At the risk of sounding like a broken record, three days are not enough to fully explore Italy’s wonderful province of Emilia-Romagna. However, sometimes three days are all we have, so keep reading to find the perfect three day itinerary for Bologna and its surrounding areas in Emilia Romagna!
Bologna, the birthplace of Spaghetti Bolognese (which really is Tagliatelle Ragu), is the largest city in the Italian province of Emilia Romagna. Succinctly described by the three words La Rossa (the red), La Dotta (the fat) and La Grassa (the learned), it is famous for its unique red color, for its excellent gastronomy, and as the seat of the oldest university in Europe.
Emilia-Romagna is a haven for foodies – the land of Parmeggiano Reggiano (authentic Parmesan cheese), Balsamic Vinegar, Parma Ham, Mortadella, Tortellini, Piadina…the list goes on and on. It is still relatively under the tourist radar, which means it is the perfect region to visit in Italy! You can easily club a holiday in the Tuscan countryside with a foodie binge in the wonderful towns of Emilia-Romagna.
Why Base Yourself in Bologna
Bologna is connected to almost every major Italian city by train. It is also very well connected to other towns (such as Modena, Parma etc.) in Emilia Romagna, which I highly recommend you visit!
Staying in Bologna allows you to easily get around without renting a car. The food options are mouthwateringly delicious, and the city has a very relaxed vibe to it.
I think that Bologna is perfect to experience how real Italians live.
How to Get To Bologna
The easiest (and probably cheapest) airport to fly into from outside Europe is Milan.
From Milanpesa airport, hop on the (rather slow) train to Milan Centrale, and then on a high speed train to Bologna. You can refuel at Milanpesa while you wait for your hour long train to Bologna, there is an excellent pizza place at the airport right by the boarding tracks.
Since flight times and connections can be tricky, I did not buy my train ticket in advance. Buying last minute at the station meant that it cost €50, but it definitely saves a lot of stress!
You could also fly into Rome or Florence and take the high speed trains from there to Bologna.
If you are already in Europe, Bologna also has an airport, and you can make use of the cheap airlines to take a quick flight there!
Where to Stay in Bologna
I highly recommend staying in the Francesca room at the B&B Casa Faccioli in Bologna. I recommend choosing the room only option (skip breakfast, there are plenty of spots close by to grab and go).
The location is perfect, close to Piazza Maggiore, but tucked away on a quiet street. There are tons of good restaurants and wine bars near by. The train station is only a 15-20 minute easy walk away!
My favorite part though, was the balcony overlooking the red roofs of Bologna, providing a vantage point to the many towers there. It is perfect to sit and relax in the early mornings or around sunset, even if you are traveling solo like I was!
I hope this helps you quickly make your accommodation decision! I spent a lot of time searching for the perfect accommodation in Bologna. A lot of the recommended hotels are very expensive, and not worth it in my opinion. Of course, you could also go the Airbnb route, since three days is enough time to justify it. It is really easy to store luggage at Bologna Centrale (they have a luggage storage point near the West entrance of the station), so you don’t have to worry about getting a hotel in order to store your luggage the day you reach / leave Bologna.
Three Day Bologna Itinerary
Day 1 – Explore Bologna
Bologna is truly one of my favorite cities in Italy, one I could see visiting again and again. It has a laid back vibe that lends itself to not doing too much. Don’t visit Bologna with the same mindset as Rome – it is not a city with a million things to do. Instead, walk around people watching, eat the delicious food till your bellies are more than satisfied, enjoy meaningful conversations with glasses of Lambrusco in your hand. Go to Bologna to soak in the Italian culture.
Start your day bright and early at the center of Bologna, Piazza Maggiore. This is really the heart of the city, where locals and visitors alike convene in the evenings to hang out, chat, have a drink and snacks at one of the many places close by. Don’t miss the magical corners where your whisper can be heard at the corner across the hall. While you are here, also make sure to buy your ticket to climb up the Torre degli Asinelli at the Bologna Welcome Center.
Historical Market Tour + Cooking Class with Bologna Gourmet
One of my favorite activities in Bologna was taking a cooking class with Chef Ilaria of Bologna Gourmet.
She first took me on a tour of Bologna’s medieval market (off of Piazza Maggiore), where she introduced me to the different foods special to the region of Bologna and Emilia Romagna, explained how to tell the difference between fresh handmade and machine made pasta, and threw out the most delightful tidbits about Bologna’s history.
My favorite tidbit? Bologna’s famous porticos originated from the inhabitants building extensions to their houses starting at the second floor as a trick to pay less tax! The stilts developed into lovely porticos once people realized that they are perfect shelters against the sun and the rain. And perfectly beautiful as well!
