While you are probably familiar with the name Bologna, I hope you know it as more than just the American lunch meat! Situated in the beautiful Emilia Romagna region, Bologna is a hidden gem among many of Italy’s tourist destinations. A small and humble city, Bologna offers a more relaxed day-trip option than other popular spots such as Rome or Venice. Many may be unaware of all the city has to offer but the culture, history, and beauty are truly unique.
Being only a thirty-minute train journey from Florence, my recent trip to Bologna was only for a day, which was not long enough! Although small, this city has so much to see and experience that I will definitely be returning!
A Quick History
Throughout its history, Bologna has acquired three nicknames, each reflecting a different element of the culture.
This city has come to be known as “la dotta” or “the learned one”. This name sparked from the University of Bologna, long recognized to be a center of European culture and education. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is considered to be the oldest in the western world. Still a prominent presence in the city, over 25% of the city’s population is composed of students.
Bologna has also come to be known as “La Rossa” or “the red one”, referring to the city’s unique architecture. Many buildings and streets throughout Bologna have a red or pink color about them, catching the eye everywhere one goes. And the beauty and culture in this city extend far beyond the architecture as the city is also a center for music and art in Italy.
Finally, many speak of Bologna as “La Grassa” or “the fat one.” From Bolognese to Mortadella, Bologna is unmatched for the quality of food and unique regional dishes. Many go so far as to consider this location to be the food capital of Italy.
While it is exceptional to find a university with even one century of history, the University of Bologna can boast of nine centuries since its beginning. As the university was initiated by students, the exact date it was established is unknown. Nevertheless, the institution grew and fueled the development of culture in the city, as it attracted many prestigious and wealthy patrons to the area. While it ceased to be student-led by the 14th century, it continued growing in fame and prestige.
After a period of decline in the 17th and 18th centuries, the university was made public rather than private. It was the unification of Italy in the 19th century that re-established Bologna as pinnacle of learning and culture. In the modern day, the university has expanded its campus and is focusing on new technologies and environmental research.
Walking through the streets of Bologna is a beautiful and unique experience. First and foremost, one may notice the covered porticos which run throughout the city. At first glance, it is eye-catching and may even seem out of place. According to the town’s tourism site,
“ever since 1100, when the growth of the University led to the need for new urban spaces, the porticoes have become private and public locations where people can socialize and trade, an open-air salon symbol of Bologna’s hospitality.”
These wide walkways create a welcoming environment to stroll, talk, and sit, and shop at the many famous clothes and food markets that grace the streets.
The most beautiful of these structures is found in the Portico di San Luca. At 2.3 miles long, this is the longest corridor in the world and it connects the Basilica di San Luca to the city below. This walkway is filled with religious symbolism, originally being built for the Feast of the Ascension. Each year during the feast, the Byzantine icon of the Madonna is brought to the Basilica of San Pietro and is covered and protected by the portico.
As mentioned before, the unique red color of the buildings is impossible to miss. This feature comes from the use of brick and terracotta in construction, made commonplace by deposits of clay in the nearby River Po. No matter the reason, this construction adds to the warm, welcoming, and hospitable feel of the city for all coming to visit.
So, what is the amazing food that one can’t miss while in the city of Bologna? The city’s name can be found in the worldwide favorite of “Bolognese.” While many may have had this rich, meaty sauce on spaghetti, that is not the way in Italy. Bolognese is typically served on tagliatelle or in Lasagna alla Bolognese. Bolognese sauce is simply a ragù (a meat sauce popular throughout all of Italy) that has gained special fame in Bologna because of their uniquely delicious preparation of this common dish. Although globally famous today, the history of Bolognese is blurry, without clear records of when it became popular or if it truly even originated in Bologna!
In Bologna, the restaurant options are abundant and it can be overwhelming to even choose which one to indulge in. While there, I chose Ristoro del Meridione. This homey Trattoria drew me in with its handwritten menu, flowers planted in tomato cans, and wine bottles lining the staircase. The lasagna alla Bolognese did not disappoint, with tender handmade sheets of pasta, rich sauce lining each noodle, all covered in a blanket of local Parmigiano Reggiano.
Another culinary wonder of Bologna that shouldn’t be missed is the wonderful meats and cheeses, making the popular “tagliere” boards. The city is the only in Italy making Mortadella but the Prosciutto, Parmigiana Reggiano, and balsamic are also exceptional! In the central district of the city, you are surrounded by Salumerias selling meats, cheeses, olives, and other irresistible delicacies. Salumeria Simoni is the most famous and has been operating for over 60 years.
Finally, the day is never complete without gelato! With a multitude of options at our fingertips, we chose Cremeria Cavour, a small Gelateria established by two brothers in 2008. Enjoying a combination of Mascarpone, dark chocolate, and strawberry was the perfect food experience to end the day!
Worth the Visit!
Bologna is an Italian city that is easy to miss! Small in size and quaint in appearance, it may not be at the top of any travel list. But if you have an extra day to spare on your next trip, I believe a stop in Bologna will not disappoint. You will leave with tired legs, a full stomach, and hopefully a new perspective on Italian food and culture. The history of this city runs deep and it continues to be an important cornerstone of Northern Italy. Happy traveling and happy eating!
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