Legend has it, that King Felsino, an Etruscan prince who occupied the area around Bologna with his army in the sixth century BC, founded the city and called it Felsina. Felsina stood on the site that is now modern Bolonga. His men immediately set about draining marshes and constructing brick buildings to replace the simple huts of the existing Liguri and Umbri population. The city became a well organised urban centre, one of the most powerful and richest in the region.
This prosperous period was interrupted with the invasion of the Galli Boi, the Celtic people coming from the north. Despite attempts by the Etruscans to defend the city, Felsina fell to the fury of the Gauls. The city became a battlefield and was occupied by 112 Gallic tribes who reduced it to its primitive pre-Etruscan state and dominated it for the next three centuries.
In the meantime, further south, Rome and its armies were becoming increasingly powerful and after defeating Carthage in the Punic wars, set about expanding northwards. After a series of exhausting battles they expelled the Gauls from Felsina and the city fell under the dominion of the Romans. It was re-named Bononia which means “a land rich in all goods” and soon became one of the most important cities in the Italian peninsula. The new Roman masters began the construction of numerous public works including temples, theatres, public baths and an important aqueduct which is still working today. A network of roads was built, the most important being the via AEmilia connecting Piacenza to Rimini. The road was named after the consol Marco Emilio Lepido who had commissioned it in 187 BC, and would later provide the name for the whole region.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Bononia continued to be one of the most important cities in Italy due to its strategic position and its natural and architectural wealth. At the fall of the Empire, following the barabarian invasions, Bononia was in a very depleted state. The christian bishop, Petronius, who would become the future patron saint of the city, organised the rebuilding of a limited part of the centre, which he delineated with four stone crosses mounted on columns. These can still be seen today in the Basilica of San Petronio.
Gradually the population increased and the city expanded creating the need for a new defensive wall in the later medieval period. Nowadays, it is called the Mura del Mille. It was 3.5 km long with 18 fortified gate towers. Four of these can still be seen today.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, an incredible number of medieval towers were built throughout Bologna, making for a urban skyline that almost resembles modern day Manhattan. Today, only 22 towers remain. One of the possible explanations for the vertical construction craze is that rich families used the towers as a symbol of wealth and status, as well as for defensive purposes to guard their land. Some of the smaller structures were built as dwellings.
The exact number of towers built in medieval Bologna is not clear. It was suggested that around about 100 towers were built. This is very impressive considering how difficult it was to build such tall structures with the limited resources of medieval Italy.
After the 13th century, some towers were demolished, others collapsed, and many were destined to different uses, such as residential or commercial buildings, or as prisons. The last demolitions occurred in the early 20th century, along with the 14th century city walls. Of the towers that remain today, the most famous are the two leaning towers of Bologna, the 320 foot Asinelli Tower and the truncated Garisenda Tower.
The city continued to grow and in the 14th century a new wall with 12 gates was constructed to enclose an increasingly large urban and agricultural area. Each gate tower was equipped with a drawbridge to cross the surrounding moat. Unfortunately most of the walls were destroyed with the urban development at the end of the 19th century following the unification of Italy, however some small sections of the wall and nine of the twelve towers still remain.
The University of Bologna, Italian Università di Bologna, is the oldest university in Europe and one of the oldest and most famous universities in the world, founded in the Italian city of Bologna in the 11th century. In the 12th and 13th centuries it became the principal centre for studies in canon and civil law and attracted students from all over Europe. At the time it had no fixed site or student housing, therefore scholars of like nationality formed free associations, or guilds, to secure protections that they could not claim as citizens. The organizations formed at Bologna became models for modern universities. In 1158 Emperor Frederick I granted privileges to scholars of Bologna that were eventually extended to all Italian universities.
In the 12th century, the faculties of medicine and philosophy and liberal arts were formed. The medical faculty became famous in the 13th century for reviving the practice of human dissection, which had not been used in Europe since Roman times. The faculty of science was developed in the 17th century, and in the 18th century women were admitted as students and teachers.
After a period of decline, Bologna was reorganized in 1860 and resumed its place among Italy’s foremost universities. The contemporary university includes faculties of jurisprudence, political science, letters and philosophy, medicine, and engineering.
