Mortadella made Bologna towers
A one day walking itinerary to explore Bologna, a fascinating medieval city, (still) ignored by main stream tourism. Discover Bologna works of art, its porticoes and its amazing food!
Surprisingly enough, the vast majority of tourists see Bologna only from the window of a high speed train, moving from Venice to Florence and vice versa. A real pity for them, indeed.
Though neglected by the mainstream touristic flows, Bologna is home to the oldest university in the Western world, and is known for its lavish porticoed walkways and squares, its fascinating medieval center and its bustling night life. Bologna is also one of Italian food capital: great pastas such as tagliatelle, lasagne, tortellini as well as delicacies such as Parmesan Cheese, Balsamic Vinegar and some of the finest cured meats in Italy hail from Bologna and the surrounding Emilia Romagna region.
All this makes Bologna a perfect off the beaten path destination for the savvy traveler. Wandering under the ancient porticoes and discovering architectural masterpieces from a long forgotten past (while tasting from time to time to local amazing delicacies) could be one of your Italian trip major delights!
Bologna can be easily discovered in one day. It is located just 45′ minutes from Florence on the Venice-Florence train line and thus could makes a great half a day / one day stop-over. In this post I’ll share a walking itinerary aimed at discovering Bologna highlights in less than one day. Of course, if you have more time you may spend one or two nights in Bologna, using it as a hub to visit nearby points of interest such as Ravenna, Ferrara or Modena and / or to enjoy a cooking class.
Here is my suggested itinerary, click here to access the interactive google map.
The itinerary starts from the railway station (were you will find a convenient left luggage office). Just walk out of the station, cross the street, turn left to Piazza XX Settembre and there right in via Indipendenza. Follow the Porticoes and you will get to the very center of Bologna in no more than 10-15 minutes.
You’ll know you are arrived when you reach the Neptune fountain. The bronze figure of Nepune is a work of famous late renaissance artist Giambologna, completed in 1567.
A few steps ahead will lead you to Piazza Maggiore, the heart of Bologna, surrounded by the most important buildings of the medieval city.
To the west of the square stands the Palazzo Comunale (also known as Palazzo d’Accursio) which features the imposing clock tower and the 16th century bronze statue of Pope Gregorio XIII.
In front of the Palazzo del Podestà rises the unfinished facade of San Petronio.
San Petronio is the biggest church in Bologna and the 5th biggest church in the world. It also features the longest meridian line, with a length of 66.71 meters. The basilica is dedicated to the patron saint of the city, Saint Petronius, who was the bishop of Bologna in the fifth century. The first stone of construction was laid June 7, 1390 but never really ended, since no agreement about the facade project could be find (despite projects from famous architects such as Andrea Palladio) . Thus the facade remained partially unfinished.
In the initial plans, San Petronio was supposed to reach almost 224 meters long and 150 meters wide: this would have made it the the largest basilica in the world. Unsurprisingly, the pope didn’t approve the idea of a church larger than St. Peters and thus in 1650 decided to build the Archiginnasio on a site immediately adjacent to the Basilica, making it impossible to proceed with the execution of the overambitious plans. Eventually San Petronio ended up “only” 132 meters long by 66 meters wide.
The interior is astonishing , with 45 meters high Gothic vaults, and its twenty-two side chapels contain countless works of art.
The most fascinating one is probably the Cappella dei Magi (number IV on left side), where in the year 1400 Giovanni da Modena painted magnificent frescos representing: “The Heaven” and “The Hell”, “The Kings Magi’s stories” and “The St Petronio Consecration”.
After visiting San Petronio, walking right to the west side of Piazza Maggiore you will find the 16th century Palazzo dei banchi, where once bankers and money changers lived and worked . Walk under the porticoes and a few meters ahead you will find the Palace of the Archiginnasio.
The seat of the ancient university and now the seat of the Municipal Library, the Archiginnasio is one of the most important buildings in the city. It was built in the sixteenth century when Pope IV called for a drastic reconfiguring of Piazza Maggiore.
On the inside of Archiginnasio is the unmissable Anatomical Theater. Built in 1637, the paneled amphitheater was built for anatomical studies, allowing students to gather around the white table in the center of the theater where the dissection of human or animal bodies took place.
The room has fascinating statues in various anatomical positions which represent some famous physicians of Ancient times (Hippocrates, Galenus, etc.) and of the local athenaeum.
The two famous statues of the “Spellati” (skinned) carrying the canopy surmounting the teacher’s chair are a fascinating mix of science and art.
Coming back down the porticoes and turning right in via Clavature, your next stop is the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita.
Founded in the second half of the 13th century by the Confraternity of the Battuti (Flagellants) of S. Maria della Vita, the church, displays an elegant elliptical plan and contains the famous sculptured group of the “Pietà”, locally called “compianto”. Carved by Nicolò dell’Arca in the second half of the 15th century, it is a unique, vibrant master piece, and one of the most vigorous and expressive works of Italian Sculpture. The “humanity” of the saints expressions, , overwhelmed by pain and desperation, as well as the dynamism of their postures, make this masterpiece one of the most touching masterpieces I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately in october 2013 the Compianto was still partially hidden by the scaffolding assembled to protect the statues after last year earthquake.
