Returning to Italy after several years away was a truly thrilling experience. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss a country until you go back there and all memories start rushing in. I had passed through Bologna dozens of times, but never roamed across the city so the trip felt both familiar and completely new.
So what should you know about Bologna? It is the home of the oldest university in the world (founded in 1088) and apart from its long-term inhabitants, it also attracts a lot of students from all over Italy and Europe in a mixture of old and new, of tradition and novelty.
As any city in Italy: it offers a lot of beauty and charm to the casual visitor and if you are into history and culture: the Etruscan and Roman roots of Bologna, its medieval importance, and the Dolce Vita charm definitely make it a place worth visiting. Although it is the 7th most populous city in Italy, its historical centre is compact and cosy and everything is within a walking distance. Here are some tips how to enjoy your stay there:
Get there for less
From other EU countries
The historical importance of the city and its modern day popularity among students have attracted many low-cost companies who can offer a budget alternative to conventional flights. If you keep your eyes open for good bargains (depending on your home country in Europe) you can find one-way tickets for as little as 20 EUR (Check out Ryanair & Wizzair).
Buses run from Bologna Airport BLQ to Stazione Centrale (the central train station) every 10-11 minutes. The price is 6 EUR and although some local buses might be found for less: the line saves you a lot of effort – especially if your plane arrives in the middle of the night. See more about Aerobus here.
From other Italian cities
The Italian train system is really great: it might not have the impressive punctuality of German and Dutch trains, but it runs across most big and small cities, it is cheap, convenient and fairly punctual: for one year of living in Italy I only remember 2 or 3 drastic delays. Trains usually stick to being “fashionably late: between 5 and 15 min”.
You can get your train ticket from any train station in Italy (don’t forget to validate it before boarding the train!) or book it online to make sure you get the best price and timing (TrenItalia). Speaking Italian will help you for the booking process (because some parts of the website suddenly switch from English to Italian), but the Google Translate plugin can help those of you who don’t have experience with this beautiful language.
2. Enjoy the food
The nickname of Bologna is La Grassa: “The Fat one”. All of Italy is a paradise when it comes to food and good taste (in all meanings of the word), but the Emilia-Romagna region and Bologna, in particular, are especially famous. If you have seen The Top Gear Perfect Roadtrip 2, you’ll know why I won’t include spaghetti Bolognese in this list 😉 but nevertheless, Bologna offers all kinds of pasta and pizza with varying degrees of awesomeness. You should, by all means, try the local pride: the Mortadella or the delicious Italian ice cream Gelato.
Also: Italians have this wonderful thing called Aperitivo which is a bit similar to the Spanish concept of tapas. All drinks you order in the evening (usually between 19 and 21, but it varies between cities and venues) come with free snacks: from chips, small pizza bites (pizzetti) and olives to big open buffets with as much food as you want.
We can recommend the Neaera lounge bar for aperitivo: it offers a great variety of food with no limits on the refills and they make really nice Negroni and Americano cocktails (6 EUR each), which are trademark Italian drinks.
Another very important thing: the buffet offers salads, meat and cooked meals in addition to the pizza, pasta and other heavy snacks typical for most places! So if you have to control blood sugar and carb levels but still want to enjoy yourself with a cocktail served by friendly staff: this is a great place to visit (Italian food can get heavy on you if you live mostly on pasta and pizza, so trust me: it’s good to know such venues).
Another thing we can recommend is staying at the Cristina Rossi Bed & Breakfast: a lovely family place with very kind and helpful staff.
They offer both budget rooms and finer apartments in their old family home-turned-hotel and their breakfast room is probably the prettiest one I’ve seen. It is covered in designer lamps and glass furniture and the breakfast varies from toasts and croissants to cherry pies and crostatas, home made cappuccino and pretty much: sugar, spice and everything nice (for me less sugar and more spice).
3. Enjoy your passion for (Italian) cinema
Cineteca di Bologna serves both as a cinema and a library on movie history and filmmaking. The place has a big and lovely backyard with open air cafe where you can sip cappuccio (a diminutive Italian word for cappuccino) and look at huge posters of all time classics like La Dolce Vita.
4. Enjoy the ride
When I lived in Italy, riding a bike was out of the question. In the Marche region, and especially in Macerata where I was, there are a lot of hills. Many cities are built on elevated spaces above deep running valleys, and many city plans are reminiscent of fortresses and citadels: thus you get hundreds of steps up to the center of the city, plus extremely steep streets which are everything but bike-friendly.
Bologna is completely the opposite: its narrow, flat streets and a compact historical center turn it into a perfect place for bikes, Vespas, motorbikes and small cars. Driving a normal car can mostly get you stuck in traffic and there are streets where you cannot possibly pass. So put your helmets and go rent a bike if you get tired of walking around.
5. Free thrills: history, architecture, atmosphere
The streets of Bologna are so rich with history and art that even if you don’t have time to visit all of the city’s museums you can still enjoy for free:
- the statues and fountain by Giambologna on Piazza del Nettuno, the palazzos on Piazza Maggiore and the famous Two Towers of Bologna: which served as a landmark of success in Medieval times(the higher the tower was, the bigger the prosperity of the city)
- the catacombs under the city library. The visit is not charged but you are encouraged to leave a token of appreciation. Don’t expect too much,however: the excavation site is quite small and it was a bit of a disappointment for us because somehow we expected huge and exciting underground tunnels. Still: the library above is a lovely place and you can visit both for book rentals and public lectures
6. Museums, History and Galleries
Bologna has several quite interesting museums for archaeology, modern art, history, etc.
The Museum of History of Bologna is definitely an interesting place to visit: apart from learning about the city you can also enjoy a lovely look at modern museum design. Historical artifacts are mixed with multimedia and 3D projections and Ducatti motorcycles stand across from Etruscan ruins…
While we were there, the Museum also offered a temporary exhibition on Street art, Banksy and local Italian urban artists.
7. Simply enjoy La Dolce Vita
Italians know how to enjoy life. From their unrelenting appreciation for beauty and aesthetics, to their easy going, open attitude, the locals can really help you forget about work & stress and just inspire you to enjoy yourself.
Sip a cappuccino in the afternoon, enjoy a short espresso after dinner, order a Negroni or Americano (two trademark Italian cocktails) with your aperitivo and you will be one step closer to forming truly Italian habits.
8. Don’t get stuck with what is on the tourist map
Unless you have things you really insist on seeing: just forget about the map and the tourist attractions and explore on your own. There are so many pretty neighborhoods, small shops, backyard alleys and architectural details which can make your day just by walking past them