Bologna is a charming and easily navigable city, making it a favorite destination for many visitors. It’s not just its size and importance as the capital of its province and Emilia-Romagna that make it appealing, but also its reputation as Italy’s gastronomic capital. While you’re here, don’t miss the chance to savor the local specialties, especially pasta and sausages.
Bologna is known for these culinary delights, so be sure to give them a try. In addition to exploring the city’s famous tourist spots, take some time to soak in Bologna’s unique atmosphere. Walk along its iconic covered arcades known as “portici,” peek into its charming old shops, admire its quirky architecture and distinctive brickwork, relax in one of the many cozy cafés, and feel the vibrant energy of its student population.
Most of Bologna’s popular attractions are conveniently located within walking distance of Piazza Maggiore, and the covered walkways make it enjoyable to explore the city in any weather. To help you make the most of your visit, check out our list of the top things to do in Bologna.
1. Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno
Imagine a bustling scene in the heart of Bologna, where it seems like everyone is meeting up with friends in two connected squares. You can hear people chatting and laughing while the stunning Neptune Fountain adds to the lively atmosphere in Piazza del Nettuno.
This marvelous fountain, crafted by Giambologna back in the 16th century, is considered one of the best of its time. What’s great is that you’re just a short walk away from nearly every important attraction in the city, as well as the main streets like Via dell’Indipendenza, a busy shopping street, and Via Galleria, home to many old grand mansions.
As you stroll along the elegant arcaded pathway of Via dell’Archiginnasio, you’ll pass by the impressive Basilica of San Petronius. Although its front is still unfinished, it dominates one side of Piazza Maggiore.
On the north side, you’ll spot the former Governors Palace, called Palazzo del Podestà, complete with a tower named Torre dell’Arengo that dates back to 1259. Inside its arched dome, even quiet whispers from one corner can be heard by those on the opposite side.
2. San Petronio (Basilica of St. Petronius)
Back in 1390, they started building a huge church near Piazza Maggiore. They wanted it to be even bigger than St. Peter’s in Rome, but they didn’t quite manage that. Actually, they never finished it, and the front part is still not done.
If you go to the little museum at the back of the church, you can check out the designs that were made for the front, even some by the famous architect Andrea Palladio. Inside, though, they did complete it, and people often say it’s the perfect example of Gothic architecture in Italy.
There are these small chapels along the sides, and each one feels like a little church of its own. Also, don’t forget to look for a strange line on the floor in the middle; it’s called a meridian line.
3. Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Basilica)
Santo Stefano, in Bologna, is one of the oldest and most captivating churches you’ll find in the city. This collection of eight buildings holds a special place in Bologna’s religious history. It was constructed by the Benedictine monks between the 10th and 13th centuries to serve as a final resting place for the remains of the city’s early martyrs, Saints Vitale and Agricola.
The main church, known as the Chiesa del Crocifisso, boasts a unique 12th-century pulpit on its exterior and a crypt that dates back to 1019. Next, you’ll discover the octagonal Santo Sepolcro, which opens up to a beautiful courtyard adorned with pillars and an elegant two-story cloister. In the third and simplest church within the complex, keep an eye out for decorative columns that were repurposed from earlier Roman and Byzantine structures, as well as stunning mosaic floors dating back to the 6th century.
Visiting Santo Stefano is like stepping back in time and exploring a significant part of Bologna’s rich religious heritage.
4. Leaning Towers
Pisa might have more famous leaning towers, but Bologna boasts its own pair of towers that lean even more dramatically due to their slender design. These two towers are the most well-known survivors among the 20 towers that remain from the over 100 that once dotted Bologna’s skyline in the 12th century.
Back in the day, these towers served multiple purposes. They were used as watchtowers to spot potential threats, and they also doubled as safe havens in case of an attack. But their height also carried a message of prestige for the noble families who constructed them.
The Torre Garisenda, reaching a towering 48 meters, leans at a staggering angle of more than 13 meters. Meanwhile, the Torre degli Asinelli stands at 498 steps high, and if you’re up for the climb, it offers breathtaking panoramic views of Bologna from the top.
5. Sanctuary and Portico of the Madonna di San Luca
The basilica sits on a hill that gives you great views of the city and the Po Valley landscape. Inside, it has a classical look with a beautiful floor made of black, white, and red marble. The chancel area has a fancy black and white marble design too.
