Research, travel, and legal dispatches from my Fulbright year in Bologna, Italy.
The 2014 Rick Steves Guide to Italy, an impressive tome clocking in at more than 1,200 pages, devotes exactly one paragraph to Bologna. It says, to paraphrase, Don’t go! Even if you happen to find yourself at the Bologna Centrale station, it’s not worth getting off the train. But if you insist, here are two obvious things to see. Bologna, he writes, is “huge, congested, and relatively charmless.”
With all due respect to Rick Steves, he is wrong. Get off that train!
[Click here to skip the rest of the intro and download the walking tour.]
Bologna is home to the oldest university in the world, and that alone should make it worth a visit. It is also the food capital of Italy, which is the food capital of Europe, thus accounting for its two main nicknames: Bologna la Dotta (Bologna the Learned) and Bologna la Grassa (Bologna the Fat).
Perhaps most interestly, Bologna boasts miles of incredibly preserved Medieval streets and porticoes. This gives it a distinct feel compared to Rome the ancient superpower, Florence the birthplace of the Renaissance, or Venice the maritime jewel, to name a few. It was situated at an important crossroads during the Middle Ages, meaning that in addition to an intellectual hub, it was a trade and finance center with hundreds of artisans weaving silk and producing other fine goods.
Many of Bologna’s Medieval buildings are still in use today as restaurants, shops, libraries, and offices. These façades make walking around the city an adventure in and of itself. However, my hope that is this walking tour will take you a little bit deeper than a casual perusal of Bologna’s streets. Bologna can be overwhelming for the senses, so my goal is to orient you and help you focus on some treasures that are lying in plain sight but can be easy to overlook. To that end, the tour includes 5 of the 7 famous “Secrets of Bologna,” as well as some lesser-known legends.
I also will admit that Bologna does not accommodate English speakers the way Rome, Florence, and Venice do. This is both a blessing and a curse. The upside is that unlike in Venice, where on some days you hear more English than Italian being spoken in the city center, Bologna feels very authentically Italian. Bologna is a functioning city first and a tourist destination second, which means that even the main sites are not overly touristy. Instead, they are frequented by locals, out-of-towners, and foreigners alike. The downside is that those who don’t speak Italian will miss a lot of the details that make touring Bologna a rich and memorable experience.
To that end, for the past month I have been taking photos of some of the building plaques and translating them into English to help non-Italians (aka friends and family whom I hope will come visit me this year) experience the city. I have used those translations plus some additional information provided by the City of Bologna to compile the tour entries.
So fuel up with a cornetto and a cappuccino, and then hit the streets with my FREE self-guided Bologna Walking Tour (and by all means skip to page 2; the first page generally rehashes this intro). Also check back next month for a Bologna Museum Guide with my recommendations for the best museums in Bologna, sorted by category and accommodation for English speakers.
(c) 2014 Janna Brancolini