Don’t be put off by the gritty city exterior: the ancient centre is gorgeous, and boasts a long and storied history as a university town. With cheap flights, cheap accommodation and more pasta than you could ever gorge on, it’s the foodie’s dream destination.
Here’s how to make the most of a weekend break.
You’ve arrived, the sun is shining (it’s Italy, after all) and it’s time to start exploring. Once you’ve caught the shuttle from the airport to the centre of the city, it’s time to drop off your bags and head straight for a secret local gem: the Mercato Ritrovato.
It’s only around on Saturdays until 2pm, and it’s Bologna’s answer to Borough Market, boasting everything you need for a perfect lunch. There’s craft beer, wine by the carafe, vegan food stalls and an excellent fish stall whose fried sardines are standard fare for the majority-Bolognese attendees.
From there, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to the town’s wonderful old centre, which is filled to the brim with tiny streets, bottegas selling freshly-cut hams, and gorgeous, shaded porticoes (which were recently made a Unesco World Heritage site) to wander through.
Make your way to the Piazza Maggiore: the beating heart of the city, lined with old buildings including the sixth largest church in Europe, the Gothic Basilica de San Petronio.
Once you’ve taken your photos, head east through the twisting steets of the Quadrilatero (the city’s old Roman quarter) to the city’s famous “leaning towers” of the Torre Garisenda and Asinelli. The latter is the tallest of its kind in the world, standing at 97.2m, and if your legs can stand it, then the arduous climb up to the top offers some of the best views in the city. Book before you go, though: the tower doesn’t offer walk-ins. Tickets will cost you €5; you can book here.
With some light sightseeing under your belt, it’s time for a drink.
Bologna is a university town, so there are bars aplenty and most of them are cheap, offering potent Aperol Spritzes for around €4-5. However, if you’re looking for something a little classier, try Medulla Vini, a tiny wine bar nestled into one of the city’s main roads that specialises in organic wines. The proprietress has no menu. Instead, she’ll narrow down your wine preferences through a series of questions before whipping a bottle seemingly at random off a shelf and offering you a taste. It’s always delicious - though for €6-7 a glass it’s pricier than your average bar.
From there, it’s time to sample some of the best cuisine in the city. Trattoria Da Me on Via San Felice has been around since 1937 and its current owner Elisa Rusconi has transformed it into one of Bologna’s hottest food destinations.
Reserve a table well in advance – queues stretch around the door at opening time – but if you make it, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best pasta in the city and fresh takes on old classics, such as the mind-bogglingly good cheese gelato, served with fig jams and deep-fried bread pastries, or veal sweetbreads that melt on the tongue. Beautiful - and for just under €100, we ate our way through two starters, two mains, four glasses of pignoletto (the local version of prosecco) and a pudding.
Work off that dinner with a nice brisk walk. Grab breakfast at a café with some cappuccini and croissants, then head up the Monte della Guardia, walking the world’s longest portico for some stunning views of the city at the top, as well as the chance to cast your eye over the stunning frescoes at the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca.
Then head back down and celebrate all that effort with a trip to a local hotspot: Pasta Fresca Naldi. Run by an army of nonnas via a hole in the wall, it serves up a rotating selection of fresh pastas (including the Bolognese version of Sunday dinner, lasagne) that fall roughly between €7-11. Even better, you can take your meal to neighbouring bar Barazzo, where the owner will let you sit and eat as long as you buy a drink.
Duly refreshed, it’s time to check out some of the city’s vast array of excellent museums. The 14th-century Palazzo Poggi houses three separate museums, including the guided-tour only Observatory Museum, where visitors can climb Bologna’s first tower built for scientific study, all the way back in 1726. If that doesn’t float your boat, then the superb Archiginnasio, the original home of Bologna’s University, offers plenty of sights for the history buff – including an Anatomical Theatre stretching back to the 1600s.
For those who still have a little time left to burn – or fancy something different – then it’s well worth finding the time to fit in one last church: the Basilica di Santo Stefano, a gorgeous hodgepodge of religious buildings that date back to Roman times.
Finally, head over and enjoy some well-earned snacks at the Mercato di Mezzo. Nestled in the Quadrilatero, the indoor market boasts a selection of food and drink stalls that will have you drooling – such as fresh focaccia and another Bolognese classic, platters of cured meats and cheeses. Sit back and breathe in the atmosphere. Aaah.
Where to stay
Despite being one of Italy’s less touristic destinations, cheap Air Bnbs are in plentiful supply in Bologna. We stayed in the pretty (but basic) Appartament Casavintage, which was nestled in a gorgeous old building in the centre of town and cost €90 a night; however, for those looking to treat themselves the city’s hotels offer sightseers of every shade something to enjoy.
Our recommendation would be the Hotel Metropolitan, where a two-person room will set you back around €340 a night. Situated in the heart of the old town, this hotel is modern, stylishly decorated and features a rooftop terrace which arguably boasts some of the best views in the city - perfect for sipping on your evening cocktail as the sun goes down.
However, for those fancying something a little more romantic, Porta San Mamolo is a must-visit. Situated a few steps from some of the city’s most famous trattorias, this converted townhouse boasts a beautiful courtyard, elegant interiors and - for those willing to splash out - rooms with a balcony to have your morning coffee on. And with prices starting from €149, there’s no reason to not live your best Romeo and Juliet fantasy.