Bologna is a vibrant town, powered by a population of university students. Self-expression is everywhere, from the abundance of street art to the hairstyles I haven’t seen since the late 80s. Portici and graffiti, late nights spent on piazza pavements, the sound of music that never dies; within my first night in Bologna, I knew straightaway it would be unlike my quiet (yet profound) experience in Camaiore, Lucca and Cinque Terre.
Piazza Maggiore is the heart of the city, where one finds the Basilica di San Petronio and, just around the corner, the oft-photographed Statue of Neptune (who appears to be “very excited” if one looks at him from a certain angle, a “point” everyone loves to mention first). Small streets filled with restaurants, big-brand shops and boutiques connect to this square. The city’s main thoroughfare, Via dell’Indipendenza, connects the piazza to the area near Stazione Bologna Centrale. On this street one finds the Cattedrale di San Pietro (otherwise known as Bologna Cathedral or the city’s Duomo), located right across from the local H&M.
For history and the arts, check out the Museo della Storia di Bologna in Palazzo Pepoli for an in-depth look at the history of Bologna. Palazzo Albergati is also worth a visit depending on the exhibit (Escher was on display when I visited and it was fantastic). Teatro Anatomico in the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio is a must if you’re a fan of the sciences, particularly to see the room where anatomy demonstrations were held in front of an audience. Nearby, the Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano is also a lovely visit, in which resides a small museum, peaceful courtyards and an erboristeria.
Emilia-Romagna is a region rich with food, and Bologna (being in Emilia) is a great place to sample them all. From pasta dishes like tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini to street food like piadine (a flatbread sandwich from Romagna) and crescioni (a stuffed, baked sandwich), there is no shortage of items to expand the waist. For artisan pizza, Alce Nero Berberè is a great choice, as they follow a strict method of preparation for their light dough. For fresh pasta, try La Botega dei Portici, where your order is made fresh for takeout or casual sit-down dining. And near Piazza Maggiore, Piadineria la Piadeina and Tigelleria Tigellino are comfortable eateries for quality piadine and tigelle (a small flatbread sandwich) respectively. If you can’t decide what you want, visit the Mercato di Mezzo in which you’ll find numerous vendors (including a stand offering craft beer from Birreria le Baladin) and, perhaps more importantly, air conditioning.
It’s a good thing Bologna is a walking town, and whether you choose to just wander the city or frequent parks like Giardini Margherita or the smaller Parco della Montagnola, you’ll find it easy to fill a day on foot and walk those calories off.
For day trips, quick train rides can take you to nearby towns in Emilia like Modena, Parma and Reggio-Emilia. I visited Reggio-Emilia after discovering a friend from San Francisco was back home visiting her family. While I can’t offer too many opinions from just a day visit, I would recommend making sure museums are open before arriving (as there are many cool exhibits here). I visited on a Monday and they were all closed. For food, try the typical erbazzone, a delicious savory tart filled with chard and spinach.
During my stay in Bologna, I was fortunate to spend a good amount of time with locals, a group of worldly university students as well as the staff of Turismo Emilia-Romagna, whom I met when I was part of the first year of their BlogVille program. Perhaps my two favorite moments were just hanging out in public areas at night, from the vibrant Parco del Cavaticcio, where one might find an outdoor festival depending on the time of year, to Piazza San Francesco, a plaza under the majestic Basilica di San Francesco that, come nightfall, is filled with guitar-strumming collegiate types drinking big bottles of beer.
Ah, to be young again…