An Insider’s Guide to Bologna: Terracotta Towers and Tortellini
Tortellini. Lasagne. Mortadella. Bologna is a city which has earned its accolades as a gastronomic paradise by giving the world some of Italy’s best loved dishes, including that glorious rich meaty ragù we’ve all come to know and love as ‘bolognese’. There is a reason one of the city’s many nicknames is ‘la grassa’ (the fat one); it is where diets come to die. Thankfully, it’s not difficult to work up an appetite here, with over fifty museums and galleries, towers with as much lean as Pisa, some forty km of UNESCO protected porticos snaking their way around the historic centre, the oldest university in Europe, an animated nightlife, markets, cafes and bars galore.
In 48 hours you’ll barely make a dent in this exuberant city, but it’s worth a go. Here’s your hit-list.
Meander around the Mediterranean Streets
Bologna is bursting with medieval and renaissance architecture. Start in the spiritual heart of the city – Piazza Maggiore – which has been the political and social hub of the city since the 13th century. The vast square is lined with red stone portico, flanked by impressive medieval palazzo and dominated by the sprawling Basilica di San Petronio, one of the largest churches in Italy. Linger here for a coffee in the sunshine or for an aperitivo at dusk and don’t miss the ‘secret’ whispering gallery, which is located just under the portico on the north side of the piazza.
Wander further north to the ‘former Jewish Ghetto’, one of Bologna’s most charming quarters. It’s a jumble of red bricks, narrow alleys, bridges and pretty piazzas which are brimming with artisanal craft shops, small galleries and independent retailers.
Mosey around Markets
Bologna is a treasure trove of fresh and artisanal produce. Emilia Romagna has blessed the world with cured meats like parma ham and mortadella, cheeses like parmigiana reggiano, and aceto di balsamico (balsamic vinegar), all of which can be found in the ‘Quadrilatero’, a tangle of medieval streets behind the piazza maggiore. Stop at Tamburini, a traditional delicatessen in the heart of the Quadrilateral for an inexpensive tray of fine cheese and huge hams. Or, pop in to Bologna’s largest covered market, Mercato del’ Erb, for fried fish or Pizza al taglio (pizza slices).To sample local produce at astronomically cheap prices, head further afield to Mercato del Novale di Piazza Carducci, which takes place every Sunday morning and for the antique aficionados amongst you, the antiques market, which sprawls out of from the Piazzo Santo Stefano on the second weekend of every month, is a must.
Eat like a Local
Bologna is a place of epic culinary consumption. It’s not hard to find good food in Bologna but to sample some of the best culinary delights Bologna has to offer, try Trattoria Anna Maria. Anna Maria opened this gem some forty years ago and now, well into her seventies, she still paces around the restaurant, greeting new patrons and old faces. She remains fiercely protective of her recipes, which have been passed from generation to generation and remain entirely unchanged. Fine ribbons of fresh tagliatelle are veiled in the traditional Bolognese pork and beef ragu, lasagne here is served verde (green, from spinach leaves), enormous pasta pouches of tortelloni are stuffed with fresh ricotta and spinach and smothered in butter and sage, and tiny tortellini come stuffed with local mortadella and parmigiano reggiano, floating in a rich capone broth. Pasta is made fresh, by hand, a few doors down from the restaurant in a small workshop where you can meet the sfoglina (pasta maker), who lovingly rolls out the pasta into table length sheets, nimbly twisting them into the tiny ‘navel’ shapes of tortellini or carefully slicing each into ribbons of tagliatelle and pappardelle. The unassuming All’Osteria Bottega, is another culinary hotspot– try the classic Gramigna a la Salsiccia, washed down with a glass of Lambrusco (the region’s signature sparkling red) and finish it off with off with the best tiramisu in town.
Take in a view
Make the most of the post-carb rush and take a hike. Le due torre – Le Torre degli Asinelli and Le Torre Garisenda– are iconic, and the latter looks like it could topple over at any moment. Climb the 498 steps of Torre Asinelli for an uninterrupted view of the whole city and a (slightly sweaty) selfie shot. From here it’s not difficult to see why another of Bologna’s nicknames is ‘La Turrita’, city of towers. Twenty towers remain today but in its heyday the city was something of a Medieval Manhattan, boasting over 100 towers.
For a more horizontal hike and an unparalleled view of Bologna and the countryside, stroll along the world’s longest portico to Il Santuario di San Luca, a beautiful 18th Century church. It may mean hiking along four kilometers of porticos, beneath 660 arches, but the view from the top is well worth the walk. Alternatively, at 47m high, the Basilica di San Petronio offers a sweeping view of the skyline with minimal impact on your pedometer – you can take a lift all the way to the top.
Eat all the gelato
They’re exceptionally good at gelato in Bologna, with plenty of artisan gelato shops to choose from (Cremeria Santo Stefano is particularly delightful). But, for a truly unique gelato experience, head to the only gelato museum in the world – Carpigiani University, for tastings, workshops and a guided tours. Established in 1946, Carpigiani has since made it their sole mission to spread the Italian gelato culture around the world; in 2003 they established the Carpigiano Gelato University foundation which now runs a University of Bologna accredited course dedicated to artisan gelato, and a museum covering over 10000 square meters, as well as a gelateria on site, where you can sample some of the daily specials and experimentations. Sign up to a masterclass to make your very own gelato with expert guidance.
Pick your Way through the Porticoes
Bologna is characterised by some forty metres of porticos which snake their way around much of the city and it is home to the longest portico in the world – a four kilometre tunnel built in 1674 to Il Santuario di San Luca. Bologna is, therefore, your friend in summer and rain. These wooden structures were originally built to extend the living space of the upper floors but, as the upper floors became larger and heavier, the structures beneath them needed to become stronger, so stone was introduced. Unlike other Italian cities, where porticos were banned when streets became too crowded, in Bologna it became compulsory to have one, and it is still possible to find original examples of the wooden portico on Strada Maggiore and the Portico di Reggiani, which sits on the Piazza della Mercanzia
Bologna is one of Italy’s oldest, most affluent cities, with a wealth of museums and galleries paying homage to this illustrious history. Head to the Pinoteca Nazionale for masterpieces from the late 16th Century Carricus brothers (two of the founding fathers of Italian baroque art), to the Basilica di San Domenico to investigate some of Michael Angelo’s sculptures up close, and to the Museo Civicale Medieval for Medieval and Renaissance treasures. The University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088, is the oldest (continuously operating) university in Europe and it’s possible to visit some of its oldest building today. Don’t miss the Teatro Anatomico, the old heart of the medical school, to see some historic (and petrifying) historic collections of anatomy.
Despite a long history, Bologna is definitely not stuck in the past. Bologna’s alternative alias is ‘La Rossa’ (the red one), not only because it is built almost entirely in tones of burnt amber and dusky pink, but because it has long been a leftist stronghold. Head to MAMbo, a gallery dedicated to visual experimentation which is housed in a former municipal bakery. Innovative exhibitions, dance, music and theatre events run year long, including BOtanique, a month long festival of food, concerts and international artists, and Zambest, a festival full of readings, concerts, performances and debates. Think of Bologna as the funner, more irreverent cousin of Florence and Venice.
I stayed at the Art Hotel Commercianti, where days begin with brioche, jams, cappuccino and freshly made local specialties like ravioli mostardo, and end in elegant rooms characterised by original XII century beams and sweeping views of the soul of the city, Piazza Majjiore. It is one of the three boutique historic mansions which make up the ‘Art Hotels’ group, all situated in the historic centre.