Now that I’ve shared with you the unique character of Bologna, here are my walking tours to dive into “the learned, the fat, and the red”. I know you’ll love these itineraries, though I advocate for spending ample time aimlessly wandering. Bologna is a small and navigable city, easy to tuck your map into your pocket, go where the porticos take you, then get your map back out to see where you are.
A couple of tips before we get going.
I found it hard to get good information on Bologna in advance. There’s plenty on-line (like Bologna Welcome and Bologna Uncovered), but I prefer a book to carry and flip through. I wound up finding the Berlitz pocket guide at a bookstore in Bologna and that was perfect. Several of our highlights came courtesy of this little treasure. I give it a hearty recommend, and will be looking for other books in the series. It gives just enough information to aim your steps and direct your gaze, but not so much that when you get to where your going, it feels like you’ve already been there.
In regards to dining, reservations are a must (my post on the seafood restaurants sitting on stilts in the Adriatic will walk you through how to make reservations). The food in Bologna is regularly exceptional, but it’s not hard to get a just-okay meal. If you want to really float on the aromas and textures of Bolognese food, you’ll need to make a reservation (all the restaurants I include here pretty much require them). Restaurants that require reservations aren’t necessarily fancier or more expensive than the other place down the block with the red-checked tablecloth that’s filled with tourists at 6 PM when no self-respecting Italian would be eating—they’re just better.
And now a word about panhandlers. They are a problem. I think they are a problem in every major Italian city nowadays, it’s just easier to get sidelined by them in Bologna because there are fewer tourists and therefore we are easier marks. They are very very persistent. One pretended to fall in love with Gabe, and gave him a bracelet over my loud objections (I adore my kid, but I wasn’t fooled for an instant). Two minutes later he returned asking for money and I told him to take back his bracelet (we’d left it on the corner of the table, untouched). He swiped it up and shot us a look of death. Other panhandlers will follow you pleading for half a block or join the family circle to harangue for money. It’s souring.
My advice is, don’t make eye contact, turn your body away. If that doesn’t work, say “basta” firmly. If that doesn’t work, level up to the more assertive “va via” (go away). An apologetic “no, grazie” is not going to get it done.
Okay, now for the good stuff—how to dig into Bologna!
Have you been to Bologna? Please offer your own tips in the comments, and don’t forget to like and share this post!
City Center of Bologna
Due Torri—Quadrilatero—aperitivi at Osteria delle Sole
Bologna’s leaning tower reclines so aggressively it’s disorienting. My perception of the entire horizon tilted after gazing agape at the Torre Garisenda. Its mate in due torri fame is Torre Asinelli, which also tilts, but in a different direction which makes it even harder for the brain to process. Dizzying is the word that comes to mind. It rained one morning, and Gabe noticed how the rain dripped off of Torre Garisenda in a spot far distant from the base. Physics in action, it once again made me realize how much we take for granted when we count on straight lines in our architecture.
Torre Asinelli is climbable, with a wonderful view of Bologna’s red roof sea. Or so Nicolas’s photos indicate, I myself refused to climb it, citing zero interest. But I don’t want to dissuade others who may be more tolerant of heights and enclosed spaces than myself.
Just across the street from the towers is the Quadrilatero–the old market district of Bologna. I loved the tangled warren of little streets, the tiny specialty shops, the promise of idiosyncratic delicacies in each window. The fish vendors were among my favorites, for their volubility and also the ocean curiosities arrayed over ice.
I also loved the fruit stands where we purchased sour cherries and fragrant peaches and taut little tomatoes. The bustling shops with cured meats and cheeses were also compelling, but a spot of advice—I observed the butchers growing weary of tourists here (this may have been the only place in Bologna I saw Americans, now that I think about it).
So please learn to ask for “un etto” (100 grams) or “due etti” of whatever product you are eyeing. It will make it more fun for you. When the butcher called my number, I saw his instant wariness. But when I rattled off my requests in Italian, he beamed. And then when I asked if he had any tigelle, the whole shop erupted in commands for how to enjoy this Bolognese specialty. It was like an amusement park, it was so fun!
