Accessible, affordable and less crowded, this geographically diverse Italian region will steal your heart.
(The next installment in the series, “The ABCs of Future Travel”, designed to inspire you to start planning your next trip.)
Name a region in Italy I haven’t visited, and I’ll tell you I want to go there. Name a region in Italy I have visited, and I’ll tell you I want to go back. So it was, and now is, with the Northern region of Emilia-Romagna.
Emilia-Romagna is bordered by Liguria, Lombardi, Veneto, Tuscany, and Marche. The Eastern coastline of the region runs along the Adriatic, giving beach lovers a phenomenal place to play. The rest of Emilia-Romagna is comprised of mountains, rolling hills, valleys, and rich, verdant farmland. You can hike the hills in the morning and swim in the ocean in the afternoon.
Bologna is Emilia Romagna’s capital, and here is where we have spent most of our time in the region. Therefore this historic university city will take up most of this narrative. But there is much more to see and do, and we hope to experience more of Emilia-Romagna’s tempting offerings during future travels.
Note on Covid19: As of this writing, Italy is beginning to reopen. Be sure to check the website belonging to venues, restaurants, events, or accommodations you plan to visit before finalizing your plans.
Our first visit to Bologna was in early March 2018. For me, it was a total bust, because I had broken the fibula on my left leg in Pals, Spain three days earlier. Subsequently, I was in a cast, confined to my hotel room bed under doctor’s orders to stay off my feet.
We were fortunate to have found Hotel Holiday, which had an elevator. The hotel was in the city center, right on the edge of Bologna’s medieval sector. Everything Simon wanted to photograph was within easy walking distance, so he took pictures of fascinating architecture, brought in wickedly scrumptious food from neighborhood restaurants, and regaled me with tales of his adventures. I clearly remember swearing in general, between bites of luscious, cheesy pizza, and swearing someday to return to Bologna.
Bologna Part II
The opportunity to return to Bologna, and to visit other areas of Emilia-Romagna, presented itself in October 2019. Since our prior experience with Hotel Holiday had been such a positive one – excellent location, clean, friendly, good complimentary breakfast, we made it our Bologna headquarters again.
The first order of business was to take a guided walking tour of the city. I highly recommend doing this in any new city for an informative overview with a local leading the way. In addition, you have the opportunity to learn about the city so you can make rational decisions on what you do and don’t want to see in detail later on in your visit. A good local guide will also give you the lowdown on the best non-touristy places to find the best food and entertainment from a local perspective.
What to See in Bologna
Bologna is a city that excels in fascinating history, stunning architecture, art and culture, gastronomic delights, and some of the friendliest people you’ll find anywhere. Here is a small sampling of her generous offerings:
- Bologna, among many other things, is a college town. Università di Bologna is the largest in Europe and is the oldest continuously operating university in the world. It claims Guglielmo Marconi, Enzo Ferrari, Copernicus, Petrarch, Thomas Becket, plus a respectable number of Cardinals and Popes among its alumni. The university was founded in 1088 and is one of the world’s top-rated institutions of higher learning. The original main building can be found Adjacent to Basilica di San Petronio in Piazza Maggiore. Now known as the Archiginnasio, it houses the Anatomical Theatre, where 16th-century medical students studied anatomy and dissected corpses. This centuries-old sandstone structure also houses a large municipal library.
Once you’ve explored the fascinating exhibits at the Archiginnasio, be sure not to leave Piazza Maggiore without going into the Basilica of San Petronio. Construction of the church, sixth largest in Europe, was begun at the end of the 14th century, and was never truly completed. It took several centuries to reach its current state, and was not consecrated until 1954. The interior is vast and contains 22 chapels. One you don’t want to miss is Cappella Bolognini, which sports a painting depicting the last judgement that could scare anybody into mending their evil ways. You’ll pay €3 for the privilege of being scared out of your wits. Another must-see is the world’s largest sun dial, measuring nearly 220 feet in length.The Basilica of Santo Stefano is, in fact, four separate churches, constructed during four different periods, and cobbled together to form one of the most fascinating and depressing structures I’ve ever experienced. Pain and suffering appear to be the theme running through three of the buildings. The fourth features a masterfully carved wooden nativity scene. Although most of the surprises are vignettes of sadness, the paintings, sculptures and carvings take you back over 1,000 years and the mood of the day. Be sure to save some time to walk through the courtyard and cloisters.