Getting out of Santa Maria della Pace, loose yourself in the delightful street market around via Pescherie Vecchie, the most lively and picturesque in central Bologna.
This bustling pedestrian area could be a good place to stop and have a glass of wine and a taste of local cheeses and cold cuts. My favorite place is Tamburini, were you can sit in the outside terrace on old barrels and indulge with a glass of Sangiovese, while looking at the bustling street life.
A few meters from Tamburini you will find one, if not the, most famous landmark of Bologna: the Torre degli Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda.
Bologna, like San Gimignano in Tuscany, used to be dotted with up to a hundred towers, power symbols belonging to the richest families of town, but also important mean of defense against military attacks. Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda are the most famous among the twenty or so that survived to time, wars and city development. They are both leaning, but curiously in opposite directions.
Torre degli Asinelli was built in the 11th century. Named after the family that commissioned it, it is over 97 meters, making it the tallest in Italy.
Finding it was easy (you can spot it from nearly everywhere in central Bologna). The next step, much more challenging, will be climbing on it (if you dare…!). It is a 498 steps climb up to reach the top. However, once there you will have Bologna at your feet!
After getting down the tower, head along Strada Maggiore, one of the main streets of Medieval Bologna, towards Piazza Santo Stefano. It’s a 10 minutes walk, along nice porticoes and posh cafés and boutiques, until you get to Corte Isolani, a covered passageway, recently opened to the public, that connects Strada Maggiore to Piazza Santa Stefano.
The impressive wooden doorway to the Casa Isolani is one of the most interesting examples of Roman-Gothic architecture (note the medieval arrows planted in the roof). Inside Corte Isolani a succession of courtyards, with restaurants, shops and art galleries will lead you to the most beautiful square in Bologna: Piazza Santo Stefano.
Piazza Santo Stefano is a charming pedestrian square, with a river stone paving and surrounded by splendid ancient buildings, culminating in the facades of Santo Sefano complex. Once per month (the second Saturday and Sunday of the month) Piazza Santo Stefano hosts a delightful flee market.
But the real reason to come to Santo Stefano is the breathtaking religious complex of the “Sette Chiese” (seven churches), an interweaving of seven religious buildings surprisingly interconnected and one of Bologna most romantic and interesting monuments.
You enter the “Sette chiese” complex through the Church of the Crucifix. Of Lombard origin, it dates back to the 8th century. It has a single nave with a raised presbytery reached by a stair and a 14th century crucifix that gives the church its name. Under the presbytery stair is a splendid crypt.
A side door leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the oldest building in the entire complex, which held the relics of San Petronio that had been recovered here in 1141 (they are now in the cathedral). The little door of the tomb used to be opened for one week year during which time it was possible to crawl inside and pay one’s respects to the saint’s remains.
A door on the opposite side leads to the church dedicated to Vitale and Agricola, a master and servant who lost their lives, in 305 AD, victims of Diocletian’s persecution. Inside you can admire the remains of the mosaic floor, while in the two small apses at the side you can find the two sarcophagi of Vitale and Agricola.
Also to be visited in this astonishing complex are the “Courtyard of Pilates”, so named in memory of the place where Jesus was sentenced, the church of the Trinity and the splendid Medieval Cloister.
After your visit you could indulge in Santo Stefano square sipping an Aperitivo at the caffè Sette Chiese (slightly overpriced, but you pay for the view; it’s only worthwhile if you spend there some time) or having a dish of Tortellini at the nearby Ristorante Cesarina, a landmark in Bologna restoration (very good, though not cheap). You can eat outside on the square in the summertime.
If you don’t have a train to catch, you could now have a short walk to San Domenico.
This is the basilica which hosts the remains of San Domenico, the founder of the Dominican order. It’s one of Bologna main churches and its definitely worth a visit, especially to admire the Arca di San Domenico (this is were the saint remains are buried). The exquisite shrine is Nicola Pisano, Arnolfo di Cambio and Niccolò dell’Arca masterpiece. Actually one of the angels has been carved by a young Michelangelo.
San Domenico chapel is extraordinary, and its beautiful marble shrine is one of the purest creation of the plastic Italian art. It justifies on its own the visit to this church!
Last stop of this long tour is San Francesco, twenty minutes walk from San Domenico.
The Basilica was built in the French Gothic style following a visit by St. Francis of Assisi in 1222. Unlike many such ancient churches, its insides were not completely revamped in the Baroque period.
The beautiful marble altar inside dates from the late 1300.
Of particular interest are two free standing tombs on its grounds: these represent a truly unique construction as examples of such mausoleums have almost never been found in Italy. Built in the 13th century, the one pictured here houses a “glossatore” – a 12th century scholar of ancient legal texts.