In that old market district is Osteria del Sole, Bologna’s oldest inn, dating from the 1400’s. It is tricky to find, what with its diminutive “vino” sign over the nondescript door, but it’s located on the corner of Via Pescheria and Vicolo Ranocchi (street names in the Quadrilatero reflect the trades of the guilds once located there, putting the osteria on the corner of fish street and frog alley).
Osteria del Sole offers a bar in the entrance to purchase drinks and then long wooden tables to plop yourself and whatever foodstuff you brought with you, since the former inn is “bring your own food” (and utensils, plates, etc.).
You’ll find zero pretension but a lot of atmosphere here, surrounded by locals pouring cold Lambrusco, dealing cards (though I believe card playing is only allowed before 19:00 h), talking, and belly-laughing.
Basilica San Domenico—Drogheria della Rosa—Cremeria Santa Stefano
Visit San Domenico around 11 AM, which gives you time to explore the church before it closes for lunch, and then you can do a little wander to your reservations at Drogheria della Rosa. This is where I had the best tortellini in brodo OF MY LIFE (not hyperbole… I talked to a friend who visited Bologna recently and she enthusiastically agreed that the little filled pastas in broth were vastly superior here than anywhere else). More on lunch later, first let’s talk about San Domenico. As you approach, you’ll first see some lofted tombs. Pret-ty nifty. Those dead guys are medieval law scholars, demonstrating once again the importance of thought in Bologna history (the dotta, or learned, in “the learned, the fat, and the red”).
I should say that San Domenico is one of those super-grand churches that frankly don’t do a lot for me, but other people no doubt feel all kinds of awe at the cathedral ceilings and cluttered niches. One of those niches contains the tomb of San Domenico himself. This tomb is worth your time for two reasons: One is the skull hiding in the back. And two is that the tomb is adorned with two saints and an angel carved by Michelangelo.
Yes, that Michelangelo. When he was 19-years-old he was commissioned to create these three statues. I don’t know what you were doing when you were 19, but as for me, I certainly wasn’t creating sublime statues for a dead saint. Really look at his statue of San Proculo. You may spot the early lines for David in the draping and the determined expression. Also check out San Petronio, who is holding a model of Bologna.
In the back of the church and to the right, you’ll find an entrance to the San Domenico choir. Before your eyes scan down the page—who could possibly be interested in a choir?—let me hasten to add that this particular choir is considered the eighth wonder of the world. The choir stalls are a superb example of marquetry, the art of applying wood veneer to form images. The marquetry in the choir depicts images of the Old Testament (the right side) and New Testament (left side). Each choir stall is unique, both in the central image and in the woodworking of the seat and sides. It is simply extraordinary.
After you’ve scampered all over the church, it’s time to mosey to lunch. Drogheria della Rosa’s outdoor seating is located under a portico, while the inside is an old drugstore. It’s a bit bohemian indoors, with the hallway to the bathroom lined entirely with paintings that, to this eye at least, have no common characteristic other than the prodigious use of paint.
As you are seated, you’ll be handed a glass of wine, and then recited the options for the day (there are no printed menus). We only heard the primi, and opted to find out about the secondi later. As it turns out, we had no room for anything past the primi. Which was a shame, I saw many plates of vitello tonnato go out that looked far better than what I picture when I think of cold veal with tuna sauce. It smelled so heavenly I threatened to hover over a stranger’s table and ask for a bite. Until Keith called my bluff and I had to admit I lack those particular social “graces”.
If you go to Drogheria della Rosa, let me know, because we have two unanswered questions about the restaurant. One concerns a lurking man who seemed to be some sort of bodyguard or secret service. We had a good time imagining who among the diners was actually a Russian oligarch or Italian hotel magnate. I’d love to know if the bodyguard or his protected object is a regular.
The other odd bit was the owner. He was a man who enjoys his wine and wants everyone else to enjoy theirs. This meant that he got into more than one scuffle with waiststaff who grew frustrated with his inebriated orders. But we enjoyed the spectacle. At one point he ordered glasses of wine poured for us, and then plopped down and held forth at the end of the table. Part of his oration included demanding to know what Gabe was drawing. At that moment, Gabe was drawing probably the worst drawing of me that has ever been done. Maybe on purpose—who can say? The crows feet dribbled down to my chin and my hair that does have a tendency to frizz into what I like to tell myself is a charming halo became the markings of an old-time granny with loose wires escaping all over my head. The boss man praised Gabe’s art as not sugar coating life, but before I could figure out if I should be offended, he ordered Gabe into the restaurant to select a rose to present to me. That was cute.