When it comes to towers that lean, Pisa isn’t the only city to boast of having one. In fact, Bologna is one up on its Tuscan counterpart with two prominent leaners. Bologna’s Asinelli just happens to be the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. This structure, along with the smaller Garisenda, reside a short distance South of Piazza Maggiore. Of the city’s 100 original towers, a mere twenty have survived to the present. I don’t know if any of the remaining 18 lean, but these two definitely do. When it comes to towers in Italy, it seems crooked is cool.Piazza Maggiore, as its name indicates, is the focal point of Bologna’s historic center. The magnificent 16th century Fountain of Neptune, complete with angels, dolphins, and sea nymphs, is impossible to miss. Enjoy your view of this stunning water-spewing work of art from one of the many fabulous restaurants and cafes located in the piazza. And as if all this beauty and marvelous food isn’t enough, Bologna’s central train station is conveniently located in close proximity. Although leaving Bologna will probably be the last thing on your mind.Bologna is blessed with approximately 25 miles of medieval porticos. These stunning architectural features are characteristic of Bologna, and make the city immediately recognizable in photographs. Nominated as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site – we’ll know in 2021 – these Bologna icons run from bare-bones simple; to highly elaborate with meticulously detailed carvings and paintings. Aside from their unique beauty and charm, Bologna’s porticos make walking, shopping, and browsing even more joyful by keeping pedestrians shaded from the summer sun, and dry from rain and/or snow.
Bologna’s network of ancient shops, some dating back to the 13th century, is a destination in itself. Located off Piazza Maggiore is the Quadrilatero. There you will come upon an eclectic array of shops including bakeries, shops selling traditional Emilia-Romagna fresh food items, artisans of all kinds, and more. Many of these have a family history going back several generations. They have not only retained the historic look and feel of their shops, they have continued to uphold the standards of creativity and craftsmanship that transcend time and trends.
The International Museum and Library of Music of Bologna is both a museum and a palace. Located on Strada Maggiore in the historic 16th-century baroque style Palazzo Sanguinetti, the small but elegant structure holds within its walls 500 years of enthralling music history. The museum’s exhibits occupy nine rooms, which are as fascinating as the priceless musical treasures they contain. Antique instruments, original scores, as well as personal correspondence and portraits of some of the most famous musicians and composers that ever graced our planet, await you. It should come as no surprise that Rossini has a room of his own in the museum. The composer’s Original Barber of Seville score is on display for all to see, even if very few can understand it. Perhaps more pleasing to the eye and imagination is his piano. It wasn’t hard for me to picture Rossini’s hands on the keyboard, working on his next masterpiece. Before you leave, be sure to poke your head into the library. There you’ll find over 100,000 books and documents related to the history of music.
