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10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Bologna

Bologna, for all its size and importance as the capital of its province and of Emilia-Romagna, is an easy city to visit, and many visitors find it one of Italy's most appealing. Those who enjoy good food certainly do; it has the reputation as Italy's gastronomic capital. Among Bologna's main industries are the manufacture of pasta and sausages, so be sure to try some while you're here. Along with visiting Bologna's tourist attractions, spend time absorbing the city's unique character: stroll beneath its long arcades, peek inside its elegant old shops, notice its architectural quirks and interesting brickwork, pause in one of the numerous cafés, and soak up some of the exuberance of its many students.

1 Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno

Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno
Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno
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It may seem as though everyone in Bologna were meeting friends at the same time in these two adjoining squares in the heart of the city. Conversation and laughter blend with the sound of water splashing in the magnificent Neptune Fountain that gives Piazza del Nettuno its name. Created by Giambologna in the 16th century, it is one of the finest fountains of its period. Nearly every major attraction in the city is within a few minutes' walk, and the most important streets - among them the busy shopping street, Via dell'Indipendenza, and Via Galleria with its many old aristocratic mansions. Elegantly arcaded Via dell'Archiginnasio runs alongside the great Basilica of San Petronius; its still unfinished facade dominates one side of Piazza Maggiore. On the north side is the former Palazzo del Podestà (Governors Palace) with a tower, Torre dell'Arengo, dating from 1259. Under its vaulted dome, people whispering on one side can be heard by those on the opposite corner.

2 San Petronio (Basilica of St. Petronius)

San Petronio (Basilica of St. Petronius)
San Petronio (Basilica of St. Petronius)
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When construction of the massive church that dominates one side of Piazza Maggiore began in 1390, it was designed to be even bigger than St. Peter's in Rome, but never quite made it. In fact, it was never finished, and the facade remains incomplete. In the tiny museum at the back of the church, you can see the designs that were submitted for the facade, including those by the great architect Andrea Palladio. The interior, which was finished, is often referred to as the epitome of Gothic architecture in Italy, and each of the side chapels seems like a small church. Look for the strange line cutting across the floor of the nave; it is a meridian line.

Address: Piazza Maggiore, Bologna

3 Leaning Towers

Leaning Towers
Leaning Towers
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Pisa's may be more famous, but Bologna has a pair of towers that appear to tilt even more alarmingly because of their narrow shape. They are the best-known of the 20 towers that remain of the more than 100 that formed Bologna's 12th-century skyline. Although they were necessary as both watchtowers and places of refuge in case of attack, their height also became status symbols for the noble families that built them. The 48-meter Torre Garisenda leans by more than 13 meters; you can climb the 498 steps inside Torre degli Asinelli for birds-eye views of Bologna.

Address: Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, Bologna

4 Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Basilica)

Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Basilica)
Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Basilica)
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While Bologna has no shortage of interesting and art-filled churches, Santo Stefano is the oldest and the most atmospheric. The complex of eight buildings could be called the cradle of faith in Bologna, built by the Benedictines between the 10th and 13th centuries to house the remains of Bologna's early martyrs, Saints Vitale and Agricola. Chiesa del Crocifisso, the principal church, has a 12th-century external pulpit and a crypt dating to 1019; octagonal Santo Sepolcro opens onto a pillared courtyard adjoining a two-story cloister. In the simple third church, look for the capitals of various styles recycled from previous Roman and Byzantine buildings and for the 6th-century mosaic floors.

Address: Via Santo Stefano 24, Bologna

5 Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Museum)

Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Museum)
Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Museum) Paul Baker
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Even those who normally tune out at museums of antiquities will enjoy this remarkably up-to-date display of prehistoric and Etruscan finds from the surrounding area, as well as outstanding treasures from the Celtic, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman civilizations. There are only two other museums in Italy that can match its Egyptian collection. No dry jumble of dusty relics here, but a modern museum of brilliantly displayed artifacts.

