Bologna–Italy’s Best Kept Secret!

With the exceptions of the Piemonte and Molise regions, and Sardinia, I’ve been to cities and towns in just about every other region of Italy. From the top of the boot to the bottom, including the islands of Sicily and Elba, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in this country. After over a dozen summers of traveling there, I can honestly say that one of my favorite places is perhaps its best-kept secret. Bologna.

People often bypass Bologna or at most, stop by for an hour on their way to Venice or some other better-known city. And to be honest, I did the same thing for a long time. It wasn’t until a friend of mine said she thought it would be a cool city to visit that it ever appeared on my radar.

Why don’t more people go there? Well, there are no major monuments there for one. When people travel to Italy, they go for the canals and gondolas in Venice, the Coliseum in Rome, the medieval towns of Tuscany, or the Leaning Tower in Pisa. People love to see the landmarks they associate with a place. I get that.

In Bologna, there are… well, there are porticos.

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Lots of them.

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There are 40 kilometers of porticos in Bologna. These beautiful archways are the defining architectural detail in this city. Of course there are historic landmarks as well, but none that people are clamoring to see. Which helps Bologna stay clear of hoards of tourists and lines of buses bringing them in. And which makes it a perfect place for people who just want to experience a place without all of the hoopla we have to deal with in those more famous cities.

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Bologna’s other claim to fame is that it contains the oldest university in Europe, the University di Bologna, which was founded in 1088. Although at first glance, the university doesn’t seem to dominate the town like some colleges here in the U.S. do, its presence is definitely felt. There’s a cool energy to the town and a young demographic that consists of both college-aged students and people from other regions and countries.

The city reflects this demographic in things like street art and happenings. The streets are lively in the evening and people are out for a stroll or a glass of wine until late. There are often exhibits or performances going in in town as well.

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There are lots of cultural events throughout the year. One of my favorite is the summer film festival, Cinema Ritrovato. This happens at the end of June. It’s a festival of old films, most of them shown in the big square, Piazza Maggiore, but there are small screenings other places and lectures on film too.

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Chairs are set up and when it turns dark, you grab your beer and a snack and settle in for the best free film you’ve ever seen. Surrounded by the lovely old buildings in the square, watching the movie on the big screen, it’s really an incredible experience.

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Last time we were there, my son and I saw Shot in the Dark with Peter Sellers. Awesome. At one point, he looked over and said, “This is one of the highlights of the trip.” There’s really nothing like it. Hearing people speaking in Italian all around you, chairs and the ground filled with moviegoers out to have a good time–bliss. One year, I saw Bernardo Bertlolluci make an appearance. Talk about a highlight.

I know lots of people say certain places are great to just wander, but this one truly is. It felt like a place where real people lived, not a staged city shaped for tourists, which is how some places feel to me. I don’t remember seeing any Hop-and-Go buses clogging the streets of the city or kiosks selling t-shirts every few feet on the main thoroughfares. No, Bologna is more understated, which makes it so special. There’s still plenty to do here–museums, shops, events, etc. But wandering around is pretty wonderful in itself. Oh and I’ve saved the best for last.

The food.

I’ve eaten my way through much of Italy and while you almost can’t get a bad meal anywhere in the entire country, the food in Bologna really stood apart for me. Located in the Emilia-Romagna region, this city offers one delicious meal after another. The Quadrilatero area of Bologna is behind Piazza Maggiore and if you go in the morning, you’ll see open markets with fruit and vegetables stands, as well as bins of fish. It’s an experience in itself, and if you’re staying in an apartment, is the perfect place to stop in and get some food to stock the pantry.

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There are salumerias and formaggerias that sell anything you could ever want. Delicious mortadella and pecorino. Braesola is a favorite in my family. However you might imagine the perfect salami to taste, you will get it here. You could get some snacks from any shop on this street and find yourself a cozy spot to picnic and watch the people go by. The quality of the food at the markets and delis here was impeccable.

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We stopped at one little restaurant and ordered a plate of meat, cheese, and veggies, which came with a basket of breads and crackers, and we were both in heaven. Didn’t need anything more.

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Well, just because we didn’t need anything, doesn’t mean we didn’t get anything, right? There were these little pastries that existed to be slathered with Nutella, so we made ourselves try them. Yum.

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One restaurant was better than the next. The service in each restaurant was wonderful and the food was amazing. This city is known for its pasta Bolognese, which is in very simple terms, pasta with meat sauce (in reality, it’s a very complex dish that takes hours to cook). While the dish varied a little from one place to another, one seemed better than the next to me.

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I really feel that the meals I had in Bologna were some of the best I’ve ever had in all of Italy. I’m not exactly sure why, but it is. I believe the quality of the ingredients that come from the rich Emilia-Romagna combined with the cuisine of the region and the care with which the Bolognese cook and serve a meal really make for memorable food. The gelato was even better here than anyplace else, if that’s even possible.

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If you want a place with landmarks, museums, and major places of interest, this city may not be for you. I took some friends there on their first visit to Italy and they weren’t super impressed. But if it’s your second or third visit to Italy and you’ve done the big name places–Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence–I’d recommend spending a few days in Bologna. It’s got a personality all its own and the best food I’ve had in Italy to date. So go to Bologna where you can wander, eat, and simply be.

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