Aerial view of Bologna's red roof tiles

Bologna Pre-Cruise Adventures: Porticoes & Foodies’ Dream

When my cruise from Ravenna was approaching, I decided to fly into Bologna instead of Venice. Not only is Bologna airport closer to Ravenna, but it offered the perfect opportunity to spend three glorious days immersed in a city brimming with history, delicious food, and vibrant Italian culture.

Bologna has earned many nicknames. “La Grassa” (the Fat One) celebrates its culinary prowess, home to dishes like tagliatelle al ragù and mortadella. “La Rossa” (the Red One) references the warm hues of its buildings and perhaps its left-leaning politics, while “La Dotta” (the Learned One) nods to its status as home to the oldest university in the Western world.

Whether you have one day or an entire week, Bologna promises a delightful pre-cruise adventure. Its compact centre makes exploring a joy. You’ll marvel at historic piazzas, stroll under seemingly endless porticoes, climb medieval towers, and of course, indulge your taste buds to the fullest. Bologna offers a slice of authentic Italian life, setting the perfect stage for your upcoming cruise from Ravenna.

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Before You Go: Bologna Need-to-Knows

Official Tourism Website is Welcome Bologna.

Currency: Euros

Language: Italian

Opening Hours: Shops generally open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 1pm, then close for siesta (riposo) and then re-open at 3:30pm till 8pm. Dinner generally starts at 7:30pm and many restaurants won’t open until then. Most shops will close on Sundays.

Local Bus Network: TPER is the Bologna public bus company. Tickets can be purchased at tobacco shops. Single tickets are €1.50, valid for transfers up to 75 minutes. I found it easier to pay onboard via contactless card. Tap with the same card to get your free transfers. A daily unlimited ticket is €6 which is also the maximum you’ll pay per day if you pay via contactless card.

Recommended Transport App: I would recommend Citymapper to navigate around the city; bus routes and times are accurate and helped me avoid TPER’s website which is Italian only. Google Maps also worked well for me.

eSIM for roaming in Italy: For a great data connection without the huge roaming fees, use an eSim data pack from Airalo. I always recommend having a smartphone with a valid plan when you’re at port touring independently. Get US$3 off your first eSIM data pack from Airalo when you use ROXANN1666 when you sign up or apply it at checkout

Heading to Ravenna for your cruise?

Bologna Airport to City Centre via the Marconi Express

The quickest and most convenient way to get from Bologna Airport to the city centre is the Marconi Express train. In my opinion, it’s more of an elevated high speed monorail than a train. But it sure gets you to the city centre quick. Hang on tight around those bends!

  • Find the Station: Follow signs to “Marconi Express” from arrivals, the high-speed monorail-like train connecting the airport to Bologna Centrale station (a short walk away)
  • Train Frequency: Trains depart every 7 minutes during peak times, and every 15 minutes otherwise (from 5:40 am to midnight). The journey takes only 7 minutes.
  • Tickets: 
    • Contactless Payment: The easiest option – use contactless Visa/MC, Apple Pay, or Android Pay on your phone or smartwatch. Single tickets cost €12.80.
    • Return within 30 days: The system automatically discounts your return ticket to €10.50 (total roundtrip €23.30 – same as from the ticket machine)
    • Family ticket: For 2 adults and up to 3 children, purchase a family ticket from the machine (€25.60 one-way, €48.90 return)
  • Luggage: There are no dedicated luggage racks on the Marconi Express, but the ride is short.
  • Connections at Bologna Centrale: There are bus stops outside Bologna station; purchase tickets at machines before boarding or tap with your contactless card onboard the bus. Single bus tickets are €1.50, including transfers within 75 minutes. If paying by contactless, tap with the same card to get your free transfer.

