The capital of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, Bologna is an intriguing city. With its medieval buildings, narrow lanes and endless porticoes to explore, this food-obsessed city is both edgy and opulent. It’s here that you’ll find the world’s oldest university, a 1,500-year-old church, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and restaurants serving up bountiful Bolognese cuisine.
But this red-hued city is often overlooked in favor of Florence, Rome and even Milan. Because of this, Bologna never feels overly touristic. Instead, it’s a living, working, breathing city, incredibly young and lively, where you’ll slot in among a few other visitors to explore its delights. And being so centrally located, it’s an easy day trip from both Florence and Milan. You can even get here from Rome on a day trip, though it’s a bit of a journey.
One day in Bologna is certainly not enough to appreciate all that the city has to offer – I spent three full days there on my last visit and I wish I could have stayed more! But if a day in Bologna is all you have, you should definitely go anyways.
Not sure how to do it? Then continue reading. Being quite the travel planner, I have a ready-made one day in Bologna itinerary for you, complete with a map and all the places you can visit and lots of tips that will help you make the most of your time in the city.
Is Bologna Worth Visiting For Just One Day?
Absolutely! Bologna is a fascinating, beautiful city to visit. And if you only have one day in Bologna, don’t worry. The city center is fairly compact and you’ll be able to walk around to the main highlights and attractions here. Of course, you’re not going to be able to see everything, but you’ll definitely get a good feel for this city, its history, its food and its energy.
Let me be clear though. Even though you could wander around without a plan – and waste time getting lost – having a set Bologna itinerary can really maximize your day trip. I’d also recommend reserving slots at popular attractions (or even joining a guided tour).
Another thing you’ll have to factor into your day trip to Bologna is the distance from the Central Station to the center of town. It’s an easy 20-minute walk, which is totally doable since you won’t have luggage, but you can also take a taxi to make life easier, and use that time instead to start your journey around the historic center.
To help you out, I’ve made a Bologna itinerary that features the best bits of the city so you don’t have to do it. I’ve made a handy map that you can follow as you go!
Spending more time in Bologna? Then read my post 26 Best Things To Do In Bologna, Italy.
A Perfect One Day In Bologna Itinerary
Your one day in Bologna starts at the city’s iconic Fontana di Nettuno, or Neptune’s Fountain. Located in the Piazza Nettuno, the Mannerist fountain dates back to 1563 and was commissioned by Cardinal Borromeo, in order to symbolize the election of his uncle – a member of the Medici family – as the newly instated Pope Pius IV.
The fountain is enormous. In fact, it’s so big that at the time of its creation the whole side of a building had to be demolished to accommodate it. The giant figure of the god Neptune is the centerpiece of the fountain; the bronze statue weighs in at 2,200 kilograms (4,850 pounds) and is 4 meters (13 feet) tall.
Neptune stands on a plinth covered by Verona marble, flanked by four cherubs. Around the base there are four nereids, who hold their breasts – which is where water spouts from!
The powerful nature of Neptune, who rules over the sea in Roman mythology, overlooking the square reflects the power of the pope ruling over the Catholic world. It’s a popular meeting place for locals and a logical place to start your adventures in the city.
Just next door to Piazza Nettuno lies Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s central square. Often described as the heart of the city, it’s here among the old buildings that many different events have taken place over the centuries – and in fact, continue taking place.
The square itself dates back to the 13th century, when the city decided to construct a public square where various trade buildings and civic institutions could be located. There was also a market held in the square until the 19th century.
The square as it appears today is much the same as it was in the 16th century, and a number of important buildings – many medieval – are still to be found here. There’s the Palazzo d’Accursio, which is the former city hall, and the Palazzo dei Notai – dating back to 1381, this was once the building for the guild of notaries.
Here also is the Basilica of San Petronio – that is Bologna Cathedral and a huge church that dominates the piazza; the Renaissance-style Palazzo dei Banchi, and Palazzo del Podestà, a high civic office. Even if you don’t have time to go inside any of these buildings, it’s an interesting place to stop and admire the medieval architecture in this part of Bologna.
