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Top 10 things to do in Bologna

Updated on 31 January 2024 From Bologna Welcome

The "Red", the "Learned", the "Fat", that's how Bologna is called: a university city, with its UNESCO heritage arcades, famous for its good food and the verdant hills soaring on its southern side. But what are the must-sees when visiting the capital of Emilia? The historical centre is easy to get around on foot with many free or affordable activities for everyone!

Top 10 things to do in Bologna

1. Piazza Maggiore

Our tour of Bologna can only start from Piazza Maggiore, the beating heart of the city, a meeting point for citizens and venue for events all year round, just fifteen minutes' walk from the railway station or the inner ringways.

The centre of the square is dominated by the crescentone, a raised pavement made of white and pink granite, while the surrounding area is dotted with some of the city's most notable buildings: Palazzo D'Accursio, seat of the City Hall and the Clock Tower; the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna's largest church; Palazzo dei Banchi, a private building; and finally Palazzo del Podestà, where you can receive information and maps, buy souvenirs and sign up for guided tours (including the unmissable walking tour of the historic centre) at Bologna Welcome

2. Piazza del Nettuno

Next to Piazza Maggiore is the city's second best-known square, boasting the unmistakable statue of the Roman god of the sea, sculpted by Giambologna in the 16th century, surrounded by putti, dolphins and mermaids. Another interesting place to visit from Piazza del Nettuno is the Salaborsa, the city's main library, open to the public free of charge with its splendid covered square and glass floor offering a view of the ancient Roman ruins underneath. 

3. Basilica di San Petronio

The church of San Petronio is the city's main church and one of the largest in Europe. Erected between the 14th and 17th centuries, it is dedicated to the patron saint of Bologna and can be visited admission-free. Its façade remained unfinished, as can be seen by the absence of marble cladding at the top, while inside you can always find someone contemplating the world's longest sundial.

4. Clock Tower

The Clock Tower is the perfect spot to enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the two terraces overlooking Piazza Maggiore. The Tower can be visited with a €8 ticket with complimentary admission to the City Art Collections, a network of twenty-six frescoed rooms housing artworks owned by the City of Bologna.

5. Archiginnasio and Anatomical Theatre

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The luxurious Portico del Pavaglione, on the left of the Basilica of San Petronio, leads to the entrance of Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, the oldest building of the University of Bologna, built between 1562 and 1563 and currently serving as the university library. The 6000 coats of arms of the families of the students who attended the university immediately catch the visitor's eye. 

Once inside, a €3 ticket includes the Anatomical Theatre, where anatomy lessons were held, and the Stabat Mater Hall, which hosted the premiere performance of Rossini's composition of the same name.

6. The Quadrilatero

Alongside Piazza Maggiore is one of the city's oldest areas, the medieval market, commonly known as the Quadrilatero. Historically the seat of most of the craftsmen's guilds, whose names are still echoed in the streets, today it is a bustling area home to several cafés and gourmet shops to enjoy exquisitely traditional dishes or indulge in an aperitif with friends.

7. The city's museums

There are more than 50 museums in Bologna, spanning different themes and historical periods with a rich selection of works. Whether public or private, we cannot but mention the MamBO, museum of modern art and the Museum of the History of Bologna. Finally, painting enthusiasts should not miss the Pinacoteca Nazionale in the university area. With such a wide range on offer, you will always find one to suit your taste!

For a convenient and cost-effective visit, you can buy the Bologna Welcome Card, the city's tourist pass that grants access to most museums, the Clock Tower, the city guided tour as well as discounts on all temporary exhibitions. 

8. Basilica of Santo Stefano aka The Seven Churches

The religious complex of Santo Stefano is one of the most unique architectural features of the city: also known as the "Seven Churches", this surprising monument is composed of several buildings erected over the centuries side by side, forming a single construction with different architectural styles that amaze the visitor from room to room. Small historical tidbit: the basilica it is also said to have been a favourite haunt of Dante Alighieri during his study period in Bologna.

9. The little window of via Piella

In the Middle Ages, Bologna used to be criss-crossed by an extensive network of canals, exploited for silk mills and used to transport goods and people. Over time, the canals were gradually buried, either for hygienic reasons or for convenience, with one exception: the Moline Canal, still visible from an intriguing little window hidden under the portico of Via Piella, otherwise known as "Little Venice".

10. San Luca and the world's longest portico

Outdoor enthusiasts should not miss the UNESCO world's longest portico, winding its way for 4 kilometres right out of the city centre and up into the hills to the Sanctuary of San Luca, a traditional walking destination for the Bolognese and one of the city's best-loved symbols.

As an alternative to the walk, San Luca can be reached with the San Luca Express train straight from from Piazza Maggiore.

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