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A city often overlooked by many tourists heading to Italy, Bologna is somewhat of a hidden gem. It may not have the iconic landmarks we all head to Italy to experience, but it has beautiful canals like Venice, leaning towers similar to Pisa, equally as stunning architecture as Florence, unbelievable food like Naples, and a large masterpiece of a fountain like Rome’s Trevi.

With 2,000 years of history, about the only thing the city doesn’t have is an amphitheatre that rivals the Colosseum. But something which does give it an edge over Rome is a distinct lack of mass tourism.

Bologna is a wonderful city to experience authentic Italy away from all the hype and commotion that often comes with Italy’s major cities. So if you’re looking to experience authentic Italy, here are 5 reasons to make Bologna your next Italian destination, and some great ideas for things to do.

Things to do in Bologna – One of the Best Cities to Visit in Italy

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Pro Tip: British Airways offers direct flights from London to Bologna, sometimes for as low as £34. Flights from London take approximately two hours.

Bologna airport is one of Italy’s most central terminals, only 3.5 miles out of the city.  You can easily pre-book a taxi from the airport to the city.

Bologna’s Sheltered Walkways

Bologna’s vast network of porticoes and arcades mean you’ll stay dry even in the heaviest of downpours. Some 40-50km of porticoes exist within the city’s limits including the world’s longest. Things to do in Bologna. 

The Portico di San Luca consisting of 666 arches runs nearly 4km to the top of a hill where the beautiful 18th century church Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca rests. But you’ll encounter these impressive walkways just about anywhere within the city. What is Bologna famous for. 

Some date back to the 11th century and represent styles ranging from medieval wooden, renaissance, gothic, and nineteenth century court architecture porticoes. Many of the city’s porticoes including St. Luke’s and the Alemanni, have undergone almost no restoration and are therefore composed of the same original material they were built with. Is Bologna worth visiting?

Bologna’s Sheltered Walkways

Bologna’s Sheltered Walkways

Bologna’s Sheltered Walkways

Visit the Fountain of Neptune

It has been a beloved landmark in Bologna since it was erected by the architect Tommaso Laureti and sculptor Giambologna in the 16th century, but the Fountain of Neptune has recently shot to worldwide fame when Facebook deemed a shared photo of it too sexually explicit! Bologna must see.

At the centre of the large fountain stands a 4m statue of Neptune, God of the Sea. It was constructed in honour of Pope Pius IV and aimed to show the power of the Catholic Church. It’s what Bologna Italy is known for.

Although commissioned by the church, even they found the monument a bit risqué. Giambologna was forced to limit the size of Neptune’s “manhood” but cheekily positioned the God’s thumb to form a “large erect penis” when viewing the statue at a certain angle. Wondering what Bologna is known for. 

In addition to the overly “sexy body” of Neptune, the fountain portrays several female sea nymphs who squirt water through their large lactating breasts. This led to Facebook deeming the statue too explicit until backlash caused them to reverse their decision. A Bologna Italy points of interest for sure!

Damage and Restoration

It is said that a rare bronze statue by Michelangelo was melted down into a canon to make way for the construction of Neptune and the fountain. As for the Fountain of Neptune, it too has sadly suffered damage over the years from moving it out of fear of destruction from Napoleon and later the Nazis.

Renovations are under way which have been ongoing now for several years. It has sadly been surrounded by scaffolding, blocking visitors from much of a view. It’s still one of the best things to do in Bologna Italy.

Thankfully the refurbishment is due to be completed at the end of this year, but until then, tours can still be made to gain limited access behind the construction which provides a better view of this glorious fountain.

Also worth noting is that the luxury car manufacturer, Maserati, was founded in the city of Bologna and stole Neptune’s trident design as seen in the fountain statue to use as their logo. Now that’s Bologna sightseeing! 

Neptune Square, Bologna, Italy

Climb the Towers of Bologna

The Towers of Bologna consist of towering medieval structures that stand tall throughout the city. They once were much more numerous, making the city look like an ancient skyscraper city. Nowadays, 21 towers still exist with two being the most well-known. Bologna tourist information.

Bologna has not one but two leaning towers. Asinelli and Garisenda both have a bit of trouble when it comes to standing straight, but this is more prominently displayed by Garisenda which has a considerable tilt. Bologna must see.

Even if you’re only in Bologna for a day, you should climb Asinelli Tower, which is an adventure walking up it’s narrow wooden stairs! In the heart of the city, once you’ve reached the top you’ll enjoy an extraordinary view over Bologna’s rooftops.

It was these two towers which would act as inspiration for Minoru Yamasaki’s original World Trade Center design in New York City. Bologna sights.

