It’s almost pointless recommending somewhere specific in Italy as a destination, because pretty much the entirety of Italy is a must visit. Honestly, is there anywhere you don’t want to go in this country steeped in history, art, stunning coastlines, hilly vistas and moreover – ridiculously good food and wine?
The latter brings me to Bologna, where I recently visited for four days over a long weekend for the sole purpose of eating. Bologna is the regional capital of Emilia-Romagna, an area closely situated to the north east of holiday favourite Tuscany, yet remains very much under the radar compared to the likes of Rome and Florence. The city has three nicknames: La Dotta, meaning ‘the learned one’, since Bologna is home of the oldest university in Europe; La Rossa, ‘the red one’, after the sea of red tiled roofs it houses; and La Grassa, ‘the fat one’, due to its reputation for a rich culinary history often singled out as making Bologna the best place to eat in Italy.
Via Santa Caterina, 51, 40123 Bologna
Very well hidden, All’Osteria Bottega is shut Sunday & Monday and booking is a must, so plan ahead for this one. Bottega was recommended to me at least four or five times from various people and blogs and I was gutted to find they were shut for summer holidays during my time in Bologna. August, it turns out: not a great time to visit Bologna – this was the case of many places and it was disappointing to say the least. But at least others can learn from my mistake. Often hailed as the best restaurant in Bologna, All’Osteria Bottega is tucked away from other restaurants down a quiet street, but is known for a friendly atmosphere and the use of top quality ingredients in their food. I hope to return to Bologna for the sole purpose of finally eating here, one day!
Mercato delle Erbe, Via Ugo Bassi, 23 – 25, 40121 Bologna
Recommended by my Air BnB host, and the first meal I had in Bologna – a tagliatelle al ragu so good I returned for another round on my last day in the city. Situated in Mercato delle Erbe, there are a few well revered restaurants off of the main market and the place is swarming with locals at lunch and dinner. I ate the best burrata of my life in Altro. Enough said.
Ristorante Pizzeria Il Moro
Via de’ Falegnami, 5/D, 40121 Bologna
When friends of yours tell you over a year in advance to go eat somewhere, you better bloody go. I trust these friends implicitly with food and they didn’t fail to deliver on this one. Instructed to “get the seafood spaghetti or I won’t talk to you again”, I did just so and it was superb; plenty of squid, mussels, clams, prawns and an absolutely huge portion – big enough to share. On the pricier side of food I had in Bologna, but still good value for the quality, service and portions.
Via Mentana, 1, 40126 Bologna
Popular with locals and tourists alike, this excellent restaurant has communal tables and a €6 dish of the day. Drinks are cheap, the food is fantastic and the atmosphere buzzy.
Café Pasticceria Gamberini
Via Ugo Bassi 12, Bologna
The oldest bakery in Bologna sits on Via Ugo Bassi, and a convenient 2 minute walk from the Air BnB I stayed in. At 110 years old, this traditional pasticceria sees plenty of Italians through its doors every morning for an espresso and pastry to start the day. Most of the pastries come in miniature form too, ideal for when you can’t choose. I still dream of the Nutella croissant: the perfect flaky pastry encasing an extremely generous amount of Nutella. A thing of beauty. In short, the perfect way to start a day’s sight seeing.
Via de’ Carbonesi, 8, 40123 Bologna
I found this recommendation on that there Instagram and did some reading around it to find it was rated highly on Trip Advisor. They say to try the owner’s uncle’s wine, which is locally produced in the region. Great service was noted amongst rave reviews. Another place that was sadly closed during my time in Bologna.
So it turns out not everywhere that claims itself gelato is true gelato. True gelato has a slightly different balance of ingredients than ice cream and is churned at a slower rate, meaning less air is incorporated and as a result gelato is denser than ice cream. I’m told the way to spot true gelato in a shop is it will be stored covered up, unlike many places that will have piled high vats of the delicious sweet stuff. Here are a few places noted for their excellence among gelaterias in Bologna.
Cremeria Santo Stefano
Via Santo Stefano, 70, 40125 Bologna
Via Galliera, 49, 40121 Bologna
Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour, 1/d/e, 40124 Bologna
No time spent in Italy is complete without hours of aperitivo. Can’t everywhere give you snacks every time you order a drink? It is the very best of ideas.
