Bologna is one of Italy’s most underrated cities, with many overlooking its charms in favour of the big three – Venice, Florence and Rome. But Emilia-Romagna’s capital is a fantastic place for a city break, with plenty to see and do (and eat – one of Bologna’s nicknames is La Grassa, meaning The Fat). On a budget? Not a problem; many of Bologna’s highlights are completely free to enjoy. From people-watching in pretty piazzas to exploring beautiful churches, here are our favourite free things to do in Bologna.
Explore Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is Bologna’s beating heart, and the perfect place to get your bearings. It’s edged by stunning palazzi which date back hundreds of years, as well as the Basilica di San Petronio (which you can read more about below). A smaller square just off the Piazza Maggiore is home to the famous Fountain of Neptune, one of the symbols of the city. Once you’ve had a wander around, take a seat on the steps in front of the basilica and watch the world go by.
Top Tip: During July, an open-air film festival takes place in Piazza Maggiore, with free film screenings each evening. It makes a wonderfully atmospheric setting!
Browse the shops and stalls of the Quadrilatero
Just east of Piazza Maggiore is a little grid of narrow streets called the Quadrilatero. These cobbled passageways have hosted a market since Roman times, and you’ll still find dozens of speciality food shops, stalls and delicatessens here. Stroll through the streets and you’ll see stacks of mortadella, hand-made pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano, as well as bottle upon bottle of delicious local wine. A wander costs nothing, but take it from us – it’s difficult to resist buying a few foodie souvenirs while you’re there!
Discover the Basilica of Santo Stefano
The Basilica of Santo Stefano was once made up of seven churches, hence its nickname, le Sette Chiese. Nowadays there are just four, but the site is still one of the city’s highlights, with its remaining churches showcasing a variety of architectural styles. The piazza leading up to it is one of Bologna’s prettiest, and there is a beautiful two-floored Benedictine cloister behind the churches that’s a great spot to spend a few peaceful moments.
Visit Europe’s oldest university
The University of Bologna’s history has been traced back to the 11th century. It has seen many famous faces pass through its halls, from former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, to fashion designer Giorgio Armani. It’s also home to the Orto Botanico, one of the oldest botanical gardens in Italy, and an impressive library with more than a million books and manuscripts and a collection of portraits and 16th-century frescoes – both of which are free to visit.
Tour the Basilica di San Petronio
The huge, Gothic Basilica of San Petronio was originally supposed to be bigger than St. Peter’s in Vatican City, but Pope Pio IV apparently commissioned an extension to the university next door, and put a stop to the grand plans. It’s still incredibly impressive, though – the façade is half marble, half exposed brick, and inside, you’ll find frescoes, bronze busts and the world’s biggest sun dial.
Wander through the portici
As you walk through Bologna, you’ll notice that many of its buildings are edged with porticoes. These porticoes (portici in Italian), cover almost 40 kilometres and have received World Heritage status from UNESCO. They’re great for an afternoon stroll – if the weather’s hot, they provide welcome respite from the sun, and if it’s drizzling, you’ll stay dry! Many of the original wooden structures were converted to stone in the 16th century, but head to Strada Maggiore and you can still see some of those original wooden porticoes. There are more to discover outside the city walls, too. Leading four kilometres up a hillside to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Luca is the longest portico in the world, with more than 650 arches. It’s a lovely walk to do, and the views from the top are well worth the uphill climb.
Discover more free things to do in Italy in our budget city guides.
Photos: Basilica di Santo Stefano by Pablo Cabezos via Flickr.