Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna in the north of Italy. The city has a lively student population and is known for its food, music, and art. It is also home to a number of historical and cultural attractions that are well worth a visit.
And the best part is that many of Bologna’s attractions are located within walking distance from the city center, making it a great destination for a weekend break. So, if you’re looking for things to do in Bologna, here are 14 attractions and activities that should be on your list.
Attractions & Things to Do in Bologna, Italy
1. Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is one of the first places you’ll likely visit when you arrive in Bologna. This large city square is the heart of Bologna and a great place to start your exploration of the city.
Piazza Maggiore is home to a number of historical and cultural attractions, including the Palazzo d’Accursio, and the Basilica of San Petronio. You’ll also find a number of restaurants, cafes, and bars in the square, making it a great place to take a break and people-watch.
Don’t miss the Fountain of Neptune, which is located in the center of the square. This 16th-century fountain is one of the most popular attractions in Bologna and is definitely worth a photo. I also recommend checking out the City Hall and the Palazzo Podesta, located on either side of the square.
2. Pinacoteca Nazionale
This world-famous art gallery is one of Italy’s first and most important in Emilia-Romagna. Founded in 1726, it contains an incredible collection of paintings from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Most of these pieces have been rescued from churches and monasteries in the area that were suppressed during the Napoleonic period. Among the great masters represented here are Giotto, Perugino, Botticelli, Lorenzo, Raphael, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Titian and many others.
A tour of this museum should definitely be on your list of things to do in Bologna, as it will give you a great insight not only into the art of the Renaissance but also into how this period of time affected Italy and the rest of Europe.
3. San Petronio (Basilica of St. Petronius)
Construction on this massive basilica, which was to become the largest in the world, began in 1390 but was never completed. The unfinished facade is a mishmash of brickwork in various shades due to the fact that construction was halted and then resumed centuries later. The interior, with its nave and aisles, is equally fascinating, as are the numerous chapels.
The basilica’s pride and joy is the Sundial, which was constructed in 1576 and is the world’s largest. There’s also a museum behind the basilica where you can see the original plans for the building, as well as a scale model of how it was meant to look.
I had a great time exploring the basilica and learning about its history. I would definitely recommend taking a guided tour if you’re interested in learning more about the building and its significance. After all, it’s one of the most famous attractions in Bologna and definitely worth a visit.
4. Leaning Towers of Bologna
There are many things to see in Bologna, but one of the most iconic attractions is the Leaning Towers. The two towers, Asinelli and Garisenda Towers are located in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana and are some of the symbols of the city.
The Asinelli Tower is the taller of the two towers, standing at 97.2 meters (318 feet) tall. It was built between 1109 and 1119 and is open to the public, where you can climb the 498 steps to the top for panoramic views of Bologna. The Garisenda Tower, on the other hand, is 48.6 meters (159 feet) tall and is not open to the public. But you can still get great views of it from the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana.
5. Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
Madonna di San Luca is a church and sanctuary located on top of Colle della Guardia, one of the highest hills in Bologna. The church can be reached via a portico, a covered walkway that is almost 3.8 kilometers long and made up of 666 arches.
The portico was built in the 17th century to protect a Madonna statue that was brought up from the valley below. Today, the portico is among the top Bologna attractions and a popular place for locals and tourists alike to take a stroll.
If you’re up for the challenge, I recommend walking up the hill to the church. The walk will take about an hour, but it’s a great way to see the city from a different perspective. And when you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of Bologna and the surrounding countryside. However, you can take the bus/car up to the church if you’re not up for the walk.
6. Spend an Afternoon in the Quadrilatero
The Quadrilatero is the historic center of Bologna and one of the best places to stroll around, window shop, and people watch. This pedestrian-only zone is full of narrow streets lined with shops selling everything from clothing and shoes to antiques and art.
You’ll also find plenty of cafes, restaurants, and bars where you can stop for a bite or a drink. I recommend grabbing a seat at one of the outdoor cafes and people-watching while enjoying an Aperol Spritz or a glass of wine. And if you’re looking for some souvenirs to take home, be sure to check out the shops selling ceramics, leather goods, and food items.
Although the Quadrilatero is a great place to spend an afternoon, it can get quite crowded. So if you’re looking for a more relaxed experience, I recommend visiting in the early morning or evening when it’s less crowded. But all in all, this is one of the most famous places to visit in Bologna if you’re looking to get a taste of the city’s culture and atmosphere.
7. Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Museum)
Another one of the top attractions in Bologna is the Museo Civico Archeologico. This museum is located in the Palazzo Galvani, a beautiful 15th-century palace, and is home to an extensive collection of prehistoric and Etruscan artifacts.
The museum’s highlights include an interesting collection of Egyptian, Greek, Celtic, and Roman treasures. But my favorite part was the section on the Etruscan civilization. I found it fascinating to learn about this ancient culture and see the artifacts that have been preserved from that time period.
I suggest giving yourself at least an hour to explore the museum. And if you’re interested in learning more about the artifacts, I recommend taking a guided tour of the museum.