5 Must-Sees in Bologna: Food, Culture & History

1. Piazza Maggiore & the Historic Heart of Bologna

Piazza Maggiore in Bologna Italy
Piazza Maggiore, outside Palazzo d’Accursio & Neptune’s Fountain, Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Bologna’s vibrant heart beats in Piazza Maggiore, a sprawling square that has witnessed centuries of the city’s evolution. Its roots stretch back to the 13th century, when it emerged as a central gathering place for commerce and civic life. Surrounding the square, grand palaces like the Palazzo d’Accursio (now City Hall) and the Palazzo del Podestà speak to Bologna’s political power in the medieval era.

Dominating the scene is the Basilica of San Petronio, dedicated to the city’s patron saint. Construction began in the 14th century with the ambition of creating the world’s largest church, but it remains unfinished to this day. The facade’s lower portion gleams with marble, while the upper part remains bare brick – a testament to shifting fortunes and priorities. Step inside to admire the immense Gothic interior and its most notable feature, the longest meridian line in the world, used for astronomical calculations.

As you stroll the square, you’ll understand why Bologna earned the nickname “La Grassa” (the Fat One). From the tempting smells wafting from cafes, to the abundance of food stalls and shops nearby, it’s clear that culinary pleasures are central to the city’s identity. While the nickname’s exact origin is debated, it has been affectionately used for centuries, celebrating Bologna’s rich gastronomic traditions.

2. Towers of Bologna: Reaching for the Sky

Bologna Due Torri (Two Towers), Italy
Image by eliszebe from Pixabay

Bologna’s medieval skyline was once a bristling forest of towers. These tall, slender structures were built by the city’s wealthiest families between the 12th and 13th centuries, serving as both symbols of status and fortified residences during a time of political turmoil. It’s estimated that over 100 towers dotted the cityscape, with only a handful remaining today.

The Due Torri (Two Towers), the Asinelli and the Garisenda, are Bologna’s most iconic survivors. Their leaning stances are a testament to the challenges of medieval construction. The taller Asinelli Tower offers those brave enough to climb its 498 steps a breathtaking panorama of the city’s terracotta rooftops and surrounding hills.

While Bologna’s towers bear some resemblance to the famous bell towers (campaniles) of other Italian cities like Florence or Venice, they primarily served a defensive and residential purpose. Similar medieval tower clusters existed in other Italian cities like San Gimignano in Tuscany, but Bologna’s collection was particularly extensive.

3. Under the Porticoes: A UNESCO Treasure

Bologna Portico in day time
Bologna Portico at nighttime
Image by Simona from Pixabay

One of my absolute favorite things about Bologna is its network of porticoes. These covered walkways, a unique architectural marvel, earned UNESCO World Heritage status for their cultural significance and the role they play in the city’s social fabric. Beyond providing shelter, the porticoes create an inviting atmosphere, perfect for a leisurely stroll whatever the weather.

Strolling the porticoes of the historic center is a must, but for a truly unforgettable experience, I recommend venturing out to discover the world’s longest portico. This 3.5-kilometer, 666-arch arcade snakes its way uphill to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.

Even if you’re not seeking a religious experience, the journey is a delight and culminates in stunning views of the city. After all, we’re in “La Grassa” – it wouldn’t hurt to work off a few calories before those delicious pasta dinners!

Aerial view of Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca, Bologna, Italy
What awaits you at the end – Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca & views of Bologna, Image by orpanahannaelina from Pixabay

Practical Tip: Bring a filled water bottle! The uphill walk gets particularly steep in the latter half, and there are no shops until you reach the top. Thankfully, there are water fountains at the Sanctuary where you can refill.

4. Bologna, La Dotta: The Oldest University

Bologna’s nickname, “La Dotta” (the Learned One), reflects its status as home to the oldest university in the Western world, founded in 1088. This legacy of scholarship permeates the atmosphere, lending the city a unique blend of historic grandeur and youthful vibrancy.

A visit to the Archiginnasio, the former main seat of the university, is a fascinating step back in time. Marvel at the ornate halls, once filled with students and scholars debating law, medicine, and philosophy. The highlight is undoubtedly the Anatomical Theatre, where dissections were performed before eager learners in a dramatic, tiered wooden lecture hall.

