How to plan a walking tour through Bologna's historic architecture

Bologna’s iconic porticoes have made it onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but they’re not the only architectural treasures in a city steeped in history.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 10 Dec 2021, 16:01 GMT
Bologna, Italy - Two Towers (Due Torri), Asinelli and Garisenda, symbols of medieval Bologna towers.

Bologna, Italy - Two Towers (Due Torri), Asinelli and Garisenda, symbols of medieval Bologna towers.

Photograph by Getty Images

From tagliatelle alla bolognese to tortellini in brodo, classic Italian fare is a part of Bologna’s timeless appeal, but this is a city that’s just as celebrated for its architecture as it is its culinary prestige. Perhaps the city’s most emblematic feature are its porticoes: over 30 miles of sheltered pavements — whose foundation stones were laid as early as the 13th century — connecting the homes and businesses of the medieval Old Town. The ornate stone or wooden arches — built to shield the city from the sun — are a beloved feature of Bologna’s cityscape, and their architectural importance is such that they were inscribed to UNESCO’s World Heritage list this July. This is where daily life happens for the bolognesi, from catching up with neighbours over coffee to touting crafts to passersby. Follow these paths and discover a city rich in Italian heritage and home to one of the world’s oldest universities and a well-preserved network of Roman ruins.

1. Portico di San Luca 

Stretching nearly 2.5 miles from the hilltop Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca to the historic centre, this portico is allegedly the longest in the world. It was built between the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily to protect the Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary from the blistering sun during religious processions. Hundreds of arches line the zigzagging route down the hill from the Roman Catholic basilica, taking in bucolic Bolognese scenery along the way. 

2. Certosa Monumental Cemetery 

As you wander downhill, take a diversion to the city cemetery, built on the site of a former Carthusian monastery, and prior to that, an ancient Etruscan necropolis. Often described as an open-air museum, it’s packed with a striking collection of sculptures, frescoes and mausoleums set among vast halls and cloisters. Many notable Italians have been laid to rest here, including the 18th-century painter Gaetano Gandolfi and Ferrucio Lamborghini, founder of the eponymous luxury sports car manufacturer. 

Once in the centre, head to this public library, housed within Bologna’s stately town hall, Palazzo d'Accursio. The location on the grand Piazza Maggiore is spectacular, but the true wonder here lies beneath your feet. Excavations at the palazzo site have revealed the ancient Roman city of Bononia, complete with foundations, wells and pathways that date to the first century BC. A glass floor allows you to explore the buried city, but you can get a closer look on a guided tour. 

Stray just around the corner and you can dive right into Italy’s Renaissance period at the Archiginnasio. This was the city’s main university building until 1803 but today it serves as a library, full of grand staircases and coats of arms, and several of its halls remain open to visitors. The disused anatomical theatre is undoubtedly the highlight, with its marble dissection table, spruce-panelled walls, statues depicting paragons of physiology plus a macabre pair of ‘skinned men’ statues.

La Rossa (‘the red one’) is one of the city’s monikers, and while it can sometimes be attributed to its politically left-leaning reputation, it also refers to its ocean of terracotta buildings. Tackle the 500-or-so steps to the top of the mighty Asinelli tower to see those russet roofs stretching out for miles. This is the taller of Bologna’s iconic, leaning twin towers, the other being neighbouring Garisenda Tower. The city used to be crowded with over 100 such towers, built by medieval nobles as symbols of fortitude, of which 24 remain today. 

Close by is the city’s university, which came into being in 1088, making it what most historians would consider to be the world’s oldest continuously operating university. Bologna’s reputation as Italy’s bastion of leftwing politics is writ large across the grounds — see slogans scrawled on walls and signs in campus windows. Explore the grounds for architectural remnants of its medieval past, and don’t miss the Palazzo Poggi Museum, filled with antique scientific equipment. 

Did you know? Bologna’s two towers are cited in numerous literary works, from Dante’s 14th-century Inferno, which describes the leaning Garisenda Tower, to Charles Dickens’ 1846 travelogue, Pictures from Italy. 

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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