I’m not sure if the laid back atmosphere, the slower pace, and the minimal crowds are typical of Bologna, but this was what we experienced making it my favorite destination so far on this round-the-world trip. We booked a hotel for our 3 nights through hostelworld.com which was about a 15 minute walk from the center of the old city. Arriving late in the afternoon, we got to work planning our self-guided tour of the city before venturing out for dinner at Singapore Restaurante, the only place open and within budget at 9pm in the evening. (The food was incredible, and a welcome break from the pasta and pizza we have had for nearly every meal for the last 2 weeks in Italy.)
In a quick research cramming session I was determined to at least see the following main highlights of our self-guided tour:
- Basilica di San Luca
- Piazza Maggiore
- Basilica di San Petronio
- Biblioteca Salaborsa
- The Twelve Gates
- Fontana di Nettuno
- Torri degli Asinelli and Garisenda
First thing in the morning we set off in search of a café to get our day started. We quickly discovered many businesses were closed during the month of August (consistent with other destinations we have visited recently) and eventually found our cappuccino at a small sidewalk café. From here we set out to see the Basilica di San Luca. This church sits on a hilltop outside of the old walls of Bologna and is quite a hike. We exited the Porto Saragoza, one of the 12 gates, and traveled through the 666 arched openings of the longest portico in the world stretching 3.8km to the top. From the top we were able to look back into the city and see all the clay roofs covering the buildings with a few of the remaining towers standing above.
We walked back through the portico and further into the historic city center for a late lunch. We always forget that the restaurants take an afternoon break and close from 2 or 3 until 6pm, but we eventually found a place with outdoor seating where we were at least able to get fresh sandwiches. Afterwards, we headed toward the Piazza Maggiore which sits in the center of town. During the summer months many of the streets here are closed to traffic except for a few buses that rarely pass through. The center of the square was set up for summer movie nights with a huge theater screen and seats set up for the nightly viewings. There were a few artists spread in the square and even some musicians earning a few bucks here and there.
We hoped to tour the Biblioteca Salaborsa a historic library which sits atop some ruins of ancient civilizations that date back to at least the 3rd century BC. There is a glass floor that allows visitors to view the ruins that were discovered as recently as the 1990s. Unfortunately, it was closed for the month, so we will have to come back.
Next, the Fontana di Nettuno was being refurbished and covered entirely by scaffolding, limiting any opportunity to see it. Instead we crossed the piazza and entered the Basilica di San Petronio. This is the 5th largest church in the world with construction beginning in 1390 and after many changes in design completed in 1663 (however the façade appears unfinished and is even described as unfinished in the guidebooks). The original plans were to make this larger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but the Pope nixed that plan. It still felt enormous when we entered. The most interesting thing in the church was the meridian line on the floor which was calculated by astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini that can precisely tell the day of the year.
Leaving the church, we explored the piazza further until we were at Le due Torri. The two towers, Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda sit side by side, but with significantly different appearances. The Torre degli Asinelli stands tall in its original form where the Torre Garisenda leans significantly and was partially torn down to only half its height to prevent it from toppling over. These historic towers were built by families living in Bologna during the 12th and 13th centuries as a sign of power and wealth with as well as protection. At one point there were over 180 towers of which less than 20 remain today. For 3 euro each we were able to ascend the 97meters to the top of the Torre degli Asinelli. The views were incredible from here and these pictures actually do it justice for once.
Afterwards, we found a table outside at a nearby restaurant to indulge in another round of one of our favorite Italian dishes, the spaghetti Bolognese. Strolling home after dinner we passed a small percussion band performing in the Piazza and gathered to watch the show momentarily. It brought me back to the times I would pass through union square in New York City except much less crowded.
For our second and last day in Bologna, I wanted to try to see the 12 gates of the city and check off a few photo ops on the way. The first spot was a sneak peek at one of the canals that flowed during roman times. There was a small hatch that we could peek through to snap our shot; it was very cute.
Next, we passed by the Torre Prendiparte a medieval tower similar to Le due Torri. It is now a B&B with a history that takes it through a handful of owners and was even a prison at one point.
From there, we set out to circle the city and see the 12 gates. What started out as a nice walk around the city didn’t really pan out. I think we saw 6 or 7 of the gates before turning back toward the historic center. Each gate is unique, but only a couple were worth seeing in my opinion (the Porta Saragozza and the Porta Galliera). If you wanted to make it a trio, then the Porta san Donato near the University of Bologna would be my 3rd choice.
The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering in the historic center split between a round of spaghetti Bolognese and a final helping of gelato before leaving Italy.
We certainly enjoyed our time in Bologna. This city was incredibly clean and the people both working and visiting kept the atmosphere cool and calm. Whitney says I probably only felt this way after leaving the crowded busy city of Naples, but either way Bologna was one of my favorite. I would like to return one day and visit some of the places that were closed and possibly spend some time in some of the museums that may tell more about the history of the city and the area.
From here it’s a night in Milan before traveling to Interlaken, Switzerland to see the beautiful Swiss Alps.