Buongiorno, Italia! Earth’s epicenter of delicious food, rich history, jaw-dropping landscapes, friendly and stunningly beautiful people, sexy accents…sorry, what we were talking about again? Oh right, a first timer’s guide to Bologna.
You know it, you love it, and whether you’ve been to the sun-soaked paradise that is Italy dozens of times, or you’re a first-timer making the maiden voyage to Europe’s always-open playground, I’m about to share with you a best-kept secret that will make your next Italia trip the best one yet.
This is Northern Italy baby, and the best way to experience it? Say Ciao to your temporary home: Bologna. Here is the best first timer’s guide to Bologna and seven reasons why you should base yourself here.
Bonus: Your wallet will be happy, your belly will be full (if not bursting at the seams). It’s Italy after all, your goal isn’t to go home skinny. And your Instagram feed will only be second to the dramatic eye-candy that’s right in front of your very own eyes.
The Food In Bologna
The capital of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna is home to many favorites dishes around the world including tagliatelle and tortellini…and let me tell you, this place does it best. I’ve eaten all over Italy, and nowhere beats the fresh pasta creations born and perfected in Bologna.
PSA: spaghetti bolognese does not exist here!
The signature Bolognese dish is tagliatelle with ragu (that’s homemade meat sauce, not the trash from an aluminum can at ShopRite). After one bite, it will tantalize your taste buds, eventually forcing you into deep breathing exercises and belly rubs to make room for more, until you finally finish and begin mentally preparing for dessert.
A few of my favorite spots – vouched by locals because let’s be honest, you should never fully trust a skinny white girl when it comes to food recommendations:
- Osteria del Cappello
- Baracca e Burattini
- Osteria dell Orsa
Easy Day Trips From Bologna
Another reason to base yourself in Bologna? The city is ideally situated smack dab in the middle of Northern Italy, with countless day trips available via the high-speed rails (Amtrak, please take note) or even by car.
Here is the shortlist of my recommendations:
- Venice: Sure, it’s touristy but it’s worth it. Full of canals, narrows alleyways, gondolas, and charming shops…if this isn’t on your bucket list already, add it now. I’ll wait. Go for the day, and then retreat back to Bologna, without testing your suitcase or patience on the cobble-y streets of Venezia.
- Verona: If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket, go shopping! Otherwise, go see the famous balcony from Romeo & Juliet, touch the famous Juliet statue for good luck, and take in the ancient arena, rivaling Rome’s Coliseum with a fraction of the crowds.
- Bergamo: Take the funicular to the old town and admire the views of the city below, surrounded by stunning mountains that hug this less-visited gem of a city. Wear sneakers and sunscreen, you’re welcome.
- Milan: This metropolitan and modern city is worth a visit, though chances are that you’ll fly into MXP from the US. Spend a night here and don’t miss the Duomo in all its glory.
- Florence: A short 30-minute train ride will take you to this breathtaking must-see. There are loads of articles on Florence to guide your visit here, and to make it even more fun, try packing in a couple seasons of Medici on Netflix before your trip. Don’t forget to cover knees and shoulders inside the Duomo!
Other cities to consider to go to from Bologna:
- San Marino
Bologna’s Incredible Walkability
The porticos — arches covering the city’s sidewalks — create an idyllic setting for walking around Bologna and getting lost in its charm. The whole dang place is photo-worthy, so don’t forget to look up, look around, and soak it all in from the city’s many outdoor cafes and bars. Apertivo anyone?
Bologna’s Views & Attractions
Speaking of walking, that’s the best way to reach Bologna’s best views. Lace up, strap in, and bring an extra pair of socks…this city was made for walking, and that’s just what you’ll (want to) do.
- San Luca: The walk up to the hilltop church is completely covered by porticos, and you’ll have a commanding view of the red city below.
- Two Towers: The iconic leaning towers ARE the city skyline, and after trekking up the 498 steps, your face will literally transform into a heart-eye emoji as you stare down at and across this gorgeous Italian city. Take it in, my friend. You’ll have 45 minutes, and then they will ask you to unchain yourself from the window grates because the next group is lined up downstairs.Note: you will need to buy a ticket for $5 which can be purchased HERE. Reward yourself with gelato after.
- Canals: The hidden waterways from Bologna’s past can be reached on foot HERE.
An Accessible Yet Manageable Airport
In case Italy isn’t your only destination, Bologna has a small international airport connecting you to the wider world of Europe and parts of Africa. Its size means fewer crowds, less waiting in line, and attractive fares to destinations beyond the red city. Those visiting Florence may also want to consider BLQ as your base, as you’ll likely find more affordable options than the Tuscany airport.
And with American Airlines’ seasonal direct flight from Philadelphia (PHL), you can get here easier than ever from the US.
Since you wont be competing with the throngs of tourists in the more crowded Italian cities, you can expect a comfortable home away from home in Bologna at a much more reasonable cost.
I stayed at the Almarossa for five nights, and enjoyed a large living space with a kitchenette (complete with full dish set, stove, microwave and fridge) plus a dining table for four, comfortable couch and a TV. In my separate bedroom was a large wardrobe, queen bed, and bathroom.
What set Almarossa apart was the service though. The staff was incredibly kind, and when I had trouble with the self-serve laundry (only slightly embarrassing), they were immediately available to assist. If you have the opportunity to stay here, I highly recommend it — and tell them Ciao for me! I booked on Hotels.com for around $115/night during the busy summer season.
Bologna: The Real Deal
Sure, you can (and should) visit Italy’s hot spot destinations like Rome, Florence and Lake Como. But you‘ll also be surrounded by swarms of other Americans, Europeans and Asians on their vacations — tourists tend to flock to the same bucket list spots.
In Bologna, you can lose yourself in a world that welcomes you with warmth and charisma — but with a more authentic feel. Now of course, English is widely spoken at all of the places you’ll explore, but as you wander down the streets and overhear local conversation, you might just feel as if you’re the only tourist, and the Bolognese will embrace and treat you as an honored guest in a way you just won’t experience in the clusterf**k of The Colosseum or the Vatican.
If you’re tired of the selfie sticks, Hop On Hop Off guides in your face, or totem poles leading armies of clones…try checking out and using this guide to Bologna, and base yourself here.
See Also: Our destinations expert, Sarah, talks about her knowledge of Italian trains.
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