Bursting with incredible architecture, the foodie capital of Italy, Bologna, is an unsung Italian hero, a magical city to escape to whatever your age. Penny loved this compact city so much when she visited with her family, that she vowed to return, and did exactly that before Christmas, this time with a friend. Here is her Grown Up Guide to Bologna, be warned, she doesn’t do child free by halves! We have a great hotel discount to pass on too.
The Grown Up Guide to Bologna
Bologna is a city you can pretty much just turn up to and potter around, no need for public transport or making concrete plans. Perfect for my travel companion, a teacher friend celebrating the end of a long term, and for me, a slightly frazzled travel blogger and parent.
Travelling with a friend gave me the chance to track down and truly savour the things I couldn’t appreciate with a 4 and 6 year old in tow, like wine, shopping, lazy photo walks, formal 7 course Italian feasts in restaurants Brad and Angelina have dined in, a full day food tour (and more wine) and… an aperitivo tour on a bike by night.
Hotel Touring invited me to visit them in Bologna, nearly everything we experienced in Bologna was a result of their excellent recommendations, which, as you are going to see, is a pretty cool endorsement.
Hotel Touring is family run, and you really feel like you have been welcomed into the family. From emails beforehand offering ideas for things we might like to do, to the cheery welcome from Georgia, to little notes to reminding us of restaurant and tour bookings for the next day, to Matteo putting us in touch with Bike in Bo when he realised they had a special event the day we arrived, to meeting the family dogs, to the lovely chat we had with Manulea over wine and olives in the library.
Hotel Touring is something very special. The second reason it is the place to visit in Bologna is this:
The Roof Terrace
People come from all over to have a drink on the Hotel Touring roof terrace and enjoy the incredible views over the city. After a day sightseeing it is the most magical way to take a breather, what an amazing place to watch the sun rise or set. It’s romantic, inspiring, relaxing, one of those places you want to keep secret but also want everyone to see. It brings people together – you can read about the other travellers I met while taking the photos for this post, and see more photos, over on my blog. It is stunning, it even has a hot tub, although it is only in use in the summer. The views, through the city’s ancient cathedrals and medieval towers are gorgeous, although the views from the other side, out into the countryside are breathtaking too.
Our bedroom had a similar view, from our 4th floor balcony below, waking up to this view and church bells was magical, it truly made me feel part of the city.
More about the hotel on A Residence blog here.
The slickest airport transfer
Manuela offered to organise a transfer for us, smartly dressed and super organised Giacomo from Auto Blu Columbo picked us up from the airport, gave us a friendly handshake, lots of smiles and drove us to our hotel, pointing out landmarks on the way – if you are arriving and need a car, call Giacomo. This has to be the most hassle free transfer I’ve ever encountered.
Bike in Bo
I can’t think of a better way to feel part of a city, than to reclaim the streets as part of a Bolonga bike hire tour, in a large group, bells ringing, horns honking, stopping at some of Bologna’s best osterias, bars you would never find without a local. Bike in Bo hire bikes and will deliver them to your hotel, they also organise evening tours. Our tour was brilliant fun and took in 4 bars with tapas size meals at each.
Bike in Bo’s gorgeous Honululu bikes are strong and sturdy, with big wheels to cope with cobbles, they make for a very smooth ride.
We used our bikes the following day too, Bologna is a really compact city, but if you want to make the most of it in a short time frame, and find all Bologna’s hidden gems, do check out Bike in Bo for bike hire.
See our full bike tour and video here.
The place to eat in Bologna, Osteria De’Poeti has been frequented by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, oh and Keanu too, in fact the waitress assured me that most weekends there would be someone from film or television dining. It’s an absolutely remarkable place and it’s two distinct cellar areas make it perfect for a romantic night, a quiet catch up with friends, or a celebratory night, with live music in larger groups.
We just couldn’t stop looking around. From a small sign on the street, down a staircase, to a gigantic tunnelling basement, opening into a long corridor lined with wine, from which stunning dining rooms branch off, Osteria De’ Poeti is like a beautifully furnished rabbit warren. We felt a little like Alice in Wonderland.
Food soon brought our eyes to our plates. Our waitress was wonderful and guided us through the menu, making suggestions and helping us navigate the seven courses ahead. Sample all the traditional dishes of Bologna here – a city often labelled the foodie capital of Italy – Tortellini, Tagliatelle alla Bolognese and Mortadella. Bologna is renowned for its fresh pasta, something you must taste. The wine cellar is incredible.
