Bologna's Best Food: A Walking Tour (with Lots of Eating)
Bologna is known throughout Italy as Bologna la Grassa, which means Bologna the Fat. This nickname is well-earned—from ragù to mortadella, the Emilia-Romagna region serves up generous helpings of rich food, most of all in Bologna, its most important city. This walking tour of the city first leads you to important Bologna landmarks, and then, once you're there, to the nearest top places to try the best Bolognese cuisine. Step over to these 10 ristoranti cooking up hot Bolognese classics, and while you’re at it, learn a bit about the history in which this Fat City is steeped.
Something Worth Seeing: Enter Bologna's ancient city walls from their southwest corner. Immediately, you’ll pass through the Bonaccorsi Arch, the first in a record-holding series of porticoes (pictured) that stretches for 3,796 m (about 2.35 mi). Long arcades that shelter the sidewalks are Bologna’s most notable architectural quirk, the result of a 13th-century law that decreed that city streets must be covered by porticoes tall enough to accommodate a man on horseback. If you were to continue along via Sargozza, you would end up at the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, a church with breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. (Buses to its hilltop are also available—and preferable to the uphill slog.)
Something to Eat While Seeing it: True Italians start drinking coffee before breakfast and don’t stop until after dinner. Because of the drink's cultural importance, you really can’t go wrong with any caffè in Bologna, but to add some quality pastries to accompany your cup, head to Pasticceria Neri (via Saragozza, 85), right across the street from the Bonaccorsi Arch. The pastries here aren’t too sweet, and most are filled with delicious jams. Pro tip: The shot of acqua frizzante that you receive with every espresso was originally intended to be sipped before your caffè in order to cleanse your palate, but nowadays, it’s usually swished afterward to ward off coffee breath.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: A punk rock hotspot three decades ago, Osteria dell’Orsa (via Mentana, 1) is now popular with university students and true Bolognesi alike thanks to its low prices and authentic cuisine. As you enter its front door, you’ll be struck by the aroma of its tagliatelle con ragù. This dish is so essentially Bolognese that you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant in all of town without ragù on the menu. Tagliatelle is a simple pasta, made with white flour (produced more frequently in Northern Italy due to the climate), oil, and egg, sliced into flat stripes. The specifically Bolognese ragù that usually comes on top is a sauce made with ground beef, red wine, and tomatoes. Osteria dell'Orsa’s rendition of this dish is faithful to tradition—a classic in the best way, warming your bones in the winter months.
Something Worth Seeing: Head west for a few blocks on via Marsala until you hit via dell’Indipendenza, the widest street in Bologna. The city’s best shopping can be found here, along with enormous crowds—the street actually closes for traffic every weekend in order to better facilitate Italian strolls. Among its shops and restaurants is Arena del Sole, Bologna’s most important theatre (excepting Teatro Comunale, its celebrated opera house). In season, which roughly lasts from September to May, the Arena can present as many as four plays (in Italian) on the same day, and tickets are reasonably priced.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: In Bologna, you can never try enough tagliatelle, so another excellent spot is Ristorante DIANA (via Volturno 5), a high-class choice right off via dell’Indipendenza. This restaurant has been popular for more than 100 years, and in this case, practice really has made perfect—the Bolognese dishes here are thoroughly grounded in tradition and delicious in their confident simplicity. The tagliatelle al ragù is every bit as succulent as Osteria dell’Orsa’s, but here, it’s served on linen tablecloths by a staff in white suit jackets. It’s a great spot for some pre-theatre dinner.
Something Worth Seeing: Via dell’Indipendenza terminates at Piazza Maggiore, an open square that constitutes the center of public life in Bologna. The buildings on the square, constructed during the Middle Ages, give the setting a historic resonance and an ancient aesthetic, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about people-watching on the Piazza itself. Every day, the square comes alive with tourists, students, and citizens, no matter the time of day or night.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: Bologna is also famous for curing meats—in the Middle Ages, it was the only way to preserve meat, and the Bolognese figured out how to do it so well that they’ve continued eating cured meat long after the advent of refrigerators. Ordering a charcuterie board is the best way to get a taste of many flavors that are integral to the local tradition, and one fairly priced place nearby for that is Pane Vino e San Daniele (via Altabella, 3). The board comes heaped with mortadella, a type of fatty pork; prosciutto crudo, the salty, dried ham beloved throughout Italy; various salami and cheeses, including world-famous Parmigiano Reggiano; and on the side, gnocco fritto, a fried dough you can use to sample your meats.
Something Worth Seeing: The biggest and most striking building on Piazza Maggiore is the Basilica di San Petronio, one of the largest cathedrals in all of Italy. Entrance is free (though there is a fee for taking photos), and its sloping ceilings and breathtaking vastness make it the best tourist sight in the city. Don’t miss the Cappella Bolognini on your left as you enter—this chapel, painted by Giovanni da Modena in 1410, features a terrifying depiction of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: There are several side streets next to Piazza Maggiore filled with good restaurants, one of which is Sfoglia Rina (via Castiglione, 5/b), a popular lunch spot that usually sells out long before dinnertime. Consider ordering another of Bologna’s characteristic pastas, tortelloni. These shells are usually stuffed with spinach and ricotta and served without sauce, which makes them buttery and tasty beyond belief. The pasta at Sfoglia Rina is made fresh every day, and locals gladly wait in line for a seat to enjoy it—but if you want to try to prepare some fluffy tortelloni yourself, you can always skip the line and order it to go by the kilo at the pasta takeaway counter.
