Bologna, Italy and its fascinating medieval historic center

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Visit Bologna

Bologna is an important city centrally located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. A lively city, in part due to its large student population, Bologna is also one of the most attractive cities in Italy, and has the largest medieval centre of any Italian town except Venice, despite substantial damage during WWII.

Bologna is also less visited than cities such as Florence and Venice, making it rather easier to appreciate than these tourist-packed cities. Bologna's student population helps ensure that the center always has a vibrant atmosphere.

Brief history of Bologna

The city dates back 2,500 years, when the etruscans first occupied the site. It was also an important city later, under the Romans, and many of the streets in the centre of the town still follow the original Roman layout for the town.

Basilica in Bologna

Following a few centuries of decline with the end of the Roman empire, Bologna regained its importance in the 11th century - the university in the town was opened in 1088 and is now Europe's oldest university.

It was during the 11th-15th centuries that many of the fine buildings, palaces and arcades in the town were constructed.

Explore Bologna

The medieval centre of Bologna is easy to explore, although the number of attractions means you might like to allow a couple of days. Start your exploration in Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nuttuno, the two main squares in the centre of the medieval town. These form a very attractive ensemble with several fine buildings and small palaces.

It is also here where you will find the Boligna tourist information office.

Before rushing to explore the major mnuments take the time to admire the large 16th century Neptune Fountain by Giambologna in the Piazza del Nuttono with its detailed bronze figures.

Next you can visit the Basilica of Saint Petronio on Piazza Maggiore - you can't ignore it, it's one of the biggest basilicas in the world (and still smaller than originally planned, as you can see from the unfinished facade). This basilica dates from the late 14th century. Particularly outstanding is the chapel of San Sebastiano and its painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

Archiginnasio building

The City Hall is also on Piazza Maggiore, and is a substantial 14th century palace that also contains an extensive art collection (admission charge payable).

The second 'basilica' in Bologna is the Abbey of Saint Stephen in Piazza Santa Stefano which is an ensemble that includes several different churches along with their associated crypts and cloisters. The most ancient part, and the principal church of the complex, is the San Vitale e Agricola, with origins back to the 5th century, while the most beautiful part is perhaps the cloisters of the Church of Saint Trinity and the courtyard with the 8th century Pilates fountain.

The Pilates fountain got its name from an ancient claim that it was the fountain where Pontius Pilate washed his hands after condemning Christ to death. We now know that the fountain was actually made in the 8th century which rather discredits the legend but the name of the fountain has been retained.

Also particularly noteworthy is the chapel of Bentivoglio in the Church San Giacomo Maggiore on Via Benedetto XIV, which contains splendid renaissance art works.

During the 12th century, numerous towers were built in the town - perhaps as many as 100, of which 20 still remain. Stroll along the busy Via Rizzoli to find the two towers called Asinelli and Garisenda (the leaning tower of the two), adjacent and in the centre of the town, and the most recognisable landmark in Bologna.

You can climb to the top of the Asinelli Tower (almost 100 metres / 500 steps) for lovely views across the Bologna rooftops.

Follow the walk that starts from Porta Saragozza and continues along the street of the same name to start exploring the 40 kilometres of arcades (also called porticos) that give the city center its authentic medieval ambiance. Often architecturally interesting and beautifully decorated, along with the medieval towers it is these arcaded walkways for which the city is best known and from which it derives a great deal of its character.

In the southern part of Bologna center is yet another noteworthy church. The Church of San Domenico holds the tomb of Saint Dominic, which has some very good decorative carvings including works by Michelangelo.

Asinelli Tower and Garisenda Tower

You can continue along the four kilometres of the '666 porticos' to reach the Sanctuary of the Madonna just outside the historic center of Bologna. the sanctuary itself dates from the 11th century (with additions in later centuries).

Despite the widespread damage that the city suffered during the Second World War it remans one of the most interesting Italian cities to visit. The guided tours of the city are recommended (ask at the Bologna tourist information center) which will ensure you see many of the special places you might otherwise miss.

Bologna Museums and galleries

Lovers of Italian fine art will find the art gallery on Via Belli Arti, the Pinacoteca Nazionale, to be an unmissable pleasure, with its focus on many of the artists who came from or worked in Bologna during its medieval heyday. Highlights include the Last Supper by El Greco and the Ecstacy of saint Cecilia by Raphael.

The other museum we particularly recommend you visit in Bologna is the Archaeology Museum on Via dell'Archiginnasio with fascinating collections from the Etruscan and Roman periods and an impressive collection of Egyptian artefacts.

If you feel over-exposed to history there is also a Museum of Modern Art, and sports car enthusiasts are spoiled for choice in the region with Lamborghini, Ducati and Ferrari all having museums in the region.

Parks and gardens

There are several impressive parks and gardens around the town. If you need to escape the summer hear for a while we suggest in particular the Botanical Gardens, established in the 16th century on Via Imerio; and a stroll through the Giardhini Margherita on Viale Gozzadini.

Note: main picture is Palazzo del Podesta, Piazza Maggiore & Neptune fountain at night in the centre of Bologna.

You can find more local travel ideas in the Emilia-Romagna guide.

See also:

Map of Bologna and places to visit

Places to visit near Bologna

Dozza

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The highlight in Dozza is the fortress, restored in Renaissance style in the 16th century

Dozza guide

Modena

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Modena has a remarkable centre around Piazza Grande and the cathedral, now protected as a world heritage site

Modena guide

Ferrara

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The historic centre of Ferrara is important enough that it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Ferrara guide

Mirandola

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Although the historic centre of Mirandola has lost many of its original treasures a visit is still rewarding

Mirandola guide

Carpi

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The large town of Carpi has retained a good number of historic buildings and churches of interest

Carpi guide

Faenza

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Well known for the International Museum of Ceramics, Faenza town is also interesting to visit

Faenza guide