From climbing the iconic Torre Asinelli and admiring the city’s spectacular porticoes, to feasting on the best pasta in Italy, here’s how to spend one day in Bologna.
Milan is famed for its cathedral, Venice for its canals and Rome for its incredible historic sites… so, what about Bologna? Well Bologna is ALL about the food. In fact, it’s the foodie capital of Italy! While the city has many beautiful buildings to admire, it’s the cuisine that will have you hooked.
If you’ve only got one day in Bologna, spend it wisely! Plot out an itinerary, see all of the main sights, cram your day full of experiences, and include plenty of time for eating and drinking.
This guide is full of travel tips and recommendations so that you can really make the most of your time in the city. Thankfully it’s a pretty compact place and extremely walkable. Even with just 24 hours in Bologna, there’s a lot you can see and do!
Why visit Bologna?
There are so many reasons to visit Bologna. For starters, it’s the oldest university city in the world. Yes, it’s even older than Oxford or Cambridge! Bologna University was founded back in 1088 and has been in continuous operation ever since. This university has shaped the culture of the city. It’s livelier and more vibrant than many of Italy’s most populous cities, as around one fifth of the population are students.
The city is filled with historic architecture including majestic churches and tall towers, making it a very photogenic place to explore. There’s a charming centre with narrow streets leading to a vast piazza. Look out for the many porticoes, a unique design style that runs throughout Bologna. There are over 40 km of these special covered walkways lining the city centre’s streets.
The Emilia-Romagna region is famed for its cuisine too, with the highest number of DOP products in Italy. These are items that have a legal status meaning they can only be produced in the specific places (just as Champagne can only be produced in France’s Champagne region). Items from Emilia-Romagna include Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan), Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (balsamic vinegar), mortadella (a type of cured meat) and prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham).
So, if you’re interested in a food themed city break, with plenty of history and culture weaved in, Bologna is an ideal destination for a holiday!
Where is Bologna?
Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, located in the north of Italy. To the east is Genoa, to the west is Ravenna. It’s also on a strategic route between Venice and Florence.
How to get to Bologna city centre
How satisfying is it when you land at an airport and it’s a quick journey to the city centre? Bologna is one of those destinations!
Once you land at Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport, catch the Marconi Express (similar to a theme park monorail) and you’ll be transported to Bologna’s central train station in under 8 minutes! There are other ways to reach the city, but if you’ve only got one day in Bologna, every minute counts!
What to do in Bologna in a day – The ultimate Bologna itinerary
I’ve covered why to visit, but now it’s time to help you plan your day in Bologna! I’ll admit I spent several days in the city researching what to include in this guide, and it’s been hard whittling it down to enough to fill 24 hours.
Take in the views of Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is the beating heart of Bologna, and a great place to kick off your trip. It’s one of the largest and oldest squares in the whole of the country, dating back to the 1200s. It’s a place to people watch, all while admiring some of the most magnificent European architecture.
If you’re interested in history and architecture, you’ll love seeing the impressive buildings up close. They include the ‘unfinished’ church of Basilica di San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Notai, the Palazzo d’Accursio (with its famous clock tower), the Palazzo del Podestà and the Palazzo dei Banchi. That’s a lot of palaces and landmarks – many of which are open to the public.
I’m not a history buff, but I really appreciated my time in the piazza and found myself drawn to it on several occasions throughout my time in Bologna. I wandered around the perimeter, sat on the steps with an ice cream and stopped for a cappuccino at the café in the square. It also happens to be the starting point of my next recommendation!
Go on a food tour of Bologna
I’ve already mentioned how important food is to this city, and I think the best way to immerse yourself in the culinary scene is by going on a food tour. Taste Bologna runs food tours every morning, leaving from Piazza Maggiore. I loved this activity as not only did I sample lots of things I might not have thought to order, it also took us to places that were off the beaten track.
We explored local markets, watched ladies making traditional tortellini and tortelloni (which originate in this city), tasted some local wine and enjoyed a traditional plate of tagliatelle al ragù. We even shopped for a selection of breads, cold cuts and cheeses to create our own delicious Bolognese feast! We took these items to Osteria del Sole, a traditional bar tucked away in the Quadrilatero district, which is BYO… that’s bring your own food!
If you only have one day in Bologna, I’d definitely recommend a food tour. The tour guide was really helpful and full of suggestions on how to make the most of the rest of our time in the city.
For lots of great recommendations of what to eat in the city, check out this Bologna Italy food guide. It features every dish to try on your trip, although you might struggle to fit them all in if you’re only spending 24 hours in Bologna!