Something Worth Seeing: The Archiginnasio, located off another Piazza Maggiore side street called via dell'Archiginnasio, is the first building dedicated to the Università di Bologna, the oldest university in all of Europe. Founded in 1088 by students seeking to learn theology and law, this university now accounts for around 20% of Bologna’s population, with about 80,000 students enrolled per year. Now, the building is mostly a museum, but there is also a very serious library still in use, where students can be found studying. The Archiginnasio’s Teatro Anatomico is an old anatomy classroom carved out of wood to soak up the odors of the cadavers that were once dissected there during anatomy classes.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: On an Italy vacation, you never have to wait until dessert to have gelato. Gelato is ubiquitous—all of Italy does gelato, and does it well—but Cremeria Cavour (Piazza Cavour, 1/de) arguably does it best, so seize this moment. Only a three-minute walk away down via Archiginnasio, this gelateria, opened by brothers Alessandro and Stefano in 2008, proudly claims its secret ingredient is emozione (emotions). Make sure to taste the specialitàs—named for Bolognese landmarks like the ones you're seeing, these flavors are original and luscious. One of them is La Dotta, a sweet, creamy mascarpone base in a fudge-lined cone that you can’t get anywhere else.
Something Worth Seeing: From the Archiginnasio, take via Farini and turn onto via Santo Stefano to get to the Basilica di Santo Stefano, known locally as the Sette Chiese, or Seven Churches. This monastery was constructed in seven different stages over the course of several centuries, with the first church constructed in the 4th century and the last finished in the 13th. One of the churches within has a rare painting depicting the Virgin Mary during pregnancy, while a courtyard joining different churches contains some disturbing sculptures at the top of columns which are said to have inspired descriptions of tortured souls in Dante’s Divina Commedia.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: Leave the Sette Chiese and take via Santo Stefano to get to one of the best restaurants in town. Run out of a former drugstore, Drogheria della Rosa (via Cartoleria, 10) is a treasure hidden away under a dark portico. There’s no printed menu, and its selection changes daily, but it usually presents a few Bolognese favorites along with a few experimental dishes. If lasagne is available, jump at the chance—not only is lasagne a facet of Bolognese life, but Drogheria della Rosa also might just make the most intense version in all of town, with layer after layer of delectable meat, cheese, and sauce. You will not walk away from this restaurant hungry. But that's too bad, because there are a few more delicious stops to go.
Something Worth Seeing: Perhaps the most recognizable landmark in all of Bologna is the Due Torri. Built shortly after 1000 c.e., these are two of the few remaining towers that gave Bologna another nickname, Bologna la Turrita—Bologna the Turreted. In the Middle Ages, the city was covered with towers like these, which acted both as defensive lookouts and as proof of the wealth of the families that built them. Today, most of the towers are gone, but for a small fee you can still climb the Torre Asinelli and scan for enemies yourself.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: A block away, look for little Ristorante Teresina (via Guglielmo Oberdan, 4), tucked away on Via Guglielmo Oberdan with beautiful outdoor seating. The Emilia-Romagna region is in the northernmost part of Italy, and its cuisine favors heartier meals to stave off the winter chills. As a result, tortellini in brodo was born. Tortellini are a smaller version of tortelloni, always stuffed with meats from Emilia-Romagna; each tiny bite is bursting with meaty flavor, and Teresina’s brodo (broth) makes the pasta slide down so smoothly that you don’t even notice how much you’re eating.
Something Worth Seeing: Next, take via San Vitale to via Delle Belle Arti for a dive into the artistic legacy of Bologna. Any visitor to Bologna would be remiss without dropping by the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, a former monastery-turned-art museum that exclusively features works by artists from the greater Emilia-Romagna region. Works by Guido Reni, an important classical artist who was born in Bologna and is buried in the nearby Basilica of San Domenico, are highlights of the collection.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: This restaurant is a little farther away from the Pinacoteca, but the 12-minute passeggiata is certainly worth the pain. Osteria Broccaindosso (via Broccaindosso, 7A) serves all the essential Bolognese classics. They have a lovely spaghetti alla chitarra (pictured), but also deal in more meat-heavy dishes local to the region like lasagne and tagliatelle. Make sure to reserve a spot here well in advance; despite the restaurant’s underground, modest aesthetic, it’s hugely popular and well-known as a Bolognese touchstone.
Something Worth Seeing: Conclude your walking tour by exiting the ancient walls and entering the Giardini Margherita. Opened in 1879, these gardens have elegant fountains, playgrounds for small children, and large avenues for strolling through greenery. Even though it's the largest garden in the city, the park still isn’t too large to walk across—not that you'll be very mobile after just feasting your way across town.
Something to Eat While Seeing it: GardenBO (viale Stenio Polischi, 3) is a small bar in the gardens that serves the greatest hits of caffè, gelato, and a great aperitivo. The Bolognese, like most Italians, love their aperitivo, which consists of a few drinks and a small snack, and is traditionally taken a little before dinner. The most popular cocktail in Bologna is borrowed from the nearby region of Veneto, where locals have it every afternoon: a spritz, made with Prosecco, a touch of soda water, and either Aperol or Campari. Another staple to sample, if it’s on the menu, is Pignoletto, a sparkling white wine. Have a seat and sip slowly—the gardens seem to glow as sunset approaches. There’s no better way to rest your legs and toast the cuisine and history of Bologna.