Weekend highlights in Bologna

Tortellini and Tortelloni in Bologna

Earlier this summer we did a weekend trip to Bologna, one of those historical North-Italian cities that are generally pleasant to explore. Before we went, we consulted a travel guidebook, Bologna City’s website, and some other online resources and blogs. All of them listed the typical tourist highlights in Bologna. But we were looking for more than just the big sightseeing attractions. So we came up with a mix of sights, exhibitions and food that sounded interesting. In the end, some of the experiences we liked most were those that we hadn’t seen in any of our resources for preparing the trip, while we wouldn’t have found others without the preparation (both online and offline). Back in Berlin we ranked our five favourite travel experiences, each giving five points to the best, four to the second and so on. In the end we came up with eight activities and sights that are our highlights in Bolgona.

No. 1: Japanese woodblock print exhibition at the Palazzo Albergati (10 points)

Japanese woodblock print exhibition in the Palazzo Albergati

Searching for special exhibition highlights in Bologna, Natascha had come across a Japanese-themed exhibition: Giappone: storie d’amore e guerra” (Japan. Tales of love and war) at the Palazzo Albergati in Via Saragozza. We knew we wanted to see it but we hadn’t expected it to be quite as fantastic. The exhibition – mostly of woodblock prints from 19th and early 20th century – came out on top of our list of highlights. All exhibits were from a private collection. They were well-presented, with an interesting focus on items from Bakumatsu and Meiji periods. For instance there were rather late examples of ukiyo-e woodblock printing. We just loved it. The Palazzo Albergati is always worth a look for good art exhibitions.

No 2: A glass of ecological red wine in the porticoes of Oberdan Street (7 points)

Medulla Vini in Bologna

Of course our guidebooks mentioned the many porticoes of the Old Town – they are atmospheric and also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We walked along the old streets, up and down cobbled lanes, and explored the historic quarters. Obidan Street next to the former Jewish Quarter was particularly lively and popular. Walking past, we noticed Medulla Vini, a tiny organic Wine Bar where everyone was just taking their glasses outside in the portico although there were no tables or seats outside. The mild Sangiovese Superior was just right for a balmy night.

No 3: Cimitero della Certosa (4 points)

The Cimitero della Certosa was one of our highlights in Bologna

The enormous Certosa Graveyard was only recommended in our printed guidebook as one of the highlights of Bolgona. It was not far off the way from St. Luca (see below), so we made a detour and were amazed: not only by the size of the graveyard, but by the unusual architecture with large halls and courtyards, huge mausoleums, layered urn graves rising several metres from the ground (rather similar to the Roman-era tower tombs of Palmyra / Syria). Walking the graveyard felt like exploring a solemn old monastery, with new discoveries at every corner: Huge old memorials and mausoleum buildings, war memorials, a whole row of lavishly decorated children’s graves …

No 4: One of the “standard” highlights in Bologna: The Porticoes of San Luca (3 points)

Arcades of San Luca, one of the top tourist highlights in Bologna

No 4 on the list is one of the “must-see” attractions that everyone recommends. After all it is usually not without reason that they are popular (and since 2021 part of the UNESCO World Heritage). There must be very few Bologna tourists who don’t walk the 4 km of porticoes leading to the church of San Luca. Rightly so, we found, for the walkway for the yearly procession is picturesque and pleasantly shaded. Plus, it has a historic air and religious significance.

The walk to the church high up on the hill includes quite many stairs. On the other hand it also affords nice views over the countryside, and sometimes there’s a welcome breeze. And it is not only tourists who love the traffic-free arcades: Locals go running there, or for a walk with their dogs.

No 5: The Anatomical Theatre, the modern art exhibition “That’s IT”, and ice cream at Vecchia Stalla (2 points each)

Finally in our list of highlights in Bologna, there was a mixed bunch of sights and activities that we also particularly enjoyed:

Bologna Archiginnasio

The Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio is another one of Bologna’s tourist highlights. It was built in 1637 as a lecture room for anatomy. Anatomy was at that time a rather new and daring subject, given the church’s aversion to scrutinizing human bodies. Famously, the wooden auditorium is decorated with statues of famous scholars. And between them there are two sculptures of men without skin, in order to show the location of their muscles.

Thats IT exhibition

We also visited the Modern Art Museum of Bologna (Mambo) and particularly liked the special exhibition “That’s IT”. The IT in the name stood for Italy, and it included contributions only from young Italian artists born after 1980. Thus, they presumably grew up with a more European than Italian identity. The attendants’ sliver jackets were hilarious and we especially liked Margherita Moscardini’s Atlantic Wall Project. 

Ice cream cone in the Cremeria la Vecchia Stalla, Bologna

And, of course, we found our favourite ice cream. The last day, we spotted the Cremeria la Vecchia Stalla not far from the church and monastery complex of San Stefano. An old-fashioned ice cream shop, they don’t display their flavours in a glass vitrine but store them below metal lids. That means you have to guess at the Italian menu and select some that you can both pronounce and memorise. After all, it may take a while until the crowd has swept you from the list of flavours to the cashier. And from there you still need to get on to the actual ice cream counter.

We had Cioccolate extra fondente with Pistacchio Bronte, and Croccante Amarena combined with Divine, respectively. Both of us were very happy with it.

All the rest – the usual tourist highlights in Bologna

Apart from these very personal highlights , we did of course visit all the regular tourist highlights in Bologna. We went to see the Due Torre: Two mediaeval towers like those famous towers in San Gimignano. They were built around 1100, at which time Bologna had well over a hundred such towers! One of them, the Torre degli Asinelli, is 94 m high. It must have been one of the hightest buildings in Europe. Naturally, we also strolled over the Piazza Maggiore, marvelled at the Palazzi and visited archaeological finds below the public library. But no, as vegetarians we did not try the famous pasta bolognese. Anyway, the locals call the well-known meat sauce just “ragu”!
Have you been to Bologna and what were your favourite things to do? Did you have unusual highlights in Bologna? Leave a comment below!

***All expenses for our trip to Bologna were paid and organised by ourselves. We did not receive any funding from the above mentioned links.***

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10 Comments

  1. Beautiful city isn’t it? We were surprised when we came here a couple of years ago. Also loved that huge tower…just so strange.

  2. It’s good to see something that not too touristy in Bologna from this post. I personally interested in The Anatomical Theater, just to picture how the anatomy lecture happened in the 1600s. The “That’s IT” also looks interesting, appreciating the young Italian artists who were born after 1980.

    1. Dear Umiko, it always pays to have a look at the not too obvious tourist attractions. The Anatomical Theater is super-interesting, for sure!

  3. Food was definitely something that we remember from our visit to Bologna. We did a food tour and loved all the local treats. We too found the best gelato below metal lids. Great to be well fed to wander the streets of old town Bologna. And climb up and down through the Porticos of San Luca.

  4. Very interesting – and it’s great that you limited your guide to the absolute highlights: perfect against fomo 😉 I’ve been to Bologna twice and somehow, it was always too short. I think it’s one of the cities where you don’t need necessarily iconic landmarks but can just enjoy the ease of being.

    1. Dear Renata, the recap was just a fun thing we did after we returned home. But you are right, Bologna is a city to stroll and enjoy.

  5. Bello Bologna or I should say buona Bologna! I love visiting, and eating, my way around the city. The porticoes are famous here and so photogenic. This brought back good memories 🙂

  6. I love your strategy for both researching….but most importantly for rating things after you see them. I think that’s a strategy that most couple miss…then they have no idea which things they REALLY liked when they have to plan the next trip. Going to borrow that strategy if you don’t mind 🙂

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