8. Enjoy Bolognese Food
Of course, you can’t come to Bologna and not enjoy the food. The city is known as La Grassa, meaning “The Fat One,” because of its rich and hearty cuisine. I’m not one to turn down a good meal, so I tried as many local specialties as possible.
Some of the must-try dishes include tortellini (small pasta rings filled with meat), tagliatelle al ragu (a type of flat noodle with meat sauce), and lasagne. For something a little lighter, try a pinzimonio (crudites with dipping sauce) or a salumi (assortment of cured meats) and formaggi (assortment of cheeses) platter. Wash it all down with a glass of Pignoletto, a sparkling white wine from the Emilia-Romagna region.
I have to say, the food did not disappoint. I was in food heaven with every dish I tried, and I can’t wait to come back and eat my way through the city again. So if you’re a foodie, be sure to add a food tour to your list of the best things to do in Bologna.
9. Explore the Porticoes
You can’t come to Bologna and not explore the porticoes. The porticoes are a network of covered walkways that crisscross the city. They were built to protect pedestrians from the sun and rain, and today they provide a great way to stay cool and dry while exploring the city.
The porticoes in Bologna are over 40 kilometers long, making them the longest in the world. Take your time strolling through the city and enjoy the unique architecture and atmosphere. You can even combine your portico exploration with a visit to other top tourist attractions in Bologna, as many of the porticoes lead to squares and churches.
10. Archiginnasio Anatomical Theater
The Archiginnasio Anatomical Theater is one of the most unique attractions in Bologna. This anatomical theatre was built in the 17th century and was used by professors to teach medical students at the University of Bologna. The students watched as the professor demonstrated dissections on cadavers in front of them.
Today, the theater is open to the public and serves as a museum. Visitors can see the original dissecting tables, skeletons, and medical instruments. The theater itself is quite beautiful, with its wood-paneled walls and ceiling decorated with anatomical drawings.
If you’re interested in the history of medicine or just want to see something unique, this is definitely a place you’ll want to add to your Bologna itinerary.
11. Enjoy Bologna’s Nightlife
After spending your day enjoying the famous sights in Bologna, why not spend your evening enjoying the city’s nightlife? After all, this is a university town, so you can bet there are plenty of bars and clubs to keep you entertained.
One of the most popular areas for nightlife is Via Zamboni, which is full of bars and clubs that are popular with both locals and students. I found the vibe to be quite relaxed, and there was a good mix of people out enjoying the night.
Another popular area is Via del Pratello, which is known for its many hipster bars. This is the perfect place to go if you’re looking for a more alternative nightlife scene. I did find the bars in this area were a bit more expensive than others, but they were worth it for the atmosphere.
So if you’re looking to let loose and have some fun, be sure to add this to your list of best things to do in Bologna. No matter what kind of nightlife you’re looking for, you’re sure to find it here.
12. Museo per la Memoria di Ustica (Ustica Memory Museum)
In 1980, an Italian airliner carrying 81 people from Bologna to Palermo crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of the Italian island of Ustica. The crash killed everyone on board, and to this day, the cause of the crash remains a mystery.
In 2007, this museum was opened in Bologna to commemorate the victims of the crash and to raise awareness about the ongoing efforts to determine the cause of the crash. The museum is located in the former ATC Warehouse and features exhibits about the crash, as well as the search and recovery efforts. You’ll also see the reconstructed remains of the plane, which were recovered from the ocean floor.
Although a trip to this museum is certainly a somber experience, it’s an important one. And I think it’s a must-visit attraction in Bologna for anyone interested in learning about this tragic event and the ongoing efforts to find answers.
13. Shop at La Piazzola Market
If you’re looking for a more authentic Bolognese market experience, head to La Piazzola. This historic market has been around for over 100 years and is the perfect place to find fresh flowers, fashion accessories, shoes, clothes, and jewelry.
There are over 400 stalls to explore, so you’re sure to find something you’ll love. And if you get hungry while shopping, there are plenty of food stalls selling delicious local specialties. And being one of the most famous places to visit in Bologna for shopping, it’s also one of the busiest. However, it’s worth braving the crowds for a truly unique market experience.
14. Oratory of Battuti
If you’re looking for religious attractions in Bologna, then be sure to add the Oratory of Battuti to your list. This 17th-century chapel is located within the Church of Santa Maria Della Vita and is known for its beautiful ceiling frescoes. The designs of the sculptures and decorations are so intricate that it’s hard to believe they were done by human hands.
Highlights of this small chapel include the sculptures of St. Petronius and St. Proculus, as well as the frescoes. If you’re interested in learning more about the history and art of this chapel, I recommend taking a guided tour. But even if you don’t take a tour, it’s still worth popping into the Oratory of Battuti to see the ceiling frescoes up close.
You can’t deny that Bologna is a beautiful city with a lot to offer. From its stunning architecture and historical landmarks to its delicious food and lively atmosphere, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. And with this list of the top Bologna tourist attractions, you’re sure to have a great time exploring everything this wonderful city has to offer.
Where to stay: Best Hotels in Bologna