In the fifteenth century Bologna was ruled by the Bentivoglio family who were great patrons of the arts. This family were responsible for giving the city its political autonomy during the Renaissance period, although their rule did not survive a century and came to an end in 1506 ushering in a long period of papal rule where Bologna was the northern outpost of the Papal state. It was ruled by a papal legate and a senate made up of representatives from noble families, a state of affairs that lasted until the unification of Italy in the 1860’s.
Following unification the character of some areas in the city was drastically changed by the new ruling class who sought to modernize the old city. New large avenues were carved out, changing the character of the city centre. This included the demolition of three medieval towers that came to light as buildings were being demolished.
During the last months of WWII, up to 40% of the city’s industrial buildings were destroyed. However, the historic town inside the walls survived and it has been lovingly and carefully preserved. Today the city is a centre for Italy’s hi-tech industries and is a popular trade fair venue.
Towers built in medieval Bologna
Monte della Guardia
Bonaccorsi Arch (Portico)
1. Piazza Maggiore
As the central square in Bologna, the Piazza Maggiore is located right in the centre of the city and serves as an important historical place. This square is packed full with important buildings including the Pallazo d’Accursio, the Palazzo del Podesta, the Basilica di San Petronio and the Palazzo Comunale. Furthermore, to the north west of the square sits the Piazza del Nettuno that contains the famous Fountain of Neptune.
Admire the fantastic architecture, visit the palaces and basilica, or sit and enjoy a fine Italian meal at one of the restaurants nestled in the Porticos. A fantastic vibe and atmosphere can be found at the Piazza and open air movies and concerts are sometimes held here.
2. The leaning towers of Bologna
Who would of thought that the famous tower at Pisa is not the only leaning tower? Bologna actually has a pair of leaning towers and one is taller than the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa! Bologna actually has a myriad of towers, but the two tall examples standing in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana are the most legendary.
Torre Asinelli, the tallest medieval tower, and Torre Garisenda, stand next to each other and are both named after important Italian families. Asinelli stands at 97.2m and was used as a prison and a stronghold. Garisenda stands at 48m but has an extremely noticeable tilt and overhang of 3.2m. Climb the towers for unparalleled views of Bologna and see the epic landscapes stretching for miles around.
3. Basilica of San Petronio
This immense structure stands as the 10th largest church in the world by volume and presents a domineering presence in the centre of the Piazza Maggiore. Dedicated to Saint Petronius who is actually the patron saint of Bologna, the church has a Gothic design and it is noted for both it sheer size and its unfinished front facade. Originally constructed in 1388 through to 1479, the church has never been truly finished and its front facade is quite bizarre, the lower half features coloured marble stone work, whilst the top half remains bare and contains exposed brown brickwork. Inside the church feels truly epic. The large brick columns, adorned with decoration, seem to stretch forever and the main altar draws your attention as you walk down the central aisle.
4. San Petronio's terrace
When visiting the Basilica of San Petronio, be sure to go to the back of the church for access to the rooftop. Access is from outside the building where an elevator will take you to the top for one of the best views of Bologna. The city is beautiful to view from above and the surrounding hills of Emilia Romagna is breathtaking.
Access to the san Petronio's terrace costs only €3.
5. Neptune's Fountain
Located next to Piazza Maggiore is Piazza del Nettuno that centres around the sculpture of Neptune's Fountain. The fountain is an imposing sight with the God Neptune standing atop a three tiered fountain consisting of Nereids and Cherubs. Construction dates back to 1567.
One interesting fact, the trident logo on the Maserati sports car, is copied from the the trident on Neptune's Fountain, in Piazza del Nettuno.
Listed as one of the most important buildings in Bologna, the Archiginnasio was once the main buildings of the University of Bologna and now houses the famous Anatomical Theatre. This fantastic building was created in the 16th century and is located on the Piazza Galvani. As a piece of historical architecture, the Achiginnasio is fantastic in its own right, but the Anatomical Theatre is undoubtedly the centre piece.
Created completely in wood, this small room has an immense amount of wood panelling and carved statues of famous medical practitioners. Furthermore, in the centre of the room surrounded by seating platforms lies an ornate anatomical table. This is the place where university students would have learnt about the human anatomy and watched dissections and demonstrations of surgery etc.
7. Monte della Guardia
The longest portico in the world leads up to the top of Monte della Guardia. This forested hill provides a fantastic escape from the city and reaches a height of approximately 300m. You can find the hill to the south west of Bolongna in close proximity to the Reno River. Walk the length of the portico (partially enclosed walkway that is lined with arches and columns) and climb the slopes to reach the top of this wonderful hill. The walk is about 3.8 km.
