Lots to do in a weekend to Bologna after a €13.90 train ride

Text and photos by Carol Tomlinson

Off for a weekend in Bologna, not to see all the tourist sites but for a visit to the MAST museum and a chance to take photos in a different setting from Lucca. My style of tourism is to go to areas where I want to wander, find nice cafes where you can people-watch, perhaps do a church or museum and, of course, find a nice place to try the local delicacies. This is my way of saying this won’t be a ‘what to see and do in Bologna’ article.

I took the regional train to get to Bologna. This is not the fastest route (for that take the fast train to Florence and get the inter-city) but it only cost me €13.90 each way, with a change at Prato Centrale. At Lucca station the police were checking that everyone boarding had the Super Green Pass and was wearing the correct mask. If you drive be careful not to get a fine – much of Bologna’s centro storico limits traffic, and parking nearby is difficult and tight.

The first thing that hit me getting off the train, and for the whole weekend, was the sheer number of people. After Lucca I am not used to big crowds, but the central areas of the city where the main attractions are (Piazza Maggiore and the surrounding areas) were packed with shoppers, students, locals, and a sprinkling of tourists. There were also protesters. On Saturday the anti-vaxers were out in force and on Sunday, climate change activists. Bologna has always had a reputation for activism and the students at the oldest university in the world help keep up the tradition.

Ignoring the protesters, but checking people entering the church of San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore, were army personnel with machine guns. Perhaps they were worried we would damage the longest meridian line, try to complete the façade (which remains half marble and half rough brick), or steal the remains of Elisa, Napoleon’s sister, to bring her back to Lucca!

Attached to Piazza Maggiore is the smaller Piazza Nettuno where there is a fountain of Neptune by Giambologna. The church hierarchy was scandalised by the naked nymphs squirting water out of their breasts and also ruled that Neptune’s appendage should be downsized. Locals or tour guides will explain how the Bolognesi got round that one!

Neptune fountain detail.

Next on the agenda were Bologna’s twin towers. These towers, as in Lucca and San Gimignano, were built for defense and to show off the owner’s wealth and status. There used to be around 100 but now only 20 survive. The twins are next to each other and both lean. In fact the tallest, the Torre Asinelli, at almost 100m, is taller than the one in Pisa. You can climb the 498 steps and get a fantastic view from the top, if you survive the climb.

Asinelli Tower.

If you love food, your next stop should be the central market and the narrow streets around it which are crammed with artisan food shops and restaurants. Don’t forget to try a tagliere with the softest prosciutto crudo and mortadella, the tagliatelle with ragu or tortellini in brodo and to finish a pannacotta. There are also many places to have a piadina (local flat bread) with a multiplicity of fillings. For aperitivo hour go down to the student area and have a spritz with the cool crowd, or go to an enoteca and drink the local Sangiovese or Lambrusco secco with a small plate of Parmigiano stagionato (aged Parmesan).

On your way round Bologna you will stroll through some of the porticos that line the streets. There are 40km of these and they vary from the beautiful coloured stone or original wood structures to the more grungy, heavily graffitied ones in the student area. On the subject of graffiti there is lots of it, most not of great artistic merit, but some interesting and colourful.


Bologna used to have canals like Venice to transport goods around the city but these have all been built over and you can only see traces of them in a few places. I visited the old port area which is off the tourist track and for some reason also lacked water when I visited. The port is near Bologna’s modern art museum – MAMBO which also houses work by local artist Morandi.

Other churches and museums are available and I am sure well worth visiting, but it was Sunday and mass was being celebrated, so I excused myself and headed off to MAST. This exhibition space is off the beaten track, so I jumped into a taxi to get there. Up ’til 28 August there is a truly amazing photography exhibition on. They have photos dating back to the beginning of photography through until now, by the most famous photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Don McCullin, Bill Brandt to name but a few. Fantastic and free. 

As the exhibition was so good I am planning a second trip. Perhaps next time I will get to visit the Cathedral and Santo Stefano, a complex of seven churches, which I had to skip. So arriverderci Bologna, a presto.

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