If you’re looking for other food-based activities, how about getting in the kitchen and learning how to cook some traditional dishes with this Bologna home cooking experience. If you’re spending longer in Bologna, you could look at booking some day trips too. I’d recommend visiting nearby Modena for a balsamic vinegar tasting or heading to Parma for a food tour combining parmesan, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar!
Climb Asinelli Tower for the best view of Bologna
The best way to work off some of those tasty dishes from the food tour? Get climbing! Bologna’s two towers are icons of the city. Torre Garisenda is short and pretty wonky, but the Torre Degli Asinelli stands tall and strong at a height of 97 metres. It dates back to the 1100s, so it’s an incredible feat of architecture to see it still there today.
Climbing the tower is one of the top things to do in Bologna. I’ll admit it was a challenge, but a rewarding experience none the less. There are 498 internal steps, some of which are narrow and uneven. If you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia, or are travelling with young children, you might want to skip this activity!
However, the views over Bologna from the top are absolutely incredible. The city is famed for its many towers. In fact, at one point in the city’s history there were said to be more than 80 towers in Bologna. You really get to see them from this viewpoint. It was also lovely to see the view of Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca in the distance – somewhere we’ll be visiting soon!
You’ll need to book tickets in advance, and there are specific time slots to manage the flow of tourists going up and down the stairs. If there are multiple attractions you’d like to visit in Bologna, I’d recommend picking up a Bologna Welcome card.
Explore the Quadrilatero district of Bologna
Located between Torre Degli Asinelli and Piazza Maggiore is the Quadrilatero district. This is a characterful area, filled with market stalls, traditional shop windows and a lovely buzz. Old fashioned chocolate shops sit next to busy fish counters, and ancient stores sell 300 Euro bottles of aged balsamic vinegar and colourful filled pastas. It’s definitely one of my favourite areas of Bologna!
Quadrilatero has a long history too, as it was where the city’s market was located in Medieval times. I’d recommend walking the alleyways perusing the windows filled with food products and taking in all the sights and smells along the way.
This is where I picked up lots of tasty treats to take home, including wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano, slices of mortadella, vacuum packed tortelloni and whole salamis. My suitcase was over a kg heavier on the return journey!
One of the funniest things about Vicolo Ranocchi (one of Quadrilatero’s main streets) is that many of the delis on here are also little eateries. Ham shop? Yep, grab a seat and have a glass of wine and some snacks. Shopping for cheese? Pull up a chair outside and have a glass of local vino and a big platter of cheese! I told you this was a city which always has food on its mind!
Walk to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca
There are many stunning views of Bologna’s porticoes, but for me, none are as impressive as the walk from Via Saragozza towards the Basilica di San Luca. As you wander this route, you’ll understand why the city’s porticoes were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2021.
This spectacular arch-lined trail begins at Porta Saragozza in the city and stretches up the hill to the pretty church. Before walking it myself, I hadn’t realised quite how far the porticoes reach! There are 666 in total and they continue for a whopping 4km, making this the longest covered walkway in the world.
It’s a lovely route, with colourful archways, chapels and views along the way. It has a serious gradient to it towards the end too! I saw lots of locals striding and cycling their way up the hill – it seems to be where the Bolognese go for exercise!
Once you reach the top, enjoy the beautiful views from Santuario Madonna di San Luca. It’s at this point you’ll see how lush and green Emilia-Romagna is.
If you’re short on time or your legs are tired, you can hop on the San Luca Express back to Piazza Maggiore.
Refuel with the best gelato in Bologna
If you’ve travelled around Italy before, you’ll know how amazing the gelato is. It turns out Bologna’s gelato comes highly recommended, not least because there’s a gelato university in the city!
There are a few contenders for the best gelato in Bologna: Cremeria Santo Stefano, La Torinese 1888 (right in Piazza Maggiore) and Galliera 49. I loved how they each had special flavours – the dulce de leche with black cherries at Cremeria Santo Stefano was particularly delicious!
Admire the views from Bologna Clock Tower
Once back in the city centre, no doubt with tired legs, I’d recommend visiting the Torre dell Orologio, which is also located right in Piazza Maggiore. I told you you’d be visiting this main square a lot!
Climb Bologna’s famous clock tower, and you’ll be met by beautiful views from two different levels (including right by the clock face itself).
After seeing the cityscape from Asinelli Tower, it was nice to see it from a completely different angle. The clock tower doesn’t have the height of the Asinelli Tower, so you get a much closer view of the main square and over the orange rooftops.
