The capital and largest city of the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna is a fascinating destination for visitors wanting to discover northern Italy. This historic city dates back thousands of years and has been an urban centre for almost the entirety of its life. Today, this sprawling metropolis is known for its cultural attractions, thriving art scene and culinary traditions. The train to Bologna from Rome takes as little as two hours during the day, with direct services operated by Italo. A trip to Bologna is very worthwhile, from the rewarding sights of Medieval architecture to some of the most mouth-watering dishes in the world.
Forget Venice, Milan and even Florence, Bologna is the place to go in northern Italy. And yes, you did read that right. Nicknamed La Dotta or in English ‘the learned one’, this university city may not draw as many tourists as other destinations in Rome, but wandering its mediaeval lanes is an absolute delight.
Bologna is on the high-speed train network, reachable from Florence in under 40 minutes, Milan in around an hour and Venice in about 75 minutes. Book your Frecciargento or Frecciarossa tickets well in advance to secure the best price.
After catching the train to Bologna, visitors should hop off at Bologna Centrale train station, which is just north of the city centre. From here it takes 20 minutes to walk to Piazza Maggiore, the main square of the city, where you can catch a glimpse of the church of Santa Lucia. Immediately next to the square is the Fontana di Nettuno, one of the city's most iconic landmarks.
Not far from here, a mere five-minute walk away, you’ll find another of Bologna's most popular landmarks – the Torre degli Asinelli. Travellers have to climb 498 worn wooden steps to make the full ascent, but the effort is rewarded with breath-taking views of chequered red-tiled roofs, brick towers and weathered copper church domes across the city. Its smaller neighbour, Torre Garisenda, leans as badly as the Pisa's more famous tower but is closed to visitors.
For those who still have some energy, this town is also famous for its many arcades, including San Luca, which extends for almost 4 km from the heart of the city all the way to the Colle della Guardia (the Hill of the Guard) – it’s said to be the longest portico in the world.
After savouring the vistas and giving tired legs some time to rest, visitors can enjoy a short stroll (just 15 minutes from the central monuments) to the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. Thousands of individual masterpieces can be found in this art gallery, with works from artistic heavyweights including Giotto, Parmigianino and Vasari.
For those looking to fill the rest of the day a different way, why not head to the old market hall? Located in the historic centre of Bologna, it’s packed to the rafters with boutique stalls, wine merchants, pop-up food restaurants and bistros offering up a mouth-watering selection of local delicacies. It's even got its own canals. Many are now filled in, but head to the area where Via Oberdan meets Via Righi and Via Piella and you'll see what survives.
If fast cars are your thing, west of Bologna near the city of Modena, petrolheads will delight in a visit to the Ferrari museum at Maranello as well as the Lamborghini museum at nearby Sant'Agata Bolognese.
Don't come to Bologna expecting to eat Spag Bol. The city is a foodie paradise and its signature dish is actually Tagliatelle al Ragu, thick flat egg noodles topped with a thick meaty sauce, as far removed from its cheap imitator as, well, Fiat is from Ferrari. Nicknamed La Grassa (the fat one), you'll have no trouble replacing those calories you burnt off climbing the tower. Il Quadrilatero, Bologna's ancient market, is a maze of narrow streets packed with delis, butcheries, patisseries and ice cream parlours all waiting to tempt you inside. The street names offer a clue to times gone by, with names reflecting the businesses that used to reside in each – via Pescherie Vecchie (fish), via Calzolerie (cobblers) and via Drapperie (cloth).
Before heading out for dinner, you should partake in two of Italy's best-loved evening pastimes. First, make the passeggiata, or stroll, essential for building up an appetite. Next, head for one of Bologna's many wine bars and order an aperitif such as Spritz, a Prosecco-based cocktail with Campari or Aperol. The price of your drink includes a free buffet – Italians firmly believe that alcohol should never be consumed without food. Cheers to that!