We were waved out of the restaurant like old friends. We really wished we’d been able to go back one more time. To see if the boss was always that “charming” and if the bodyguard was omnipresent and okay, okay, because I wanted to try that veal. And I wouldn’t mind another serving of that tortellini or some of Keith’s ethereal lasagna made with exquisitely light green pasta.
Head now to Cremeria Santo Stefano for a frozen treat. The gelato is otherworldly (we were on a 1-2 gelato per day plan, so we hit up this particular establishment at least three times), but they have other fantastical novelties. I was pretty full from my tortellini so I got a lemon and bergamot popsicle which was perfection. Keith insists that his amarena granita was perfection, but I maintain that my lemon and bergamot popsicle was the dream.
Sorbetteria Castiglione— Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio —Da Cesari
This tour includes our other favorite gelateria in Bologna, Sorbetteria Castiglione. I found it particularly good for chocolate and vanilla variations (particularly with praline almonds or hazelnuts—shockingly delicious). I’d suggest getting yourself a scoop as a midmorning snack, then wending your way, getting lost if you are lucky, to arrive at da Cesari around 11 to make lunch reservations. We loved da Cesari so much we went twice and would have possibly gone three times if we’d been able to get an impromptu reservations (make reservations!).
Reservations in hand, aim your steps towards the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio. This was the first “permanent” seat of the University (1500’s). Before that, the university held classes in random open civic buildings and then in the 1800’s it moved to its current location. The central courtyard was once the location of university ceremonies such as the lauded making of medicine from herbs and animal flesh and poison and whatnot. It’s a gorgeous space with it’s layered arcading.
Up the stairs, you’ll find a palatial library as well as the Teatro Anatomico, where students (and other interested parties, Michelangelo is known to have drawn up a chair) would observe dissections. It feels more like a theater than an operating room, what with all the intricate woodwork, but the balcony supported by wooden renditions of skinned cadavers offers a suggestion of the room’s past.
Certainly it’s interesting to imagine the beginning of medical science, but for me it’s even more interesting to think about the transformation in how we learn. Originally, a professor would read aloud from ancient tomes from the balcony describing things like humors, as the dissection progressed. If that professor ad-libbed his own observations, the on-call priest would shut the whole operation down. If the person conducting the dissection found something in opposition to what was being read, he’d have to cover it up because the ultimate authority was not what the eye could see, the ultimate authority was the writings of ancient thinkers.
It made me wonder about the nature of scientific inquiry, and where we are now. What do we trust? Our eyes? An authority figure? How do we determine who is the authority? Back then, it was religious figures who were held to be the authority on science… who is it now? Scientists? Politicians? Or still religious figures?
Big questions lodged and appetite returned, it’s time for lunch! I can’t tell you what to order at da Cesari, since the specials are particularly fabulous. All I can say is everybody should get something different so that you can try various flavors. The pasta stuffed with rabbit and smoked scamorza was knee-weakening, as was the pumpkin filled ravioli, the gramigna (a Bolognese specialty of thick, hollow pasta with a sausage sauce—order it somewhere so you can drool a bit every time you pass it in the window of a pasta shop), pappardelle with a sauce of guanciale and wild asparagus.
Our second visit (where they welcomed us like old friends), we also got a couple of secondi, one of which was a veal with mushroom sauce that blew me away.
Santo Stefano—Antique Porticos—Aperitivi
During our stay in Bologna, I woke up each day about an hour before the rest of the family and went for an explore. There was just too much to experience, I couldn’t be hemmed in by everyone else’s wakeful hours. I liked getting myself a cup of coffee, standing at the bar and eavesdropping.