At the top you will be greeted with unparalleled panoramic views of Bologna and the surrounding regions. Furthermore, the delightful Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca is perched on top of the hill and it is a fantastic church to visit in its own right.
8. Bologna Archaeological Museum
A fine museum in the heart of Bologna, the Archaeological Museum offers a fantastic insight into the history of the city throughout the ages. Located on the Piazza Maggiore, the museum is easily accessible and is a fascinating place to visit.
The museum hosts a huge range of collections and is split into 9 different sections. Each collection contains a superb display of different artefacts, these include: Prehistoric, Etruscan, Celtic, Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Numismatic. Each collection contains a superb display of different artefacts such as Bronze Age tools, skeletal remains, pottery, weaponry, china and marble statues.
Due to the large collection and its variety, you could spend hours admiring the displays and learning about the ancient history of the region.
9. Torre Prendiparte
Only a handful of these tall, narrow stone towers built during the Middle Ages still remain today in their original shape and design, one of which is the Torre Prendiparte. This particular tower was constructed during the 12th century and stands at 59.50 metres high. Located on the Piazza Prendiparte, the tower lies close to the two leaning towers and the Piazza Maggiore. It now hosts a bed and breakfast establishment which offers a unique experience, but the levels of the tower are also still open and you can climb to the top and explore this wonderful building.
10. Explore the Porticoes
Bologna is famed for its extensive Portico. A Portico is essentially a partially enclosed walkway that is lined with arches and columns. As Bologna grew as a university city, so did the amount of Porticos present in the city. It is reported that within the confines of the city centre, you can walk through 40km of corridors.
There are numerous different porticos scattered around the city but the most famous are the Bonaccorsi Arch and the walkway leading to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. Walk through the porticos and admire the wonderful ancient architecture.
Basilica of San Petronio
The leaning towers of Bologna
Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda
Leaning towers of Bologna
Monte della Guardia
Longest Portico (going up the hill)
1. Cafe Gamberini
For coffee and treats
2. Osteria Dell Orsa
Italian restaurant, try their Tagliatella Al Ragu
3. La Sorbetteria Castiglione
Try their famous gelato. Bologna is home to the foremost Gelato Machine company in the world. So the shops that sell Gelato are second to none! Unlike places in Rome and Florence where there are several gelato shops that sell the cheap stuff. You can be certain to always have quality gelato in Bologna.
Carbigiani Gelato University offers courses for a €900 that you will get back after you buy their €21,000 machine. Don't have €21,000 to spare? That's ok, tasting gelato is much more fun.
4. There are many bars and restaurants
Finnish off the day with an apreitivo at one of the many bars in the city center, an Italian Tradition. Many restaurants and bars opened their doors at 6:00 pm for patrons to order a drink.
Most people order a Spritz (prosecco and aperol), Prosecco (white sparkling wine) or Lambrusco (red sparkling wine). What makes aperitivo so special? Well, when you order a drink, you automatically are allowed to eat for free.
Bars range from having a few snacks like pizza and sliders to full on buffets with pasta, cheese, risottos and meats. As long as you kept a full glass, you could keep on eating.
1. Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is made in Emilia Romagna and aged up 24 months. Balsamic vinegar of Modena is also well known.
2. Parmesan Cheese
Parmigiano Reggiano is made to perfection here and aged up to 7 years!
Mortadella is the original Bologna. Yep, that's where our luncheon meats came from as kids. Only in Bologna, it is called Mortadella.
The best gelaterias in Italy can be found here and the gelato museum and gelato school is in Bologna. This is the best place to try it in the country.
5. Prosciutto di parma
Great care goes into this cured ham. Pigs are fed a special diet of cheese whey from Parmigiano Reggiano and after slaughter, their legs are sent where it is immediately salted and stored. For cured meats, this is the creme de la creme.
Bologna is the birthplace of many kinds of pasta including tagliatelle, cappelletti, taglioni, tortellini, and lasagne.
Bologna is famous for its handmade pasta and Tortellini stuffed with meat is its specialty.
8. Tagliatelle al Ragu
Bolognese sauce was invented in Bologna. And tagliatelle al Ragu is a fancy name for spaghetti bolognese. But in Bologna they don't use spaghetti which is not really a part of their cuisine, instead, they use tagliatelle.