The Truth about Bologna... and reasons to visit.
It’s frequently described as ‘refreshingly un-touristy’, ‘undiscovered’ and ‘underrated’ which, in my book, usually means ‘no one goes here for a reason’.
Don’t get me wrong, it takes a strange sort of person to book a whole week off of work to visit this Medieval City. In the summer it’s hot, dusty and very terracotta. It’s also vibrant, beautiful and very good fun, home to some of the best cuisine in the country and some world class exhibitions and permanent collections of art.
Here are just three reasons to visit Bologna. You'll love it.
There’s a reason Bologna is nick-named ‘La Grassa’ (the fat one). Bologna has given the world Lasagna, Tagliettelle al Ragu (Spag Bol) and Mortadella. It’s also refreshingly unpretentious and a haven for Cucina Casalinga (home cooking), so it’s not hard to find high-quality Bolognese dishes for a reasonable price.
Try Tortellini in Brodo (pure comfort food), a big, beautiful lasagna or polpette made with veal meat (usually cooked in a tomato sauce, or deep fried).
You’ll find cured meat everywhere since pigs are so readily available in the Emilia Romagna region - Parma Ham, Mortadella, Culatello are all popular choices and all usually accompanied by a beautiful smelly cheese like Parmigiana Reggiano and a big glass of red wine.
Spend the days perusing one of the many markets, and opt for a ‘tagliere’ in the early evening - its the Bolognese Italian equivalent of Charcuterie, found in most bars and trattoria for around €8 - €12.
It is one of the most visually distinctive cities you'll ever visit. The city is almost entirely painted terracotta which, if it weren’t for the abundance of porticos, would make you feel like you're wandering around a giant furnace in the height of summer. Over 55km of porticos criss-cross the city, ranging from simple wooden structures in Strada Maggiore, Palazzo Grassi and the Portico of the Reggani, to the epic 3KM shaded hike to the beautiful Basilica in Santa Luca.
Bologna is therefore your friend in rain and sun.
Like most of Italy, there are churches on every corner but none so impressive as the Basilica of San Petronio, located in the Piazza Maggiore. It’s the fifth largest in the world. It's also a city dominated by towers. In the late twelfth Century there were at least one hundred dominating the skyline but today there are twenty four, the most famous of which are Le Due Torre, two towers which lean perilously (Pisa-like) in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana
Much as I love Italy, I’ve found that one word you wouldn't readily apply to the nation is 'progressive'. Bologna, however, is a bit different. You’ll find a huge range of high profile exhibitions here, numerous events taking place across the piazzas, buzzing bars, excellent theatre and some incredibly innovative museums (it's home to the only Museum in the world dedicated to the history of Gelato).
Meanwhile, permanent collections at the Pinoteca Nazionale di Bologna, which include works from Raffael, Perugino and Tonoretto, and the Museo Civico Archaeologico, which is home to one of the most prestigious archaeological collections in the country, are enough to rival the biggest and best museums and galleries the country has to offer.
Given that it is home to the world’s oldest university, there’s a young vibe here and enough exhibitions, gigs, outdoor events and bars to cater to its clientele. Bologna is also nicknamed the red city, because of her infamous left-leaning political affiliations. As one of the wealthiest cities in the North, Bologna has a long illustrious history of migration (even today thousands of Italians from the South flock here for work), so it's an open, inviting place and residents are keen to show off the best of the city, be it with a bowl of pasta or an outdoor film festival.
What to expect:
- Food which will make you seriously reconsider all culinary decisions you have ever made in your life. Food is a source of pride here and you’d be hard pressed to make a bad decision. High quality and reasonably priced, you’ll probably spend most of your trip split between operating on carb-rushes and having to have a sit down because of all the cheese you’ve consumed.
- Some worldclass exhibitions. From June to July 2016 you can see an exhibition on Edward Hopper, an exhibiton on the rise of Banksy and 'Street Art', and an exhibition about the history of Barbies, including 590 from all over the world.
- Some of the most prestigious museums in the world. Bologna is an old city and is home to over fifty museums, from Archealogical Collections to Ice-Cream.
- Incredibly friendly, hospitable Italians who are all keen to show off Bologna
- To travel everywhere by foot. Whilst there is public transport, its small enough to navigate around the place as a pedestrian (let us bow down to the Medieval lot who built porches all over the place).
What NOT to expect
- To find picture-perfect places at every turn. Verona it is not - there’s graffiti, potholes and orange needs a whole different type of filter to what your feed is probably used to.
- To hear many people speaking English. It’s not exactly a black hole for tourism, but it doesn't draw the hordes of Italophiles that Florence and Sorento do. Don’t panic yourself too much though, most Italians can speak English.
- To get an epic suntan. Bologna is more shaded than you might expect and, whilst there are beautiful wide open piazzas and parks, a lot of your time walking between sites will be spent in a porch.
- A quiet and romantic mini-break. An apperativo on a Piazza is about as romantic as you'll be able to get - no quiet corners for romantic trysts, Bologna is bustling.
- To eat SpagBol. It’s an anglophone bastardisation of a local dish. Here its ‘Tagliettele con Ragu’.
- To attend any sort of free exhibitions. Like much of Italy, nothing is free. The Bologna Card, which you can pick up from the Tourist Office, costs €20 and offers free entry to lots of museums and significant discounts on most exhibitions.
Popping off to Emilia - Romagna? Lucky you. Here's a few reasons to visit Modena, a quick piece to persuade you to visit a traditional Acetaia and some very good reasons to start drinking an awful lot of Lambrusco