Then, Ilaria introduced me to the best coffee shop in Bologna, Cafe Terzi. My absolute favorite moments in Italy are spent downing a macchiato at the espresso counter, so Cafe Terzi and I got along very well.
In the gorgeous kitchen at Casa Ilaria, I learned to make fresh pasta from scratch (its hard!), the famous Bolognese Ragu, and of course, tiramisu. I might be slightly biased here, but Ilaria’s (I helped!) Tagliatelle Ragu was the best I’ve ever tasted! FYI – Tagliatelle Ragu outside of Bologna is either called Tagliatelle Bolognese, or the more famous various Spaghetti Bolognese.
Learning to cook Italian food was amazing of course, but what was invaluable was the time I got to spend with two Italians, learning about their culture and way of life. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND booking a cooking class with Ilaria, she is so flexible and can customize a menu you would enjoy!
Visit the Canals of Bologna
Did you know that Bologna has canals?! They surprised me as well. Don’t go there expecting a mini Venice, but they’re still cool to walk past! The best place to map to is Finestrella, but as always, make your own adventure!
Climb up the Torre degli Asinelli
Bologna is a town of towers. The two most famous towers of Bologna, affectionately nicknamed the Due Torri, stand side by side, leaning toward each other. You can climb up the Torre degli Asinelli for €3 euros (buy tickets at the welcome center as mentioned above). There are 498 stairs to the top, windy and toward the end, just a tad bit treacherous. It’s all worth it though, the views from the top are simply stunning, the air fresh and crisp. There is in fact a little too much wind, so don’t wear a short dress. They operate timed entries to the Tower, so get in line on time. You can stay up for quite a while though, so don’t panic.
Visit the Archiginnasio, the oldest classrooms in Europe
The Archiginnasio, inaugurated in 1563, was the seat of the oldest University in Europe. It is a gorgeous building, worth a visit even without the history. But, pay the €3 to tour the oldest classroom and the oldest anatomical theater. It is a magical glimpse into the world gone by, a chance to ruminate on how much we have learned throughout human history.
Drink in the views from the Basilica di San Petronio
I know you just climbed up a million stairs to drink in the views of Bologna from the Torre degli Asinelli. However, those views did not include the iconic “leaning” tower itself! The terrace of the Basilica di San Petronio costs €3 to go up (they have an elevator!) has amazing views over the town. I loved actually seeing the Tower “leaning”, honestly it impressed me more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is just across the square from the Archiginassio, so don’t miss it!
Get lost in the cobbled streets, and count the number of towers
Bologna is brimming with medieval towers, since that was a way for families to express their wealth and power. It is so much fun to wander around the old town, counting the towers, imagining what it would have been like to live in them!
This is basically the best and most important thing you could do in Bologna. The food is heavenly, spend some serious time and energy just devouring it.
My recommendation for your first evening is La Baita. It is in the old market area, so a quick walk from the B&B. I loved both the ambience and the food, it’s so amazing to basically sit in a cool little grocery store, eating some of the best food of your life! Alternatively, you could also sit outside and people watch.
Day 2 – Parmeggiano Reggiano Factory Tour & Reggio Emilia
Reserve this day for a day trip to a Parmeggiano Reggiano factory and the towns of Reggio Emilia and/or Parma.
As a long time ardent fan of Parmesan cheese, I booked The Secrets of Parmeggiano Reggiano Airbnb Experience with Claudio to see and learn (and taste!) how authentic Parmesan (Parmeggiano Reggiano) cheese is made.
Claudio picks you up from the Reggio Emilia AV station (which you will reach in perfect time if you book the 8:20 am high speed train from Bologna Centrale). You will learn an overwhelming lot about cheese throughout your drive to his Parmeggiano Reggiano factory.
My favorite facts were –
- Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese can only come from the regions in and around Parma, Reggio Emilia and some parts of Modena in Italy
- The creation of P. Reggiano goes back 900 years
- It is lactose free after 24 months aging
- It has no added preservatives, unlike Grana Padano cheese
Once at the factory, you must wear the lab coats that Claudio provides. The first space is where the Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese is “birthed”, literally he describes it as the cheesmaker’s babies (they are usually twins!). The whole process is so fun to watch (not as fun to smell however). Next, he showed us how they mark the cheese wheels with the name of the factory and the date. Finally, we entered a magical room, with our eyes closed so we could fully take in the delicious aroma. This is where the cheese wheels are dried and aged for 12 – 36 months.
Did you know that there are professional cheese ‘tappers’? They basically go around tapping wheels of 12 month aged Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese to figure out if it is worthy of the prestigious Parmeggiano Reggiano stamp!
