Last Updated on February 05, 2023
Squeezed in between popular Italian cities like Florence, Venice, and Milan, Bologna is often unfairly overshadowed. We promise you that the food here will never fail to amaze you, whether it’s your first time or fifth.
Do you think we’re exaggerating? Join us as we talk about the best food experiences you can have while you go about this Italian gastronomical capital, and by the time you finish reading this article, we’re sure you’ll have added this city to your bucket list.
But first, let’s pay tribute to the city’s history and culture, two things that have influenced its culinary tradition.
What’s Bologna Famous For?
Bologna is a medieval city that has witnessed the milestones of European history. Over the years, Italians have given many nicknames to this gorgeous city, such as “la dotta, la grassa, e la rossa”, meaning “knowledgeable, fat, and red.” Sounds random? It most certainly isn’t.
One thing is for sure, you will never run out of things to do in Bologna. The city boasts great art, history, and lots and lots of books, considering it houses the first public library in the world and the oldest university in the world.
The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and continues to open its doors to students worldwide. Dante, Erasmus, and Copernicus are only some of the eminent graduates of Bologna, earning the city its nickname “la dotta.”
Another thing Bologna is famous for is, of course, its gastronomy. This region is where famous Italian pastas like parmigiano reggiano (parmesan cheese), parma ham (prosciutto), tagliatelle al ragù (spaghetti bolognese), and bologna (bologna sausage) all come from. Another world-famous ingredient born here is the wonderful balsamic vinegar of Modena, a gift from Italy to the rest of the world.
Most of these products are protected with PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication), which means they are produced exclusively in specific territories. In other words, you might have had parmesan cheese or balsamic vinegar before, but if the package doesn’t have one of these stamps, you haven’t actually tried the real deal.
We’ll talk more about the regional specialties in Bologna below, but these facts are enough to justify its nickname, la grassa, the fat one.
If the first two nicknames were easy to guess, what about ‘rosa’? A common misconception is that it refers to the warm terracotta roofs of the city buildings and their rosy hue. It could be, but there’s more to it. It has something to do with the political stance of the city.
As the Northern Capital of Reggio Emilio and home to one of the world’s most prestigious universities, Bologna has always been a hotspot for thinkers and a frontier for defending the people’s liberty.
The city was a free commune during the Holy Roman Empire and the hometown of the anti-fascist communist groups during World War II, even though the Italian Communist Party was excluded from the government at the time. Red is usually a color associated with leftist ideology, which is how Bologna got its third nickname.
The Bolognese Cuisine
The grand academic success and poignant political history aside, we’re more interested in the piles of delicious pasta, salty cheese, cured meats, and other irresistible delicacies this city is famous for.
Not only the academics but the Bolognese chefs too must have done their fair research because the city is the birthplace of more than 30 official recipes. Here’s why!
Best Produce in the Region
Bologna is blessed with rich agricultural plains and some of the biggest food markets in the region, such as Mercato di Mezzo, Mercato delle Erbe, and Mercato Ritrovato, which sell ingredients of the highest quality. When you visit them, you’ll see that they overflow with fresh fruits and vegetables rarely found in Rome or Venice.
The Original Charcuterie
Another regional specialty is charcuterie, which stands for salamis, hams, prosciutto, and sausages. Pair those with delicious cheese like grana and the famous parmigiano, and you’ll have the one charcuterie board to rule them all.
The city actually has a few sausage factories and close to a thousand smaller manufacturers. You should try some of the most famous varieties of processed meat, and if you’re feeling adventurous, you can also try some of the lesser-known ones like zampone, a pig’s foot stuffed with spicy pork.
Piles of Delicious Pasta
One of the biggest Bolognese glories is macaroni and spaghetti, which come in all shapes and colors. The superstar is definitely tortellini, small bite-sized pieces filled with pork, ham, cheese, eggs, mortadella (Italian sausage), nuts, and nutmeg. The legend has it that the shape was inspired by the navel of Venus herself.
You’ll also find tagliatelle al ragù or tagliatelle with the original bolognese sauce. If you ask the local cooks, you’ll learn that there are as many variations as there are cooks, who can be very protective about their recipes too. But the golden rule to a rich and well-rounded tomato-based sauce is to simmer it with minced beef for hours until the tomatoes break down and all the flavors blend together.
