Bologna, Italy, a Center of Culture

By Cindy Bigras

Strolling under the Porticos, more than 12 km long, in the city of Bologna. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Strolling under the Porticos, more than 12 km long, in the city of Bologna. photos by Max Hartshorne.

Ask Italians which city they most prefer and Bologna will invariably top the list, yet most foreign tourists have yet to discover this charming city located in the center of the Emilia Romagna region.

If you have ever used the Italian autostrada or railways, there is a good chance you’ve passed through Bologna en route to Venice, Florence, or Milan because of its strategic location at the junction between northern and southern Italy.

Its historic center has been beautifully preserved and although a modern city in many senses, Bologna has successfully maintained its medieval look.

History and Piazza Maggiore As early as 3000 years ago Bologna was a settled community located at the edge of a sea which no longer exists. The Romans subsequently conquered “Bononia” in 189 b.c. and a period of growth and prosperity began. The remains of Roman street layouts and aqueducts are visible from some spots in the city.

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The sea eventually disappeared and the canals connecting medieval Bologna to Venice were covered over in the 1800s but are still visible from Via Piella and help today’s visitor understand why there is a statue of Neptune (by Giambologna) near Piazza Maggiore, the central and most important piazza located in the heart of the city. It is the historic and cultural soul of Bologna, surrounded by buildings representing the city’s economic, cultural and religious power.

Basilica of San Petronio

The grand and imposing Basilica of San Petronio — Bologna’s patron saint — runs along one side. Begun in 1390 and intended to rival St. Peter’s in Rome, it is large and imposing but retains a rustic look because the Bolognese coffers ran dry and the facade has remained unfinished. Today it is the fourth largest basilica in the world.

Palazzo Comunale, also in Piazza Maggiore, was built in the 13th century and houses a modern municipal library where visitors can check email and view Roman ruins found during renovations.

Strolling the porticos of Bologna, Italy.
Strolling the porticos.

The 40 kilometres of beautiful porticoes lining Bologna’s buildings originated in the middle ages as a way to provide extra lodging for the growing population. They create a wonderful sense of unity and have come to distinguish the city’s architecture. Most buildings are faced not of marble, as in other parts of Italy, but of clay, sandstone and red brick, giving the city a welcoming warmth.

You can walk for extended periods of time without being exposed to the elements, a nice touch when the weather isn’t sunny and warm!

A short distance from Piazza Maggiore you’ll find The Due Torri in Piazza Ravegnana — the two towers erected in the twelfth century by the noble Asinelli and the Garisenda families as a testament to their wealth and power. They are the most famous of the many medieval towers found in Bologna

Poseidon in the Piazza Magiorre.
Poseidon in the Piazza Magiorre.

Bologna’s university is the oldest in Europe dating to 1088 and today is the choice for approximately 100,000 Italian and foreign students. Dante, Boccacio, and Petrarca studied here. Politically active and vibrant, Bologna is known for its communist policies and positions.

On any given day you could find a protest or political march, usually peaceful. The Bolognese are also known for their fierce independence; throughout history the city’s rebellions against the papal rulers illustrates this spirit. You’re sure to see locals in heated political discussion and debates about the day’s topics.

Inside MAMBO museum in Bologna. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Inside MAMBO museum in Bologna. photos by Max Hartshorne.

Breadbasket of Italy

Bologna is considered the culinary capital of Italy and that’s quite a statement. Local specialties include tagliatelle al ragu (meat sauce), tortellini in brodo, lasagna, and salami of all types. The best known salami is mortadella which has a delicate flavor unlike its namesake boloney known in the rest of the world.

The parmigiano cheese will be local — Parma is an hour away. The balsamic vinegar originates in Modena, also close by

Tamburini’s, around the corner from the Piazza Maggiore, is a self-serve bistro specializing in meals and condiments typical of the region. Don’t reserve ahead… just show up.

Tasting the exquisite 75-year-old balsamic vinegar. Max Hartshorne photos.
Tasting the exquisite 75-year-old balsamic vinegar. Max Hartshorne photos.