I can be too apt to let Keith handle the nuts and bolts of foreign interactions. It’s good to have my caffeine needs rest on my own shoulders. One time, after I expressed amazement at the zabaglione-type cream a bar added to my coffee, the baristas grew far more interested in me and took turns guessing where I was from. The fact that they never landed on American filled me with an absurd pleasure that lingered all day. So, even if you are with folks, I recommend a little solo time to greet the city on your own terms.
During one such morning jaunt, I stumbled across Santo Stefano. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, just a ramshackley assortment of buildings tacked onto each other. Only later did I realize that this was the very Santa Stefano that we had been ordered to visit during our stay. After our day-trip to Ravenna to see some mind-blowing mosaic work, I took the family back so we could explore the, for lack of a better word, “church”.
I mean, it is a church, but whenever I’m admonished to visit a church, I confess I cringe inwardly. Churches are fine and all, but maybe because I’m Quaker and therefore worship in a clapboard-sided house, churches or even grand cathedrals fail to fill me with any awe beyond the architectural (as I mentioned before). I’m happy to walk in, say “wow”, and then walk back out in search of gelato. Which I’m almost guaranteed to feel far more reverence for.
Santo Stefano was my speed.
It was built in the 5th century as a labyrinth of seven churches, but now only four remain open for exploration. Meander the interlocking series of worship spaces—the polygonal church with columns surviving from the ancient pagan temple, the spare and arcaded church that seems designed to praise the sifting, golden light that fills the space, the open courtyard, and the Benedictine cloister. There are bits of historical relevance to be found (crypts and art and relics), but the best part lies within you. As you wander from church to church, notice where you light up, where you feel holiness. Linger in resonate spaces.
When you walk out of Santo Stefano, there is an arcade on the right hand side with an entrance to a kind of indoor mall. If you walk through that, you’ll find one of the oldest porticos in Bologna.
Then you can wander back and pick a place to have an aperitivo in the lively, triangular shaped piazza. Sit back, sip your drink, and wonder at the wide variety of places of worship and what strikes a chord within you. Then tell me all about it, because I love those conversations.
University—Jewish ghetto—canal view—Pinoteca Nazionale—aperitivi at Marsalino
As I mentioned earlier, the University of Bologna is the oldest university in Europe, having started matriculating students in the 11th century. That seemed only mildly interesting to me until we visited the Museum of College Students and I realized how transformational the college experience was to students long ago.
Imagine, hundreds of years ago, traveling was complicated. People hardly ever left their sphere of influence, so for people to leave home for parts unknown to live with strangers and attend classes—it was not only a monumental undertaking but vital for cross-pollination and advancement of thinking.
The museum includes such interesting displays as a fitted up dorm room, an exhibit on women in early academia, how students individualized their monotonous robes and hats, and videos from celebration at the University of Bologna (with music from that era) since the dawn of film.
Tucked west of the university is a warren of streets that was once Bologna’s Jewish ghetto. I’ve always been attracted to Jewish ghettos, which could stem from the Jewish parts of my family tree, or perhaps from my interest in micro-communities, particularly those that are formed or maintained through hardship (don’t get me started on New York’s lower east side). In any case, I was eager to head out with my camera one morning to first stop on Via Piella for one of the last remaining views of Bologna’s former canal system (worth a look if you are in the area—it’s one of the few canal views accessible to passers-by; the rest are viewed from the insides of building complexes) to the Jewish ghetto. I knew the ghetto wasn’t reported to be visually compelling, but still, a ghetto is a ghetto, right? Turns out—no.
Bologna has historically been a religiously tolerant city (I credit the academic roots), and therefore welcomed Jews. But a 1555 papal decree forced Jews to live in the ghetto, dictating that the only people who could leave at night were doctors. It’s a history worth commenting on, I should think, but other than signs indicating the Via dell’Inferno and the fact that the buildings are taller in deference to the fact that expansion could only happen upwards, there was nothing. It was kinda quiet, which I interpreted as spooky, but I think I did that to myself. There is a Museo Ebraico, which preserves the history of Jewish people in Bologna. I wish I’d had time to stop in, perhaps that would have given me a bit more of what I was looking for. If you’ve been there, leave a comment and let us know?
Close to the university and the Jewish ghetto is the Pinoteca Nazionale, notable for paintings by Bolognese Baroque artists. Definitely worth a stop.
