We spent 48 hours in Bologna during our month long Italian highlight train tour. Tucked comfortably in the center of Northern Italy, Bologna is a central hub to major cities such as Milan, Florence, Rome and Venice.
Bologna also has its own Central train station on the major rail line throughout the country making it an ideal place to break up a journey.
Tickets to any of the major cities in Italy can be purchased at Bologna. We stopped by for a 2 day rest and are glad we experienced a ‘non-conventional’ stopover.
Bologna is the largest city, and the capital, of the Emilia-Romagna Region with a population of around one million people. The city is home to famous landmarks such as the oldest university in the world, the University of Bologna, that was founded in 1088. Bologna also had its very own Leaning Tower. Thousands of students live in the city who embrace the social and cultural life with the many bars and restaurants on offer. The cheap eateries make Bologna a backpacker’s paradise.
The city is made up of several piazzas (squares) that feature wonderful historical buildings. In between the piazzas, there are a wide selection of bars, lucrative shops and restaurants catering to local requirements.
One of the city’s most notable landmarks is the San Petronio Basilica. The Basilica is Bologna’s main church and, for a small city, it surprised us to learn that this is the 10th largest Gothic church in the world, hosting 22 chapels.
An Italian writer once said of the San Petronio‘s facade:
“The facade of San Petronio looks like a sloughed field; the rough grooves in the brick have the same colour as the freshly ploughed Emilia plains.”
Construction of the church started in 1390 and it was named and dedicated to Petronio, the city’s patron saint with Greek origins who was Bologna’s bishop in the 5th century.
The San Petronio Basilica is a dominant landmark in the Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square. The Piazza Maggiore is lined with many more Medieval and Renaissance buildings such as the Palazzo dei Notai, which is a palace built in 1381 by the city’s notaries guild.
The Palazzo del Podestà is a long civic building also in the Piazza Maggiore area facing the San Petronio Basilica. This area was notoriously rich in trade and it is considered to be the central part of Bologna.
Palazzo Re Enzo is another palace in the square taking its name from Enzio of Sardinia, Frederick II‘s son, who was prisoner in the building from 1249 until his death in 1272.
The Palazzo Re Enzo was built as an extension of the Palazzo del Podestà, which had proven insufficient for the extensive requirements of the Commune of Bologna. It is therefore regularly and currently referred to as Palatium Novum (“The New Palace”). The Torre dell’Arengo (Arengo Tower) stands dominantly over the New Palace. The bell within the tower was used to call people during emergencies.
The Fountain of Neptune sits beside the Palazzo del Podestà in the eponymous square, Piazza del Nettuno, next to Piazza Maggiore. Model Mermaids surround a 16th-century fountain topped with the bronze figure of Neptune, the god of freshwater and the sea in Roman religion.
The sculpture outside of the Town Hall is inscribed with “Divus Petronius, Protector et Pater” commemorating the Bishop of the 5th century and the city patron.
The Biblioteca Salaborsa is the main public library in Bologna that can also be found in Piazza Maggiore. A touching display of the Bolognans lost to World War II can be found outside the building. Visitors are able to enter the building for free and take advantage of a glass floor exposing an excavation of roman and medieval ruins.
The Palazzo dei Banchi was the last palace built in Piazza Maggiore. The construction intended to hide the narrow streets of the market that once sat behind the building. It was designed by Vignola at the end of the 16th century. The facade is distinctively made up of 15 arcs.
The Piazza Ravegnana is another square in the city that is home to the two grand historical towers. Both of towers stand above the surrounding buildings within the square, and both lean true to Italian architecture. The square and the towers are located at the intersection of roads that lead to the five gates of the old ring wall, also known as mura dei torresotti.
The Asinelli Tower is 97 meters high, and is the tallest tower in Bologna. The Garisenda, mentioned by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy, is certainly the most leaning one. The names of both towers derive from families which are credited for their construction between 1109 and 1119.
At the foot of both towers, there is a statue of Saint Petronius that was built for the Art of Drapers in 1683.
The construction of the two towers of Bologna was said to be a competition between the two families to show who was most powerful within the city.
An ancient church sits beside the towers that was initially built way back in the 5th century. The St. Bartolomeo church was built in Renaissance style and is a Roman Catholic church.
The Neo-Renaissance Palazzo di Residenza della Cassa di Risparmio di Bologna building is a 19th-century palace located at the Piazza Del Francia. This beautiful building is the headquarter premises of the Cassa di Risparmio, one of Italy’s major banks. The bank’s location on the Via Farini is considered to be one of the most lucrative streets of Bologna.
True to most Mediterranean cities, we encountered beautifully carved facades around every corner, decorated beautifully in colors associated with Italy. Shades of terracotta, pastel yellows, oranges and blues.
As with most Italian cities, ancient Roman ruins can be found if you look hard enough. You don’t need to go to Rome to see the rich history of Italia.
No 48 hours in Bologna would be complete without a little indulgence on Italian red wine which was incredibly cheap at a mere €1 per carton.
Overall, Bologna gave us a great cultural pit stop in the heart of Northern Italy. Bologna is off the beaten path from the usual touristic cities that surround it and we recommend at least a couple of days in Bologna to see magnificent buildings and to experience the stylish Italian student culture. Watch the pointing (and laughing) if you choose to wear flip-flops in this fashion conscious city!
Most bars compete with one another to offer customers the option of a free food buffet with any purchase of a drink for around €5 making it a budget friendly stop off.