Capital of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, 2000 European Capital of Culture, birthplace of the far-famed bolognaise sauce… Bologna lays claim to a wealth of titles on an administrative, cultural and epicurean scale. And yet it is the city’s abundance of affectionate nicknames that really capture the essence of Bologna at its multi-faceted best: La Rossa refers to its beautiful russet-hued buildings dating back to mediaeval times whilst La Dotta – the learned one – pays homage to the city’s rich academic heritage (its university was founded in 1088). La Grassa meanwhile, literally translated as the fat one, celebrates the city’s longstanding connection with food, for beyond its classic ragù (the locals’ preferred name for what we know as bolognaise sauce), Bologna’s specialities include mortadella, tortellini, salami and prosciutto.
Beyond its famed associations with food, Bologna is a city rich in history, culture, art and music and is well worth building into a multi-centre holiday around Italy, or indeed more than sells itself as a short break destination in its own right; there are direct flights to Bologna from Stansted, Gatwick, Edinburgh and Heathrow.
A natural starting point for most visitors to Bologna is the city’s twin piazzi, Piazza Maggiore and Piazza Nettuno, lined on all sides by impressive mediaeval palazzi. The former is where you’ll find the vast Basilica di San Petronio, reputedly the world’s fifth largest church directly opposite the Palazzo del Podestà with its soaring bell tower, whilst the latter home to the famous Fontana del Nettuno, an elaborate 16th-century Baroque fountain and monument devoted to Neptune. Also worth mentioning is the Palazzo Re Enzo, home to King Enzo of Sardinia who was imprisoned here in 1249.
Perhaps Bologna’s most recognisable landmarks and immortalised in Dante’s The Inferno, Le Due Torri (the two towers) dominate the compact Piazza di Porta Ravegnana and remain proud reminders of the city’s heritage, for each noble family erected a tower in the 12th and 13th centuries as a symbol of prestige and power. Of the 20 still in existence (over 100 once stood), the Torre degli Asinelli offers far-reaching and unsurpassed views over the city (if you’re prepared to climb the 498 steps to the top of the tower!), whilst the Torre Garisenda is now closed to the public.
Other buildings and institutions of note include the Sala Borsa, the former Stock Exchange now Italy’s largest and rather spectacular multimedia library whilst the Biblioteca Communale dell’Archiginnasio pays homage to the city’s longstanding academic associations with row upon row stacked high with rare, leather-bound tomes. The Museo Civico Archaelogico meanwhile is renowned for its Roman and Egyptian artefacts as well as housing Italy’s finest Etruscan collections.
If art’s your thing, try the Pinacoteca Nazionale for classic Italian works including paintings by Raphael and Giotto, whilst the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo) houses a permanent collection of modern art. If you’re in town over the spring, try catching the Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis exhibition at the Palazzo Favo where, until 25th May, you’ll be able to see a selection of works on loan from The Hague’s prestigious Mauritshuis, including paintings by Rembrandt, Has and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
And once you’ve feasted your eyes with glorious architecture and soaked up the culture of a city steeped in academic learning, take time to satiate the stomach with a memorable, mouth-watering meal in one of Bologna’s finest eateries. Be it an osteria, pizzeria or trattoria, you’ll undoubtedly get to sample the city’s rich culinary heritage.