Photo of Bologna

Visit Bologna

Bologna is an important city located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. A lively city, 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 less visited than cities such as Florence and Venice, making it rather easier to appreciate than these tourist-packed cities (although they are both unmissable highlights of your visit to Italy). Bologna's student population helps ensure that the center always has a vibrant atmosphere.

Explore Bologna

Italy This Way review: Bologna is quite easy to explore on foot, with most places of interest in or close to the historic centre, and although churches are the main attraction there are several other interesting monuments so there is plenty of variety and a visit is recommended

You can travel between Venice, Ravenna and Bologna by public transport, and together they make for a very interesting way to arrange a visit (one week would be possible, 10 days is better).

The unmissable highlights of your visit to Bologna include:

Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio in Bologna

Brief history of Bologna

The city of Bologna dates back 2,500 years, when the Etruscans first occupied the site. It was still 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.

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.

Bologna city centre

Start your exploration of Bologna 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 Bologna tourist information office.

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

Behind the statue, you can enter the Salaborsa library to see the large galleried space and painted ceilings.


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.

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 Church of Santo Stefano 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.

Basilica San Petronio

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 religious monument 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 of Bologna, 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.

Next to the towers, you can visit the minor basilica of Saints Bartholomew and Gaetano, a renaissance style church from the 16th century.

Basilica of Saints Bartholomew and Gaetano

To continue your visit to the historic centre of Bologna, 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.

The most impressive baroque church in Bologna is the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita, and also includes a very impressive series of terracotta sculptures of the Lamentation of Christ, made in the 16th century.

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

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).

Asinelli Tower and Garisenda Tower

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.

Another 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.

The Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio contains a remarkable anatomical theatre from the 16th century and some beautiful decoration among its highlights.

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.

Other information

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.

As with every important city in Italy, Bologna has a wide range of restaurants and hotels for all budgets. We recommend you choose a hotel in or very close to the historic centre so you can also explore the man square at night, when all the buildings are illuminated.

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

See also: 

Photos of Bologna

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Map of Bologna and places to visit


Bologna places to visit

Two Towers, Bologna

Two Towers, Bologna

The Two Towers in Bologna are two of the most imposing medieval towers remaining in the city

Two Towers, Bologna guide
Basilica of Saints Bartholomew and Gaetano in Bologna

Basilica of Saints Bartholomew and Gaetano in Bologna

The basilica of saint bartholomew and saint gaetano is a renaissance style minor basilica in the historic centre of Bologna

Basilica of Saints Bartholomew and Gaetano in Bologna guide
Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna

Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna

The Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita includes a very impressive baroque church and a remarkable 15th century Lamentation of Christ artwork

Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna guide
Santo Stefano church, Bologna

Santo Stefano church, Bologna

On the site of a Roman temple, there are seven connected churches in Santo Stefano

Santo Stefano church, Bologna guide
Basilica San Petronio, Bologna

Basilica San Petronio, Bologna

The Basilica San Petronio in Bologna is a large church with several impressive artworks and frescoes

Basilica San Petronio, Bologna guide
Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio

Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio

The Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio has a remarkable anatomical theatre and a 16th century library to see

Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio guide

...or see all our recommended places to visit in Emilia-Romagna