Bologna’s beating heart is Piazza Maggiore, in the city’s old center. A classic example of Renaissance town planning, it is one of the most graceful public squares in Italy.
The pedestrianised square is surrounded by the Basilica di San Petronio, the Palazzo Communale (city hall), palatial public buildings and Bologna’s trademark covered walkways ringed by arches.
Sit at an outdoor cafe to enjoy people watching in the sunshine during the day, and visit in the early evening to see the beautifully floodlit Fountain of Neptune, sculpted in 1566.
Named for Bologna’s patron saint, the city’s fifth-century bishop, the Basilica di San Petronio is the world’s fifth-largest church and a fabulous example of Gothic grandeur.
Construction began in 1390, but plans to enlarge the basilica were halted in the 1500s when the design threatened to overshadow that of St Peter’s in Rome. Thanks to this creative curtailment, the basilica’s facade detail remains unfinished.
On a tour of the basilica’s interior, admire the frescoed chapels and apse, the rich stained glass and marble. The exterior features detailed carvings of biblical scenes. Look out for the brass sundial embedded in the floor of the eastern aisle.
Bologna owes much of its contemporary charm and vibrancy to its lively University Quarter. As in all good university cities, it has a good cache of cafes, bars and clubs to cater to its student population.
Bologna’s university has an impressive lineage, dating back to 1088, making it the first university in Europe. During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, it attracted some of Europe’s finest thinkers, including Renaissance scholars Mirandola and Alberti, astronomer Copernicus, and the artists Durer and Borromeo.
The university houses a number of museums, including an Anatomy Museum, Herbarium, Physics Museum, Museum of Anthropology, Wax Museum and Museum of Zoology.
Most museums are found in the Palazzo Poggi, the university’s seat after 1803. A highlight is the Astronomy Museum, along with the palazzo’s many frescoes and impressive decor.
Bologna is home to the world’s oldest university in continuous operation - founded in 1088 - and one of the many schools in the university is a medical school. You might not think that a medical school would be an attraction worth seeking out, but the historic Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio alone is worth the trip.
The Archiginnasio is a university building, originally constructed in the 16th century, that served for many years as the primary university building. Today, it houses the largest municipal library in the region, but the main attraction is the Anatomical Theatre. Built in 1637, it’s a gorgeous room paneled entirely in spruce with a coffered ceiling. The seating is amphitheatre-style, and the seat from which a professor would deliver lectures more closely resembles a throne or a preacher’s pulpit than a teacher’s desk.
Sculpted by Frenchman Giambologna in 1566, the bronze statue of Neptune waving his trident aloft is a classic example of the High Mannerist art of the late Renaissance.
At the base of the Neptune Fountain, or Fontana del Nettuno, in the circular pools, the four sirens spouting water from their breasts represent the four continents. Four cherubs represent the winds.
The fountain is particularly effective when floodlit at night.
A jumble of four churches make up the Basilica of St Stephen, or Basilica di Santo Stefano, dating back to the Romanesque era. With interesting cloisters, statues and artworks, the complex was once made up of seven churches.
The Church of the Crucifix houses the bones of St Petronio, and is next to the octagonal Church of the Holy Sepulcher, formerly a baptistery.
The Church of Santi Vitale e Agricola, Bologna’s oldest church, incorporates Roman masonry and mostly dates from the 11th century. The medieval cloister is a tranquil resting place, en route to a small museum.
Casting a protective eye over Bologna, the hilltop Santuario de Madonna di San Luca basilica can be seen from most vantage points in the city.
Built in the mid-18th century to house a portrait of the Virgin Mary painted by St Luke, the basilica has some notable artworks and statues.
One of the main highlights of this basilica is getting there – on foot. The sanctuary lies 4 km (2.5 miles) south-west of central Bologna, linked by the world’s longest undercover portico. Supported by 666 graceful arches, the portico is gently stepped as it winds uphill.
The source of the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna’s fine collection came initially from the artworks looted from churches and monasteries by Napoleon on his Italian campaigns, and shipped off to Paris.
Make sure you see the stellar paintings by Giotto, El Greco, Titian and Raphael’s Ecstasy of St Cecilia.
Later highlights include works by Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni.
You might easily associate the Ferrari name with Italy, but did you know that Ferrari is based not far from Bologna? In the town of Maranello, just outside Modena, you’ll find not only the Ferrari Museum but also the factory complex and the famous Fiorano test track.
The Ferrari Museum - Museo Ferrari in Italian - is a few steps from the factory in Maranello where every Ferrari is made. The museum contains a number of cars, including both cars designed for regular driving and some from the company’s illustrious Formula 1 racing history. In addition to the actual cars, the museum also has exhibits of photographs and racing trophies as well as interactive displays.
For racing enthusiasts, the Ferrari Museum has an F1 racing simulator based on the Monza race track outside Milan. You need to reserve a slot in the simulator in advance, and before you begin your experience you’ll even get pointers from a Ferrari technician.
Showcasing Italy’s most famous luxury vehicles, the Lamborghini Museum and factory tells the past, present, and future of the coveted car brand. From the first 350 GT model built in 1964 to the factory of custom cars built on site, visitors can get a sense of the passion behind the manufacturing process. The museum also unveiled the famed Murciélago car, considered by many enthusiasts to be a masterpiece. Visitors can see a range of vehicles on display — from vintage to contemporary, built for racing or as concept cars.>
Open since 2001, the museum is a tribute to the passion and life’s work of founder Ferruccio Lamborghini. Many of the older cars in fact come from his personal collection. There are behind-the-scenes glimpses into the production, including large-scale models and parts of cars that were never made. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a prototype out for testing.
A futuristic, tall building with a curved bright yellow roof sits next to a traditional Italian warehouse. Both tell the story of Enzo Ferrari, race car driver and founder of the famous car brand Ferrari. Born in Modena, visitors to the museum can experience the timeline of events that brought the cars to be, from the birth of Enzo Ferrari in his childhood home to the future of the brand. Projected black and white films tell the story of his life, while vintage and modern vehicles on display tell the story of the cars. Seeing the warehouse his father worked in gives context to how the unique cars were developed.
Today the warehouse holds the Museo dei Motori, which showcases various race car models as well as their powerful engines. Just beside the warehouse, the automotive design gallery houses the temporary exhibitions of some of Ferrari’s most classic cars.
Fans of cars and Italian design won’t want to miss a visit to the Ducati Museum, celebrating the world of the motorcycle.
Part of the Ducati factory headquarters, the museum highlights the glorious motorcycles that have been manufactured here since 1926.
Dramatically lit machines, trophies motorbiking paraphernalia tell the history of the company and 55 years of bike racing drama. The highlight is the illuminated race track featuring 33 legendary motorcycles.
To get the most your of your visit, take a guided tour.