48 hours in Bologna
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Bologna was the icing on the cake of a wonderfully varied ten-day trip to Italy. We sadly had only two days to spend here before we flew home but it left us wanting more and there's no doubt that we'll visit again. It's an absolutely wonderful city and there is so much to see and do. It doesn't attract the same levels of tourists as other major cities and is often bypassed in favour of Milan, Rome or Florence. All amazing cities of course but if you've ever visited them in July or August, fighting back your frustration as you battle your way through selfie-taking crowds and find yourself in epic queues to see the sights, then maybe you should consider a trip to Emilia-Romagna's capital instead. All the glory but none of the hassle.
Bologna is referred to alternately as La Grassa, La Dotta and La Rossa - The Fat, The Learned and The Red. I'm not sure how learned I felt after the two days but I certainly noticed an expanded waistline. The city is a foodie's heaven and we certainly tasted much of what it had to offer. It's also pretty obvious what they mean by La Rossa - if you have a head for heights and venture up either of the two iconic towers, you'll see what they mean. It's a sea of red buildings as far as the eye can see. In saying that, it's pretty obvious from ground level as well.
I'll be honest and say that our first impression of Bologna was not purely positive. The train station and the surrounding area leading onto Via Indipendenza are a little grim. There are lots of people hanging around trying to 'help' tourists find their way or to buy tickets at the automated machines. You just need to keep your wits about you. It's no different from most train stations the world over. Other than that our experience was nothing but positive.
Bologna is a colonaded city and by that I mean you can walk completely sheltered from the elements under the forty kilometres of porticos where the roof structures are supported by columns. The vaulted ceilings on some are ornate and really beautiful and there are lots of great examples of street art to admire on your travels.
It's certainly a city of contrasts; part edgy, part grandiose and this is the reason we loved it so much. It has magnificent squares, world-class public sculpture and majestic buildings and churches like most Italian cities, and is full of artistic treasures. It's also a university town (the oldest university in world apparently - from 1088) which gives it a youthful energy and a vibrant atmosphere. Trust me, you are never short of options for a late drink or gig. Unlike many Italian cities, the streets are alive and teeming with people until the wee hours. We were staying on Via Mascarella in an area with a huge student population. You couldn't describe this part of Bologna as pretty but the night life is fantastic. The street basically turns into an outdoor bar in the evenings. Just a few doors from our guesthouse was a jazz bar which opened out onto the street after a certain hour. During the summer a stage is set up for outdoor jazz gigs. We had gone out for dinner on the other side of the city and when we came back, our quiet street was transformed.
Where to stay:
This leads me nicely onto our gorgeous guesthouse The Steam House named after the Jules Verne novel. Don't be put off by the graffiti-lined walls & slightly grungey feel to Via Mascarella: as I mentioned above, it's a really lively part of the city and you'll get much better value for money here than you will in the heart of the city centre. Our room, pictured above, cost a mere €97 including breakfast.
The guesthouse was fabulous & an unexpected gem. There are only five rooms in total, each one uniquely themed and decorated. We loved our room. It was very spacious and bright with two huge windows, a very comfy bed and a bathroom with a fantastic rainshower. It was very tastefully decorated in muted tones with industrial-style furniture, though this was was softened by the brown leather armchair and quirky details like the huge iron clock and vintage suitcases added character.
Valentina the manager is a fabulously helpful host and couldn't do enough for us. One of my favourite things about our stay was our in-room breakfast. Each room has a fridge, a small dining table and two chairs and as they don't have a breakfast area, you are provided with everything you need to have breakfast in your room - such a treat. They have a Nespresso machine & provided tea, juices, water, fresh fruit & yoghurt, bread, cheese, meat & the most delicious granola with honey. Simple but perfect and it made me very happy.
What to see and do
All things cultural
We crammed a lot into our two days but ideally you would need at least five days to do proper justice to Bologna. We started with a trip to the National Gallery, the Pinacoteca Nazionale on the aptly named Via delle Bella Arte: a short walk from the guesthouse. To describe the facade as unassuming is an understatement. We walked past it a number of times before spotting the tiny sign on the wall.
