Save, Spring, Splurge: Bologna

by  Katie Hammel | Aug 3, 2018

Located in north-central Italy, about halfway between Florence and Venice, Bologna is known as La Dotta (the educated), La Grassa (the fat), and La Rossa (the red). It doesn’t take long to figure out why. The city is home to the oldest university in Europe; it’s renowned for its incredible, full-flavored food; and its charming streets are lined with red-brick buildings.

While Bologna once flew under the tourist radar, it’s becoming more popular as travelers discover its many charms—and the fact that those charms can be found at a bargain. Here’s how to save, spring, and splurge in Bologna.

See and Do

Save: While it doesn’t have the big-name attractions of Rome and Florence, Bologna offers plenty to see and do, and as a university town catering mostly to students on a limited budget, many of its main attractions are free or very low cost.

At the Basilica of Saint Dominic, the remains of Saint Dominic are buried inside a beautiful shrine that includes artwork from a young Michelangelo. The Museum of the History of Bologna, housed in a building that dates back to 1344, consists of 40 exhibition rooms that recount 3,000 years of Bologna's history (free with the €20 Bologna Welcome Card, which includes admission to 10 museums, guided tours, and discounted shopping). Another free must-do: Walk under some of the city’s 25 miles of porticos, or covered walkways.

One of the most popular activities in Bologna will only set you back 5 euros (or approx. $6 USD). Bologna was once home to more than 180 towers—symbols of wealth and power that were used as lookouts against invaders throughout the centuries. Today, only two remain: Asinelli Tower and Garisenda Tower, the latter of which leans significantly. Standing at 318 feet, Asinelli is the taller of the Due Torri (Two Towers) and dates back to 1119. Advance reservations are required—and worth it—to climb to the top, which affords spectacular views over the city (reserve online or at the Bologna Tourist Office).

Spring: With so much incredible food in and around the city, Bologna has earned its nickname La Grassa. It’s worth springing for a food tour to get an insider’s look at where it all comes from and how it’s made. Visits to boutique producers of Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, or balsamic vinegar are available in town. If you have a car, you can arrange your own tasting at an acetaia—a balsamic vinegar producer. Tours cost only a few euros and there are several producers located just outside Modena, about a 40-minute drive from Bologna.

Splurge:  For more than 60 years, Ferrari has been synonymous with luxury sports cars, and for aficionados there’s no greater thrill than driving one in its home country. The company’s headquarters are in the town of Maranello (about 45 minutes from Bologna and a short drive from Modena) and several companies offer travelers the chance to drive the iconic sports car. But rates are steep, starting at about 100 euros for just 10 minutes and going up to 300 euros for a memorable half-hour behind the wheel.

Eat and Drink

Save: Bologna’s status as a university town rather than a tourist destination also helps when it comes to dining on budget. For a variety of cheap eats, head to the Mercato delle Erbe, a covered market in the center of town with several food vendors in addition to stalls selling fresh flowers, produce, and meats. At MozzaBella, big slices of focaccia-like pizza topped with items like burrata and mortadella go for just 3 euros (or approx. $3.50 USD). Located off the nearby Plaza Maggiore (the city’s main square), the hole-in-the-wall Pigro serves hearty panini stuffed with artisanal mortadella for not much more.

But dining on a budget in Bologna doesn’t have to mean limiting yourself to quick-service restaurants. Join the lively crowds in the Quadrilatero (particularly the area around the intersection of Via Drapperie and Via Pescherie), and grab a spot at one of the many bars, such as Salumeria Simoni or La Baita, where you can partake in a sharable charcuterie board and a few glasses of Lambrusco for around 20 euros (approx. $24 USD). Or, take your pick from dozens of cozy restaurants, like Osteria Broccaindosso or Trattoria Anna Maria, where heaping plates of regional classics like tagliatelle Bolognese and bowls of tortellini en brodo rarely cost more than 15 euros.

Spring: Bologna isn’t traditionally known for fine dining (aside from the “splurge” recommendation below), but in recent years it's seen an increasing number of mid-range restaurants offering a happy medium between haute cuisine and home cooking. At Caminetto d’Oro, elevated takes on traditional dishes like pappardelle with porcini mushrooms or grilled rabbit range from 16 to 36 euros (that's approx. $42 tops); dinner for two with antipasti (appetizers), and two primi piatti (first course, usually pasta), two secondi (main course dishes), plus wine, dessert, and coffee won’t set you back more than 200 euros (or $235 USD).

Prices are similar at Hosteria Agiusti, which is perhaps best known for its cameo in "Master of None." The tiny restaurant is in the back of a deli (patrons walk behind the counter to reach the dining room) and has only six tables, so reservations are required.

Splurge: The three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, named 2018’s best restaurant of the year, is notoriously difficult to book (reservations are released at 10 a.m. local time on the first of the month for the third following month) and the experience doesn’t come cheap. The 10-course tasting menu—a culinary odyssey of whimsical dishes and inventive flavors—costs 250 euros per person (just under $300 USD). The optional wine pairing costs an additional 140 euros per person (approx. $163 USD). Still, devotees of chef Massimo Bottura are willing to book their trip around scoring a coveted table.

Where to Stay

Save: The Dopa Hostel offers dorm beds for as low as 26 euros (approx. $30 USD) and private double rooms with ensuite bathrooms starting at 65 euros (approx. $76 USD) per night. There’s free wifi, breakfast, and a fully equipped kitchen for guest use.

Spring: Rooms at I Portici are on the spartan side. With laminate or blonde-wood flooring, white walls, and Ikea-like furnishings, the decor doesn’t evoke much Italian style. But what the rooms lack in ambience, they make up for with comfort and space. Rates start at around 100 euros (approx. $117 USD) per night.

Splurge: Room rates at the four-star Hotel Corona d'Oro start at around $200 (approx. $235 USD) and feature polished-wood floors, marble bathrooms, and subtle tones of pale yellow and gold. Its location—right in the heart of town—can’t be beat, and amenities include an evening aperitivo buffet (free when you purchase an alcoholic drink) and a lavish breakfast spread of breads, pastries, eggs, bacon, yogurt, cereal, jams, honey, juice, and prosecco.

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