Bologna’s Rich History and Excellent Bolognese: A Traveler’s Perspective
I won’t lie; on my way here, I wanted to sing, “My bologna has a first name…” Okay, maybe I did sing it a few times…’. It’s B-o-l-o-g-n-a!” How could I not? Pinch me; I’m heading to Bologna, yes, for its rich history and excellent bolognese! It’s one of my all-time favorite Italian dishes — when it’s made savory — not sweet like how it is often prepared in the U.S.
Bologna, an easy drive from Florenece
Bologna is a less visited city, so they say, but it’s still very crowded. However, it’s worth making a stop here. We drove from Florence (about 90 minutes North), and the way we went took us through many long tunnels, driving next to big semi trucks in the dark despite it being daylight. A little unnerving. But, overall the drive from Florence to Bologna is easy.
Bologna has the best lasagne – be sure to order it
The food, especially the lasagna and tagliatelle Bolognese, are exceptional—truth be told, we came here to eat! Bologna is known for its hearty, meaty dish, which Italians call ragú and dates back to the 18th century and a town near Bologna called Imola. But make no mistake, it does not taste like the U.S. brand of the same name.
Initially, the idea of the ragú sauce came from French dishes that used a combination of meat broth and pasta. The Italians put the hearty meat into the dish, and the Tagliatelle al Ragù Bolognese was invented.
The best lasagne I have ever had was in Bologna at Ristorante Da Cesarina.
Bologna’s Rich History is Worth Exploring
Before lunch, though, we explored Bologna with a guide on a walking tour. I love doing this because the tours provide radios, and I can listen and wander a little to take pictures while hearing about the area’s history.
We learned that Pisa isn’t the only city with a leaning tower. Bologna has not one but Two Towers called Le due Torri, and they are famous city symbols. And our guide tells us many towers lean here.
And, at the time of this writing, one of the towers, the Garisenda — the shorter tower, is in jeopardy of collapsing. Bologna officials locked it down, have recently secured the tower, and are working to improve it. The Garisenda tower stands at 157 feet (48 meters) and has been leaning more over the decades. It’s now leaning at 4 degrees compared to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is at 3.9 degrees.
The taller tower, Asinelli, also leans but a bit less. Officials don’t think they’re dangerous, but they still want to reinforce them, so a plan is in the works.
Bologna’s Two Towers
The two towers get their names from families traditionally credited with having constructed the towers between 1109 and 1119.
Our two-hour tour took us to several prominent sights in Bologna. Here are a few of the spots we really enjoyed seeing.
The Largest Church in Bologna – a Beautiful Landmark
The Basilica of San Petronio, located in Piazza Maggiore, is Bologna’s largest and most important church, dedicated to the city’s patron saint. Its construction began in 1390 and lasted for centuries. Legend has it that in 1514, a man named Arduino degli Arriguzzi proposed a new Latin-cross model for the church, which would have made it larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. However, Pope Pius IV rejected this proposal, and instead, the Archiginnasio was built.
The final addition to Piazza Maggiore was the Palazzo dei Banchi, constructed in the 16th century according to Vignola’s design. This remarkable building was strategically built to conceal the alleys of the rear market, and its name is derived from the historical existence of currency exchange “banks” in the area.
The Importance of Bologna’s Neptune Fountain
The Fountain of Neptune in Piazza del Nettuno is precious to the Italians partly because the penis and breasts are considered good luck.🤪 I say this after a couple of glasses of vino! All kidding aside, our tour guide told us that, so you know it must be true!
The Heart of the City of Bologna
Piazza Maggiore is the heart of Bologna. Palaces and the Basilica of San Petronio surround the center. The heart of the city dates back to 1200 when the Municipality acquired houses and land to build a gathering area for activities like services, markets, trades, and exchanges.
Click on images of Bologna to enlarge
The complex of Seven Churches or sette chiese will leave you wanting to go slowly to take everything in. This is a true city sanctuary. The Seven Churches is a complex of buildings including:
Church of Saint Stephen or of the Holy Crucifix (8th century, presbytery reshaped in 17th century), with the Crypt
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (according to tradition: 5th century)
Church of the Saints Vitale and Agricola (4th century, rebuilt first in the 12th century)
Courtyard of Pilate (“Santo Giardino,” 13th century)
Church of the Trinity or of the Martyrium (13th century)
The Chapel of the Bandage (“Cappella della Benda”) is dedicated to the strip of cloth worn around the head by the Virgin Mary as a sign of mourning.
Click on images of Bologna to enlarge
The Rear Alleys of Bologna are a market-goer happy place where you can pick up fresh pasta, fruit and veggies, fish and meat, and bread and dolce treats. The alleys are narrow and crowded with shoppers and restaurant patrons dining outdoors.
So, after meandering around, we wind up at Ristorante Da Cesarina–a delightful stop.
Let’s talk food!
Ristorante Cesarina is a must-go-to in Bologna. This long-established restaurant will not disappoint. It sits in the heart of the historical center of Bologna, which is referred to as a square but, more accurately, is a widening on Via Santo Stefano and leads to the complex of the same name. This area is also known as the complex of sette chiese (seven churches) because it merges several buildings built in different eras. It’s filled with history and very picturesque.
It’s the best lasagna I have ever had. We also had the tagliatelle Bolognese, which was also incredible. We practically licked our plates clean! And when you’re outside the city center, it’s pretty inexpensive, yet you find delicious food and wine.
Click on images of Bologna's food to enlarge
After lunch, it’s time for a bit of dolce! We had to try the ice cream. Here in Bologna, they don’t talk about gelato; the locals say this is the best place for real ice cream. Cremeria la Vecchia Stalla was some of the best ice cream I’ve had. We actually thought about driving back to Bologna from Florence just for the ice cream. Yikes! There’s a pattern here. Okay, we didn’t, but it really did cross our mind.
Walking back to our car was a good 30-minute stroll with more history and beautiful architecture.
This fountain leans on the façade of the impressive Palazzo d’Accursio (Town Hall). It was crafted by the architect Tommaso Laureti from Palermo. Interestingly, Tommaso Laureti was also the mastermind behind the Fountain of Neptune (sixteenth century), built with the artistic contributions of the Flemish sculptor Giambologna.
Ah, Bologna, so many sweet reasons to see you again. Arrivederci! In the meantime, travel with us to the beautiful and historic city of Siena, Italy. John and I revisit this gorgeous town 20 years after our first visit. See pictures of Siena, Italy, and roll back time with us.