Take a Chance on Bologna

Author’s note: I’ve written this article with an optimistic heart that international travel will be viable in the not-too-distant future.  Please take my recommendations with that in mind, as the city of Bologna is a different place at the moment than it was when these photos were taken.  For the good people of Bologna that are reading this, I send you infinite wishes for wellness and joy from afar.

A typical vacation in Italy is usually dominated by stops in Rome and Florence, and possibly Venice and the Amalfi Coast.  But Rick Steves offered some wise advice that inspired me to write this for you: if you only visit a country’s major (and popular) cities, you’ll miss a glimpse of what the culture of that country is truly like.  If I can convince you to amend your Italy travel plans to include at least one city that is not mentioned above, my work here is done.  And my first suggestion is Bologna.

Bologna, Italy's two towers.
The center of the historic center, below Bologna’s iconic “Two Towers.”

I’m slightly biased because Bologna was my home for nearly five years.  When my master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University offered me a chance at a second degree at the University of Bologna – touted as the oldest university in the world, but I’ve heard rumors that it is the second oldest – I jumped at it, which would mark the first time I was in Italy as an adult.

Bologna, Italy's two towers light up in the late afternoon sun.
A different perspective on the two towers in the late afternoon sun.

As an American, it was hard for me to grasp the size of Italy until I lived there.  Smaller than my home state of California, Italy’s geographic accessibility makes frequent travel very doable, especially because Bologna is in the north central part of the country, making it a major travel hub for accessing the east and west coasts, and for traveling north by train or bus into other European countries.  My numerous weekend trips exposed me to the striking diversity of culture and cuisine within the relatively small geographic area, a reminder of the youth of the nation, unified in 1861.  It was my travels to the towns, cities, and countryside of Italy that helped me understand what made Bologna so unique.

Bologna, Italy, alive with crowds enjoying the weekend.
Bologna becomes alive with crowds enjoying the weekend when the streets are closed to traffic in the historic center.

Boasting the world’s oldest university means Bologna is the world’s oldest college town, and if you’ve ever visited a college town, you know they often have a sort of different feel.  The university has affected Bologna more than we’ll ever know, from the arcades you walk under that were added to support the expansion of the upper levels of buildings toward the streets to provide more housing for the students, to the graffiti you see on the walls; so many of Bologna’s signature characteristics are byproducts of the college influence. 

A portico with graffiti of a hand in Bologna, Italy.
Creative graffiti in Bologna.

Bologna is known to Italians as the city of “la dotta, la grassa, e la rossa,” which translates to “the learned, the fat, and the red.” The politics stemming from the professors and students making up much of Bologna – “the learned” – differ from most of Italy, resisting fascism and supporting communism for many years.  This is where “the red” comes into play, but some believe “the red” also signifies the beautiful tone of the architecture of the city, which shines red if you ever look at photos taken from high above the city from one of its signature towers.  And “the fat” predictably signifies Bologna’s famous rich cuisine.

A woman takes a photo out the window of a cathedral tower with Bologna's historic buildings in the background.
Bologna’s historic buildings shine red.

As a vegetarian and not so inclined to Bologna’s typical meat-centric dishes, my favorite food memory in the city of “la grassa” is sitting outside on a sidewalk patio of the famous Tamburini along one of the tiny streets in the historic center on a Sunday, and enjoying people-watching, medieval architecture, a bottle of Lambrusco or Pignoletto, and a platter of regional cheeses (and cured meats and mortadella for my non-vegetarian friends), accompanied by tigelle, which are unique circle-shaped flat rolls typical to the region. 

Tigelle and meat on a platter, typical of Bologna cuisine.
My friend’s portion of tigelle and local cured meats and mortadella.

After dinner, there is no shortage of bars and clubs to fill up your night and into the wee hours of the morning if you so choose, as the large student population has also influenced nightlife, making Bologna known as the city of the night. 

Crowds fill up Bologna's historic center going to local restaurants and bars.
Crowds outside of the historic Osteria del Sole in Bologna’s historic center.

You can also just grab a bottle of wine or beer at a small market and join the students sitting and socializing in the gorgeous piazzas.

Two men walk through Bologna's Piazza San Francesco at night.
Piazza San Francesco is argued to be the most beautiful piazza in Bologna.