Address: Via dell'Archiginnasio 2, Bologna

6 San Domenico (St. Dominic Church)

San Domenico (St. Dominic Church)
San Domenico (St. Dominic Church)
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At the death in 1221 of Saint Dominic, in this convent of the order he founded, work began on the church that took several centuries to complete. The marble tomb that enshrines his remains is reason enough to visit, carved in minute details by the greatest artists of the day, including Michelangelo and Nicola Pisano. The church's art treasures don't end here. The outstanding wood inlay by intarsia master fra' Damiano da Bergamo in the choir was hailed by Renaissance contemporaries as the eighth wonder of the world. Each first and second Saturday of the month, at 10.30am and 3.30pm, free guided tours are offered to the chapels, choir, Inquisition rooms, St. Dominic's cell, and other places not usually open to the public.

Address: Piazza di San Domenico 13, Bologna

7 Oratory of Battuti

Climb the stairs to the room above the church to find one of Bologna's unsung treasures, a small oratorio decorated in Baroque paintings, frescoes, and gilded carvings. Avoid a stiff neck by taking advantage of one of the benches to stretch out and look up at the perfectly splendid ceiling. Around the room stand a group of 15 terracotta statues, Death of the Virgin, created by Alfonso Lombardi in the early 16th century. Watch for announcements of musical programs, which are held here because of the room's excellent acoustics.

Address: Via Clavature 8, Bologna

8 Basilica di San Pietro

Basilica di San Pietro
Basilica di San Pietro
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The cathedral of San Pietro has undergone many changes since its founding in 910, adding a choir by Pellegrino Tibaldi in 1575 and a nave, remodeled in 17th-century Baroque style. A door at the end of the side aisle on the left leads to a collection of artistic treasures donated over the centuries to use in religious celebrations. These include items belonging to several popes and a splendid processional cross given as recently as 1996.

Address: Via Indipendenza, Bologna

9 Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Gallery)

Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Gallery)
Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Gallery) Marco Assini
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The Pinacoteca has a unique mission: to preserve and display works by artists who have lived and worked in Bologna and the Emilia-Romagna region, especially from the 13th to early 19th centuries. Some of the works have histories of their own, rescued from churches that were closed or turned to other uses, or finally returned to Bologna after Napoleon I carried them off to the Louvre in Paris.

Address: Strada Maggiore 44, Bologna

10 La Piazzola

La Piazzola
La Piazzola
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The massive open air market that fills Piazza Mercato, a huge space in central Bologna adjacent to the Parque Montagnol, began in 1251 as a cattle market. Now up to 400 street vendors and craftsmen sell art, crafts, new and used clothing, footwear, household goods, cosmetics, and more.

Address: Piazza Mercato, Bologna

Where to Stay in Bologna for Sightseeing

Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno, the Basilica, the excellent Archaeological Museum, and the pair of leaning towers that lead Bologna's list of tourist attractions are all clustered within a very short distance. Two major churches, Santo Stefano and San Domenico, are only a few blocks away, making Bologna easy to visit from any central lodging. Here are some highly-rated hotels in Bologna:

  • Luxury Hotels: The gleaming Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni, adjacent to the Basilica and Piazza Maggiore, has generous, well-decorated rooms in a beautifully restored historic building. In the middle of the old town, just under famous medieval towers, the boutique Hotel Corona d'Oro 1890 has rooms with parquet floors, marble baths, and balconies - some with tower views. Just off Piazza Nettuno and handy to shopping and restaurants, Art Hotel Orologio has traditional rooms in a converted historic mansion.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Cleverly themed rooms at Al Cappello Rosso, just off Piazza Maggiore, are all different and stocked with luxuries that include slippers, robes, and a selection of different pillows. With bright, attractive rooms dressed in sleek, modern decor, Metropolitan Hotel is less than a five-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore, surrounded by restaurants and shops. On a quiet street in the city center, Buonhotel occupies a historic building with no elevators, but help with luggage is offered.
  • Budget Hotels: Hotel Albergo Atlantic sits on an arcaded street between Piazza Maggiore and the rail station, a five-minute walk to either. Rates at Albergo Centrale, in an older building only a few steps from Piazza Maggiore, include breakfast. Filling the fourth floor of a classic building just off Piazza Maggiore, Panorama Hotel has large rooms with well-maintained shared baths.

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