And now that you’ve gotten some sense of place, seen a variety of porticos and red drapes, pondered the life of both students and Jewish people in Bologna, it’s time for an aperitivo to give you time to process and mull it over.
Marsalino is the place to go, especially if you thought ahead to make reservations (yes, you even need to make reservations for aperitivi! We didn’t and had to sit inside which was still wonderful, but it was a gorgeous day and we would have liked to be outdoors, next to the antique wooden portico). At Marsalino, the food keeps coming. Our drinks were fun and delicious and I loved the retro glassware. Unending chips and pizza made on sliced sourdough bread was satisfying, though I had to limit myself, knowing dinner was around the corner (not literally, we didn’t actually find any restaurants in this quarter of the city). When Keith went to pay, he had a great conversation with the barkeep about vermouth. The bartender offered him samples of various kinds and the two of them spoke in confidential tones with keen interest. Great fun.
Portico di San Luca—Osteria al 15
Full disclosure, the Portico di San Luca was something I wish we’d had time for, so I can’t speak to our personal experience, but look it up and you’ll see it’s universally beloved. This portico is 3 km long, one of the longest arcades in the world, starting close to the city center (you can pick up at 5 Piazza Galvani) meandering up to the San Luca sanctuary which affords a spectacular view. The sanctuary was home to a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, and the porticos designed to be able to convey the icon as it was paraded up the hill. It’s a long walk, steep in places, with stairs, so wear comfortable shoes and allow a couple of hours for the journey there and back. If you only have half that time or energy, you can take a bus to the sanctuary and then walk down the hill back to Bologna. Taking the bus there and back is another option, but the reason I wanted to do it was the long, arcaded stroll.
After that excursion, you’ll have earned a magnificent meal, and I have just the place for you. Osteria al 15 is a rustic, lively, phenomenal spot for real Bolognese food. I recommend both primi and secondi, as they are both swoon-worthy. I particularly recommend the vitello ai carciofi (veal with artichokes) and the stinco (a pork shank). Also worth mentioning because I saw everyone else ordering it too late for us to do the same, is that this is a place to get tigelle with condimenti (mentioned in my earlier post on Bologna, tigelle are like a cross between English muffins and blini, and are an excellent vehicle to scarf down Bologna’s famous salumi with squaquerone cheese and/or the paste made of fat and herbs that is far better than it should be).
The first time we tried to go to Osteria al 15 we did so without reservations. Big mistake. We had a long walk from the norther edge of Bologna with no reward. So we made reservations for the following night and then wandered all over trying to find a restaurant with space available that didn’t cater to tourists. As we crossed a street, we spied tables set up under a nearby portico. We presented ourselves and were delighted when the waitstaff looked surprised to see us and apologized for their lack of an English menu.
We settled back with our Italian menus, which said things like “gnocchi” and “tagliatelle” with no adjectives or modifiers. The owner came over and essentially read us the menu, adding the details that must shift from night to night. It was hard to concentrate because I just wanted to listen to her mellifluous accent all day. It was here that we enjoyed shatteringly crisp gnoccho fritto (the alternative to tigelle, these are fried pillows of light dough) and the prosciutto-like culatello we’d heard was a specialty of Bologna. My meal was basic and enjoyable, though I really just wanted to get to hear the dessert menu, which the owner came over to rattle off again. Zabaglione is huge in Bologna, in fact tiramisu is mostly just zabaglione with a bit of cookie and cocoa. The best zabaglione preparation I had in Bologna was with fresh peaches, but I did enjoy this restaurant’s rendition with shaved chocolate.
Bologna, in closing
That’s just a taste of what Bologna offers. There are more museums, more restaurants (even the sports bar we watched the World Cup at had excellent risotto with onion and guanciale), and day trips galore. We went to Ravenna and though we were admittedly astounded at the mosaics it wasn’t really worth leaving Bologna for (other people will no doubt argue that we are uncouth monsters, and they may be correct, but I’ll add that we had a pretty bad meal in Ravenna which may have soured our experience—we really just couldn’t wait to get back to Bologna). Other visitors report loving Modena and Ferrara, and those are on my list for next time.
If I can pry myself out of the arms of my new favorite Italian city.