View from the Asinelli Tower

Discover Networks of Canals

Like Venice, Bologna has a large network of canals running through the city, but it may take a bit more effort to find them. The city’s tourism bureau offers a “Hidden Canals of Bologna” guide you can pick up or download online.

Many of the city’s 60km network of canals are covered. The city installed a hydraulic system of canals, locks, and pipe work that distributed water throughout the city as early as the 12th century. Sightseeing Bologna. 

One place to go for a picturesque Venetian style canal view is the secret window of Via Piella. Within a large orange wall, you’ll find a window which looks out onto the Reno Canal. Look for the blue circular plaque labelled Canale di Reno where you’ll find this porthole allowing for a great photo opportunity.

Don’t expect to get too close to the water as nearly all street access is blocked off. You may, however, be able to organise a guided visit to the underground canals via the Associazione Amici delle Vie D’Acqua.

Like Venice, Bologna has a large network of canals running through the city

The Heart of Italian Cuisine

The city of Bologna is known as “the fat one” and for good reason. There is so much delicious food available that you are bound to put on a bit of weight before heading back home. Eating is one of the best things to do in Bologna!

Best of all is the fact many restaurants are rather affordable meaning even the backpacker can enjoy some great local food favourites. Honestly, the food scene is worth making an international flight booking alone!

Of course Bologna is home to mortadella, or bologna sausage as many of us more commonly know it as. True mortadella sausage is much fancier and far tastier than the American version and usually contains bits of peppercorns, pistachios, and chunks of fat. Bologna Italy things to do.

You also must try ragù bolognese while in the city, although you’ll need to order tagliatelle al ragù because you won’t find the word bolognese on any menu here. The authentic dish consists of a beautiful meat sauce containing tomatoes which is presented over ribbon-like tagliatelle pasta, NOT spaghetti.

Pick up some freshly made brioche at one of the many bakeries, a piadina (flatbread) filled with cheese for a quick bite, and try some nice local lambrusco or sangiovese wine. Don’t wonder what to see in Bologna any more!

GUIDES WE RECOMMEND FOR ITALY CLICK PHOTO TO LOOK INSIDE ↓

Amazon Italy Guide

Fodor’s Essential Italy

Amazon Italy Guide

Lonely Planet Italy

Amazon Italy Guide

DK Eyewitness

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Megan is an Australian Journalist and award-winning travel writer who has been blogging since 2007. Her husband Mike is the American naturalist and wildlife photographer behind Waking Up Wild; a website dedicated to opening your eyes to the wild & natural world.

Committed to bringing you the best in adventure travel from all around the globe, there is no mountain too high, and no fete too extreme! They haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on their list.

If you enjoy getting social, you can follow their journey on FacebookTwitterYouTubePinterest and Instagram.

Photo credits: Salire a San Luca by Giorgio Minguzzi. Santuario della Madonna di San Luca & Portico Dei Servi by Davide P. Neptune statue by Carlo Raso. Sea Nymph / Fountain of Neptune by Graeme Churchard. Neptune Square by Madalina Ungur. Asinelli Tower by Davide D’Amico. Steps of Asinelli tower by nicolas vadilonga. View from the Asinelli Tower by Michelle Lee. Bologna canals by Paolo Margari.

    24 Comments

  1. Bologna is wonderful. Small incredible restaurants down alleyways, Such a treat. Forget Florence, this is the real Italy!

    • Totally agree with you! So glad you enjoyed Bologna too!

  2. Bologna is a wonderful city to experience authentic Italy away from all the hype and commotion that often comes with Italy’s major cities. That’s great, Bologna. thanks a lot for sharing.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Emily 🙂

  3. Looks like Bologna is the city to visit in Italy. According to your article it has lot to offer for a curious traveler. Canals, statues, history, foods and and else do you want from a Italy?. I think traveler should give more attention to Bologna when traveling through Italy.Thank you for the valuable article. Keep these coming. Cheers.

    • Absolutely – it’s got a little bit of everything, but without the mass crowds – I totally agree that more people should consider Bologna if they’re looking to experience authentic Italy.

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Happy travels 🙂

  4. I must confess that I was slightly biased. When I read “one of the best cities to visit in Italy” I was like… what? I live in Napoli so… ok. I’m very biased, because I love my city! But reading your article reminded me that there are so many different aspects of Italy, each city has its own traits and features. It’s incredible, don’t you think? This is also true for food, we all know ragù alla bolognese in Italy and it’s so good!

    • Haha I’m very bias towards my home state in Australia too, so I don’t blame you! Loved the base we set up for ourselves in Napoli – so many awesome day trips in the surrounds.

      Italy is definitely a diverse smorgasbord, and I feel that Bologna has a good mix of everything … a great place for an introduction to Italy 🙂

      But definitely a country which you could spend months, if not years, traveling through. You’re right – each city and town has it’s own specific charm.