Explore Bologna’s hidden canals
You might associate Venice and Milan with canals, but did you know Bologna has some too? To be honest, they’d be very easy to miss if you’re only spending one day in Bologna! From my research, I’ve read the city’s Medieval canal network stretches for around 60km, but most of them were covered over in the 1950s and 60s to make way for construction.
There’s a magical spot to see the city’s canals, and it’s a bit of a hidden gem! Head to Via Piella and you’ll find the Finestrella di Via Piella, a small window cut into the wall. Open it and you’ll see a view that’s more Venice than Bologna, with pretty red and pink buildings either side of a canal. There’s a real fairy-tale feel to this view – it’s such a surprise!
Step inside the magnificent Basilica of San Petronio
If you have some time free while you’re visiting Piazza Maggiore, I’d recommend taking a look around this impressive church. It’s free to enter, just make sure you’re dressed respectfully.
While I thought it looked large from its façade, that didn’t prepare me for just how vast it is inside. It’s one of the world’s largest churches, with a length of 132m and a height of 45m!
There’s a funny tale to this church. You might notice it’s unfinished, with red and white marble at the base, which doesn’t continue past the middle. It’s even lop-sided! Allegedly, 16th century Pope Pius IV was concerned that the basilica would be more impressive than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, so paused the project.
The basilica is also home to the longest indoor meridian line in the world, measuring over 66m, as well as a huge sundial, 22 chapels and lots of ancient artworks.
Enjoy an early evening aperitivo in Bologna
Oh, how the Italians know how to live! As the sun starts to set on your day in Bologna, it’s time to relax with a drink and enjoy the city’s aperitivo scene. As you wander the city streets from around 5.30 / 6pm onwards, you’ll see most of the bars busy with people drinking spritzes.
Order an Aperol spritz or glass of wine and you’ll always be presented with a few snacks to go with it. One of my favourite spots for an aperitivo is Camera a Sud – a local joint with a great vibe.
As you’re on holiday, you could upgrade your classic aperitivo for a sophisticated cocktail at the city’s famous 5* hotel Grand Hotel Majestic. Take a seat in Café Marinetti and enjoy the luxurious surroundings, chandeliers and photos of greats on the walls who you’re following in the footsteps of!
If you’re looking for a special hotel for your trip, check out my guide to the best hotels in Bologna. This post, of course, includes the Grand Hotel Majestic!
Sample some tasty Bolognese cuisine
One of the hardest parts about visiting Bologna is deciding where to eat. There’s so much choice, and while most restaurants serve great food, if you’re only in the city for a day, you’ll want to guarantee it’ll be a memorable meal. It’s a city I was visiting primarily to satisfy my stomach, so I was keen to sample a lot of traditional foods. Thankfully, I found some great restaurants!
I’ve got two great places to recommend for dinner in Bologna – one traditional and one modern. Da Cesari is a wonderful family-run restaurant in the city centre. Inside you’ll find a mix of tourists and locals, all feasting on hearty dishes from the region.
This is a great spot to try traditional delicacies, such as tortellini en brodo (filled pasta in a meat broth) and torta tenerina (a moist chocolate cake). I chose the tortellini with truffle, which was one of the best things I ate in Bologna.
It’s the kind of restaurant where you’re welcomed into the family with open arms, a few jokes and plenty of conversation. And of course, every meal ends with a punchy digestif on the house!
For a modern twist on Emilia-Romagna’s cuisine, book a table at Oltre. This is a trendy hangout with ambient lighting, a quirky cocktail menu (with spirits brewed by the in-house mixologist) and a fresh take on traditional dishes.
For a greater understanding of the food scene, I’d recommend ordering Oltre’s tasting menu. We enjoyed 6 courses over a couple of hours, which included the restaurant’s signature meatloaf, tortellini and a veal cutlet.
How many days in Bologna?
This Bologna itinerary is ideal if you’re short on time, but there are so many extra things I could have included. I spent 3 nights / 4 days in Bologna, which I think was the perfect length of time. It allowed me to discover the city at my own pace, and take time to savour each meal! It also allowed plenty more days to fit in extra gelatos!
If I’d stayed any longer I would have loved to add in a few day trips to the nearby towns of Modena and Parma.
Many people visit Bologna on a day trip from Venice or Florence, and it’s definitely possible to fit a lot in to a short time. As mentioned, it’s a very walkable city and most of the key sights are within ten minutes of each other.
I hope my guide helps you to discover the best of Bologna in a day! Have an amazing time in the city. If you’re still deciding where to stay, don’t miss my guide to the best hotels in Bologna.
If you’re looking for other things to do in the region, check out my Italy road trip guides. They highlight the best places to visit throughout the country.