You can see everything we ate, meet the chef and read more about our visit here.
Italian Days Food Tour
Hotel Touring suggested we join Italian Days Food Tour No.1 to find out more about the stories behind the local trademark produce: Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic vinegar and Prosciutto, we would be visiting three factories with a guide enjoying tastings and mini picnics, followed by a slap up Italian meal in the countryside. Hard job we thought, but someone’s got to do it.
It was worth the 7am start to witness the birth of Parmigiano Reggiano aka Parmesan. Our next stop was Acetaia Villa San Donnino, near Spilamberto, the birth place of Balsamic Vinegar. I loved the sense of legacy here, as the Villa continues the tradition of balsamic making, passed down over 3 generations.
As a veggie, I sat out the next stop, the Proscuitto factory, but my travelling companion was happy to venture in, and learnt a lot about the complexities of creating outdoor conditions indoors, now that Proscuitto needs to be cured inside.
We finished with an authentic feast out in the countryside, which is as beautiful as the city, the view from the restaurant terrace was stunning. The meal was exquisite, a tour through local delicacies. I lost track of courses but I will tell you Antipasti alone was three or four types of pasta! I loved the tortolloni with courgette in a delicious sauce and deep fried custard was a taste sensation. This was paired with fizzy wine, fizz helps cut through fatty food our host informed me, which is much needed in Bologna! Everything was sprinkled with Parmesan of course, Italian food is naked without it!
Italian Days run small tours, using comfortable people carriers rather than buses, just me and my friend and an Australian couple, and our funny and entertaining host to dine. It gave the day a relaxed and personal feel, we were able to ask all the questions we liked and the meal was a lavish and leisurely affair.
See the whole tour in pictures and video here.
Sightseeing and Shopping
Walking around Bologna with its kilometres of stunning porticoes and medieval towers which seem to defy gravity is enough to make your jaw drop. It’s a beautifully compact city, and Hotel Touring is very central, so we spent lots of time just wandering, me taking photos, my friend looking out for cool places to eat, drink and shop.
Unlike larger cities, in Bologna you don’t really need to make a plan for the day, you can let the day unfold. Hotel Touring can help you pick out some sights on the map. I loved being able to mix up shopping and sightseeing and being able to grab great street food too.
We left the hotel, wandered past Gucci and into an antiques and bric a brac market in full swing.
We found a restaurant with tables outside and had pasta and red wine. We wandered into Benetton, and out with new jumpers, took in the Two Towers over a hot chocolate, wandered through Piazza Maggiore and Piazza Nettuno with it’s amazing fountain and then nipped into Pull&Bear for another clothes haul. Then we wandered where the former Jewish ghetto was, and into the cool, and architecturally stunning student area. Bologna has the world’s oldest university, what a place to be a student, although it’s quite weird seeing graffiti on ancient frescos.
We marvelled at the food shops and bought treats to take home.
On via Piella there is a small secret window in a graffiti-covered wall (sometimes closed, but there’s a hinged door you can open) that overlooks the Reno Canal.
There are so many stories about Bologna’s history, and I loved finding out more about that when I visited with my kids at Museo della Storia di Bologna.
You want more?
If you have a little longer, when I visited with the kids we took the San Luca Express up to the church of San Luca, sailing past miles of porticoes, and found the most incredible pizza place – if you have time you must go, info on this and more things to do with kids, and for grown ups here. See more of Bologna at Christmas too in this post, great shops, compactness, decor, markets, a lack of crowds and a friendly welcome make it a perfect city to Christmas shop in.
The Grown Ups’ Guide to Bologna – Need to know
Giacomo from Auto Blu Columbo would be my recommendation for your airport transfer.
We were guests of Hotel Touring, mention Penny Alexander for a 15% discount.
Find out more about legendary Osteria De’Poeti, where Brad and Angelina, amongst others have eaten.
Book your tour via Italian Days, Tours run Monday to Saturday, Pick up 7am, return around 5pm, price per person 150 Euros. There are other tours on offer too, including Sangiovese Wine (Ags introduced me to this and it is amazing), Truffle hunting, Ferrari Experiences Microbrewery and Private Collections of old Fiat Cars.