of Bologna, Italy
Palazzo Comunale, the town hall of Bologna stands beyond the square and has the Fountain of Neptune in front. Unlike Podesta and Re Enzo the town hall is a place to go in, as is the public library Salaborsa next door. The library has a glass floor with Roman and Etruscan ruins below.
More Bologna arches: a side street of Piazza Maggiore
The Torri Pendenti of Bologna
These two towers are the Torri Pendenti and probably the most famous Bologna sights.
Pendenti means leaning and both towers lean. The shorter of them, Torre della Garisenda leans even more. It leans to the extent that they had to cut it to prevent a collapse and the Garisenda is now only 50 m high. The other tower, Torre Asinelli is double the height and you can climb to the top for views, it’s only 500 steps…
Torri Asinelli and Garisenda are visible from everywhere in Bologna.
The towers are named after the powerful families that once built them. In medieval times the city had a lot of towers since most wealthy families wanted to have one, but with time most of the towers have disappeared.
Bologna Strada Maggiore windows and arches
Bologna’s main road Strada Maggiore runs east from the leaning towers. It’s a part of the Roman Via Emilia that cuts through the region. The Romans built a straight road through the plains of Emilia-Romagna, to get access from Milan to Rimini.
Today’s motorway follows the Roman route, three plus three lanes. In addition there are two railway lines by its side, the old one and the one for rapid trains. And then there is the original Roman road through cities and villages that Bologna Strada Maggiore is part of.
Piacenza, Fidenza, Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Modena, Bologna and Rimini.
Strada Maggiore porticoes and sights
Strada Maggiore has a huge amount of portici, porticoes or arcades in English: wide and narrow, low and high, yellow, brown and red. Yet they make a small part of the total of 38 km.
Porticoed streets were practical when they were built, and they still are. They provide shade during hot Italian summers and shelter during rainy winters. And they allow all kind of outdoor activities round the year.
UNESCO has recognized Bologna porticoes as an essential part of the world’s cultural heritage. According to UNESCO, unlike elsewhere the porticoes of Bologna are so harmonious because they have been a town-planning criteria mentioned in all local regulations – from the 13th century onward.
View from below the arches
Some of the finest arcades along Strada Maggiore are the four-sided portico of Santa Maria dei Servi and the inner courtyard of Palazzo Hercolani, one of the University of Bologna buildings.
Bologna university has an impressive history as one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1088.
Piazza Santo Stefano
Piazza Santo Stefano of Bologna
The broad square of Piazza di Santo Stefano is located in an elegant area where many important families built their palazzi. One of these palaces has been changed to a shopping and dining complex, Corte Isolani.
I didn’t want to go shopping, I rather stay outdoors. Since this square is very peaceful and surprisingly just a few steps from the busy food market.
Views of Piazza Santo Stefano
Strolling around the city I found a number of pretty churches. Many Bologna churches are built in a very simple style and yet they are fantastic! There is so much beauty in Bologna, Italy.
A Bologna church
Many of these small churches had closed doors like is the case with most palaces. As almost all palaces in the city are privately owned you can’t see them from the inside. The tourist office told me there’s only two or three palaces open to the public. This is one of them:
Palace of Archiginnasio
Courtyard of the Palace of Archiginnasio, Bologna
The tourist office also told me the Archiginnasio is the easiest palace to visit, located right behind the cathedral. You are free to walk around on the palace courtyard and in corridors – unless you want to enter the Anatomical Theatre that has a nominal fee, and the public library where only local residents are allowed in.
Archiginnasio was built in the 16th century when the aim was to get the university under the same roof. The walls in corridors and class rooms are full of fantastic decoration. It’s mainly inscriptions of professors and coats of arms of students.
Archiginnasio Palace in photos
More about the Archiginnasio Palace on the L’Archiginnasio di Bologna website.
These were the main sights and now some words about where we stayed.
Our Bologna Roof Apartment
City view from Altana Bologna roof terrace
Our Bologna accommodation was exceptional. What we wanted was a balcony, central location and air conditioning. And we got it all, in fact we got two balconies – and amazing city views from both.
All this was on the sixth floor, above all city roofs. It was so good that we could not decide whether to go out in evenings or invite friends to our two terraces.
Above the red roofs of Bologna
In Altana Bologna even the bedroom has windows on three sides. We just loved those city views, location and everything. We even had a little tower of our own and beautiful spiral staircases to our apartment and on to the roof tower.
So where did we find our Bologna rooftop apartment? Here:
Bologna Centro Storico in the morning
So this was Bologna, and how do you get there?
How to Travel to Bologna
As Italy has been building a rapid train network Bologna is very easy to reach.
It’s just an hour from Milan, two hours from Rome and 30-40 minutes from Florence. Adriatic resorts are an hour and Venice an hour and a half away. You will find Italian train connections on the Trenitalia website.
We however came by car, knowing that there was no use for our car in Bologna. Since Italian motorways are good and have many lanes driving is quite easy. We came from Milan Malpensa airport that is 260 km away and we did that in three hours.
When in Bologna we left our car outside the city:
Where to Park in Bologna
After some research we found Parking Tanari. It’s close to the main train station and parking only costs EUR 5 a day. It’s a good two km from the old town. If you don’t want to walk you can take the city bus 29 from Tanari to Piazza Maggiore. In Italy you can pay your trip in cash (EUR 2) if you don’t have a ticket.
Now good bye from Bologna!
Towers of Bologna: our roof tower and Torre Asinelli