  5. We adored Bologna when we visited it several years ago, I’ve been meaning to go back actually as it’s such a charming place to have a city break. And as you say, without the throngs of Rome, yet still a huge buzz, not least because of all the university students based there. We particularly loved the porticoes and the many small churches all around the city. The food was the biggest draw though, with so much fantastic food to try, we lurched from meal to meal with a little light sightseeing between!!!

    • So glad to hear you had a fabulous time – such a beautiful and charming city isn’t it! And yes, one of the biggest things for us is the lack of mass tourism – my patience really grows thin these days with massive crowds, and it totally ruins a travel experience.

      I could binge on food in Bologna every day!!

  6. Thanks for sharing all this information on Bologna in this very informative post. I wasn’t thinking at all about this city but now that you mention all these fantastic sights I think it’s definitely worthwhile visiting. I’d love to see the canals, maybe using a guided tour as you suggested. They look so romantic! The towers idea looks familiar. In Cádiz in Spain you will find around a hundred of these towers on top of merchant houses. This way they could see their fleet approaching the harbour bringing goods from the New World. A similar concept maybe? And local food, of course, is a no-brainer. 🙂

    • So glad you enjoyed the post Silke – interesting that the towers are similar to Cádiz in Spain. Clever concept to build them on top of Merchant houses for watch over the harbor. Will have to visit and see them for myself!

      Sounds like you’re a bit of a foodie too – the local food scene here is to die for!

  7. We had very little time in Italy and so made the same choice as many other tourists to skip Bologna. What a pity. I love the secret canals, I never realised that there were any. And the food sounds divine as well. It’s nice to hear that they’re affordably priced and not just a tourist trap.

    • Means you have the perfect excuse for another Italy trip! Can highly recommend Bologna if you head back again 🙂

  8. I’ve only been to Bologna once, and it was at the very end of November, so our explorations were quite cold! I’d love to go back and see it again in warmer weather. I didn’t climb the towers, but I went to them. I’d love to do that next time! I do have to say that November was great because there was a chocolate festival! It was great!

    • OMG I would definitely brave the cold for the chocolate festival! Sounds like you have a great reason to plan a trip back though 🙂

  9. For me, Italy is more romantic than Paris. Just my opinion. And Neptune is quite intriguing! Those arches are magnificent as well.

    • Totally agree! I think there’s much more authenticity to Italy than Paris, mainly because there’s so much mass tourism now. Cities through Italy do suffer from massive crowds too though, like Venice, Rome, which is why Bologna is such a breath of fresh air 🙂

  10. Bologna has never been on my radar but after reading your post I’ll have to reconsider! A trip to the Fountain of Neptune sounds like a must due to its controversial nature if nothing else! And of course to see the “sexy body” in-person!

    The leaning tower of Asinelli sounds pretty horrifying but worth it for spectacular views. All of the sights coupled with the delicious (but lbs-increasing) food makes Bologna sound like paradise! We’ll definitely have to add it to the bucket list.

    How did you decide to vacation in Bologna? Do you have hotel recommendations?

    • I’m glad we could put it on your radar! Haha always makes something more interesting when there’s substantial controversy!! The fountain of Neptune is pretty incredible in just how explicit it is!!

      The towers are quite the hand sweating climb lol! But incredible views from the top of Asinelli.

      I spent 4 weeks in Italy, and got a rail pass to explore as much of the country as possible, and Bologna was on that list. What type of accommodation are you looking for? ie Luxury, mid range, budget? The Grand Hotel Majestic già Baglioni is INCREDIBLE if you have the budget for it – it’s uber luxury right in front of the city’s cathedral and a historic building.

      Art Commercianti Hotel is a really great historic hotel, with an authentic medieval decor / atsmophere. Hotel Touring is a more budget friendly option with a quaint homey feel, and a pretty rooftop terrace.

      Hope that helps!

  11. I’ve always wanted to visit Bologna as I’ve heard that the food is the best in Italy – that’s tough competition! I never knew about the arcades, they look stunning. I’d also be interested in visiting the underground canals if there’s plenty of head room!

    • I hope you do have the chance to travel soon! Definitely tough competition to call a city as the best food in Italy – though I think it’s pretty justified 😀

  12. Bologna looks so much different than many other European cities. The sheltered walkways are definitely one such difference. I have not seen something like this before.
    HaHa , FB banning the photo of a fountain is quite funny. There are so many explicit statues in some of the temples in India. Dunno how they would react.

    • Absolutely – I haven’t seen a city anywhere else in the world which has such a prominence of porticoes as in Bologna. They definitely make it unique.

      Ah yes I’ve seen some photos of statues throughout temples in India – they’re definitely up there with this one!!

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