Just 35 minutes by train from Florence, 75 from Milan and 87 from Venice, Bologna Italy is an unsung gem on most tourists’ travel routes. Bologna is a lot of things, but it’s sure not colorless. Its three nicknames describe a city that is packed with pep, creativity and, of course, mouth-watering treats.
More than anything, the city of Bologna is –
La Rossa (”The Red One”) both because of its strong left-wing tendencies and for its terracotta roof tiles.
La Grassa (”The Fat One”) because it’s known for its scrumptious food, and a rich culinary tradition – the Emilia-Romagna region is home to parmigiano-reggiano cheese, tagliatelle al ragù (the original version of “spaghetti bolognese”), tortellini and mortadella.
In the nearby town of Modena, the restaurant Osteria Francescana was recently named World’s Best Restaurant. Yes, you heard that right.
La Dotta (”The Learned One”) because the city is home to Europe’s oldest university. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna counts poet Dante Alighieri among its celebrated alumni. Today, with a population of 80,000 students, it boasts a vibrant and sexy underground culture.
No wonder Bologna has become Italy’s hipster capital. They simply can’t resist its laid-back, yet lively vibe, its alternative art centers, and oh-so-meraviglioso cafés – and quite frankly, neither can we.
So, What is Bologna, Italy Known For?
A true Bolognese hipster wouldn’t choose to take in the sights the way everyone else does. And neither should you. One fun, unusual way of getting to know Bologna is to hunt for its Sette Segreti (Seven Secrets).
Bologna’s Sette Segreti are, to put it simply, seven oddities scattered throughout the city’s historic center. Look for the Piccola Venezia (Little Venice) in via Piella or the ‘cordless telephone’ inside the Palazzo del Podestà in Piazza Maggiore.
It’s a perfect excuse to explore La Rossa the alternative way. And if you wish to go “full Bolognese,” why not rent a bike! Just make sure it’s not farlocco (Bolognese for ‘rubbish’).
The locals are very proud of this tradition and will gladly show you where the Seven Secrets are on a map. You can also practice your Italian and Bolognese slang. Just ask a local, “Vèz (‘buddy’ in Bolognese), mi fai vedere dove sono i sette segreti di Bologna?”
Once you’ve completed your alternative tour of Bologna, it’s time for you to partake in one of the city’s most cherished traditions – l’aperitivo (pre-dinner drink). Anywhere from 6 to 8 p.m. (Italians are not exacting when it comes to schedules), Bolognese from all walks of life gather for drinks and antipasti.
The most iconic aperitivo of all is the Spritz, traditionally made with Aperol (a sweet orange liqueur), prosecco and soda water. If you’re looking for something more bitter, go for a Spritz Campari. If what you really want is a sparkling bittersweet symphony, ask for a misto (mix of Aperol and Campari).
Self-guided Bologna Food & Bar Tour
Ex Forno Mambo (via Don Minzoni 14/e). This elegant, hipster-approved cocktail bar is located inside Bologna’s Museum of Modern Art (the MAMBo) and is decorated with vintage furniture found on the streets or in flea markets. They often host exhibitions and concerts from local and international artists and serve an organic brunch every Sunday.
Rude (via Rialto 16) is a small and rather unknown gem. It was started in 2016 by four friends (Bacchio, Ciccio, Fede and Pat) whose philosophy is to make simple dishes with quality ingredients. They also serve homemade craft beer and wine at 10€ a bottle. This bar is simply di un’altra (meaning super-cool in Bolognese).
In via Belvedere 11, the Bar Senza Nome – meaning ‘The No Name Bar’ in Italian – has the distinction of being entirely run by deaf people. You’ll need to write your order on a piece of paper or use sign language (they give you a sheet with the basics). The staff is super-friendly and the spot is located right in front of the Mercato delle Erbe, an indoor market where you can buy tasty pizza slices and polpette (meatballs) to go.
Right next to the Bar Senza Nome, you’ll find SaràVino, a teeny-weeny enoteca (wine bar) run by the always-smiling Sara, who knows her wines like the back of her hand. Here wines from all regions of Italy abound, but don’t forget to try the local ones like Lambrusco (a sparkling red) or the fruity white Trebbiano di Romagna.
Dinner in Bologna
Now, if you don’t want to prendere una cassa (get a hangover), you might as well grab a bite of local Bologna food. If you’re veggie and want a different take on Bologna food, just head to Estravagario in via Mascarella 81. Estravagario is a laid-back restaurant that takes food seriously. Their menu changes daily and is 100% organic, locally grown, and vegetarian. They also have a book swap area, where you can trade or borrow books for free.
On the meaty side of things, Bologna simply has too many good restaurants to choose from. Generally speaking, try to find a local osteria (small family-run restaurant) and try the specials like tortellini in brodo (fresh meat-filled pasta in broth), lasagna, or the dish that rules them all – tagliatelle al ragù. Osteria dell’Orsa and Osteria del Sole are among the absolute must-try for authentic Bologna food. If you want to taste history, go to Trattoria San Vito, where local music legends Lucio Dalla and Francesco Guccini came to drink una boccia (bottle) of Sangiovese before concerts.
Travel like a Local
So, add Bologna to your itinerary. Explore the Sette Segreti. When, after a full day, you are tired, thirsty, and hungry, drink an Aperol Spritz, and follow up with tagliatelle al ragù at an osteria. You’re ready to experience Bologna like a local, maybe you’d like to speak like one too. Here’s a complimentary Pimsleur Italian lesson to get you started.