Visiting the Anatomical Theatre: Yes, tourists can absolutely visit! The Archiginnasio, including the Anatomical Theatre, is open to the public and offers guided tours. It’s an incredible opportunity to experience a unique piece of history from the world of medical education.

As you wander the lively university district’s narrow streets, you’ll feel the energy of students past and present. Pop into a cafe filled with the chatter of the next generation of thinkers and innovators, and you’ll understand why Bologna has held onto its learned reputation for centuries.

5. Quadrilatero: A Foodie’s Paradise

People eating in the old market in Quadrilateral, Bologna Italy
Image Credit: Bologna Welcome

Bologna’s reputation as “La Grassa” (the Fat One) truly comes alive in the Quadrilatero. This historic district, a labyrinth of narrow streets just off Piazza Maggiore, is the beating heart of the city’s culinary scene. For centuries, this area has been home to food shops, bakeries, and markets, creating an atmosphere that will tantalize all your senses.

As you wander through the Quadrilatero, you’ll be greeted by a visual feast. Fresh pasta hangs in shop windows, showcasing the artistry of local sfogline (pasta makers). Gleaming wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, glistening salamis of all shapes and sizes, and pyramids of vibrant produce beckon. Even if you’re not planning a full-blown cooking spree, the experience is a delight.

The Quadrilatero is also a fantastic spot to grab a ready-to-eat snack. Look for shops selling tigelle or crescentine (small flatbreads filled with savory treats), slices of pizza al taglio (by the slice), or paper cones filled with fried seafood. Enjoy a quick bite as you continue exploring, fuelling your culinary adventure through Bologna.

Bologna, La Grassa: A Foodie’s Dream

Crescentina with porchestta ham, street food from Bologna
Crescentina with porchetta ham
Tortellini Ragu, Bologna street food, Italy
Tortellini Ragu

Bologna rightfully owns its nickname “La Grassa” (the Fat One). The city is a gastronomic paradise, celebrated as the birthplace of some of Italy’s most iconic culinary delights. Here’s your foodie bucket list to experience the best of what Bologna has to offer:

  • The Holy Trinity: No trip is complete without these classics:
    • Tagliatelle al Ragù: Hand-made ribbon pasta with a rich, slow-cooked meat sauce.
    • Mortadella: Bologna’s signature large sausage, subtly spiced and perfect for a panino (sandwich).
    • Tortellini in brodo: Tiny, meat-filled pasta served in a flavorful broth.
  • Cheese Please: Seek out the king of cheeses – Parmigiano-Reggiano. Try it aged for different flavor profiles.
  • Balsamic Bliss: Drizzle aged Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena over everything – even gelato! (Modena is nearby).
  • Cure Your Sweet Tooth: Indulge in traditional treats like Certosino (a spiced Christmas fruitcake) or Torta di Riso (a sweet rice cake).

FAQ: Should I eat a bologna sandwich in Bologna?

While you might find mortadella sandwiches (the inspiration for American “bologna”), processed bologna as we know it in the US doesn’t exist here. The difference in quality is night and day! True mortadella often has pistachios and a delicate flavour compared to its overly processed distant cousin.

On my first trip to Bologna in 1998, I did try to buy a bologna sandwich in Bologna though! 🤣

A few recommendations for my fellow foodies…

A statute of a pig dressed up as a chef holding a giant mortadella sandwich, Bologna

If you’ve read my other DIY guides, you’ll know that I don’t usually give restaurant recommendations. But I’ll make an exception for the Fat One!

I hope this guide has inspired you to embrace the delights of Bologna before your cruise. Whether you’re a foodie, history buff, or simply seeking authentic Italian experiences, Bologna delivers! Buon viaggio (happy travels), and please share this post if you found it helpful.

Featured Image by Max Nayman on Unsplash

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