A short walk from Piazza Maggiore leads you to the fascinating 17th-century Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio and Teatro Anatomico. This is where lectures on anatomy would have taken place, with dissections performed in front of medical students and an Inquisition priest. This priest would be ready to step in and halt proceedings if things were deemed to somehow interfere with spiritual beliefs or church dogma.
The first anatomical theater was built in Bologna in 1595, but this particular version was built in 1637. You might expect the operating theater to be clinical in appearance, but it is quite ornate, featuring wood paneled walls and carved wooden statues representing important figures in the field of medicine – from ancient times to the modern day.
There’s also what looks like a throne standing at the head of the room, which is actually the lecturer’s chair, while in the center of the room is the operating table. It’s an intriguing, if slightly gruesome, insight into the scholarly history of Bolgona.
Lunch at Ristorante da Cesari
If that history and walking has managed to work up your appetite, don’t worry: lunch is just around the corner and even if you only have one day in Bologna, you should make the most of its wonderful culinary traditions! Walk through the doors of the traditional family-run Ristorante da Cesari and it’ll feel like stepping back in time.
This eatery, one of the most popular in the city, serves up an array of homespun dishes that are mouthwateringly delicious. If you want to try a quintessential dish of this food-obsessed city, go for the tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese – it’s what I had, and I’d go back to Bologna in a heartbeat just for that!
But no matter what you choose off the menu, you’ll be greeted with friendly service; the third-generation owners will be happy to chat and explain the various dishes. There’s also an English menu available.
You should also read my post The Ultimate Bologna Food Guide.
Walk along Via delle Drapperie and the Quadrilatero
After you’ve suitably satiated yourself after lunch, it’s time to walk off the pasta – specifically you’ll be heading to the warren of narrow streets that lace through the Quadrilatero. This medieval quarter of the city is awash with historic buildings. In fact, this is the oldest part of the city and is still reminiscent of its ancient Roman layout.
Here you’ll find winding alleyways and streets lined with shops that have been in business for generations.
One street of particular note is the Via delle Drapperie (literally “Street of Fabrics”). This street actually follows the route of an old Roman road and was where the wealthy Accarisi family had properties in the early 14th century. Later in the Middle Ages, it got the name it has today thanks to the shops selling wool and other fabrics that were once located here.
If somehow you’re still hungry, then you’re in the right place. This slice of the city is where you might be able to understand why Bologna is nicknamed La Grassa (“The Fat”). Here there are dozens of street-side eateries and enoteche.
It’s also home to what is sometimes known as “the belly of Bologna” – Mercato di Mezzo, or the Middle Market. This place had a recent renovation and features everything from gourmet meals to street snacks over two floors.
Piazza Santo Stefano and the Seven Churches
The next stop on your one day in Bologna itinerary is Piazza Santo Stefano, home to the basilica of the same name. This large Catholic church is nicknamed “Seven Churches”, due to the complex of seven different chapels located within, making it feel like a small town in itself.
The church dates back to the 5th century, and is an example of Romanesque architecture, made of the characteristic red bricks of Bologna.
The cobbled piazza is surrounded not just by the church but other historical buildings, mainly in the form of old palazzi of powerful families of the past. There’s also a row of old merchant houses here that date back to the 15th century. This square is very picturesque, and is the venue for a number of different public events throughout the year.
Torre degli Asinelli
It’s a five-minute walk to Bologna’s famed Two Towers – and you really can’t miss them even when you only have a day in Bologna. The city has a number of towers to its name (22, in fact), but these are its most renowned – possibly because not just of their height but how close they are built together.
The shorter of the two is the Torre della Garisenda, which is 48 meters (157 feet) tall. Right next to it you’ll find the much taller Torre degli Asinelli. Standing at 97.2 meters (319 feet), Torre degli Asinelli is also the tallest in the city; it’s thought to be the result of a competition between two noble families (the Asinelli and the Garisenda).
