Traveler: Al Costill
When: January 2016
While cities like Rome, Venice, and Florence get all the attention from tourists, Italy’s seventh-largest city Bologna doesn’t get as much love. Personally, I don’t understand why. Bologna is everything that I love about Italy. Food, wine, culture, history, and friendly, warm-hearted people.
My first experience with Bologna was during my first trip to Italy while I was traveling from Florence to Pescara. I had a couple of hours at the train station and had one of the best sandwiches ever – a simple, but mouth-watering prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich. I didn’t get to see any of the city, but when I planned my second trip to Italy I was insistent on spending a couple of nights in Bologna out of curiosity.
My traveling companion, aka my best friend, fought me at first. She was reading a Rick Steves book looking for some ideas and he advised travelers to skip Bologna. While I normally would take some of his advice, I convinced her that we should experience the city for ourselves and then make our decision.
We’re both glad that we didn’t listen to Rick Steves.
Cost: $300 – $400
Bologna was relatively cheap. The room was under $100 per night and the cost of food and wine were favorable. However, we were there right after New Year’s Day. Since it was during the off-season our room was a steal and the city wasn’t crowded.
We arrived on a cool, rainy night after a longer-than-expected train ride – we somehow didn’t book our tickets correctly when leaving Pescara after spending the New Year with my distant Italian relatives. Thankfully, the wonderful staff at the hotel we stayed at in Pesara was able to get us tickets, but only for the regional line. Needless to stay, when we finally arrived at our hotel in Bologna, the beautiful and modern Aemilia, we were exhausted and starving. We opted to eat-in at the hotel where we stuffed our faces with pasta in Bolognese sauce, obviously, and washed it down with some Sangiovese.
We woke-up early the next morning to start our Bologna adventure. Initially, I wasn’t impressed. It just appeared to be a modern city with little character. Then, we turned the corner and walked into the town’s historical centre, which happens to be one of the oldest in Italy. We first spotted the red porticoes, which are basically just overhangs over the sidewalk. As we kept walking, we next spotted the city’s iconic Due Torri, Bologna’s two leaning towers from the Middle Ages.
After a brief stop in a cafe to warm-up, it was still cool and rainy, we continued our historical tour as we checked out other medieval and Renaissance structures in Bologna. This included City Hall, the Fountain of Neptune, and the Basilica di San Petronio.
At this point, we needed to warm-up again. Thankfully there were street vendors selling hot mulled wine to warm our souls until our sightseeing was over – which also included checking out the market Piazza Santo Stefano and the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088 making it the world’s oldest university, and the original Maserati factory.
Since we spent the entire day walking around, we built-up a pretty good appetite. We stopped into a restaurant and had our feast. An antipasto full of cured meats like prosciutto, mortadella and salumi, followed by a hefty bowl of tortellini. We washed this down with lots of Lambrusco and Sangiovese.
I need to mention what else makes Bologna a must-stop destination; the cuisine.
Believe it or not, Bologna and the Emilia-Romagna Region in Northern Italy, has been dubbed the “culinary capital of Italy.” This region is known for Bolognese sauce, tortellini, prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano, and balsamic vinegar, to name a few. In fact, we can spend hours popping in-and-out shops that are full of cheese and cured meats. Even if you’re stuffed, the sight and smells well start making your stomach growl in hunger.
As we made our way back to the hotel we spotted a neon sign. Curious, we ventured over and found a karaoke bar. It was here where I sang The Beatles “Something” with my Italian counterparts and had a lengthy discussion with a heartbroken man from Liberia.
While the weather wasn’t the best, we had an unforgettable experience in Bologna. In fact, we actually wished that we spent another day in Bologna instead of returning to the ultra-touristy Venice. And, we almost did since we overslept and missed our train!
When I return to Italy, I’m definitely planning on going back to Bologna for another couple of days. This time I plan on taking advantage of the surrounding area. For example, you can venture to the Italian countryside and visit the Old Vinegar Works, which is home of Modena’s traditional balsamic vinegar, and then partake in a wine tasting session where you can join local wine makers from the region.
As if that weren’t enough, you can also visit Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto factories, as well as tours of the Ferrari Museo (Ferrari Museum), Museo Lamborghini (Lamborghini Museum), and the Panini Motor Museum.
I definitely recommend visiting Bologna and I would include a stop in this city as part of your Italian trip. Because of it’s strategic location, Bologna’s train station is one of the most vital train hubs in the country. This means that it’s easily accessible wherever you are in Italy. Personally, I would fly into Venice spend one day there tops – it’s beautiful, but a serious tourist trap – and then head to Bologna for a few days so you can eat and drink to your heart’s content while taking in the marvelous structures of the Middles Ages and the Renaissance.
And, if you’re a music lover you should know that Bologna was appointed a UNESCO City of Music in 2006 due to its rich musical tradition that has fostered genres ranging from classical to opera, jazz, electronic, and, folk.