It’s getting a bit old but that doesn’t make it any less true: Bologna is the foodie capital of Italy. And as well as ample eating experiences, there are also ample drinking experiences. Okay, okay, and great shopping, cobbled streets brimming with ancient architecture, lots of greenery (if you know where to look) and beautiful basilicas. If you’re not staying for long and struggling to whittle down your must-do list, here’s my top five.
Get an Airbnb
The hotel situation in Bologna is a bit weird. Firstly, there’s not a lot of them, unless you’re happy staying outside Old Town where all the action is and the scary motorways aren’t, and secondly, they’re quite old-fashioned. And I don’t mean old-fashioned in a vintage-Italian way. When I asked a friend who’d been before where she stayed, she flat-out refused to tell me because it was so ‘basic’ and she worried it would reflect badly on her! I’m not bashing Bologna – I adore the city – but I’d recommend choosing one of its charming self-catering apartments (easily discoverable on Airbnb) over a hotel.
We stayed in this apartment on the top floor of a medieval building, which was even better than the pictures suggested, had its own kitchen, and the cherry-topper for me: a terrace or ‘loggia’ with views over historic buildings and authentic courtyards, and within earshot of the classical music school nearby. The location is excellent if you want to be in the thick of things, just off of Piazza Verdi where university students hang out and sip beer and loads of casual restaurants and bars (don’t leave without visiting Bebere) spring to life post-9pm. It’s also walkable from must-see sites like the Two Towers, Piazza Maggiore, Basilica di San Petronio and the Fountain of Neptune. Even if you don’t pick somewhere so central, you shouldn’t need to get public transport – you can get across the whole city on foot in about an hour and a half.
Platters and prosecco
Two of my favourite words and apparently, two of the Bolognesi’s favourite things. There are platter places aplenty in the centre of Bologna, often in butchers or delis. Pretty much every day of the week, you’ll find them jam-packed with tourists and locals alike, and none more so than my favourite Salumeria Simoni in the bustling Quadrilatero, which you should try to visit above all the others. Waltz in with confidence, grab a table and a waiter’s attention and let them know you’d like to see the menu – otherwise, you’ll be standing around like a lemon for a while. I wholeheartedly recommend ordering the biggest platter (I think it’s called the ‘King’ or ‘Queen’) and a bottle of the cheapest prosecco. The assortment of meats and cheese will arrive on a plate that won’t quite fit on your wobbly table and your guy will talk you through what’s there. When we went there was salami, Parma ham, prosciutto, pistachio-studded mortadella, fontina, stracchino and 24-month-aged Parmigiano Reggiano.
Our trip was a couple of months ago now and I’m still thinking about it. Ooh, also, top tip coming up! At the back, there’s a little door to the bakery, which you need to keep an eye on. Every 20 minutes or so, someone will come out carrying a huge metal sheet of hot-out-of-the-oven bread, topped and stuffed with the most incredible things. Catch the carrier’s eye and he’ll do a little show and tell of what he’s got and ask if you’d like one. Say yes. We got an amazing Foccacia and what I can only describe as a bread-y hot pocket filled with a whole pack of (nice) wafer-thin ham and it really made the whole experience.
Embrace aperitivo hour
When I’m on holiday I tend to panic about dinner. Scratch that. Every.single.day.of.my.life I panic about dinner. What time, where, the dish to order, how many dishes to order. Food is, as anyone who knows me will attest, always on my mind. If you go through a similar turmoil, let me assure you that you will not miss the dinner service in Bologna. People don’t even start doing the pre-dinner drinking until 7/8pm, accompanied by a buffet of oily artichokes, olives, bruschetta, deep-fried cheese and vegetables and sometimes even bolognese-drenched pasta and lasagne. Then they have a break, finally sitting down to eat at least two hearty courses around 10pm. Embrace aperitivo hour, have a Campari spritz or three. It’ll make you feel like a local, drag out your day and ensure you enjoy a more authentic atmosphere helmed by locals, rather than over-worried early-bird tourists, when you do hit the restaurant.
Some of our fave aperitivo spots: Le Stanze, Osteria del Sole (this one is BYOFood), Il Cameo and Empire (yes, it’s an English pub but the seats in the window are great for people-watching and the buffet was the most generous we saw)
Visit Terrapin Island
My name for it, not Bologna’s. Terrapin Island is actually Giardini Margherita, a massive park, but take a closer look at the rockeries around the pools of water and you’ll know why I’ve redubbed it. The place is teeming with shelled critters, as well as fish of every size, technicoloured birds and best of all, Spritz stands where you can take your alcoholic beverage away and find a spot in the sun. If you fancy picking something up from a deli beforehand and having your own DIY picnic, you’re guaranteed to get plenty of space and a good view. This is up there with my favourite things to do on a city break.
Get the train to Madonna di San Luca
There are a few places you can hop aboard the Noddy train to Madonna di San Luca, but the easiest is Piazza Maggiore. It costs 10 euros, including an audio guide, and will drag you and other sightseers up to the castle in the Bolognese hills. The route through swerving roads populated with terracotta mansions is really picturesque and only takes an hour. At the top, you’ll be greeted by the magnificent 18th-century basilica church, a sprawling garden and courtyard and awe-inspiring viewpoints where you can see for miles. Stay a while and explore the little market on the other side to the entrance and grab a scoop of gelato or some pasta at one of the tiny restaurants. If it’s hot, take a bottle of water – there aren’t loads of refreshment options.
Which brings me on to the one thing you should definitely not do in Bologna: walk to Madonna di San Luca.
That’s what we did, ladies and gentlemen, we walked. We saw the sign for the train in Piazza Maggiore, we waited for the train, and when it arrived, I said ‘Let’s walk. It will be good for us’. ‘It won’t be that long a walk’ I said. I was wrong. It was the longest most horrific walk of my life and I am so so perplexed as to why there is not more information (see: outrage from unsuspecting travellers like myself) online about it. Let me repeat, DO NOT WALK TO MADONNA DI SAN LUCA. You’ll see oodles of other people – mostly locals – doing it, but that doesn’t mean you should. The idea is romantic: from the city, you can walk through the 666 connected porticos to the church. On the way, there are beautiful statues and stories to take in, and the view gets better and better as you get higher and higher. In contrast, your ability to breathe and put one foot in front of the other will get lower and lower.
It is steep, it is hot, it is hard and it is lengthy. Every corner you turn, thinking, ‘this must be it’, there are seven more sets of steps and a tougher incline. It took us nearly two hours and I hated every second of it. Madonna di San Luca is really great, but I was completely incapable of appreciating that once I reached the summit. If you really want to see what I’m talking about, get the train up and walk back down.