Bologna stakes a claim to being the oldest university city in Europe, perhaps the world, and a roll call of the alumni of its 1088-founded institution throws up names such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas Becket, several popes, Copernicus and, more recently, Guglielmo Marconi. But this is no fossilised museum town; Bologna’s scholarly tradition attracts a constant influx of young people keeping this Emilia-Romagna city vibrant and challenging.
A 1920s abattoir has been converted into one of Italy’s most important independent cinemas. Two screens show the latest releases and arthouse favourites, all in the original language, not dubbed. The Cinema Lumière is also a major centre for film conservation and restoration. Anyone can access the library, with its huge collection of posters, memorabilia and movies on video, and watch in a screening room (free). On Saturday mornings the piazza outside is taken over by the Mercato Ritrovato, a brilliant organic farmers’ market, selling wines and craft beer, and street food stalls cooking up locally sourced produce.
• Via Azzo Gardino 65/b, cinetecadibologna.it
Located inside the Giardini Margherita, Bologna’s favourite public park, the sprawling botanical gardens recently reopened after years of abandon, and have become one of the most exciting venues in the city – especially popular with our 100,000-strong student population, who come here to study with the free wifi, and enjoy the cheap food and drinks. Though few of the original glasshouses remain, you can sit out in the ornate plant and herb gardens, where there is a busy programme of concerts, poetry readings and video screenings. There is a popular bar, too, where €4 buys you a beer, glass of wine or spritz, and a self-service street food counter serving tasty vegetarian and vegan dishes like aubergine and mozzarella burgers or seitan kebabs.
• Via Castiglione 134, leserre.kilowatt.bo.it
Forget the crowded historic and gourmet addresses featured in guidebooks – Becco Di Legno is one of the last genuine osterie in the city, and offers a real slice of Bologna life. In the 1970s there were lots of watering holes like this, but most have disappeared. The cook has been running the tiny kitchen for 60 years, they have no website or Facebook page, and you need to call first to be sure of a table. The food may not be elaborate, but it is tasty and inexpensive. The main thing people come for is an evening of what Bolognesi call balotta – hanging out with friends.
• Via Gianni Palmieri 7, +39 051 34 09 43
Bologna was the first city in Italy to allow a municipal building to be used as an LGBT centre, back in 1982. It was a huge scandal at the time, but today Il Cassero is a local institution. Housed in an ancient salt warehouse by a canal, it hosts art exhibitions, dance and theatre, and after dark converts into the city’s most popular dance club. DJ sets go on till 4am, and many evenings entry is free – you just need to pay €13 for annual membership. Next door, be sure to visit Mambo (adult €6), Bologna’s museum of modern art. In autumn, Il Cassero runs Gender Bender (until 3 November), an LGBT arts festival.
• Via Don Giovanni Minzoni 18, cassero.it
Bologna is covered with an incredible maze of nearly 40 kilometres of portici arches, but the Cirenaica neighbourhood is the only part of the city where you won’t see one. It was built in Mussolini’s time as a functional dormitory city for workers, who didn’t need fancy arches – just to eat, sleep, work. Of course, they were meant to be inspired by Italy’s colonial empire, hence it was named after a region of Libya (the main street is called Via Libia). Today, it has become Bologna’s melting pot: part bohemian, part a home for refugees. So, no fashion boutiques or gourmet restaurants, but fun street art, funky bars and traditional trattorie. For lunch, try trippa (tripe) or bollito misto (classic meat stew) at Trattoria Da Vito, unchanged for half a century, while for early evening aperitivo join the arty crowd outside Bar Tito, where an Aperol spritz costs €3, half the price of one in the city centre.
Bologna’s football team is loved by pretty much everyone in the city, with around 30,000 fans turning up for games, despite the fact that we haven’t won anything in 50 years. The Renato Dall’Ara stadium is a classic example of fascist architecture, marked by the imposing Maratona Tower. Mussolini oversaw the ceremonial opening in 1926; it was his last visit to Bologna, as someone tried to assassinate him in the city later that day. The stadium also has an Olympic-size pool, gyms and an athletics track, and anyone can wander in for a look during the day. Before or after the match, an obligatory stop is Billi Bar, an 1833 pasticceria that should be recognised by Unesco. Its speciality is panspziel, delicious candied fruit biscuits.
• Via Andrea Costa 174, bolognafc.it
The wild Parco dei Gessi, a bus ride away on the city’s south-eastern edge, is full of jagged gypsum outcrops sparkling with crystals, caverns and deep sinkholes that are still being explored for prehistoric remains. Hike across to the calanchi and the scenery resembles desert badlands of stark stone gullies, where vegetation all but disappears. A few kilometres away in San Lazzaro di Savena, Ristorante Lago Biacchese does the best Bolognese cuisine: delicate tortellini in an intense capon broth, or handmade tagliatelle with a rich ragù. On the other side of the city are the rolling, vine-clad hills, centred on the town of Zola Predosa, with artisan wineries such as Lodi Corazza, where visitors can taste bubbly pignoletto, our little-known alternative to prosecco.
The Museum for the Memory of Ustica is a unique experience – an artistic and realistic homage to Aerolinee Itavia flight 870, the commercial plane which crashed over Sicily on a flight between Bologna and Palermo in 1980, killing all 81 people on board. This mysterious crash remains unsolved and conspiracy theories still prey on the minds of many locals. Located in the city’s old tram sheds, the museum houses a giant installation by French artist Christian Boltanski that meticulously reconstructs everything that was recovered from the wreck of the airliner. It is a strange and very moving place.
• Via di Saliceto 3/22, museomemoriaustica.it
Bologna has always been at the forefront of Italy’s music scene – whether it be jazz, indie rock or classic canzone – and with such a big student population music lovers are spoilt for choice for reasonably priced live concerts. Bravo Caffè is a favourite jazz haunt, changing as the evening goes on from a relaxed restaurant serving traditional cuisine to a wine bar with more than 300 labels, then live music kicking off after 10pm – maybe a local band or international artists like Suzanne Vega or Sarah Jane Morris. Across the road is the equally popular Cantina Bentivoglio, while rock fans head to the Locomotiv, by the train station. Check the Zero Bologna website for listings.
From March to November, volunteer trekking guides like myself take locals and tourists out of the city by train or bus on 60 diverse hikes through the surrounding countryside – a very different Bologna to the historic medieval centre. The trails lead through the Apennine hills, up mountainous slopes, through wooded valleys and distinctive geological formations, or on routes dedicated to flora and fauna. No need to book; just check the website and turn up on time at the train or bus station – it’s a short journey to the trailheads and we only use public transport. We started 28 years ago, and more than 2,000 trekkers of all ages join in each year.
• €5, trekkingcoltreno.it
Where to stay
Hotels in the city centre can be expensive. The modern Dopa Hostel is within walking distance of the station and has dorm accommodation from €22 and double rooms from €30pp, dopahostel.com.
Best time to visit
In July and August temperatures reach the 30s and some markets and restaurants are closed. In spring and autumn, temperatures are milder and there are many food and wine festivals, including the TartuFesta truffle festival in October and November.
Trains from London to Bologna take around 15 hours, via Paris and Turin – visit seat61.com for details.
Daniele Monti is a volunteer guide for Bologna’s Club Alpino Italiano trekking club
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