Travelling from Florence to Bologna
It’s worth buying your tickets online for the fast train from Florence to Bologna – ours cost about €38 each for a return. The good news is the train is so flipping fast it only takes half an hour! The train to Siena by contrast covers only about a third of the distance but takes three times as long.
The 250km per hour journey is only a stint on the train’s full itinerary – all the way from Naples to Milan in less than 5 hours!
The station in Bologna is massive, it will take at least 10 minutes just to get out of it. The walk into the centre is easy from there, down the one long arcade pavement of Via dell’Indipendenza.
1. Pop in the Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro
Just before you get to Piazza Maggiore you’ll find a huge church right there on the street, slotted between the other buildings. This, not Basilica di San Petronio, is Bologna Cathedral. There’s been a cathedral on this site since the 11th century, but various fires and collapsing vaults have meant many reconstructions over the years, so this cathedral building is from the 17th century.
Matt spent lots of time admiring the baroque interior, whereas my favourite bit was the 16th century terracotta sculpture on the right as you enter, depicting the “Lament over the Dead Christ” with all the subjects wearing oddly contemporary clothing.
2. Order coffee and pastries in Pappare
Next up was this cafe which was recommended to me – Pappare. Found on a street just off the two famous towers, this cafe was full of locals and had an amazing array of pastries on offer. We chose a delicate layered pastry with crème pât, stewed apples and fresh strawberries to go with our second cappuccino of the day.
3. Climb the Asinelli Tower
At 97m high, the Asinelli Tower is the tallest of the two towers of Bologna. It leans 2.23m to the west, with its shorter twin the Garisenda Tower hanging 3.2m to the east. Together the two towers are the symbol of Bologna.
Heads up: You can’t just climb this tower. You have to buy your tickets online or at the tourist office in Piazza Maggiore.
Full disclosure, we decided not to climb the tower, after climbing the Torre della Mangia in Siena a couple days before, we decided to save our legs for walking around Bologna.
4. Walk to Ex Chiesa di Santa Lucia
If you want a broader idea of what the streets of Bologna are like, this is a great walk to include in your day, taking you down the long arcade of Via Castiglione, past Ex Chiesa di Santa Lucia and through the trendy student area around the literature department of Bologna University.
Once you’ve turned into Via Cartoleria past the theatre, you’ll notice a drastic upswing in cafes, restaurants and bookshops. Piazza Santo Stefano is a beautiful square ringed with arched buildings, with the Basilica di Santo Stefano at pride of place in the centre.
You can also look out for Corte Isolani, a shopping arcade that runs from the piazza through to Via Str. Maggiore.
5. Discover the Basilica di Santo Stefano
Known locally as Sette Chiese or Seven Churches, the Basilica di Santo Stefano has a fascinating history. We stumbled across it on our walk and were amazed at the age of some of the surviving sections.
Originally built in the 5th century over a temple of the goddess Isis, this historic complex of churches, cloisters, tombs and courtyards hold frescos, sarcophagi, recycled Roman masonry and a piece of cloth said to have belonged to the Virgin Mary.
6. Eat real Bolognese at Ristorante Pappagallo
After exploring the “Seven Churches” we were ready to tackle our main goal of the day: to eat Bolognese. Ristorante Pappagallo at the top of Via Santo Stefano met our expectations and then some, with a tagliatelle bolognese served in a parmesan basket.
7. Do some shopping
Wondering down Via Caprarie towards Piazza Maggiore after lunch, we discovered loads of great shops selling chocolate, gelato, meats and cheeses. The standout was this authentic Italian deli, Tamburini, with hams and salami hanging from the ceiling.
8. Go inside the Basilica di San Petronio
The Basilica of San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore is the main church of Bologna and the largest church built of bricks in the world. Needless to say, it’s pretty massive. It’s free to enter, but you have to buy a special wristband if you want to take photos.
My favourite bit was Cassini’s Meridian Line, a gold strip laid into the floor paving on the left aisle. It looks like a massive sundial (there’s a hole in the ceiling to let a dot of sunlight through) but instead of telling the time, it shows the day of the year. Designed in 1655 by the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini who was an astronomy professor at the university, it was uniquely accurate for its time, and still one of the largest astronomical instruments in the world.
9. Check out the Teatro Anatomico
The Archiginnasio of Bologna used to be the main building of the University of Bologna, but now only houses the Biblioteca comunale dell’Archiginnasio and the Teatro Anatomico. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is the oldest in the world, although this building is only from the 16th century.
The Anatomical theatre, shaped like an amphitheatre and carved from fir wood, was built in 1636 for anatomy lectures and displays. One of the most striking features for me, apart from the marble surgical table in the centre, is the wooden carvings of two skinless men either side of the lecturer’s seat.
You can get into the courtyard and explore the elaborately decorated hallways for free, but a ticket into the theatre costs €6.
10. Buy chocolate from Majani Cioccolato
So apparently Majani Cioccolato is an Italian chocolate institution, so we headed to one of their shops just behind the church. The Fiat range, made in 1911 in partnership with Fiat to celebrate a new car, has layers of praline and milk chocolate and is THE BEST.
11. Get gelato from La Torinese
To while away the time until our return train to Florence we got some gelato from La Torinese on Piazza Maggiore, and sat on the steps overlooking Neptune’s fountain to enjoy it.
Compared to little historic Siena, Bologna felt like a bustling lively city with tons going on. We were only there for a day so we focused on the key sights, but I’m really glad we took the time to wander down some streets and explore Santo Stefano. And the crazy fast train made it such an easy trip from Florence.
If you love Italy, check out one of my most popular posts – 5 Must-Visit Towns In Umbria, Italy!