The Torre degli Asinelli, originally built in 1119, was purchased by the city of Bologna in the 14th century and has had various uses throughout its history, including a stronghold and a prison. It was also used by scientists in experiments regarding the Earth’s rotation, among other astronomical investigations.
Visitors to this 800-year-old tower can actually climb up to the top – which can actually be quite a challenge as the stairs are narrow and steep. Here, after walking hundreds of steps to the top, you’ll get an amazing view out over the red rooftops of Bologna.
Make sure to also read my post How To Visit Bologna Towers.
Next up, it’s time to explore another of the city’s old neighborhoods: the former Jewish Ghetto. This was created by a papal decree issued by Pope Paul IV in 1555, which ordered all Jewish people to live in this small portion of the city.
The area was walled and had three gates which would be closed at night. The Jewish people were eventually completely banished from Bologna in 1593 and weren’t allowed to return until the end of the 18th century, when a synagogue was set up in the area.
Walking through this part of town, you can still see much of the Jewish heritage hiding in plain sight, with lots of interesting alleyways and passageways to walk through. For example, there’s the Via dell’Inferno (“Hell Street”), dubbed this because of the presence of many blacksmiths.
There’s also a Jewish Museum that opened in 1999, and which has preserved the Jewish cultural heritage of Bologna and other areas in the region.
Fans of Instagram might already know this social media hotspot. The Finestrella di Via Piella is where passers-by can take a peek into Bologna’s past by opening up a window to a canal. The city was once home to many canals, but over time the waterways have been covered and built over.
What you can see through this picturesque viewpoint is a short stretch of one of those canals, the Canale delle Moline. This part of the city has sometimes been dubbed “Little Venice” and, as you take your turn to open up this window onto the canal, it’s not hard to see why.
The canal is edged by buildings, which is why it’s hidden from view apart from this little window. It’s a great place to snap a few shots, but you may have to stand in line to get that iconic shot (depending on the time of year you’re visiting).
Hang out in the Ghetto for an aperitivo before heading back to the station
As your one day in Bologna starts to wind up, I’d recommend sticking around in the Ghetto area and enjoying some of the ambience of the city as evening falls.
There are a number of cozy places where you can enjoy a drink and a bite to eat, one option being Camera A Sud, a place I bumped into by complete chance and with which I immediately fell in love.
This is an enjoyable (and popular) space for an aperitivo that still has the atmosphere of a hidden gem. On a summer’s evening there’s nothing better than getting a seat out on the street and watching the world go by, or finding a corner indoors to cozy up in.
Alternatively, check out Osteria dell’Orsa for dinner
But if you’re hungry for more than a few snacks and a drink, go for dinner. One great option is Osteria dell’Orsa. Founded in 1979, this has a menu of Bolognese culinary delights, including the iconic tagliatelle al ragù bolognese, tortellini in brodo (absolutely not recommended in the summer!) and lasagne or a deliciously hearty cotoletta alla bolognese (breaded veal cutlet).
It’s budget-friendly, the atmosphere is easygoing, and it’s open until 10:30 pm, however they don’t take reservations so you’ll have to wait in line until a table opens up for you. Don’t worry though: service is super quick and you won’t be waiting for long.
How to get to Bologna
Being an important city in the region, Bologna is well connected by train, and so the best way to get there is by train. You can get there pretty easily thanks to high-speed train connections from a number of other major cities in Italy.
There are regular Frecce (fast) trains from Florence Santa Maria Novella station to Bologna. The journey takes a mere 38 minutes and the first train departs at 6:55 am, with multiple departures during the day. The last Freccia train from Bologna to Florence leaves at 9:27 pm.
The first train to leave Milan bound for Bologna does so at 5:10 am. and takes 1 hour 14 minutes, after which there are multiple departures during the day with high speed trains. The last train from Bologna to Milan leaves at 10:38 pm.
