Known as Red Bologna for its revolutionary past, and famed as the gastronomic centre of Italy, the ancient capital of the Emilia-Romagna region gives Florence a run for its money
The romantic, opulent and buzzing city of Bologna knocks the socks of Florence as a weekend destination. Known as Bologna la grassa (the fat), la rossa (the red) and la dotta (the learned), it’s home to the finest food in Italy, a revolutionary past and the oldest university in Europe. And as a short break destination, it’s the perfect place to leave the car behind and walk. After flying the two hours from the UK into Guglielmo Marconi Airport. four kilometres out of the city, the rest of your stay can be spent on foot amid spectacular architecture and under the porticos.
While modern-day Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, is now home to a wealth of boutiques for the wealthy, its population of students and communist past keep its feet firmly on the ground. It has been known as the Communist Party’s stronghold and spiritual home since the Second World War and, if you speak Italian, the gentlemen who gather in the city centre are only too happy to debate politics.
The magic of spending 48 hours in Bologna is its compact centre, which is self-contained and bursting with enough variety to keep you entertained. At the centre are the city’s Two Towers – Due Torre – which preside over the main street, Ugo Bassi. To start your day with a spot of exercise, it’s worth climbing the winding, wooden 498 steps of the tallest, the Asinelli Tower, for spectacular views from its 98m-high summit. But be warned - if you are a student and haven’t graduated yet it’s bad luck to climb the tower until you have.
Exercise over, head down the road to Piazza Maggiore, the soul of the city and a vast square bordered by the main church San Petronio, the town hall, museums, city clock, tourist information centre, bars and ice-cream parlours. It’s the place where everyone meets, chats, discusses politics, passes on news or simply goes to be seen. There’s often open-air music, films or exhibitions hosted here and an amazing firework display on New Year’s Eve.
When it's time for lunch, head to the east at the Pavaglione to discover a series of streets stuffed with mouth-watering shops selling wine, cheese, ravioli and dolce. The most famous is Tamburini, in Via Caprarie. The cuisine is the icing on the cake of Bologna – it’s a city that is passionate about its food and it’s difficult to eat badly here.
Bologna is also home to the national ‘Home Food’ movement, which promotes traditional Italian cooking in Italian homes. I ate the finest lasagne of my life in the chic Bologna apartment of Ronnie, the only Cesarina (empress) allowed to cook the dish in the movement. And her lasagne is a work of art, with no less than 12 layers of hand-rolled sheets of pasta and ragu made with five types of meat ground together three times.
Having indulged in Bologna’s cuisine, you may then want to soak up its style and fashion. Just beyond Piazza Maggiore is a shopping quadrant with Gucci, Tod’s, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, La Perla, Versace and Armani - and price tags to match. Dressing is a serious business for the population of Bologna, particularly on a Sunday, when couples and families literally go 'on parade’. And there’s still a fair smattering of fur coats to be seen.
The shops along Via Indipendenza, the road linking Piazza Maggiore to the station, are much more home grown and affordable - it’s a bustling street and well worth exploring. At the far end you find the railway station, a historical building and the gateway to days out to Florence, Modena, Ferrara or the sea at Rimini.
Younger visitors may find the university district in Via Zamboni more vibrant, with its 10,000 Italian and foreign students, and a collection of bars, cafes, bookshops and the Teatro Communale. And just in case city life gets too much, Giardini Margherita offers a 55-hectare haven of green open space with lakes, particularly in July and August when the city gets hot. In fact many Bolognese head off to the mountains and seaside in August, leaving the city rather like a ghost town. However, the hot summers also bring festivals, music concerts and parties in the surrounding hills.
On a balmier day, one popular excursion beyond the city’s walls is to follow the 666 arches that wind up the hill to the sanctuary of San Luca. The reward is amazing views and some of the best pizzas in Italy. Wherever you walk, it’s hard to put a foot wrong in Bologna, which is why it’s the perfect destination for a short break, when you just want to walk, see, taste and experience a city without slaving over a guidebook.