But what makes this basilica special in Italy is a really long covered walkway that connects it to the city. It’s the longest one like it in the world, with 666 arches. They built it between 1674 and 1793 to keep safe a special picture of the Madonna with Child during its yearly journey to Bologna. People believe this picture, said to be made by Saint Luke, could stop bad rains that could ruin the harvest.
You can take a lovely walk starting at Piazza di Porta Saragozza, and it’s free, especially nice on Sundays. Or, if you prefer, you can hop on the San Luca Express, a kind of tourist train from Piazza Maggiore. For an even bigger view, there’s the San Luca Sky Experience. You have to climb up into the basilica’s cupola, and from there, you can see even more.
6. Archiginnasio Anatomical Theater
The Archiginnasio in Bologna was once the main building of the University. Now, it holds one of Bologna’s most unique places: a classroom where medical students used to learn about the human body by watching dissections of corpses. Today, what’s really captivating about this place isn’t its strange history but the extraordinary interior and its remarkable woodwork.
The standout attraction here is Ercole Lelli’s “Skinless” sculpture, a life-sized wooden figure meticulously showing the muscles and bones. Inside the same building, you’ll find the Stabat Mater lecture hall, adorned with coats of arms on its walls. It’s interesting to note that the University of Bologna, founded way back in the 11th century, is the oldest university in the Western world.
7. Bologna’s Portici
When you visit Bologna, you’ll notice something special – the portici, which are covered walkways lining many of its streets. They serve a practical purpose, offering shade from the hot sun and shelter from rain. Additionally, they provide extra space for shops to showcase their products.
These unique walkways have a fascinating history. They originated in the 11th century when buildings in the city center began to have overhanging upper stories. This cleverly created more living and storage space above the ground-level shops and businesses. As these walkways expanded, they required support beams and posts, gradually evolving into the beautiful arched arcades we see today.
In the 13th century, a rule was introduced that made it necessary for these arcades to be tall enough for a rider on horseback to pass through. This rule led to the creation of the elegant, arched arcades that define Bologna’s streets today.
What’s remarkable is that these portici are not all the same. They were built at different times and in various styles, often adorned with stone carvings and decorative elements. In total, Bologna boasts approximately 40 kilometers of these covered walkways. The longest one stretches 3.8 kilometers and takes you from the city to the hilltop Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.
Bologna’s portici are so exceptional that they were considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2021, showcasing their historical and architectural significance.
8. San Domenico (St. Dominic Church)
After Saint Dominic passed away in 1221, they began constructing a church at the convent he established. It took many years to finish this church. You should come here just to see the special marble tomb that holds his remains. This tomb was carefully carved by some of the best artists of that time, including Michelangelo and Nicola Pisano. But there’s more to discover in the church.
There’s an amazing woodwork in the choir created by a skilled artist named fra’ Damiano da Bergamo. People from the Renaissance period even called it the eighth wonder of the world. If you visit on the first or second Saturday of the month at 10:30 am or 3:30 pm, you can join a free guided tour.
They’ll show you around the chapels, choir, Inquisition rooms, Saint Dominic’s cell, and other places that are not usually open to the public. It’s a great way to explore this historic site.
9. Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Museum)
Even if you’re not usually into old stuff in museums, you’ll definitely like this one. It’s not your typical dusty collection of ancient things. Instead, it’s a modern museum that showcases really cool stuff from the past. You’ll see ancient items from the time when people lived in this area a long time ago, like the Etruscans. Plus, there are amazing treasures from the Celts, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans. The Egyptian collection here is as good as the ones you’ll find in only two other museums in Italy.
This museum is in a fancy old building called Palazzo Galvani, which was built in the 15th century. They’ve turned it into a museum, and it’s near Piazza Maggiore. They did a great job making the museum look modern and organized, so you won’t feel like you’re walking through a boring old history lesson. Instead, you’ll see all these ancient things in a really cool way.
10. Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Gallery)
The Pinacoteca has a special job: it looks after and shows off artworks created by artists who lived and worked in Bologna and the Emilia-Romagna area, mainly from the 13th to the early 19th centuries.
Some of these artworks have interesting stories. Some were saved from churches that were closed down or used for different things. Others were taken away to Paris by Napoleon I but later brought back to Bologna. In this museum, you can see paintings by famous Renaissance artists like Raphael, Perugino, Tintoretto, and more.
Bologna is a delightful city filled with a rich tapestry of history and culture. Whether you’re planning a weekend escape or a more extended vacation, you’ll find plenty of attractions and activities to keep you enthralled in this charming Italian destination.