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The stunning Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s heart, that’s surrounded by such wonders as the medieval Basilica di San Petronio and Renaissance Palazzo del Podesta. Stroll through marvelous porticos and arcades to experience abundant food markets. Don’t miss Santo Stefano Basilica, an amazing melding of seven churches, combining medieval, Byzantine, and Romanesque architecture.
Enjoy a variety of museums—from the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, featuring such masters as Raphael and Giotto, to the Palazzo Poggi Museum, with its fascinating collection of wax models and tools used by Renaissance medical students. Check out Museo Morandi for paintings by one of Italy’s most famous modern artists and head to the sensational Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, that’s called the Italian equivalent of London’s Tate Modern.
Packed into Bologna’s historic centre is a fantastic shopping scene, ranging from ultra-luxurious boutiques to flea markets to food markets. For the designer mall experience, head to Galleria Cavour, home to such superstars as Prada, Loro Piana, and Borsalino. Via d’Azeglio is one of the world’s most elegant vias, pedestrian only and flanked by high end boutiques (Coccapani, La Camiciaia), while Via Independenza is for mid-range budgets, including Cappelleria Trentini, which carries new designers and unique accessories. For cutting edge style, head to L’Inde Le Palais, a chic concept store. For handmade treasures there’s ArtigianArte shop, offering gorgeous ceramics, paintings, and jewelry by Italian artisans. Every Friday and Saturday is the open air La Piazzola market (fanning out from Piazza 8 Agosto), where bargain hunters flock for clothing and household items. Best of all, shopping can be done leisurely with stops for buonissimo food—and while you’re at it, salami from the beloved Tamburini shop or cake from Pasticceria Atti & Figli make great souvenirs.
Bologna’s nickname is La Grassa (the Fat Lady); inspired by the fact that food here is so rich and delicious. Order the classics—tortellini stuffed with pumpkin, and tagliatelle all’ragu (pasta with Bolognese sauce). Favorite restaurants on the high end (you must reserve) are Drogheria della Rosa and Ristorante da Cesari. Simpler spots are Trattoria Fantoni, Osteria dell’Orsa (beloved by university students), and Trattoria Meloncello, which is a drive out from the center, and has a rep for serving Bologna’s best meatballs. One of Italy’s best food shops is Tamburini, an amazing emporium, where you can have a budget lunch at its cafeteria. To snack alla Bolognese, go for piadina (flat bread stuffed with herbs, cheese, or nutella) at La Tua Piadina or one of the many other shops you’ll see around town. As far as Bologna’s fantastic gelaterias, Stefino and La Sorbetteria Castiglione are favorites.
Like many Italian cities, Bologna has embraced the apertivo tradition—so from 7 to 9 many bars offer a buffet, where you can fill up on delicious local cheeses and cured meats for the price of a drink. Perfect for this is Zanarini, an elegant spot set on a picturesque piazza, or the nearby Café le Palais (featuring Art Nouveau décor), and more rustic S-Wine bar. For the biggest selection of wines, head to Enoteca Italiana, a cozy, popular after work place. Or mingle with trendys and drink inventive cocktails at the Nu Lounge Bar. For beer and dancing with university students, head to English Empire or Corto Maltese Discobar.
Bologna’s most glamorous hotel, and a favorite of visiting celebrities, is Grand Hotel Baglioni. As for 4 stars, best are Il Convento dei Fiori di Seta, a converted 15th century convent, and 3 beautiful options owned and managed by the Bologna Art Hotels company: Corona d’Oro (14th century palazzo with art noveau touches), Commercianti (12th century palazzo tucked into a picturesque alley), and Novecento (featuring sleek, modern decor). For budget options in the center, consider the charming 3-star Albergo delle Drapperie (set above the food market) and the family run B&Bs Antica Casa Zucchini and Baroni.
If you’re up for burning pasta calories, a 498-step climb to the top of Torre degli Asinelli, one of Bologna’s only remaining towers, offers you stunning views of the red roofs of the city. Or you may choose an hour long uphill walk on an arcaded road to reach the Sanctuary of San Luca, where a spectacular panorama of the countryside and city awaits, then reward yourself with pizza at Vito’s. To immerse yourself into Bologna’s culinary culture, a Gourmet Walking Tour through the market can be delicious and fun. Or there’s Bologna’s biggest public park, Giardini Margherita, where you can stroll under huge trees and take a café break at the lakeside Chalet.
Head east for about an hour to reach Ravenna, a tranquil city that’s home to magical 5th century mosaics, splendidly displayed at the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. Or take a drive west to Modena, the medieval town that’s given the world balsamic vinegar. There you can visit Acetaia di Giorgio, an attic where prized balsamico is aged, followed by a divine lunch made by Giorgio’s wife.
Need to get back to nature? Nearby is Parco Storico di Monte Sole, an animal preserve with pleasant hiking trails, including a challenging one to the Mount Adone peak. While you’re in the area, lunch at Vecchia Trattoria Monte Adone for a hearty countryside experience.
For centuries Bologna has been recognized internationally as a hot spot for great music. Its most famous venue is the splendid 18th century Teatro Comunale, where critically acclaimed operas and symphonies are presented. The city also hosts the Bologna Festival, a 7-month long classical series that brings in international stars and local greats, such as Orchestra Mozart.
Every November since 1938 the Bologna Jazz Festival hosts an impressive roster of players, and for the rest of the year, Chez Baker and Cantina Bentivoglio are where to go to hear top jazz while enjoying an exquisite dinner.
La Scuderia, an artsy bar-restaurant hangout for students, hosts indie rock and jazz. And for dance music, Kinki is praised as one of the best clubs in Europe.
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Shopping on Thursday afternoons, when places traditionally close down. Also be warned: Bologna is famous for unpleasant weather–cold and foggy in winter, hot and humid in summer, so be prepared!