As is usually the case with my impromptu European adventures, I was inspired to visit Bologna after booking a great flight deal ($499 round trip) on AirBerlin from New York to Milan. Since I’d already been to Milan, I chose the nearby region of Emilia-Romagna because it’s known for being Italy’s premiere foodie destination, and there are plenty of things to do in Bologna, its capital city, at night. Bologna doesn’t have many major tourist attractions, so it’s not as crowded or expensive to visit as many Italian cities. The most popular things to do in Bologna are wander around its ancient streets and eat out – perfect for me, as I’m always down for a good city break of restaurant hopping!
Things to Do in Bologna: Eating Edition
I’m not exaggerating when I say that every meal I had in Bologna was the best meal I’ve ever had. Each one just kept getting better!
I was lucky enough to be traveling with an Italian friend, Angela, who had some insider information about things to do in Bologna from a local acquaintance.
On our first night, based on her friend’s recommendation, we headed to an unassuming pizzeria called Spacca Napoli. After a long day of flying, busing and training I was thoroughly exhausted but the smell of melting cheese, tomato sauce and yummy carbs woke me right up as soon as we walked in the door. I was a little wary as many people on Tripadvisor had complained about long wait times, but we were seated immediately. The joys of traveling Italy in the off season!
The restaurant was no frills and most of the patrons were university students. We started off with a carafe of wine (because when you’re dead tired wine is so helpful, right? KIDDING) and then, in typical American fashion, each ordered an entire pizza for ourselves. Gotta try ’em all, right?
The best part of all was the bill. Four huge pizzas with gourmet toppings and plenty of wine, and the tab came out to about $50 euros. My last two trips to Italy left me practically penniless, but so far Bologna was living up to its reputation of cheap and awesome.
The next night we headed to another restaurant called Osteria dell’Orsa. It was absolutely packed on a Saturday night, but the wait wasn’t too bad since we could buy wine from the hostess and drink it on the sidewalk while passing the time.
Eventually we were ushered downstairs and seated at a picnic-style table that was shared with another party. We immediately befriended our neighbors, two guys who looked extremely hipster to me, but seemed offended when we mentioned the word. True story, one of them spilled wine on his pants and pouted for a solid five minutes about it, whining that he’d paid 100 euros for them. #FirstWorldProblems. Expensive and questionable taste in pants aside, they were really nice and we ended up sharing our salad with them and they gave us some of their wine.
The atmosphere at Osteria dell’Orsa was really lively, perfect for a pre-going out dinner. And after all this wine, I was suddenly regaining my fluency in Italian… It had been almost four years since I uttered my last Italian word, but it was all coming back to me, I swear! Either that, or I was muttering gibberish and they were laughing at me, instead of my jokes… hmm.
For dinner I had tagliatelle bolognese, a classic dish of the region. Fun fact, true bolognese sauce is nothing like the tomato based sauce we call that back in the States. It’s actually just a meat sauce and not red at all. I also learned that “spaghetti bolognese” is a complete and utter foodie faux paux, as true Italians would never pair the two together. It’s all about the tagliatelle, a thicker and flatter noodle. I’m not sure what the logic is behind this, but I can tell you that the resulting dish is tasty and I’m certainly not going to argue with the experts!
Another one of my favorite foodie things to do in Bologna is Eataly. Yes, the same Eataly that delights New Yorkers with multiple floors of Italian food magic also exists in real Italy! I wasn’t really hungry because my stomach was finally starting to protest this sudden influx of carbohydrates, but once the lasagne verdi alla bolognese special was served, my appetite miraculously returned. Best. Lasagna. Ever.
Sadly after lunch at Eataly, Angela had to head back to her hometown of Puglia. Without our Italian guide, we were feeling a little bit lost about where to eat dinner, especially since she’d been our translator at every meal! English isn’t as widely spoken in Bologna as it is in cities that are more popular with American tourists, meaning a little bit of Italian language knowledge went a long way.
We asked the concierge at our hotel, Starhotels Excelsior, for some advice and he recommended Trattoria da Pietro, saying it was his family’s favorite restaurant. He called ahead, and off we went!
Upon arrival though, we realized that there was absolutely no way that they were seating us any time soon: hordes of guests were spilling onto the street waiting for tables. Since it was already too late on a Sunday night to find something else, I went inside and spoke with the woman who worked there, explaining that our hotel had called. She smiled, seemed to know exactly who we were, and handed us some wine. We settled in to wait.
