Piazzas, palaces, pasta and porticoes: there's so much going on in beautiful Bologna that it can be difficult to know where to start
The great thing about Bologna is that it is a living vibrant city. Undoubtedly tourists flock here to admire the many beautiful historic buildings: the piazzas, palaces, and porticoes; the crazily-angled towers; the churches. And yet many of the foreign voices that you hear belong to business people, attending conferences at the large conference centre, or international students attending Europe's oldest university. What's more, the majority of people that you come across are Italian, proudly celebrating the pavement cafes, the food markets, the wonderful shops and restaurants of their fine city. While Bologna richly rewards the visitor, it refuses to be dominated by tourism.
Where to stay
And so, where do you start if you wish to experience Bologna for yourself? First of all it is worth noting that many hotels raise their prices considerably during conferences, so weekends are a good time to visit, when prices are standard.
There are many hotels in Bologna, ranging from the central five star Grand Hotel Baglioni, on Via Indipendenza, where basic rooms cost from 220 euro, and often a lot more compared to simpler establishments on the outskirts. City buses are cheap and efficient, so you may prefer to stay at a hotel like the four star Savoia Hotel Country House, which is only a short ride away, yet offers beautifully furnished rooms set amidst lovely gardens, and a sumptuous breakfast, from only 59 euro per night.
My preference is to have a base in the heart of the city, so that I can recharge my batteries in the peace and quiet of the hotel from time to time. The traditionally furnished Art Hotel Orologia is just such a haven, tucked away in a corner of the most amazing and beautiful Piazza Maggiore. The Orologia forms part of a small hotel group (www.bolognarthotels.it), offering excellent accommodation in the city centre.
Take a few steps from any one of these Art hotels and you are surrounded by some of Bologna's most wonderful buildings. The Basilica of San Petronio, one of the largest religious edifices in the catholic world; the Palazzo Communale with its permanent art exhibitions; and no less than four other grand red-brick palaces with their fine arcades, turrets and towers; all enclose a piazza that has become the beating heart of the city. Everyone in Bologna passes through. Musicians play here; children's festivals are held here; dancers and puppeteers entertain the crowds. You are never without a smile as you cross the marble flagstones.
Just around the corner, the magnificent bronze statue of Neptune presides over it all, fountains gushing below him. Now people rest and take photographs, where once merchants washed their cloth.
You will no doubt look longingly at the café tables adorned with red tablecloths, set under the arcades, and wonder where you might take refreshment, while avoiding the tourist "rip off". For one of the finest coffees in town you only need to go to the tiny Canton De' Fiori, in Via Indipendenza where, as all Italians know, it is much cheaper( only one Euro) to refuel while standing at the bar. If you are peckish then the nearby Patisserie Gamberini in via Ugo Bassi, offers the very best in cakes and pastries.
The beauty of Bologna extends far beyond its centre. If you are setting off to explore, you won't have much need of an umbrella, or sun-shade for that matter, as there are nearly 40km of arcades elegantly arching their way along the city's streets. Starting from Porta Saragozza in the old walls, you can undertake a 4km walk through the longest portico in the world, passing underneath 660 arches as you climb up to the sanctuary of San Luca. From there you can enjoy views over the town and the Apenine hills, as you recover your breath.
It was customary to display one's standing in medieval times by constructing a tower. Nowadays 60 of the 200 original towers are still standing, and in central Bologna you can't miss the two crazily leaning towers of Asinelli and Garisenda.
One of the most beautiful streets in Bologna is Via San Stefano. Lined with renaissance palaces and medieval houses, it runs all the way to the seven churches of San Stefano, and the piazza of the same name. If you happen to be there on the second Saturday or Sunday of the month, you can also browse around a fascinating mixture of artefacts and paintings at the antiques market.
Trattorias and pizzerias
Bologna is famous for its cuisine and fine ingredients. A day here would not be complete without a meal incorporating tortellini, Bologna's signature dish, or another pasta. Two of the most renowned trattoria in Bologna, enjoyed by tourists and locals alike, are Drogheria della Rosa, via Cartoleria 10 (051 222529) and Trattoria Gianni, via Clavature (051 229434).
A particularly pleasant place to eat on a summer's evening is Trattoria da Paolo, via Fancelli (051 6148621). This is a little further from the centre of town, but it is very pleasant to eat outdoors here among the gardens. Fish is a speciality.
A cheaper, but extremely popular alternative, serving typical Bolognese cuisine is Trattoria da Vito, via Mario Muselesi (051 349809). Beware the crowds though, and don't expect anything great. It's very rustic.
Finally - a rare thing in Europe - a vegetarian eatery. It's self service and well worth a try: Natura Sii, Ristorante & Pizzeria, Via Po (051 6241984).
Whatever your tastes, Bologna has it all, from fantastic fashion shops to quaint old hardware and drapery stores. Before you leave, be sure to visit the permanent food and vegetable market stalls just off Piazza Maggiore, which are beautiful to behold. If it's a souvenir you are seeking how about some special pasta, or a lump of parmesan from Simoni's. Don't forget to take your ticket and join the queue beneath the rows of hams!