Bologna is absolutely beautiful. Bologna is also world renowned for its food, giving it its nickname, “The Fat.” It is the home of tortellini, mortadella (i.e. bologna / baloney), and ragù. Both of these facts combined to create a wonderful, short weekend in this medieval Italian city. My sister and I booked our train tickets to Bologna on a Thursday around midnight. We booked our Airbnb the next day, and on Saturday morning, we were on our way to the train station to start our spur of the moment trip.
We were happy to realize two things about Bologna almost immediately: it is small, so walking everywhere is simple, and at least half of the streets are lined with porticos, so the walkways are clean and safe from the elements. If you follow any travel Instagram account, you’ve likely seen the famous Via Piella, which is known as la piccola Venezia, or “the little Venice.” We were delighted to stumble upon it just steps away from our apartment, and we snapped a few pictures before checking in.
After a short check in with our sweet host, we set out to explore the city center. At the heart of Bologna are two medieval towers: the Asinelli and the Garisenda. The shorter tower leans a bit, so who needs a visit to Pisa? A guidebook in our apartment also mentioned that the legend of the taller tower (the Asinelli) says that the devil built it overnight.
At the foot of the towers is a wide pedestrian street, filled with shops, restaurants, and performers. There were few tourists, and all of them were Italian. Over the course of the weekend, I don’t think I saw more than one or two groups of people that weren’t! It was an interesting change.
We wandered the area a bit before finding our second destination of the day: Piazza Maggiore. I was surprised to see that there were no benches, fountains, or other defining features of the square, itself. No one else seemed to mind; people laid all over the flat pavement, taking in the sun. The Basilica di San Petronio dominated the square, a towering and confusing building. It is the sixth largest church in Europe, and it’s defining feature is the fact that it is unfinished. This creates an interesting facade, and an interior that has stark contrasts between simple and elaborate.
Inside the church is also home to the world’s longest indoor meridian line. It was designed in the 1600s by Bolognese astronomer Cassini. What I took away from my experience at the church most, however, was the business that had been made of it. Inside, a man chased around people snapping photos for free – visitors were required to purchase a wristband for 2 euro, instead. Many of the side chapels required an entrance fee of a few euros, and one had even been converted into a gift shop. This was quite different from even St. Peter’s Basilica, so I was surprised to see the church ran this way.
That didn’t deter us, however, from paying a few more bucks to take an elevator to a terrace on the side of the basilica. While small, the vibrant views of the city below were breathtaking. Atop the terrace, it was easy to see why another of Bologna’s nicknames is “The Red.”
Just behind the church lies the world’s oldest university, founded in 1088. This is where the last of Bologna’s nicknames comes from: “The Learned.” The University of Bologna is still operating, but the campus is now in a different part of the city. The famed university makes Bologna a popular, young city, and the city is full of trendy students and businesses.
The historic part of the university is open to the public for visiting, and it includes a library, lecture room, and an anatomical theater, among a few other things. In the anatomical theater, students sat on hard, wood benches as to stay awake. In the center of the room, cadavers were dissected so as to teach students about the anatomy of the human body.
We made our way around the block to a gelato place recommended by our host, and we were shocked at the line of people wrapping around the block. Taking this as a good sign, we joined the line of Italians, drooling as people walked out with gelato sandwiches and towering cones. I got an affogato with zabaione gelato, something I had been dreaming of for months and finally found!
We also stopped for a piadina, which is basically a panino but with a flatbread instead of crusty bread. I got one with ricotta, sun-dried tomatoes, and prosciutto, and it was incredible. The cute cashier that struggled to speak to me in English (and I, in Italian) made the experience all the better.
After a short break at our Airbnb, we set out to try some tortellini at a trattoria our host recommended. To keep it short, it was easily one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I was starting to catch on to this “Bologna la grassa” nickname. Happy and full, we retired for the night in our cozy little apartment.
With few plans for the day ahead, we spent our second day in Bologna wandering the red streets and enjoying the sunshine.
As we made our way towards the city center, we passed record shops, art and craft stores, and dozens of restaurants I wanted to try. We settled on a deli called La Proscuitteria, where we got panini made exactly to our liking. I got a prosciutto panino with pecorino, truffle spread, and eggplant. We wandered around, shopped a little, and found ourselves at the huge church complex, Basilica di Santo Stefano. We toured our way through multiple churches, cloisters, and side chapels, ending up in a gift shop filled with soaps, alcohols, and honeys made by the priests there.
Once we had finished, I noticed that we were a short walk from our favorite gelateria from the day before. We headed back over there to find another line down the block, happily joining it again.
This time, I got three life-changing flavors. In the bottom of my cone, I got marscarpone gelato that sat atop a bed of nutella. Then, I had a chocolate cake flavor, and finally, white chocolate gelato with crispy puffed rice. As I ate it, I knew I’d remember it forever.
After we finished our gelato, we sat in the piazza outside and watched a woman play fetch with her adorable brown lab for a while. After a bit more shopping and another piadina, we met up with our Airbnb host to pick up our bags before heading to the train station. Unfortunately, the day didn’t end in sunshine – just as we headed towards the station, it started to pour. We thanked the porticos dearly, because we were shielded from the rain for the majority of our walk.
Once back in Rome, I was grateful for the easy and stress-free trip we just completed. Grazie, Bologna, for a short and sweet weekend! I’ll always miss your food and your vibrant red rooftops.