Approximately two hours later, I was ready to eat a granola bar for dinner I was so hungry and tired. Apparently we’d picked the number one hotspot of Bologna for dinner. Oops?
We considered leaving and grabbing take out from a falafel place that was nearby and open late. But in the end, we decided to stick it out. The food that people at the tables around us were eating looked and smelled so good, there was no way we had already waited two hours and were going to leave without eating it! Plus, the staff was trying as hard as they could to keep us happy by filling up our wine glasses and bringing us little plates of snacks.
We were finally seated at 10:50 p.m., along with one other party, even though the restaurant closes at 11:00. Now in the US, this would probably mean that they would rush you through the meal while throwing dirty looks your way. But not in Italy – eating is not something you get through quickly, ever. Despite the late hour, our waitress breezily recommended a three course meal.
Dinner started off with pasta, and when I tasted it I momentarily thought I had died and gone to food heaven. The homemade raviolis were actually the best thing I had ever eaten in my life. Didn’t I already say that about all the other food in Bologna? This time, I swear, I’m serious. You can’t die without flying to Bologna and eating this pasta. The second course was a heaping platter of steak, followed by dessert.
At this point we were waiting for them to kick us out so the waitstaff could go home, but instead they casually came by and dropped a bottle of limoncello and some glasses off at the table before disappearing for about twenty minutes. Leaving without a few after dinner drinks apparently wasn’t an option.
While the two hour wait wasn’t pretty, we ended up being happy that we had stuck it out and eaten at Trattoria da Pietro. If you make it to Italy, put this restaurant on your MUST list of things to do in Bologna – I’m still dreaming about those ravioli.
Things to Do in Bologna: Foodie Tours & Day Trip to Parma
If you’re interested in the history behind the Emilia-Romagna region’s culinary traditions and the hard work it takes to produce some of the most popular Italian food ingredients, a Parma Golosa food tour is one of the most popular things to do in Bologna.
On Day 2, I dragged the group out of bed to visit the outskirts of Parma for a day of learning about the process behind our favorite foods. First up: a tour of a Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy. We had to wake up early because the parmesan cheese-making process begins first thing in the morning, right after the cows are milked.
In order to enter the dairy, we had to don these super chic outfits.
The effort it takes to produce a wheel of cheese that lives up to the Parmigiano-Reggiano standards is intense. This is NOT your typical shaker cheese! Our guide, Riccardo, explained that not many Italians are interested in learning the rigorous process any more, and it’s mostly done by immigrants. An interesting tidbit given that the end product is such an iconic Italian staple!
So how exactly does this process work? At night, milk from the evening is left in large vats, where its fatty part rises to the surface. First thing the next day, whole milk from the morning is poured in with the now skim evening milk. The dairy workers add whey and natural calf rennet, causing the milk to curdle. They break up the curd with a tool called a spiro, eventually causing a single mass of cheese to form at the bottom of the vat. The cheese mass is cut in half, wrapped in cloth and put into a mold that will give it its round shape.
Each piece of cheese is branded and given a special registration number that serves as an identity card, one way Parmigiano-Reggiano ensures authenticity. Riccardo went into great detail about how you can tell when and where each cheese wheel was produced. He explained that depending on the age, a wheel can be worth thousands and there have actually been a number of situations where they are stolen and sold on the black market!
The next step is soaking the cheese wheels in water and salt, which takes almost 20 days. Once removed from the water, maturation begins. Rows upon rows of cheese can be found in the back of the dairy in cool, quiet storage rooms, were they’ll sit for a minimum of 12 months.
So after 12 months, you’d think this cheese is ready to go, right? Wrong! Experts from the dairy consortium come and inspect each wheel, one by one. They use a small hammer tool to tap the cheese, and are skilled in reading the resulting noise to determine if the cheese passes the test. Once verified, a wheel is fire-branded. If it’s not up to snuff, all branded marks are crossed out and it’s sold as a cheaper product (your shaker cheese).
The cheap stuff.
The good stuff.
After the tour, we had the chance to taste pieces of cheese at different stages of maturation (the best part, obviously!). Fun fact: did you know Parmigiano-Reggiano is lactose free? That means if you’re lactose intolerant, you can still enjoy this delicious cheese.