Ultimately, it is Bologna’s environment that won my heart over.  Bologna’s architecture is among the most beautiful I’ve experienced in Europe.  After living in Florence for a year and returning to Bologna, I found myself treasuring the portico (arcade) lined streets even more, marveling at the different styles of porticos. 

A man standing below a distant portico in Bologna looks up and away.
This photo is one of my favorite examples of the contrast of types of porticos in Bologna.

And even though I’ve passed them hundreds of times, I will still take the time to admire Bologna’s towers caught in perfect light. 

Tourists look up at Torre Prendiparte in Bologna, Italy, adorned with spring flowers.
Torre Prendiparte is now a B&B, and is tucked away in the heart of Bologna’s historic center. I sometimes change my route just so I can walk by it.

Some of the towers are open to the public, which give you a chance to catch a view of “la rossa” from high above the city. And the beautiful environment doesn’t stop at the city’s architecture.

Tourists and locals walk to and from the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca on the long set of steps adorned by porticos.
The final steps on the journey to the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca are the steepest.

Enjoying the famous hilled countryside is as easy as making the popular five-kilometer walk from the historic center on the winding, portico-lined sidewalk to the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca – an icon of the city of Bologna – where you can pay a small fee to enjoy the lookout from the back of the church over the stunning countryside.

Rolling green hills dotted with trees and a distant lake are just outside Bologna's urban historic center.
When standing in Bologna’s urban historic center, it is hard to believe that this beautiful hilled countryside is just a few kilometers away.

I hope this small introduction to Bologna will inspire you to pay a visit to this beautiful city, easily reached by plane, train, bus, or car.  If you are interested in learning more about specific destinations and activities to pursue in Bologna, try visiting the hyperlinks in the article to reach my Instagram and blog posts with more detailed descriptions, or visit one of my other posts linked below.


  1. Richard Ryan says:

    Peg, you are a “faithful daughter” of your adopted city. Dad
    On Sat, May 2, 2020 at 3:05 PM Gracefully Global travels | Travel resources for discovering your next best travel experiences wrote:
    > Gracefully Global posted: “Author’s note: I’ve written this article with > an optimistic heart that international travel will be viable in the > not-too-distant future. Please take my recommendations with that in mind, > as the city of Bologna is a different place at the moment than it ” >

  2. Eliza Waters says:

    I do love Italy– the old medieval buildings and art, the countryside, and most of all, the FOOD! 🙂 Sadly, it may be a while before travel is allowed once again.

    • You are too kind, Lisa, thank you for your thoughtful comment. It means a lot. Apologies for being so slow to reply! I am very grateful for Italy having come into my life. I wasn’t expecting it. I’m sure you can understand with your boat travels and all the adventures it has led you to. And from one photographer to another, I truly appreciate your thoughts about the photos! Hoping you’re enjoying a beautiful weekend. 🙂

  3. How lovely it would be to return to Italy, do a little slow travel and take in Bologna with all its riches. You have enticed me with your words and wonderful photos.

  4. Miriam says:

    How wonderful that Bologna was your home for five years Peggy. Although I was born in Australia, my parents were from the Veneto region and I’ve been back a few times so I know how much there is there to love. Beautiful post. xx 💙

    • Veneto is my favorite region, Miriam! How truly special to have roots there. ❤️ Where in Veneto are they from? I hope you make it back again sometime in the not-too-distant-future. 🙂 Would love to meet you there! And thank you for your kind words, I so appreciate it.

      • Miriam says:

        My parents were both born in a small town called Calvene which is not far from Asiago and Caltrano. I still have relatives there, cugini and zii. I first went with my parents when I was 14 and then I went back as an adult a couple of times. Yes, I love it Peggy and would love to return one day. Bella Italia ❤️🥰

  5. Becks says:

    I loved Bologna when I visited, but I would love to live there for a bit and really get a feel for the city rather than a fleeting impression. Isn’t it just stunning as the sun sets too?

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Samantha! Bologna is a must-visit, especially for young people! I hope you can make it. It is also famous for its “secrets.” If you google it, you should find some things. Hopefully, we will all be able to travel again soon!

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