No journey through central Italy is complete without a visit to Bologna. More popular as a destination for national rather than international tourism, the regional capital of Emilia Romagna has a lot to offer. Culture, history, art and food. You might want to use your time in the city to find out what a real bolognese tastes like and debunk a few urban myths and misconceptions – such as the bizarre idea that it be a fit condiment for spaghetti: it’s not. It’s meant for tagliatelle. You will also find that the name of this beautiful city does not, after all, rhyme with “pony”. Three adjectives are used in Italian to describe Bologna: “la dotta, la grassa, la rossa”. “La dotta”, meaning “the erudite one” because of its university, the oldest in Europe, home to great thinkers through the century, including the late lamented Umberto Eco. “La grassa”, meaning “the fat one” because of its culinary tradition, arguably one of the tastiest and richest in the world. “La rossa”, meaning “the red one”, due partly to the characteristic bricks that make up most of the historical buildings in the city centre, and to the city’s deeply rooted left-wing politics. If you have been following our “things-to-do-for-free” thread, you might know by now that Italy is awash with stunning attractions and landmarks that you can visit for free and Bologna is no exception.
1. See the longest meridian line in the world
The Basilica of San Petronio, in Piazza Maggiore, is the city’s main church and among its best known attractions. It was built between the XIV and XV century. Its history was a troubled one and, to this day, its main facade remains unfinished despite several competing projects being proposed over the centuries for its completion. The interior of this impressive gothic building is rich with remarkable artistic and architectural features, the most unusual of which is probably Cassini’s meridian line. This ancient time-keeping device, whose function was not to determine the time of day, but the exact day of the year, the duration of the solar year and the progression of the seasons, was designed by astronomer and university professor Giovanni Domenico Cassini. Modern technology makes meridian lines and sundials look rudimentary, but this instrument actually allows surprisingly precise measurements. With its 66,8 meters (219,16 ft), this is the longest meridian line in the world.
2. Visit the University’s botanic garden
University museums can generally be visited for free and, if you are exploring Bologna in the fair season, the botanic garden is a must-see. A heavenly green oasis in the very heart of the old town, Bologna’s botanic garden is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the XVI century. What you will experience is not a simple of collection of different species of plant and flowers (although there are over 5000), but a series of complete reconstructions of natural ecosystems. Measuring nearly 5 acres in size, the botanic garden offers a rich and diverse experience to visitors of all age groups. You will walk through the woodlands on the nearby Apennine Mountains and through a perfectly reconstructed tropical forest, complete with flesh-eating plants and orchids. Other internal gardens are exclusively dedicated to medicinal plants, decorative plants and succulent plants.
3. A window into Bologna’s past in via Piella
This could very well be fit for our Hidden Treasures column. Why would you want to look through a tiny iron-framed window in an otherwise unremarkable street in the city centre? Because it will offer you a unique glimpse of what Bologna used to be like, when it was a river town, much like Venice, with canals being used as highways. Goods were imported via the nearby river and they did not touch firm land until the very end of their journey, in the heart of Bologna, thanks to the canals that criss-crossed the city, allowing ships to deliver their cargo straight to the local markets. From the window in via Piella, known by the locals as “la finestrella” (literally “the small window”) you will be able to look at the Moline canal, the only one of its kind still quietly flowing among the old buildings.
4. Visit the Archiginnasio Library
The civic library of Bologna is a veritable temple of learning and it has proudly held this post for over two centuries. A deep-seated tradition of cultural patronage has allowed the library to thrive, with collections being donated and the foundation supporting the library being adequately funded. An impressive collection of ancient manuscripts and modern books are kept in the Palace that was home to the University of Bologna from the XVI to the XIX century. Students from all over the world have tapped into this treasure-chest of knowledge and statues have been dedicated to the most illustrious among them, as well as to the library’s most generous donors and patrons. A vast section of the library is dedicated to Bologna’s history and culture, with a wealth of ancient prints, maps and chronicles. Other prized collections are dedicated to medicine and science, complete with exquisite antique prints exploring the scientific and allegoric aspects of anatomical studies.
5. Visit the Fountain of Neptune
Neptune towers over the central Piazza del Nettuno, close to Piazza Maggiore, with its ten feet of gleaming bronze that earned him the nickname “The Giant”. This impressive fountain is the work of flemish sculptor and architect Jean Boulogne, universally known as Giambologna. Often considered among the highest expressions of the late Renaissance Mannerist style, the fountain was commissioned by Cardinal Charles Borromeo, to celebrate his uncle’s election as Pope Pius IV. The Borromeo family was an epitome of secular and religious power in Italy throughout the Renaissance and the Fountain of Neptune is but one of many expressions of their enthusiastic patronage of the arts.