The next stop on our tour was the facility where prosciutto di Parma is made. Compared to the dairy tour, this one was quick and easy – the process is much simpler! However, it was still interesting to hear about how this area is the only place where genuine Parma Ham can be produced using select Italian pigs. The process only takes four ingredients: a pork leg, salt to preserve the meat, air to dry it out, and just like the cheese, at least 12 months until it matures to perfect flavor.
It was time for another tasting: right down the road was a winery with an on-site restaurant, which I’m sure in the summer is a gorgeous place to soak up the sun. They served us wine, prosciutto and more Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (of course!).
After the tour finished up, can you guess what we did next? Hint: more eating was involved.
We drove into Parma and took a brief walk around the city, which was very quaint, before stopping for lunch at Sorelle Picchi, a restaurant serving cuisine typical of the Emilia-Romagna region. I took the chance to try one of the most popular local dishes, tortellini en brodo, aka tortellini soup, for the first time. And yes, I added more parmesan cheese!
After lunch we stopped for gelato at Emilia Cremeria, possibly the cutest place ever. Have I mentioned that calories don’t count in Italy?
Things to Do in Bologna: Tourist Edition
It might not seem like it at this point in the blog post, but there are more things to do in Bologna than eat.
Bologna boasts the oldest university in the Western world (it was founded in 1088!), and it’s still a thriving student city today. I’ve never seen so many gorgeous people in one place, so I’m assuming that the universities in Bologna must require photos along with your application. But seriously, there is a tangible youthful energy in this city. Everyone looks impossibly cool, and the bars and clubs are packed nightly. If you’re 20 years old seeking an Italian boyfriend or girlfriend, enroll yourself in University of Bologna stat!
Just walking around Bologna, you’ll feel like you’ve earned a degree in history. The centro storico, preserved from medieval days, is a tangle of cobblestone streets while just a ten minute walk away you’ll stumble upon ruins from the Roman Empire. For the best view of the city’s dusty red rooftops (and to burn off some pasta) climb all 498 steps on the way to the top of the Torre Asinelli.
Afterward, unwind with a glass of wine in the Piazza Maggiore, where you’ll be within a stone’s throw of some of the city’s most important buildings.
One of them, the Archiginnasio at Piazza Galvani, was formerly home to the university I mentioned, which was the first in the Western world. It’s free to enter and its walls are adorned with more than 7,000 hand-painted coats of arms of former students.
Another nearby landmark is the Mercato di Mezzo in the Quadrilatero district, where you’ll find a chef’s paradise of local delicacies, meats, cheeses, pasta, fruits and vegetables.
Aside from its signature reddish coloring, the university and its food, Bologna is also known for its porticoes. I personally loved this part of the city, because it meant we could walk around without worrying about the weather – no sunburns or rain showers when the sidewalks are covered! But the story behind them is actually pretty interesting. The porticoes were constructed when the university was growing quickly and more room needed to be made for housing and local businesses to accommodate the swelling student population.
The most famous is the Portico di San Luca, which leads to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca on top of a hill above the city. It’s the world’s longest stretch of porticoes and features 666 arches. Another idea if you’re looking for things to do to in Bologna to burn off some of that parmesan cheese and prosciutto!
In Bologna I was hosted by Starhotels Excelsior, which was conveniently located right across the street from the train station. This was great as we didn’t need to schlep our suitcases across the city after we’d arrived via an overnight flight from New York followed by a train ride from Milan. Besides its convenient location, the hotel offers a super affordable nightly rate. The concierge staff was also incredibly helpful, and the lounge downstairs was the perfect place to grab an espresso or glass of wine when we needed to refuel for a night out after a long day of exploring.
My room even had a trouser press, which I thought was incredible and so stereotypically old-school Italian it made me laugh.
After spending the weekend in Bologna, I felt like I’d uncovered some sort of Italian travel secret and couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. I’m certainly not the first travel blogger to visit the city, and it’s surprising to me that more people don’t have this place on their Italian itinerary. Sure it’s not as picturesque as the Amalfi Coast and maybe it’s not as historically significant as Rome or Pompeii, but when it comes to immersing yourself in a bit of authentic Italian urban culture, there are plenty of things to do in Bologna. And by that I primarily mean things to eat… the pizza, the pasta… OK bye I’m heading to Kayak to research flight prices for my next trip! ????
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