[BOLOGNA, ITALY]  — Bologna was about 237th on my list of places I wanted to visit, but when a Rome school buddy of mine suggested we meet there to eat one long weekend, I jumped at the chance. We’d planned for a long weekend of eating, but unfortunately I caught a fierce bug on the plane that progressively got worse and worse until I was forced to spend several days in my hotel room with the cold sweats, swollen throat and was about as sick as I’ve ever been. So here is an abbreviated 36 hours of my visit to Bologna, long on pics of the beautiful city but short on restaurant recs. 😅

Man oh man what a gorgeous city. Almost every block is covered with some sort of portico, centuries old. I was there in late October, so the golden autumn sunlight weighed heavy on all the nooks and crannies of the city. Each corner revealing some beautiful hue of red and ochre, with the perfect patina. You walk around the corner and BOOM, another amazing palette of colors smacks you in the face.  And the reflected light gave off a glow that washed the whole city in red.

Tower view Bologna
Bologna sun in red

Bologna’s nickname is “La Rossa” (The Red One) because, well, it’s all red. Okay, moving on to our next lesson…

Bologna is one of the oldest cities in the world. And the University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world, founded in 1066! So there’s a very youthful presence all across this small city, especially by the university. So cool to see kids hanging out with the piles of books, or ready to form a protest, all in such lush and historic surroundings. The city has only 400,000 residents today, so it feels small and compact. But in the 13th & 14th Centuries it was one of the biggest cities in Europe. It’s amazing how much of this very old city has been preserved.

A City of Porticos

Porticos are a big deal in Bologna, there are almost 62km of them (!) that line nearly all the city centre streets and they are a part of daily life… as they have been for over 1,000 years. Which is why they are now a UNESCO Heritage Site.

They first started all the way back in the 12th Century as a way for buildings to expand over public spaces, but really became mandatory to shield people from the sooty rains and whatever else might be falling from the sky in those days. Including the random defenestrations.

Bologna library portico

They still serve the same purpose today. Each block, each building has its own character and function. And almost all dripped in rich ochres and deep reds and knurled stone columns.

I bet it would suck to be an umbrella salesman in this town.

Every portico has its own character and light.

Bologna– Italy’s Best Food City

Emilia-Romagna is the food capital of Italy and its prized bread basket. And Bologna is its capital. This the epicenter of the best of Italian food — balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, prosciutto, agnolotti and tortelloni and a bounty of amazing things. Most of the biggest food companies in Italy are located in and around Bologna and Emilia-Romagna.

Bologna lady in fish market

Food is everything in this city. And some of the best no-name restaurants are on every corner. Yes, there are some famous Michelin-starred destination restaurants, but you can’t go wrong at any restaurant.

Bologna butcher shop

We came here to eat, but since I spent most of my town sick in my hotel room, my restaurant recommendations are slim.

Sitting in Bologna piazza
What I do best in Italy. Sit. Sit and drink it all in

The Piazzas of Bologna

Like all great Italian cities, the piazzas are the lifeblood of the city. But because all the streets are narrow and porticos cover all the sidewalks, it’s really the only place you can get out in the sunlight — like walking out from a dark slot canyon into a wide open space, your eyes blinking. Especially in the winter shadows. Have a cappuccino or a birra and watch the world go by.

Bologna piazza maggiore cafe
Bologna Polizia
Bologna piazza sunset

A City of Light and Shadows, Reds & Ochres

I call this the “Chiaroscuro City”. The one thing you’ll notice is the intense changes in light, from morning to dusk. The late October sun moved like a sundial, shedding rays of sun to illuminate every dark crevice. A painting on every corner.

The streets are so narrow and curvy in Bologna, buildings groan for the sky, sunlight barely finds its way to the ground. It seems like they dug it into the ground vs. building ⬆️.

Sometimes the rays are so intense and the shadows so dark, I found myself walking into stone columns when walking towards the sun. The weirdest effect is when you’re walking down a street in like a red fish tank, the light bouncing off a red ochre wall, casting everything in an eerie red glow.

Bologna sun in arch

Climb The Torre Asinelli

If you can. I’ve seen recently that there’s been some settling, but if they still allow it, it’s an amazing view from the top. Like San Gimignano and other Italian cities, there was a medieval Tower Wars between the wealthy families. The taller the tower you had, the greater wealth. Bologna was loaded with these, many long lost. But the most famous are the leaning Torre Asinelli.

They cant towards each other like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I read recently they had to close one tower to shore it up, it had moved so much in the last couple of years. The stairs are steep and creaky, but the views from the top are amazing. The streets are so narrow that it’s the only way to get a lay of the land, like popping your head out of a cornfield.

Bologna Torre Asenelli

It was long ago, but I hid a Euro in a slot above eye level at M38 sign. If you find it, take a pic and send it to me and tell your friends about it. You can see pics below for clues to where.

City overview Bologna

— Last visited October 2012

More Information on Bolgna

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the food. Here’s a great recap from NYTimes 36 Hour series. Since I don’t have one, here’s a list of the best places to eat in Bologna from Condé Nast Traveller. And where to eat in Emilia-Romagna from NYTimes. And a great run down on the food in Bologna from the amazing Katie Parla. And a guide to Emilia-Romagna from The Guardian. And an even better list of ALL articles on Bologna from TheGuardian. A great article from the US Condé Nast Traveler. And here’s a fun article on all the best whacky things to see in Bologna from my favorite Atlas Obscura.

Here is the Emilia-Romagna tourism website. Very helpful. And the Bologna Tourism website. And Trip Advisor’s Bologna page. And a guide to Bologna from Italy magazine.

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