Via dè Mattuiani, 1, 40124 Bologna
The only rooftop bar you’re likely to find in Bologna, which is a damn shame with all those pretty red roofs going on. My favourite place for a few aperitivo waiting for the sun to go down during my visit. There’s a €15 minimum spend per person, which may seem hefty for Italy but we all know you pay for a view, and a view is very much what you get here. Soothing soft music accompanies you as the sky turns from blue to peach, making the yellow buildings with red roofs glow. It’s a must pre dinner drink destination in Bologna.
Osteria del Sole
Vicolo Ranocchi, 1/d, 40124 Bologna
Not strictly aperitivo, as this is one to go to at any time of day. Osteria del Sole is the oldest bar in Bologna. At 550 years old, this was number one on my hit list in Bologna…only to find it was shut for renovation whilst I was there. Devastation doesn’t cover it. It’s a little hole in the wall place where the deal is you buy €5 worth of food from the market stalls that surround it, then you can go in and park up, eating your fresh bread and cheese and meat as you knock back €2 glasses as you please. How idyllic does that sound?
Via del Borgo di S. Pietro, 1, 40126 Bologna
A popular bar in a beautiful former chapel with reasonable prices. An extra €1 on buying a drink gets you access to the aperitivo buffet – a no brainer.
Piazza Galvani, 1, 40124 Bologna
A popular aperitivo spot with plenty of tables outside in the sun trap that is Piazza Galvani. Drinks a little more expensive than other bars but for your money you get excellent nibbles to go with your cocktail. Also doubles as a bakery with rows upon rows of beautiful pastries and comes recommended as a good place for breakfast.
Via Clavature, 2, 40124 Bologna
The perfect hole in the wall wine bar with aperitivo you can help yourself to as you wish. Just off of Piazza Maggiore, get a seat facing the arch onto the square so you can watch the sky turn from pale to dark blue as the sun sets on Bologna.
Mercato di Mezzo
Via Clavature, 12, 40124 Bologna
A mix of different bars and places to grab a bite to eat with communal tables. A good spot to swing by for aperitivo or a quick lunch.
I stayed in a fantastic, pocket sized studio Air BnB apartment in what used to be a 16th century convent on Via Belvedere opposite Mercato delle Erbe, and would absolutely stay there again. The host Marco was friendly and helpful, and had gone to great lengths to make a stay in the studio as comfortable as possible. It is beautifully designed, with strong and quick wifi, air con and a great shower – never underestimate the importance of a decent shower. There is a map pinned to the wall with recommendations for dinner, drinks and breakfast, all colour coded and marked clearly on the map in relation to the Air BnB.
Bologna is an ‘on foot’ city. You’ll rack up those steps easily in this small city. It’s easy to get around but bring comfortable shoes for all the walking – especially if you want to go up to Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. There are plenty of buses but unless you’re staying in a hotel on the outskirts of the city, you’ll be fine on foot.
THINGS TO DO
Two Towers of Bologna
The skyline of medieval Bologna was once dotted with dozens of tall towers; now only a few remain, the most famous and prominent being two leaning towers stood side by side in the middle of the city. You can climb to the top of Tower Asinelli, nearly 100m high, which is well worth doing for the stunning views across Bologna. Tickets cost €5 and can be bought for a set time slot from Bologna Welcome in Piazza Maggiore.
San Petronio Basilica
This huge church (the 10th largest in the world) in Piazza Maggiore is unique in its design; the bottom half is made from intricately designed marble, the top half modestly built of brick – a result of funding to the building of the church ceasing in fears it would outshine St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Make sure to visit with your shoulders covered else you will need to buy a cover up to be allowed inside.
On via Piella there is a window in the wall that looks out onto one of the remaining canals of Bologna. Random, but a good novelty to hunt out when exploring Bologna.
Taste Bologna Food Tour
Taste Bologna run a couple of group food tours (minimum 2 people), the Classic Bologna which includes a lunch in one of the oldest trattorias in Bologna, or the Pizza and Gelato, which does what it says on the tin. They also run a food tour of neighbouring town Modena, famed for their balsamic vinegars.
Portico Walk to Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
Bologna is famed for the porticos that shelter the pavements from both the rain and scorching heat, and you can walk under these porticos from the middle of the city all the way up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, which sits on a hill overlooking the city down below.
Italy’s train system is excellent and dead easy to navigate, and with wonderful places not far from Bologna, you can easily spend an afternoon exploring the likes of Modena, Parma or Rimini. A good option if you have more than 3 days in the city.