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Bologna: A City Guide

The birthplace of tortellini and bolognese is more than just a food destination

It’s not every day that you get to unwind with a glass of Italian red and a plate of tortellini al brodo in the birthplace of it all. Bologna is the gateway to the fabled Emilia-Romagna region, synonymous with Italian gastronomy. It’s here that pasta is crafted with precision and care and served in delicate broths or under hearty sauces. While food is central to Italian culture, Bologna is more than just a destination for gourmands. It also offers myriad sights to explore at your leisure.

The city, built in the 6th century B.C. by the Etruscans, has seen its fair share of upheaval: from the Roman conquest to invasions by the Visigoths and Huns. Bologna was a papal stronghold for many years until the Napoleonic Wars but the seeds of Catholicism remain to this day. Shops and restaurants shutter on Sundays until the end of church services.

Bologna is the perfect city break destination, welcoming tourists from all over Italy and beyond thanks to its culinary reputation. Restaurants and butcher shops, housed in brightly hued stucco buildings, vie for equal attention here. Archways give way to expansive piazzas and streets. Stroll down cobblestone boulevards named after Italian literary giants until you discover an alley adorned with vintage style lamps and stone edifices. Breathe in the scent of sizzling meat, grab a Sangiovese and take a seat outside a restaurant. Eat, drink, relax, repeat. That’s the Bolognese way.

The historic city was built by the Etruscans in the sixth century B.C. Credit: Shutterstock

Eat

To start any story about Bologna you have to talk about its classic cuisine. Tortellini, ring-shaped pasta filled with meat or veggies, was created here in the 1950s and here you’ll find the best places to savor it. Locals prefer the al brodo variety—pork-filled pasta bobbing in fragrant chicken broth. Eat it for lunch, dinner or as a snack in between.

Typical to the city, Ragu alla Bolognese, that fat-rich meat sauce made from a combination of beef and pancetta, tops everything from tagliatelle to tortellini to gnocchi but never spaghetti. True aficionados add milk to the recipe to insure a robust creaminess that adds density to the tomato-heavy topping.

Now where should you try this stuff? Where does one even start in a city that prides itself on its culinary traditions? With a cafe, per favore!

The Bolognese start their day with a dose of coffee and croissants. Italians make the world’s best cappuccinos and espressos—there’s no question about it—and savoring a hot buttered croissant and perfect cappuccino in the morning starts your day off right. With small coffee shops and bars dotting the landscape, it’s hard to choose that one special place to have the dynamic duo. Naama Cafe, run by Turkish immigrant Tameer Saeed, is a coffee-cum-tea-shop smack dab in the center of town that boasts communal tables with colorful cushions and straw placemats. Waiters, garbed in black vests and white shirts, convivially greet patrons who choose from a variety of Italian classic mocha drinks, Middle Eastern teas and pastries. Hardwood floors dot the rustic yet colorful environs and the cappuccinos are as about as good as you can get anywhere else in Bologna.

Italians, like the Spaniards, take a rest during the day. Shops shutter and streets empty. Many locals head home, while others venture to bars or eateries for a cafe or snack. Eataly, that three-story gastronomic mecca that has outposts from Dubai to Rome to New York City to Chicago, is a temple to nourishment, whether the appetite or mind. The first floor is filled with books, from fiction to essays to travel guides. The second story is where you’ll find food, stall after stall of locally sourced semolina pasta in every shape, color and size. Prices are steep but the trattoria is a great place to dine on small plates such as bruschetta brushed with ricotta, pears, acacia honey and fennel. For a dose of champagne, head to the third-floor bar. Grab a book and savor the experience.

If you’re still in the mood for some classic drinks, Rosarose is just around the corner. Dozens of crystal chandeliers in a variety of shapes and sizes hang from the ceiling and large mirrors make the cozy room feel infinitely bigger. The bright red space caters to a well-heeled crowd seeking authentic spritzes, prosecco and local wine. It’s the perfect spot to wind down your day of pasta hunting.

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The city was a center of a trade and commerce during the 12th and 13th centuries, and many of the buildings from this period remain to this day, surviving sieges and wars, both continental and world. Locals congregate at Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno, two squares that sit side by side in the center of town. The former features the unfinished San Petronio Basilica, which was supposed to rival St. Peters in Rome but was never completed. The Palazzo del Podesta and Torre dell’Arengo are worthy of a detour. Piazza del Nettuno, named for the Roman god of the sea, boasts a fountain to said deity. Here you’ll find young Bolognese milling about during the midday break before they return to school.

The Basilica San Stefano, built on the ruins of a pagan temple, once housed seven churches but only four remain. Visit the tomb of St. Petronius, the patron of the city, at the Chiesa del Crocifisso. The three additional churches—Santo Sepolcro, Trinitá and Santi Vitali e Agricola—round out the compound with artifacts from Roman times.

If you’re here on a short city break and only have time to see one site, Le Due Torri offers a two-fo-one extravaganza. These leaning towers, long in the shadow of the famous one in Pisa, were built in the 12th century and named for the families who constructed them. Back then, towers dominated the city skyline but centuries of upheaval mean only about two dozen still exist. Ascend hundreds of wooden stairs to the top of Torre degli Asinelli for a bird’s-eye view of magical Bologna. Torre Garisenda, while smaller in stature, leans nearly 43 feet, making it a fun yet challenging climb.

Stay

Savhotel

Marrying luxury with tradition, the Savotel near Congress Palace boasts 120 rooms with all the necessary conveniences—think Wi-Fi, a cozy fitness center, meeting rooms and free bike rentals. Rooms feature dark parquet floors, neutral furnishings and expansive beds that you can sink yourself into. Large wardrobes, Nespresso coffee machines and Trussardi toiletries round out the amenities. The Nero Arancio restaurant features modern interpretations of classic Bologonese cuisine. Opt for the degustation menu if you want to splurge.

Zanhotel Europa

If classic Italian decor is more your style, the Zanhotel Europa in the city center personifies it to a tee. The pet-friendly, 101-room hotel boasts Neoclassical style, marble floors and chandeliers aplenty. Rooms feature brocade or damask bedspreads, dark wood furniture and striped wallpaper. Expect flatscreen TVs and bespoke bathroom amenities, too. Enjoy a hearty full breakfast in the dining room and if you suffer from allergies, the hotel can accommodate you in a special hypoallergenic room.