One summer I spent a couple of weeks in Emilia-Romagna in Italy with my husband and kids (16 and 12 years old at the time). Emilia-Romagna is in the northern part of Italy, below Venice and above Tuscany. We flew to Milan, picked up a hire car and spent the first couple of days of our trip in beautiful Parma.
Our next stop (via a parmesan factory, the Ferrari museum and lunch at a swish agriturismo which produces its own balsamic vinegar) was the ancient city of Bologna. Bologna is the regional capital of Emilia-Romagna and its university, founded in 1088, is one of the oldest in the world. The city is known affectionately as La Dotta, La Grassa, la Rossa, which means The Learned (because of the university), The Fat (because of its amazing food), The Red (because of its red roof tiles and bricks and also because of its left-wing history).
We arrived in the city on a hot July evening and made the mistake of trying to drive to where we were staying. The historic city centre is pedestrianised and cars aren’t allowed in. We eventually parked in the underground car park at Piazza VIII Agosto and walked from there, which was no problem.
We stayed in a fab two-bedroom apartment at Met’s Apartments, which is part of Hotel Metropolitan. The apartment was perfect for us: it was cool (once the air-con was on), clean, modern, well-equipped and in a central location. Best of all, as far as the kids were concerned, breakfast at the sleek Metropolitan Hotel was included in the apartment rental.
On our first evening in the city we strolled around the historic centre to get our bearings and take in the atmosphere. We didn’t need dinner because we’d eaten so much at lunch at the agriturismo. The city centre is compact and walkable and was buzzing with people. Part of the beautiful main square, Piazza Maggiore, was covered with chairs ready for an outdoor cinema screening later that evening. On one side of the square is the vast Basilica, the fifth largest church in Europe. On the other side is the adjoining square, Piazza Nettuno, with a central fountain which I had to photograph when the kids weren’t with me, to avoid their mortification.
We spotted some of the city’s famous medieval defensive towers, including the iconic Two Towers, pictured at the end of this post. At one point Bologna was home to more than 100 of these towers but today just 24 remain.
Leaving the kids in the cool of the apartment the next morning my husband and I climbed the narrow stone staircase to the top of San Pietro church. The long, steep climb was worth it for the views from the top.
In the afternoon we met up with our excellent and knowledgable guide, Micol, for an insider’s tour of the city. Bologna is famous for its miles and miles of elegant porticoes. The longest portico in the city extends for an impressive 150 metres. I’d assumed that these colonnades were built for shelter but Micol explained that they were actually used as a way to extend buildings. In medieval times students came to study here from all over Europe and space was at a premium. Micol took us in to the oldest part of the university and to the wood-panelled dissection theatre where trainee surgeons learnt their trade in medieval times.
My favourite part of the tour was when we went inside one of the medieval defensive towers. Torre Prendiparte is a fabulous B&B which was listed by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 extraordinary places to stay in 2014. The owner, Matteo, was kind enough to show us around the tower, which sleeps up to four people and would indeed be an extraordinary place to stay (but not with toddlers – the stairs would be too hazardous).
Bologna has a market which dates from medieval times – Mercato di Mezzo – as well as some great shops in its miles of porticos. The summer sales were on when we visited and my daughter and I enjoyed hunting for bargains on our way back to our apartment – or whenever we got the chance, frankly.
The next day we took advantage of Bologna’s fantastic train connections. The city is one of Italy’s main railway hubs and this makes it an excellent place to base yourself and explore the surrounding regions. We caught a high speed train from Bologna to spend a day in the wondrous city of Florence, which is about 100 kilometres away in Tuscany. My husband and I both studied in Florence (at different times) as language students and we really enjoyed popping back there with the kids. The train was great – the journey took only half an hour and delivered us right to the centre of Florence.
You can read about our day trip to Florence in this post:
Piazza Santo Stefano
On our last morning in Bologna my husband and I went for an early stroll to the triangular Piazza Santo Stefano. It’s a picturesque and peaceful location and we had it all to ourselves. There was just time to take a few photos before checking out of our apartment and setting off for our hotel in Cesenatico on the coast, an hour’s drive away.
Bologna is a fascinating city and my husband and I would like to go back and explore it further. It’s a great place to base yourself if you want to visit Venice, Florence and other parts of Italy because of its excellent rail connections and its reasonable prices for accommodation and eating out. The kids both loved where we stayed, my daughter liked the shopping and my son particularly enjoyed the food in Bologna.
You can read more about our trip in my other posts:
Recommended guide books
Thank you to the lovely people at the Emilia-Romagna Tourist Board for arranging our accommodation and booking our tourist guide in Bologna. All opinions, words and photos are our own.
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