The journey by train takes a little longer from Rome – 2 hours and 25 minutes, in fact. The first Freccia fast train leaves at 5:10 am and after that there are multiple departures throughout the day. The last Freccia train from Bologna to Rome Termini Station leaves at 9:27 pm.
You should also read my posts How To Get From Rome To Bologna and Where And How To Rent A Car In Bologna.
Guided day trips
Taking a guided tour to Bologna is a good way to make the most of your time. By opting for a tour you won’t have to worry about the first or last trains, as the guide or tour company will have transport figured out for you. You may even have the option to be picked up at your accommodation, depending on what sort of tour you pick.
So if you want to take any hassle or stress out of your day, then a guided tour to Bologna could be a good idea for you. Here are some options I recommend:
Small Group Gourmet Day Trip from Florence with Bologna Food Tour, Modena Balsamic & Parmesan-Making Experiences – This fabulous tour has a strong focus on food, so it’s the best option if all you want to do in one day in Bologna is eat!
From Milan: Private Day Trip to Bologna with Sightseeing Tour – If you are traveling from Milan, this tour is an excellent option that also includes hotel pick up and drop off.
Make sure to also read my post 13 Best Day Trips From Florence.
Additional tips to make the most of a day in Bologna
In order to make the most out of a day in Bologna, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when planning your trip.
This is one of my top tips. If you can get one of the first trains of the day, you can be in Bologna before breakfast, meaning you can really make the most of your time in the city.
Another reason for starting early in the summer particularly is that it can get really hot later in the day. If you start early, you can slow down and seek shade when the heat is at its peak around lunch and in the afternoon.
Consider joining a guided tour of the historic center
Joining a tour of the historic center can really provide some insight and enrich your trip, which is even more important when you only have one day in Bologna.
Visiting and seeing the Middle Ages buildings, wandering the historic streets, is lovely – it’s all very pretty and picturesque. But having a guide there with you can open up the city’s history, with anecdotes and stories providing meaning behind the architecture and medieval streets.
This Guided Walking Tour of the Historic Center of Bologna is one example – it’s the tour my friends and I took as soon as we arrived in Bologna and we enjoyed it. It’s a small group tour that explores the heart of Bologna at a relaxed pace. You’ll discover the Quadrilatero, the Piazza Maggiore, the Two Towers, Fountain of Neptune and other sights along the way.
Some tours also offer skip-the-line tickets as part of the tour, which really adds value.
Book tickets in advance
While not all places in Bologna require you to book a ticket in advance, you will need to do this for the Torre degli Asinelli and the Teatro Anatomico. Both of these attractions have timed entrances, meaning you’ll have to book your slot before you go and that you’ll have to be punctual – don’t show up early as they won’t let you in either!
Timed slots for the Torre degli Asinelli are at 15-minute intervals throughout the day. Reservation of tickets for the Teatro Anatomico is only mandatory on Saturdays and on holidays, but is still recommended at any other time.
Dress for success
You might want to look stylish when exploring a town or city like Bologna, but I would recommend dressing for comfort. That’s because you’ll be doing a lot of walking. For that reason, you should definitely have some comfortable shoes that you know will serve you well while strolling from place to place during the day.
A hat and sunblock are a good idea since you’ll be out in the open pretty much all day. Also don’t forget something to cover your shoulders if you’re visiting churches, as this is required. In summer, loose, light clothing is highly recommended!
A key point. Bologna can get terribly hot and humid in the summer months, and staying hydrated is a must if you don’t want to feel awful; being dehydrated can even lead to heat stroke in particularly hot weather.
Bring along a refillable water bottle and fill up at public water fountains called fontanelle. Here’s a map of fontanelle in Bologna for you to make use of during your trip.
Download your Bologna itinerary on your phone
Finally, in order to make the most out of your one day in Bologna, you will need to use your phone to navigate the city. Make sure you have data so you can use your phone to get around or you might end up getting lost in winding back streets.
Also, make sure you have enough battery to last the day and bring a power bank so you know you won’t run out of power.