You’ll begin with prosciutto, mortadella, various cheeses, and delicious fresh baked breads. The ripe juicy olives and grissini (breadsticks) not only add a decorative touch to the tray… they are the freshest you’ve ever tasted!

If you ask the owner, he’ll tell you stories about his grandfather who operated the place when it was a butcher shop, and how he is descended from the Gauls who conquered Bologna in the 4th century B.C.E. A little local color to go with your meal. When complimenting the chef be sure to say the menu was “ottimo” lest you tell them it was charming “delizioso“.

Sumptous desserts are always the end of a great meal in Bologna.
Sumptous desserts are always the end of a great meal in Bologna.

If you’re up for a day trip to Modena you will surely sample the best vinegars of your life. Don’t think all vinegars are created equal! These are vinegars aged in oak barrels for up to 75+ years and some are served from an eyedropper. The Ristorante/Acetaia La Noce is owned by 5th generation oxologo (master of vinegar making) Giorgio Mozzarelli.

Pignoletto Frizzante to Start

He produces, sells, and serves the vinegars in his restaurant across the street. For starters you’ll be served Pignoletto frizzante, the local wine, with grissini and gnocci fritti. Then for the meal how about a San Giovese, accompanied by a large Raviolo filled with ricotta and parmigiano topped with sour black cherry sauce?

This is the tortellone Testarossa (with a red head!) and is followed by freshly made tagliatelle al ragu, and pork with sour cherry and… vinegar! If your mouth isn’t watering right about now… your saliva glands are faulty!

City of Culture

In 2000 the European Union assigned to Bologna, along with eight other cities, the designation “city of culture” and in 2006 UNESCO appointed Bologna a “City of Music” citing its long and rich music tradition. This recognition has given Bologna the opportunity to develop and showcase its cultural offerings and each year so that young and old enjoy theatre, dance, film and music performances in and around the city.

Bologna offers an unbelievable number of summer dance, theatre, and music performances through its Be’ (Bologna Estate) program. Many are free and some are performed outside in the town squares.

The annual Bologna Festival organizes classical concerts which combine music, theatre, dance, and visual arts. It is recognized on an international scale as one of the predominant music festivals in Europe.

The city has 22 theaters so there are no shortage of venues. It isn’t just classical and baroque music you can hear — the Porretta Soul Festival brings the best soul and R&B musicians to the area.


Bolognas’s newest museum, MAMbo, (Museo d’art Moderna) opened at its new location in May, 2007 with a special exhibit, Vertigo. As of this writing, the museum’s permanent collection is being moved to the new location and will be open to the public in December, 2007. The new site is a former bakery building, tastefully renovated, filled with light and large open spaces. From December, 2007 until February, 2008, you’ll be able to see work of Adam Chodzko, Eva Marisaldi, Diego Perrone and Bojan Sarcevic.

The Morandi Museum exhibits works of local son Giorgio Morandi, one of the best known Italian painters of the 20th century. It is located in the Palazzo Comunale where you’ll also find the Museo Comunale — the municipal art collection.

Because the Emilia Romagna region is home to many luxury car manufacturers, you’ll find museums for Ferrari, Ducati, and Lamborghini. This can be a great diversion if you’re traveling with children but even adults will enjoy the museum display; I’m no car connoisseur — I drive a basic, practical Japanese vehicle. But I discovered that Ferraris are sexy, beautiful, sleek, and you cannot but marvel at the design. The original Ferrari, designed by Enzo himself was yellow, the color of Modena. Red was the first racing Ferrari’s color.

Fly direct to Bologna from a number of departures places. From the US, Eurofly provides direct service from New York’s JFK airport during the summer months; numerous European airlines will offer direct flights from various locations.

Auto/Motorcycle Museums

Ferrari Gallery

Lamborghini Museum

Performing Arts

Cineteca di Bologna

Bologna Festival

Porretta Soul Festival

Bologna Tourism

Thinking of moving there? Bologna Inside is directed at English speaking expat residents of Bologna but provides such a wealth of information that I’ve included it here. Look at the Tempo Libero section to get suggestions of things to do in and around the city

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