I highly recommend booking Claudio’s Parmeggiano Reggiano Airbnb Experience! It is so amazing to learn all about this wonderful cheese and the region that is dependent on this industry.
Of course, the best part is saved for last – actually tasting this wonderful cheese! We tried 12 months, 24 months and 36 month aged cheeses. My favorite was 24 month olds! We also got to try some authentic traditionally made Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, which is amazing, and nothing like the balsamic vinegar you imagine!
After eating your weight in cheese, head to the lovely little town of Reggio Emilia (Claudio would be happy to drop you off there). It is totally off the tourist radar (most choosing to head to Parma).
My tip for Reggio Emilia is just to wander around without a purpose. Unless your purpose is gelato, in which case, wander to Emilia Cremeria. Don’t forget to try the Erbazzone Reggiano, a breakfast pastry made from spinach and parmeggiano reggiano cheese, only available in Reggio Emilia. If you book Claudio’s experience, you’ll get to taste some at breakfast!
I simply loved strolling around, seeing all the pastel houses, the cobbled streets, and the gorgeous ivy walls! Italy in the summer – is there anything better?
Once you get back to Bologna in the evening, relax with a glass of wine and take in the sunset in your gorgeous balcony. Hungry? Make your way lazily to the corner pizza shop, Scalinatella Ristorante Pizzeria, it is absolutely delicious! Fun fact – Bologna is not typically known for its pizza, hence the large numbers of locals here. The “typical local food” places in Bologna tend to draw out more visitors, simply because locals already cook local food..at home!
If you still have energy, turn the corner and head to Enoteca Storica Faccioli for a last glass of wine to end a beautiful day! I loved this unassuming wine bar, with floor to ceiling bottles of wine. Sitting outside in the shadow of a medieval tower, people watching while sipping a delicious Lambrusco…the perfect end to a perfect day.
Day 3 – Day Trip to Modena
Modena was my favorite town in Emilia Romagna, probably in all of Italy. It is a pretty pastel dream, home to arguably the best restaurant in the world, and plenty of other good food besides. Head to my detailed guide to Modena and pin the page for more information on planning the best day trip there!
Optional – Day 4 : Half Day Trip to Ravenna
Ravenna in the Romagna part of Emilia-Romagna, is a town of murals. It is about 45 mins away from Bologna by regional train. I put Ravenna as optional because I found it quite touristy and not as charming as Modena or Reggio Emilia. However, the murals are definitely worth a half day visit!
Buy a Single Ticket to view the 5 UNESCO heritage mural sites at the Biglietteria Basilica di San Vitale. My favorite was at the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. The ones at the Basilica di San Vitale, Baptistry of Neon, Archiepiscpal Museum and the Basilica di Sant Apollinare are also amazing!
For lunch, head to Gastronomia Stella for a typical Piadina, a Romagnan specialty. You can choose the ingredients that go into this wrap filled with the local cheese. My choice was tomato and arugula! The owners are so sweet, and we communicated quite effectively even with my non-existent Italian skills.
Keep an eye out for the street signs while walking around Ravenna, they are cute 90s video game inspired murals! Want a coffee? Stop by Cafe Lettario on your way back to the train station.
Then, back to Bologna, and the most delicious food in the world! If you are in the mood for something cheap but tasty, head to Osteria dell’ Orsa for €3.50 Tagliatelle Ragu. Warning : It is not as good as Chef Ilaria’s.
As I said before, three (even four!) days is hardly enough to explore all of Emilia Romagna. However, I hope this itinerary serves a wonderful first taste, a way to conveniently savor the best of Emilia Romagna.
I know this was a giant blog post and will be tough to sift through during your trip. So, here’s an exclusive link to a Google Maps List with all of the spots I mentioned (and more!). Don’t know how to use it? Here is a handy guide to using Google Maps while traveling. Really hope it helps!
Also, I really recommend my Instagram Story Highlights about Emilia Romagna, since I’ve included quite a few videos there! So definitely check those out right before / during your trip!
And of course, pin this post to reference later!
I finally found some time to read your post about Bologna and Emilia Romagna- in your stories it looked wonderful, especially the Parmigiano factory! We visited Bologna last summer, but only as a day trip- next time I want to explore the region. Your advice to take it slowly and just enjoy food, drinks, and people watching should be applied to all of Italy. People are always too busy chasing the landmarks, and forget to observe everyday life.
Yes I agree!! Italy is so easy to fall in love with when savoured slowly, but so easy to get angry with when only dealing with the crowded landmarks (especially in Rome!)