Adventurous Kate contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!
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.
Planning a Trip to Italy:
- What NOT to Do in Italy
- Solo Female Travel in Italy: Is it Safe?
- Ultimate Guide to Driving in Italy
- How to Stay at an Agriturismo in Italy
- 40 Italy Landmarks to Experience Once In Your Lifetime
- 30 Stunning Mediterranean Islands To Visit In Your Lifetime
- 30 Italian Cities To Visit Once In Your Lifetime
Cool Places in Southern Italy:
Cool Places in Sicily:
- The Joys and Challenges of Traveling in Sicily
- Where to Go in Eastern Sicily
- 23 Fun Things to Do in Palermo, Sicily
- Complete Guide to the Aeolian Islands, Sicily
- Aci Trezza: A Laid-Back Coastal Town in Sicily
- Visiting Sicily in the Winter: Worth it or not?
- 30 Iconic Dishes To Try In Sicily
Cool Places in Northern Italy:
- Three Weeks in Northern Italy: An Itinerary
- Parma, Italy: A Colorful, Artsy, Delicious Town
- Where to Stay in Rome: Best Neighborhoods and Accommodation
- Three Days in the Dolomites: A South Tyrol Getaway
- Best Day Trips from Florence, Italy
- The Immaculate, Bursting Mosaics of Ravenna, Italy
- 25 Best Food Experiences in Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Many thanks to Emilia-Romagna Tourism and Wilde PR for hosting me on the Delicious Emilia-Romagna Blog Trip. All opinions, as always, are my own.
For more on Bologna, check out Bologna Living.
22 thoughts on “Bologna, Italy: the Sexy, the Delicious, the Untouristed.”
Bologna sounds like a great place to be! I’ve only spent a week in Italy (a few days in Rome, a couple in Sorrento, and a couple on the Amalfi Coast), but I LOVED it. I can’t wait to go back. And, when I do, I think I’ll definitely have to add a stop in Bologna!
I hope you do, Amanda — it’s such a big hub that it’s easy enough to do so!
My kind of town. Q & I have been to Italy twice, Bologna was never on our list, but it looks like it will be next time! Did you try burrata cheese anywhere in Italy? It’s seriously the best mozzarella you’ll ever have.
Gerard, I sadly did not get into any burrata, but I did eat plenty of squacquerone cheese (also known as my new favorite Italian word!).
My university ran a study abroad programme in Bologna, which I thought seriously about doing. I wound up choosing a different country and city for my year abroad, and while I don’t regret that decision, I do still really want to visit Bologna someday!! A few friends of mine studied there and LOVED it 🙂
Lovely article – you’ve highlighted some of the reasons I fell in love with this city after I visited for the first time. I live in nearby Reggio nell’Emilia, but I have to say Bologna is one of my favorite places in all Italy.
It’s also a cultural center, home to many of Italy’s finest writers and musicians – Stefano Benni and Samuele Bersani among them. Incidentally, the train station is a hub for Italy – it’s one of, if not *the* busiest train station in the country.
For all the relative “chaos” there, it’s an exceptionally human place. Truly liveable – not overwhelming at all – which is a blessing after the larger cities in Italy.
My only caution is this: after you visit, you might fall in love with the place. I did. Heck, I even wrote a novel set there!
That’s amazing, Kimberly! I think I might be heading back as soon as I can! 🙂
I’d never considered going to Bologna Kate but now I’ve read this I think I’d definitely go! It’s not so much the tourists that bother me (being a constant tourist myself, I can’t really talk!) but Bologna looks like the perfect mix of studenty lifestyle, romance and culture.
I hope you do, Beverley! I often found it wasn’t the tourists themselves, it was getting treated like a clueless tourist that I hated the most!
I love falling in love with new cities!
I wasn’t in Bologna for more than a day or two (and this a few years back) but it seemed very chill, very beautiful. Thanks for a reminder!
Jealous of everything you get to experience in Italy! Bologna is an amazing city that has a lot to offer but frequently gets overlooked. It shouldn’t be skipped over while visiting Italy.
Finally someone who GETS IT. That’s why I made it my home. After living in Florence for a year, which was magnificent, I wanted an Italian city where people actually were Italian. LOVE Bologna, La Grassa.
A few excellent points made here: 1. Few Tourists. 2. Train Hub and Center of Italy 3. Made for man. 4. Porticoes that protect you from heat, rain and snow. 5. University.
I also find that Bologna is so full of young people. I love that.
Hi Kate, I’ve still yet to step foot in Bologna, it’s definitely on the list. A very enjoyable post and have added the link to the Travel Bloggers Guide to Emilia-Romagna I’m developing.
Kind regards, Si
How would u compare Verona to Bologna? I am debating on which of the two I should visit. I know Vernona has more tourists, but which is more fun in terms of having more interesting sightseeings
I actually haven’t been to Verona, but they’re so close to each other that you could stay in one and do a day trip to the other.
It’s on my list of must-do’s the next time I get to Italy
Do you have any agriturismo farmhouse destinations nearby that you would recommend for a dozen family members who would love Bologna & would like to do a day or so side tript to Venice & Florence?
I can recommend Isola del Sasso, just outside Bologna, but it’s not really a farmhouse type of agriturismo — more of a posh winery. But if you’re looking to do a side trip to Venice or Florence, it’s very easy from Bologna, but you have to factor in travel time from whichever agriturismo at which you’ll be based.
I had the same reaction when we visited Turin. A beautiful baroque historic center with porticoed streets, great food, and very few tourists.
Thank you, Adventurous Kate !