There’s plenty of info out there about what to do, see and eat in Bologna. Between being a hub for university exchange students and a magnet for food-focused travellers keen to visit the source of Italy’s most famous edible exports – namely Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and Aceto Balsamico – it’s been well and truly discovered by foreigners.
And yet, unlike other experiences I’ve had in tourist-packed spots like Lake Como and Venice, it still feels true to itself – an ancient city where Italians live day in, day out, rather than just a well-maintained idyll for sightseers to descend upon, wave their selfie sticks around and move on to the next borgo.
I’ve been to Bologna and other spots in Emilia-Romagna (the region of which Bologna is the capital) a few times now, so while this is by no means a comprehensive guide, here are the spots and activities I loved in the city nicknamed La Dotta, La Grassa, La Rossa (the learned one, the fat one, the red one) and a bit further out of town.
There’s a local superstition that university students shouldn’t climb to the top of Torre degli Asinelli before they’ve finished their degree, lest they fail their final exams. Lucky for you, there’s no graduation in sight – just the 498 steps to reach this incredible view, and the best spot to take in Bologna’s infinite terracotta rooftops (La Rossa, remember?). You’ll fear for your life on the way up (the steep, skinny wooden staircase inside the 11th Century structure is, let’s say, medieval) so think of it as a heart-pumping offset for the many slices of mortadella you’re set to enjoy while in town.
For that very post-hike meaty reward, Tamburini is an iconic salsamentaria – sausage shop – that’s been around since 1932. Service is fast and the space is bustling; a tagliere with sliced-to-order salumi misti (think mortadella, salame rosa, coppa and prosciutto) with some bread and a glass of local sangiovese is the way to go.
Taking a passeggiata through the city’s famed portici (they’ve some 40km of the arcades) and dipping into historical buildings that speak to Bologna’s scholarly past. Like, the Archiginnasio, the first seat of the city’s ancient university (it was founded in 1088) that now houses a very regal library and the original, 17th Century timber-clad anatomical theatre where medical students once watched their professors dissect cadavers.
Perhaps you’d rather get schooled in the difference between tortelloni, tortellini and tortelli? The expertly filled pastas originally come from this region, with tortellini especially associated with the area. A good place to get to know them is the Mercato di Mezzo, where fresh produce vendors, butchers and salumerie, and endless trays of pasta ripiena encased in glass back on to this lengthy alleyway.
If you’ve no occasion to pick up ingredients there, take a cooking class at Uova e Farina, tucked inside an arcade close to the sette chiese and Basilica di Santo Stefano (which you should also for sure visit). Owners Rita and Simona quit their office day jobs to follow their shared passion of making high quality handmade pasta. It only takes one minute of filling, folding and wrapping the tiniest pasta squares around your pinky to appreciate the dexterity needed for prepping these little parcels.
Pasta Fresca Naldi offers more of a choose-your-own-adventure pasta meal experience. At this hole-in-the-wall, Nonna Valeria oversees all the freshly made pastas, from tagliatelle to maccheroncini. Order your pasta base at the counter and add the sauce you like – your tortellini might end up in brodo, alla panna, or al pasticcio, served in a takeaway container to eat there or carry somewhere else. I went for pumpkin purée-filled tortelloni di zucca topped with butter and sage.
For a more elegant atmosphere, Ristorante Merlò is walking distance from Piazza Maggiore and specialises in Emilian cuisine (to the west and north-east of Emilia-Romagna), where your meal kicks off with cubes of mortadella and parmesan and ends with a bowl full of egg-yolky, sweetened silky mascarpone. But I really like Osteria al 15, where I was taken by a friend living in Bologna for years. It’s located well away from the historic centre (read: no tourists, except for me, I guess) on a street with barely any lights, will set you back around 15 for the whole shebang, and does a mammoth plate of affetatti misti to start.
While strolling around Bologna’s ochre buildings, there are seven secrets to be uncovered – subtle, almost-hidden details that would otherwise go overlooked; a local legend that encourages you to really look at the city and learn about it in the process. I reached a few of them – the window on Via Piella to the Canale delle Moline, dubbed Little Venice for its network of 12th Century underground waterways; the ‘whispering corners’ near the Palazzo del Podesta; and the would-be crude rear view of the Fountain of Neptune (I’ll let you work that one out). Read about them all here.
A little further afield…
In Monteveglio, less than an hour from Bologna, Corte d’Aibo makes organic wine from their own grapes, including a red blend in giant amphorae (ancient style terracotta pots) barbera, cabernet and merlot grapes, fermented with many weeks of skin contact. Plus, they’ll let you taste their pignoletto, a wine typical in the area, straight from the tank.
Seeing how proper balsamic vinegar is made is both fascinating and delicious. Not the chemical caramel-flavoured sweet crap from supermarkets, but the true, years-aged grape must that can officially only be produced in the province of Modena, around half an hour from Bologna. At Acetaia Villa San Donnino, wander around the wooden barrels slowly maturing the stuff, and take a tasting among their grapevines of bona fide 25-year-aged aceto balsamico atop wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano aged for 12 months.
Speaking of parmesan, you can check out how the king of cheeses comes to be at 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia, originally built in 1967. It’s a sizeable facility and an interesting window into the magnitude of production needed for this world-famous product – the cheesemakers there are dealing with giant vats of curd, throwing their full body weight into an enormous wooden spoon to stir it. Tour the cheesemaking area, cheese ageing space (think never-ending rows of giant cheese wheels) and compare the various ages allowed by law with a tasting of Parmigiano Reggiano aged for a minimum of 12, 18, 24 and 36 months.
Food history nerds will geek out at the Carpigiani Gelato Museum, filled with ice cream machines, utensils and paraphernalia of yesteryear. Carpigiani is arguably the most famous manufacturer of ice cream-making equipment in Italy. Take a guided tour of the museum (spoiler: a Neapolitan guy was the first to invent something resembling gelato, of course) and a brief class on how to make it yourself.
Some of these spots I visited as part of a trip with Carolinasusi Tours – you can read more about that here.
Oh, and for some of these shots my camera was kind of broken. Don’t judge the shaky background blur.