They have a wonderful collection of art from 13th - 18th centuries, predominantly Italian. I particularly loved the 14th century frescoes, some of which you can see above. They also have a large collection of 17th century paintings by Bolognese artist Guido Reni, including his heart wrenching 'Massacre of the Innocents'.
MAMbo: Modern Art Museum Of Bologna
If you'd prefer something a little more modern, then check out the museum with the wonderful acronym MAMbo. They have a permanent collection showcasing modern and contemporary Italian art, as well as an ever-changing programme of temporary exhibits. The permanent collection features mainly conceptual and video-art from the sixties and seventies offering socio-political commentary on the world at this time. There are works by Marina Abramovich and Ulay, and Op Art by Bridget Riley, to name but a few.
The best reason to visit, in my opinion, is the Morandi museum. It used to be housed in a Palazzo on Piazza Maggiore but due to earthquake damage was given a home here in 2012. Giorgio Morandi was a Bolognese painter who lived and worked in the city until his death in 1964. He lived simply, never veering too far from his small studio and this is obvious from his work: he spent his career paying homage to humble, everyday objects and his oeuvre consists of a vast body of exquisite still-lifes and landscapes in muted tones. These are not showy or dramatic works of art but are gentle and contemplative. They are simply beautiful, especially some of the iconic 'Flower' paintings. Photography is permitted only upon completion of a waiver form at reception which I hadn't known about until I was in the room so I'm afraid I have no images to show. It made for a nicer museum experience though as most people were there simply to enjoy the work and experience it as it was supposed to be seen - in reality.
Explore the heart of the city on foot
Piazza Maggiore: This is the heart of the city of Bologna, an impressive square surrounded on one side by the Basilica of San Petronio, on another by Palazzo d'Accursio, the town hall, and one the other side by Palazzo del Podestá. While we were there, the entire square was turned into an outdoor cinema with people bringing drinks and food from the surrounding bars and cafés. There was a month-long season of films being shown. Such a great setting to enjoy a movie, though we didn't catch one ourselves as we were tight on time.
Just around the corner you'll find Piazza del Nettuno, home to one of Bologna's most famous landmarks the Neptune Fountain. Standing confidently atop the monument is the muscular figure of Neptune by renowned sculptor Giambologna who was also responsible for some of the most iconic sculptures in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. He cuts a powerful, masculine figure, standing with arm outstretched over four putti representing the rivers Nile, Amazon, Danube, and Ganges.
From there it's time to get lost in the Quadrilatero District: a maze of tiny streets bordered by Piazza Maggiore and Nettuno to the west, Via Rizzoli to the north, Via Castiglione to the east and Via Farini to the south. During the day it functions as the old city market with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and pasta. By evening, the streets are transformed as bars open and spill out onto the street for aperitivo time. Take a stroll, grab a Spritz and enjoy the vibes and the energy. In this part of the city it costs a little more for drinks than in the university area (expect to pay about €7-9 for a Spritz here) but it's still cheaper than Ireland.
We stopped off for a glass of wine at Tamburini on Via Caprarie on our first evening's explorations. This is a deli, restaurant and a wine bar, rustic in style with wooden barrels doubling as seats outside. We let the waiter choose a wine for us and he came back with two glasses of Amarone. Fully expecting to be handed a hefty bill at the end, we were happy to see we'd only been charged €6 per glass for what was a very good wine too.
On our second evening, we opted for Roberto Bistrot on Via degli Orefici for our aperitivo. We had been walking for hours and needed a pick-me-up. While the location of this spot is fantastic and perfect for people-watching, the service was appalling. That aside, we loved our street-side seats and my Campari Spritz was good.
Like most other Italian cities, there is no shortage of beautiful churches but two in particular are worth visiting: Santo Stefano and Basilica of San Domenico. Santo Stefano is a unique one and was recommended to us by Valentina in our guesthouse. It is an astonishing complex of four interconnecting churches (there was originally seven), all from varying periods of history and each with its own distinct architectural characteristics. You will enter the complex from the picturesque Piazza Santo Stefano - your introduction is the Church of the Crucifix, the largest and most prominent of the four extant buildings. Dating from the 8th century, the interior is quite austere with an unusual layout - the altar stands on a mezzanine level with seats below. A painted figure of christ on the cross, skeletal and close to death, hangs above the stairs. This was painted by Italian artist Simone dei Crocifissi in the 14th century.
