Updated: Jan 28, 2020
We've visited Italy some 20 times in the past 10 years so it's somewhat surprising that this was our first time in Bologna. After the big three of Rome, Venice and Florence, Bologna seems to fall off most visitors' radar. What we hadn't realized was that there was a time when Bologna was the at the top of the rankings. In 1530, in fact, Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor here by Pope Clement VII because Rome had not recovered after its sack by marauding enemy troops. Bologna still retains the magnificence of the powerhouse it was in the Middle Ages which makes it an ideal city for anyone who dreams of the days of knights and ladies. Its center is full of towers, crenelated castles and medieval churches.
It is alternately called "La Grassa" ("the Fat One", for its renowned food) and "La Dotta" ("the Educated One"- its university, founded in 1088, is reputedly the world's oldest).
The anatomy lecture hall in the university dates to the 11th century.
Reading rooms and libraries are decorated with baroque terra cotta shields of the families of Europe who sent their sons to Bologna to study in the Middle Ages.
There were graduations every day that we visited and it was fun to share the fun of the ancient traditions. The graduate is made to dress up in an outrageous costume provided by friends and parades through the streets in the crazy outfit. The point is that even if you have your doctorate, you can still act the fool around your friends and family.
We met one joyous graduate and her family at a local wine bar.
Bologna is truly a fascinating destination. A walk from the train station to the historic center gives the first impression of the 25 odd miles of porticoes which line virtually every major street.
The city's porticoes go on and on.
The Piazza Maggiore is surrounded by the Basilica of San Petronio, the city's patron saint, the medieval town hall and other historic buildings - and a famous statue of Neptune which medieval church authorities tried to have clothed.
The Basilica of San Pietro has an unfinished marble facade.
Perhaps most awe-inspiring of the historical sites was the complex of Santo Stefano, four (of an original seven) churches dating back to the 11th century.
The Santo Stefano complex is eerily solemn.
Our hotel, the Albergo delle Drapperie, sat on a pedestrian lane overlooking the vegetable and fish market.
A look down on the market street from our hotel room window
The city's defining emblems are the two medieval leaning towers, those of the wealthy Garisenda and Asinelli families. The Asinelli one is actually the world's tallest leaning tower at 498 steps and 325 feet and the claustrophobic hike up a narrow spiral staircase is not for everyone. For those who do make the climb (as we did), there are spectacular views of the city.
The leaning towers are a symbol of Bologna.
A view of the historic center of the city from 325 feet up
And, of course, there were the countless delicious eateries for which Bologna is famous.
A 40 euro Bologna Welcome Card entitles one to free admission to numerous museums (the medieval, Etruscan, musical and Jewish among them), the Asinelli tower, a hop-on, hop-off bus tour (with audio guide in several languages) and the "trenino" (little train) which wends its way up the surrounding hills to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca with its spectacular views of the city. The "pilgrimage" can also be done on foot along a 2.3 mile, 666 arch portico (we chose to do that only on the downward leg).
The "trenino" is a comfortable way to climb the hills outside the city.
The Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca is a pilgrimage site in the hills above Bologna.
After taking the "trenino" up, we opted to walk down the 2.3 miles under 666 portico arches.
Even after a full day of sightseeing, it is well worth trying to catch a performance one evening at the ornate Teatro Comunale opera house.
The ornate opera house is more than 250 years old.