BOLOGNA, An Ancient City Standing Tall In The 21 Century

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna region is a city known for its food, culture, commerce and beauty. It always amazes me how often I meet people who bypass Bologna. It is buzzing with activity within its famous and beautiful medieval piazzas  built between the 12th and 14th Centuries. Piazza Maggiore with its Fountain of Neptune (Fontana di Nettuno), Palazzo dei Banchi, Basilica di San Petronio and San Domenico form the heart of the city where in summer many concerts, art exhibitions and street entertainers fill the piazzas with locals and visitors well into the early morning hours. Shopping is an art in Bologna where street markets straddle the sidewalks side by side with exquisite boutiques. People linger in cafes drinking their many expressi of the day in deep conversation oblivious to the activity going on around them. It is all encompassing and draws you in like a magnet. How can you pass the aromas of a bar without stopping in for an espresso? The city is seductive and you quickly find yourself joining in the excitement that surrounds you day and night.

One of the most alluring attractions of Bologna is its 38 kilometers of porticoes lining the streets and a 4-kilometer-wall built in 1674. The Porticoes add shelter from the weather and are one of the main architectural features of this beautiful city, (read more about Bologna’s famous porticoes on

When taking an Italian language course I lived just outside of the wall and walked home each night about 1 1/2 miles under brightly lit porticos passing bars bustling with people well past midnight. The yellow light flooding the terracotta stucco buildings casts a mysterious dimension to the ancient walls leaving you with the feeling that you are living in ancient times.


There were up to 180 towers in Bologna but today only 2 still exist, the most famous being Asinelli Tower and the Garisenda Tower still stand, leaning precariously.

Il “Mercato di mezzo” is situated within ancient streets originally where the cities craftsmen conducted business. Meandering off in all directions, stalls filled with fish, fruit, cheese, salumi and just about everything else fill your senses with delicious aromas and a noisy and colorful collaboration of activity. It is all so natural to Italians, this life in il mercarto. For the tourist, it is overwhelming and a confusing interaction between vendors and their probing customers. Italians are very discriminating about their food buying nothing but the best. This is where I spent everyday before and after my Italian classes held just around the corner. I spent many hours studying the activity, the process of being Italian and interacting with the locals. Il mercarto is the center of life in an Italian city and it is where you find the real people of the city. Day after day I studied the Italian women making their selections and having rented an apartment, I had no other choice but to cook for myself. As I sat there at a café, I had a discussion with a woman about this special activity that seems to be some sort of ritual. She told me that the trick was to ask the vendor what the right product was for the dish I was making. The vendors pride and knowledge of food would prevail and taking their advice would render your dish exactly as you expected. With my newly acquired Italian language skills, I took her advice and totally became part of the scene almost to the point that I think they took me for a local, (at least I like to think so). It helped that my heritage is Italian and I look Italian. These days were some of the best memories I have of my time in Bologna. I became part of the chaotic activity and for a short time even I began to believe that I was Italian.

Bologna’s markets are crowded and be advised to prepare yourself for some serious shopping. Many clothing, textile and shoe manufacturers are situated on the outskirts of Bologna and you can find fantastic things with a little patient. This is where the locals shop and many fashion trends start right here in the market. Be sure to check everything, as there are also lesser quality items for sale especially the leather goods. Often different pieces of leather are used where it isn’t noticeable and a jacket for example may be a patch work of leather.

Mercato Coperto – Via Ugo Bassi 2, Orefici Market – Via dei Orefici, open daily. La Piazzola – Piazza VIII Agosto (clothes, kitchen goods etc. open on Saturdays and Sundays), Mamanca Market – Via Valdonica (antiques and books), Mercato di Antiquariato – Piazza Santo Stefano (antiques and art) held on the second Sunday of each month. This is one of my favorite markets where beautiful antiques and art are displayed and the most interesting collectables can be bought. I loved spending the afternoon strolling around the tables and display areas filled with unique items. Somehow being in Italy it seemed right to be surrounded with art and antiques.

Via Rizzoli and via dell’Indipendenza are the main streets for shopping. There are also many boutiques on Via Farini, including an arcade of top designer shops in Via Clavature and via d’Azeglio. Situated under the ancient portico covered streets these shops sell the elegant creations of Italian designers.