Stepping back three centuries you enter the beautiful Church of the Sepulchre, modelled on the church of the same name in Jerusalem. It has a central plan with marble and brick columns, some dating from Roman times, surrounding a tomb which once housed the relics of San Petronio. The next exit will bring you to the Basilica of Saints Vitale and Agricola, the most austere of the churches. It has little by way of decoration and is the oldest of the structures, dating from the 4th century. From here you can access the beautiful Pilate's Courtyard: an oasis of calm and tranquility at the heart of the complex. It is bordered by a colonaded walkway, the Romaneque buildings at either end are beautifully decorated with intricate brickwork patterns and its key feature is the 8th century fountain at its centre.
The final church on your explorations is the Church of the Holy Cross. You will see why upon entering. In one of the niches above the altar hangs the solitary figure of Jesus, dead on the cross. It's an affecting image, set against stark unadorned brickwork. There is nothing to detract the eye from the figure on the cross, which I imagine was the intention. An antidote to this is the large-scale wooden figures of the Adoration of the Magi where the three kings present their gifts to the infant. Housed in one of the side niches, this is thought to be one of the oldest sculpted nativity scenes in the world and is dated to the 13th century. The rich polychrome colour and gilding was added in the 14th century by aforementioned Bolognese painter Simone dei Crocifissi in the 14th century. It's a wonderful tableau and has retained its vibrant colours despite its age.
Basilica of San Domenico is another must-visit on your travels around Bologna but couldn't be more different to Santo Stefano. While the exterior is austere in the Romanesque style, the interior is most definitely Baroque, extravagantly and opulently decorated. The basilica is home to some absolute treasures, none more so than the altar sculptures by Michelangelo, our main reason for visiting. We were very lucky on the day to be taken on an impromptu tour of the altar by one of the volunteers - a very cheery and interesting man with a passion for art and history. He talked to us about the huge marble sarcophagus, the Arca di San Domenico, which houses the relics of the saint, impressive in itself but more so for the sculptural figures which surround it. These include three hidden works by Michelangelo: the two figures of San Petronio and San Procolo and the angel candle-holder figure, all of whom can be found at the back of the tomb alongside others by Nicola Pisano. There are no signs indicating which ones are by Michelangelo and which ones are Pisano. In fact there is no reference at all within the church that such treasures are to be found. We had done some reading in advance so we knew they were there. However when our guide asked us to guess which ones were Michelangelo's, there was no mistaking them. There is such an assurance about his work and the strong, confident stance of his figures made them stand out as exceptional.
Grab a glimpse of a Bolognese secret
Not many people know this but Bologna is located on an 80 kilometre canal network, built from 12th - 16th centuries and mostly covered up and unseen today. However you can grab a glimpse of 'Little Venice' as it's sometimes called, through some hidden windows in the city walls. Through a small hatch in the wall on Via Piella, known as the Finestrella di Via Piella or Window of Via Piella, we got a sneak peak of the Reno Canal - an expected flashback to what the city must've looked like when the canals were operational. It's extremely pretty. Apparently there are two other windows for a similar view on both Via Oberdan and Via Malcontenti.
And now for some Bolognese food...
I'm going to preface this by saying that no-one in Bologna eats Spaghetti Bolognese. It doesn't exist. Spaghetti Bolognese is an international version of what is locally known as Ragú Bolognese or Tagliatelle al Ragú, a slow-cooked meat sauce traditionally served with fresh tagliatelle, never spaghetti, unless in restaurants catering solely for tourists. If you see this on a menu, leave immediately. You need to sample the real deal. And there's a simple reason they use tagliatelle - it's designed to hold chunkier, heavier sauces. Made with spaghetti, the meat just falls off. I don't eat red meat but my husband was happy to sample as many local variations as possible in two days.
It's very easy to eat cheaply and simply in Bologna, but there are also plenty of high-end options if you feel like treating yourself. We had some fantastic meals here but two in particular stood out. One was Bistró Domino and the other Da Pietro.
