Travelers to Italy will never forsake the country’s legendary heavy hitters like Rome, Venice, and Florence; a growing number of discerning tourists are partaking in the delights of Bologna. And budget travel in Italy is doable, even in one of its wealthiest cities.
The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is nicknamed la rossa (the red one) for its omnipresent red-tiled roofs. Bologna’s attractions include its two towers, miles of porticos (covered walkways), and a pasta sauce you just might have heard of, the classic bolognese.
There are plenty of worthwhile things to do (and eat) in Bologna. We’ve assembled a list of memorable experiences that won’t cost you a thing.
1. The Basilica of San Petronio
The Bolognesi’s favorite church, it was built as a public space for all citizens. It’s also one of the largest churches in the world. Admission is free, but there is a 2 Euro charge to take photos, which you will understand once you find yourself gazing upward, awestruck by its magnificent interior.
2. Palazzo D’Accursio
Calling it Bologna’s city hall does not do this medieval marvel justice. Directly on the city’s main square, this fortress-like structure has been the seat of governmental power in Bologna since the 14th Century. A stroll through the courtyard and up the celebrated and somewhat unconventional staircase* reveals a beautifully decorated first floor, and then a second floor of marvelous frescoed rooms with a fine view overlooking the Piazza Maggiore.
*Designed by Bramante at the request of Pope Julius II, the staircase allows horse-drawn carriages to reach the the first floor apartments. It must have been nice to step out of your carriage and into your living room.
3. Bononia at the library
Modern Bologna traces its roots back more than two thousand years, when the Romans founded the colony of Bononia in 189 BC. Today, archeological remnants of the original colony are on display in the public library, Sala Borsa, adjacent to the Palazzo d’Accursio. Its main hall has a crystal floor through which you can view the remains of the original streets and buildings of Bologna’s ancestral town.
4. Oratorio di Santa Cecilia
There is a legend that in the second Century AD a Roman noblewoman named Cecilia was martyred along with her husband Valeriano and his brother for refusing to give up their Christian faith. She was beheaded at the behest of the local Roman prefect. It took three strokes of a sword, and she apparently lived for three more days, during which she made a dying request to the pope to have her home made into a church.
If you venture behind the Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore in the heart of the university district, you’ll find the little known Chapel of Saint Cecilia, which contains a series of ten frescoes by major painters of the Bolognese Renaissance that depict the amazing story of this early Christian saint who became the patroness of music.
5. Finestrella di via Piella
In the center of the city there’s a tiny portal into Bologna’s past. Since Roman times, the city has developed a network of canals, both for navigation and for providing water power to mills. Most of these waterways are now buried, but you can still get a glimpse through a cute little window on the Via Pella, proving that when it comes to canals, it’s not all about Venice.
6. Basilica di Santo Stefano
Fifteen centuries ago, the Bolognese Bishop Petronius (now a saint) wished to build in the image of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, resulting in the magnificent Sette Chiese (Seven Churches), whose history is as colorful as the stonework of this interlocking labyrinthine complex featuring a thousand-year span of architectural design.
7. Piazzale di San Michele
Sometimes to get the best view of the city you have to get out of the city. A short bus ride (#30) will get you to the square in front of the San Michele religious complex in Bosco. Just outside Bologna itself, this square offers one of the best views of the city. Take a moment to admire the church’s magnificent interior as well.
8. Stroll up the Portico of San Luca
Bologna has more than 25 miles of porticos — those covered walkways that provide shelter from the scorching summer sun or wind and rain. While other medieval cities eventually banned these arcades, Bologna made them a compulsory component of public spaces. They even regulated a minimum height of 7 feet to allow a rider on horseback to travel in comfort.
The 17th Century Portico of San Luca leads to the hilltop Basilica of the same name and is the longest in the world, with 666 arcades totalling 2.5 miles in length. It was built along the path of the annual procession of the Madonna with Child, which has taken place every year since 1433.
9. Parco di Villa Ghigi
This municipal park is perfect for picnics. It’s accessible on foot from the ancient city gate of Porta San Mamolo, and it has 28 hectares of great views. Enough said!
10. Cinema in the City Square
One summertime activity that’s been gaining in popularity (among Bologna residents and tourists alike) is the series of free open-air movie screenings in Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square. It runs from mid June to mid August, and features a different theme each year. Open-air screenings occur in several other cities, but few take place in such a stunning backdrop.
You can have a wonderfully memorable time in Bologna without breaking the bank, although you will happily open your wallet at mealtime in this culinary city.