Bologna, Italy: the Sexy, the Delicious, the Untouristed.
Sometimes, you walk into a place and feel an immediate revelation — this is what I’ve been searching for, and I didn’t know it until now.
That’s how I felt about Bologna — la grassa, la dotta, la rossa — my new favorite city in Italy.
I’ve been no stranger to falling in love with Italy — I was hooked immediately from the moment that I arrived for my semester abroad in Florence in 2004. Italy is one of my favorite places to travel solo — I love walking the streets alone, taking pictures, drinking caffe while standing up at bars, getting catcalled by men, window-shopping for fabulous items I can’t afford.
But in Bologna, I discovered something I had never experienced before — a beautiful Italian city, filled with stylish locals and beautiful architecture and insanely photogenic food stands on every corner — but with no foreign tourists in sight.
Yes. This was worth waiting for.
Italy’s University City
As many European cities are today, Bologna is a mix of the traditional and the modern. Some cities, like Vienna, have old and modern buildings right next to each other. In Bologna, it’s more like a wild kaleidoscope of traditions all mixed together.
Take those arches in the picture above. They actually go on for 40 kilometers! They were originally built so people could have more space in their homes while leaving space in the street. Today, you’ll see young university students out drinking underneath those same arches, guzzling the same wines of yesteryear while wearing fashions that haven’t even become trends yet.
It’s the university culture that gives Bologna much of its vibrancy. Bologna is home to Europe’s oldest university, and much of Bologna’s culture is centered around the fact that for centuries, the city has been filled with young people learning.
And I would have loved to study in Bologna with them. Bologna has a chaos about it — not as insane as Rome, but still pretty wild — and the city feels like it’s pulsating with energy.
Emilia-Romagna has long been Italy’s premier food region, and Bologna has long been Emilia-Romagna’s premier food city. Food is taken very seriously in Bologna. Meals are leisurely and some restaurants only have one seating each night! And in Bologna, casual is chic — we ate a fabulous meal after ordering off a giant menu made from a cardboard box.
I should probably say this as soon as possible — bolognese sauce in Bologna is nothing like the tomato-drenched bolognese that populates Italian-American restaurants and backpackers’ hostels in Southeast Asia! The real bolognese from Bologna is mostly meat in a thin sauce with tomatoes and other vegetables, often served with tagliatelle.
Another advantage of eating in Bologna is that there are so many treasures in the surrounding cities and villages of Emilia-Romagna — balsamic vinegar in Modena, marron chestnuts in Castel del Rio, truffles in Sant’Agata Feltria, and, of course, parmesan cheese and prosciutto in Parma.
You’ll find hundreds if not thousands of culinary treasures just from wandering the streets of Bologna — in restaurants, in shops, and in street stands. In Bologna, eating well couldn’t be easier, and that’s why I love it!
All of the Charm, None of the Tourists
I loved Florence, and always will — but its popularity comes with a price. I hated having to dodge several umbrella-wielding Japanese tour groups on the way to class, and seeing tourist trap restaurants trying to trick people everywhere, and being spoken to in English in most places.
Most cities have an off-season when tourists disappear. But even in the dead of winter, Florence, Venice and Rome swarm with tour groups.
What is wonderful about Bologna is that it’s filled with everything I love about Florence — beautiful architecture, absurdly attractive locals, endlessly photogenic streets and piazzas, fantastic food — without the tourist crowds. And while Bologna doesn’t have nearly as many artistic treasures as Florence, it does have a better culinary scene.
Because of this, as a solo traveler, I’d be able to “pass” as a local much more easily in Bologna. And that is the ultimate achievement.
If you’re traveling through Italy by train, there’s a good chance that you’ll pass through Bologna at some point. Bologna is located in the triangle between Milan, Florence and Venice, and many major trains pass right through. Beyond that, the airport is small but connected to all over Europe, and budget airlines will give you holiday deals at a low price.
Bologna is closest to Florence — it’s just a 90-minute train ride. So if you’re visiting Tuscany, leave the tourist traps behind and come to Bologna to see a real northern Italian city that caters solely to its stunning locals.