Bistró Domino, Via Remorsella: This is a little gem, located off the beaten track but less than ten minutes' walk from Piazza Santo Stefano. It's a modern bistro-style place offering contemporary Italian cuisine, sometimes with an Asian twist. Unlike the more traditional places, they cater for all allergies / fussy eaters and have vegan options on the menu. The two owners, who were also our waiters for the evening, were fabulous - warm, welcoming and attentive throughout but not intrusive.
We started our meal with an aperitivo. It always makes me laugh to see Lambrusco offered as an option in this part of Italy. Lambrusco, for those of you not familiar, is a sparkling and quite sweet wine once favoured by students in Ireland in the late nineties and early noughties. I myself was certainly susceptible to its 'charms'. Martin decided to give it a go (when in Rome and all that...) but as memories of my student days came flooding back I played safe and stuck with Prosecco.
I opted for the Tempura Vegetables as a starter which were absolutely delicious. The vegetables were perfectly crunchy and the batter light - just right to leave room for a pasta main course. I decided to give the vegan option a go which was wholegrain spaghetti with pistachio pesto. It was very tasty but personally I think pesto is not pesto without parmesan and I probably should've gone for something else in hindsight. Martin had a pasta dish to start but it was the tagliata he was raving about all evening. He likes it very rare and as you can see it comes simply as is - no adornments and no fuss. The meat speaks for itself. Unfortunately we were too full for dessert but they looked fantastic as we gaped into other diners' dinners. The prices here are similar to Ireland - expect to pay about €8-€10 for an antipasto, €14 for pasta and €20 for main course. However there are some good deals to be found if you book online. We booked with The Fork and got 25% off our total bill, including drinks. We had a fabulous evening here and would definitely return next time we're in Bologna.
My other favourite spot was Da Pietro on Via de' Falegnami. We came here for lunch one afternoon on the recommendation of Valentina in the guesthouse and were given a 10% discount on production of our Steam House card. It's a lovely rustic trattoria specialising in local cuisine. As it was lunchtime we only had one dish each and a coffee but it was enough to make me want to come back next time we're in Bologna. I had the most delicious spinach and ricotta ravioli, served in a butter and sage sauce with broad beans and pancetta. So simple but the flavours were outstanding. It makes my mouth water to think about it. Martin went for the Tortellini in Brodo, a meat tortellini in broth which he also loved. We ordered two glasses of the house red which he poured from the bottle at our table. It was a generous measure and we noticed the bottle was branded with their own label. It was one of the nicest glasses of wine I had all trip and cost only €4. In fact it was extremely moreish and if it had been dinner time we would certainly have gone for a bottle. But we were restrained and had a coffee to finish, which was also excellent. The waiter was friendly and it was pretty much the perfect lunch.
There are two other spots I'd like to mention, both of which are in the area close to our hotel and cater mainly to students, which means they're pretty cheap. The first was Moustache on Via Mascarella. Again this was recommended by Valentina and we availed of the 10% concession. It's a cool little café-bar and to take a break from pasta we ordered burgers and a beer for our first Bolognese lunch. I had the lentil burger which came in a charcoal bun with chips and was topped with pecorino, which everyone knows makes everything taste amazing. It was really good and my Pilsner was very refreshing to wash it down. We also had two espressos which were excellent. Service was great - friendly, efficient and chatty. We realised after paying the bill that we had no change for a tip so there was no option but to buy two giant gelatos from the counter opposite to break a note. We all have to make sacrifices. It seemed like a really cool spot and it was absolutely alive when we passed by later that night. Apparently they're known for their cocktails and they often host jazz gigs. Another spot to return to when we come back to Bologna.
Last but not least is the place where we ate our last meal in Bologna: Osteria dell'Orsa on Via Mentana. This is good honest Bolognese food: simple and really cheap which is probably why it was full of students. I had the spinach and ricotta tortelloni in a tomato sauce and Martin had, yes you guessed it, Tagliatelle al Ragú. It was our last night after all. It's not fancy but the food is good and the two pasta dishes were only €7 each. We had a nice bottle of regional wine and shared a tiramisu, plus two coffees and our bill came to a mere €36. I'll leave you on that happy note.