Situated in the North, in the Po Valley, Bologna’s cuisine is mainly cured pork meats such as prosciutto, mortadella and salami, as well as cheese, such as the world renowned Parmigiano Reggiano. Tagliatelle al ragù (pasta with meat sauce, i.e. the famous spaghetti alla Bolognese), tortellini served in broth, mortadella and Zampone (boned stuffed pigs foot) are among the local specialties. Tortellini (small, stuffed ring shaped pasta), Tagliatelle (ribbon shaped pasta), and the spinach pasta verde are typical pasta varieties. Wonderful small restaurants can be found everywhere and the food is outstanding. Pasta with white truffles, beautiful grilled porcini mushrooms, wild meats such as venison, mutton and bore are seasonal specialties. Don’t forget the desserts. One of my very favorite is sfogliatelle (crispy pastry layers stuffed with ricotta). I was lucky enough to have a pasticceria just across the street where I could go for my morning cappuccino and savor a warm, just out of the oven sfogliatelle. I couldn’t wait to get up and out to the pasticceria and sometimes I had to wait, as the first trays weren’t out of the oven yet. Zuccherino montanaro, biscotti flavored with anise and frosting infused with anise liqueur and Zuppa Inglese made with pan di Spagna soaked in liquor and filled with a pastry cream are famous. Dolce di San Michele, a cake in honor of the city’s patron eaten on the 29th of September, La Pinza, a pastry filled with raisins, almonds, and prune jam and Torta di riso, Bologna’s rice cake are waiting for you in every pasticceria. Crocante con mandorle can be found all along the streets in huge sheets sold by vendors. This is similar to  brittle but harder and thicker using whole roasted almonds and/or hazel nuts. I love this candy, but am very careful, as it is so hard that you can easily break your teeth. (My recipe can be found on my blog).

Pignoletto dei Colli Bolognesi, Lambrusco di Modena and Sangiovese di Romagna are the wines produced in this region. Lambrusco is a slightly sweet effervescent wine and is often served as a dessert with peaches when in season. It is probably the most famous wine coming from this region.

The University quarter is northeast of the two towers, along the Via Zamboni. University of Bologna is Europe’s oldest university founded over 900 years ago it attracts students from around the world. As in any city the university adds youth and deep sense of the seriousness as well as innovation. Theaters, book stores  and seminars draw in young and old and give the city a buzz of activity. I spent 2 evenings per week here taking a seminar in 17 century Italian opera. I immersed myself in Italian taking a cooking course every week at the home of a couple that made these evenings delicious fun. We learned to cook amazing Italian recipes and communicated about our cultures, politics and anything else that was happening in the world in Italian.

Museo Civico Archeologico (Archaeological Museum) located next to the Palazzo dei Banchi, occupies the building of an old hospital and is one of Italy’s most important collections of antiquities. This museum should not be missed and allow a good amount of time for your visit. Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna (National Picture Gallery) houses masterpieces worthy of an art lover’s time.

Teatro Comunale di Bologna is one of the most important opera venues in Italy. Presenting operas since the 17th century from Vivaldi, Gluck, Piccinni, Verdi, Rossini, Bellini, Wagner and conductor Arturo Toscanini. We were lucky enough to have an opera singer studying Italian in our class and a visit was arranged for us to tour the opera house including the back stage and learn about its history.

I visit Bologna for shopping or just to be there enjoying this lovely city whenever I can. Bologna is an ancient city, but in every way modern. When you visit plan on spending at least a few days.

Note: Some of the photo’s & information were provided by the Bologna Tourist Office.


~ by Patricia Turo on April 13, 2010.

4 Responses to “BOLOGNA, An Ancient City Standing Tall In The 21 Century”

  1. Beautiful souvenirs of Bologna are coming back reading this – grazie! The picture of the sfogliatelle is SO VERY appetizing. I got to know this pastry in Napoli (I believe they are specialty especially of the south) and to this day, it is my absolute favorite pastry of all times (and I am from Switzerland with a fantastic sweet history). The fabulous crunchiness of the outer layers of a sfogliatella, followed by the ricotta filling – I couldn’t get enough. I wish they could be made at home to a similar degree of perfection.


    • I also live in Switzerland and have never seen them here even in the Ticino. I do have a recipe for them from a chef at the Villa Crispi, Largo di Orta. He made them every day and I have translated the recipe. They are difficult to make and take a lot of time, It is really impossible to get the layers as fine and as with a machine specially made to make them. Having said that, they did come out as well as could be expected by hand and tasted great. Not sure I would attempt them again however. They are now available in many bakeries in the US i.e. Boston, NY, RI, PA and Florida. Nice to hear about your experiences.


  2. Patricia, it’s very nice seeing your city painted with so much passion and love by a visitor! You made me know something that I didn’t know myself!
    Just a correction: what you called “brocante” is actually “croccante” that means “crispy”.
    Yes, you are right: the walls of our downtown are littered with filthy graffiti, but finally some willing people joined in a commitee has begin cleaning them. Unfortunately they won’t last clean for a lot of time, I’m afraid.



    • Nico,
      Thank you for your response and correction which I will change. I love Bologna and was surprised to see the graffiti as when I was there studying it wasn’t like that. I remember when Rome use to have this problem and have cleaned it up. I know that the people of Bologna take pride in their city and want the rest o the wold to love it as much as I do. Hope you are all successful in cleaning it up because it is just too beautiful of a place to let it remain tarnished in this way.


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