Bologna: Postcard from the Red City

Everyone who travels, I’m sure, has his or her own “go-to” resources, those places one looks when deciding what to eat, do, and see. For me, there are a handful of blogs I always turn to for food recommendations, certain search engines I always use for flight booking, and – when it comes to Europe – a guidebook that I always find myself referencing. I write of course, of Rick Steves, whose guidebooks are particularly great at laying out all the practical information: finding hotels, planning itineraries, and learning about nitty gritty details like opening hours and cost.

But nobody is infallible, not even good old Rick, and there was one time when he could not have been more wrong: Bologna.

I had read a fair bit about Bologna, Italy’s culinary Mecca and capital of the Emilia Romagna region. Lured by the promise of “the best food in Italy,” I knew I wanted to go. There was just one thing: Rick Steves said to skip Bologna. Here’s the excerpt from his guidebook: “Though well-preserved, Bologna is also huge, congested, and relatively charmless.” Relatively charmless?!

To that, I must say: what the hell, Rick? Because I loved Bologna, I really did, and I am so glad I made the trip.

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Bologna is decidedly un-touristy – note the lack of crowds and the dearth of menus written in anything other than Italian – and I suppose I can understand why many people feel compelled to skip it. It is a low-key place without any blockbuster sights. It also doesn’t have that picture perfect, storybook that many Italian cities have; instead, it feels grittier, more ordinary, more relaxed. Walking through Venice, I found myself wondering where the hell all the Italians were. Well, they were right here: living, working, and eating (oh the eating!) in Bologna.

I said Bologna does not have “picture perfect” charm, but that’s not to say it is not visually appealing. In fact, one of the city’s nicknames is la rossa – the red – and it does not take a genius to see why. Walking around Bologna, I was greeted by buildings hued in rich, warm tones at every corner. The city is striking.

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Another visual treat? Bologna is a city of porticoed walkways, which are not only practical (providing respite from the hot midday sun) but are also beautiful to admire. I loved the symmetry and the elegance and, as a terribly fair-skinned person, the shade they added to Bologna’s streets.

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Walking through Bologna’s streets, another detail kept catching my eye: graffiti and murals everywhere. Some of them seemed to have a political edge to them while other pieces – like those pictured below – just appeared to be good fun, a whimsical way to enliven the city streets.

Bologna Graffiti

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My chief pastime in Bologna was – let’s be real here – trying its delicious cuisine, but I also did a fair bit of walking to counteract the decadent calorie consumption. One spot I passed again and again was Bologna’s Two Towers, which dominate the landscape.

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Another oft-visited spot was Piazza Maggiore, which was the center of town and usually buzzing with activity. Here, I found St. Peter’s, a church with a gorgeous facade and…a not that exciting interior.

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As far as churches went, Santo Stefano was much more captivating. This church had a shabby, crumbling, ramshackle feel to it, but was utterly charming in its own way. There were all sorts of little nooks and crannies to explore, naves and rooms and courtyards scattered around haphazardly. There was a small cloisters, too (and we all know I adore a good cloisters). As I wound my way through the church’s many rooms, I heard the sounds of a choir wafting through the building, adding a serene, lovely feeling to my visit.

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And when I needed to relax, I found refuge atop my hotel’s terrace, which boasted wonderful views of the city skyline (Best Western Bologna, who knew you had it in you!?!). Morning, midday, or night, it was a treat to unwind and recharge in this spot.

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Bologna Terrace

After a short two days in Bologna, here is what I know. Is it my favorite city in Italy? Nope, not by a long shot. Was it worth the trip? Yes, absolutely. It may not be Italy at its most glamorous, but it did feel incredibly authentic, and there’s something to be said for that. Plus, I cannot emphasize enough how thoroughly I enjoyed being in a place where Italians far, far outnumbered the tourists. I’m glad I gave Bologna a try – it was well worth my time.

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