Via Bertiera 13
Bologna, BO 40126
International Museum and Library of Music
Museo Palazzo Sanguinetti
Strada Maggiore, 34
+39 051 2757711
+39 051 2757728
More of Emilia-Romagna
This post may seem to be full of Bologna, but Emilia-Romagna is replete with wondrous things to see and do. Here are just a few:
- Castello di Torrechiara, overlooking the Parma River, greeted us at the end of a long, hot slog up a terraced hill. Located in the province of Parma, this 15th-century castle, with its four towers, open-roofed walkways, and magnificently painted walls and frescos, was well worth the climb. One of the highlights of the castle was the bridal room, the bed-chamber once occupied by two noble lovers. The room was deliciously decorated with adorable cherubs playing musical instruments, hearts, and a background of painted landscapes that provided a window on how the area looked in medieval times
Emilia-Romagna is a paradise for racing car enthusiasts. Pay a visit to the Ferrari Museum in the town of Maranello. Learn the fascinating Ferrari story, drool over exhibits of sports cars, in chronological order beginning with the earliest models up to the present. If looking isn’t enough, you can always rent a Ferrari to live out your racing fantasies. Be aware, however, this comes at a price, both for the rental and the speeding ticket. But wait. There’s more. You can also visit the Umberto Panini Maserati Museum in Modena and Lamborghini Museum in Sant’Agata Bolognese A museum we plan to explore on our next visit to Emilia-Romagna is Museo Nazionale Dell’Ebraismo Italiano E Della Shoah (MEIS). This museum of Jewish history in Italy spans 2,000 years of religious tolerance and unspeakable tragedy. Opened to the public in December 2017 in what once had been a prison. The exhibits in this museum trace the history of Jews in Italy from Roman times through the Inquisition and the Holocaust. They also teach us about a brief golden era in the 16th century when Jews were welcomed, and their contributions appreciated. While in Ferrara be sure to visit the oldest synagogue in Italy, located in the former Jewish ghetto. The building, constructed in 1603, still stands on its original site but has undergone several major renovations over the centuries. There you will find a memorial plaque bearing the names of Ferrara’s Jewish residents who, in 1943, were rounded up and deported to concentration camps.
Via Alfredo Dino Ferrari, 43
41053 Maranello MO, Italy
+39 053 694 9713
Via Modena, 12
40019 Sant’Agata Bolognese BO, Italy
+39 051 681 7611
Umberto Panini Historic Cars and Motorcycles Collection
Via Corletto Sud, 320
Cittanova-Modena – MO – 41126
+39 059 596 2181
Museo Nazionale Dell’Ebraismo Italiano E Della Shoah (MEIS)
Via Piangipane, 79/83
+39 053 276 9137
Mangia, Mangia, Emilio-Romagna Style
The food of Emilia-Romagna is a combination of fresh, lovingly produced ingredients and hearty comfort food. There’s nothing like sitting outdoors at a cloth-covered table, feasting on a generous bowlful of tortellini in brodo (plump meat-filled tortellini basking in a savory broth). Or you could opt for another traditional Emilia-Romagna dish, tagliatelle al ragù (long, wide, flat pasta in a rich, luxurious meat sauce).
One way to cozy up to the culinary traditions of Emilia-Romagna is to take a food tour. This is exactly what we did on our last visit to Bologna with Italian Days Food Experiences. This turned out to be one of the most fascinating, informative, and belly-bulging food extravaganzas of our lives.
We watched spellbound as Parmigiano Reggiano was being prepared for the aging process. Then drove to Modena to learn the story of how several generations of one family have been producing high quality certified DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) artisanal balsamic vinegar for decades.
A visit to the plant where carefully raised fat pig legs are transformed into delectable prosciutto de Modena using traditional methods came next. Despite the fact we were offered generous samples throughout our tour, the daylong food fest ended with a sumptuous multi-course traditional Emilia Romagna meal.
One of the many palate-popping discoveries we made during our Italian Days tour was Lambrusco, This delightful wine, produced in Emilia-Romagna, is light, slightly sparkling, ruby red, and best served chilled. We were pleasantly surprised to find Lambrusco right here in New Bern, and now keep a bottle in our refrigerator at all times.
I could go on and on about the superb variety and quality of Emilia-Romagna edibles, not to mention the wine. But you should discover it for yourself. The farmers, producers, and restaurateurs take food to an entirely new and loftier level.
Licensed Travel Agency & Tour Operator
Galleria Ugo Bassi 1
Bologna, IT 40121
Phone: (+39) 338 421 6659
Spending time in Emilia-Romagna is appealing on many levels. The rich history, stunning landscape, and culinary delights are reason enough to visit. But the regional culture of traditional high quality in everything produced there, strong family ties, and genuine friendliness put Emilia Romagna over the top as a must-see Italian destination. Once you’ve sampled all Emilia-Romagna has to offer, you’ll want to return again and again.