How to Get the Best Food?
Bologna’s tradition of fine home cooking goes back thousands of years. Because the locals take gastronomy very seriously, you can’t really go wrong with any of the restaurants in the city.
But it’s not only about how delicious the food is, it’s also about how you get it, where you have it, and who you enjoy it with. Here’s a list of things to do if you want to have an extraordinary food experience in Bologna. The options range from dining with locals to going on one of the most spectacular hikes with an unforgettable picnic at the finish line.
Take a Food Tour
The best way to savor everything Bologna has to offer — and get to the heart of this gastro-destination — is to take a food tour. A designated tour will take you to the city’s proven spots to enjoy classic Italian delicacies. Sounds nice, right? Add a local guide to that, and you have the highlight of your trip.
Check out this Bologna Food Tasting Tour With a Local, where a knowledgeable local guide takes you both to the city’s hot spots — where you’ll eat your fingers off — and guides you through the heart of Bologna, pass the food market, the main squares, and some hidden gems.
Treat Yourself to a Picnic
One of the best things about Bologna is the impressive scenery. If you like long hikes, consider walking the Sanctuary of San Luca, which takes you through the longest-covered portico in the world. If you’re looking for a more relaxed day, Bologna has many beautiful parks, such as Giardini Margherita, San Pellegrino, Or Parco della Montagnola.
And what better way to spend an afternoon outdoors than treating yourself to a picnic? Before you hit the road, visit a local charcuterie and try different types of cheese and meat like mozzarella, parmesan, prosciutto, mortadella, and salame rosa, and ask for a small takeaway box for your picnic.
Aperitivo is the way Bolognese people unwind from work or school in the afternoon, loosely between 6 and 9 pm. The typical aperitivo drink is an Aperol spritz, a cocktail featuring a wine base and sparkly water with flavored syrups.
Aperitivo might be the most Italian way to enjoy the city. You basically buy a drink at a bar and get free snacks. Based on where you sit, you might get ham, cheese, mortadella, crescentine, a soft kind of pizza, or even seafood appetizers.
If you choose to go to one of the cheaper student bars, you might also try cold pasta, which is an adventure in itself. Around the University, an area mainly inhabited by students, there are lots of tiny and quirky food spots with good vibes and reasonably priced delicious food.
Take a Cooking Class
We can’t think of a better way of crowning your trip to Bologna than learning how to make the original bolognese sauce. Take Pasta Class With Martina, for example. You’ll learn all the secrets for rolling out real handmade pasta, from dough to the ultimate meal. And you’ll savor your hard work with a glass of Lambrusco wine at the end of the day.
Once you learn the basics of Italian cooking — and equip yourself with the tools you need — you can treat your friends and family to the delicious subtleties of this world-renowned cuisine.
Hang Out in Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is the unavoidable crossroads of all the main squares in the center of Bologna. In other words, the heart of the city, where you’ll find many places to have lunch, dinner, or simply espresso and enjoy the beauty of the historical buildings. Like we said before, you can’t really go wrong with any of the restaurants and cafes in Bologna, so just enter the one that looks appealing to you and absorb the atmosphere of the city that inevitably flows through the square.
Eat a Home Cooked Meal With a Local
Italians are very friendly and helpful, so much so that they’ll bend over backward to communicate with you even though they don’t speak English. One of the best ways to meet new people if you’re planning a longer trip is to join a cooking class.
Check out the Private Cooking Class With Cesarine where you’ll be preparing a seasonal starter, a regional pasta from scratch, and a traditional dessert in good company.
Find La Finestrella
You might be surprised, but Bologna also had its fair share of canals built over the city’s major rivers, Reno and Savena. They were used to transport goods and carry people, but with the changes in commerce, the canals were gradually replaced with roads and buildings.
Today, you’ll find several peeping holes or windows (finestrella) throughout the city that offer you a glimpse of what these canals used to look like. And peeping through la finestrella, also known as the little Venice, makes you feel like glimpsing back in time. It also gives you the opportunity to take an Instagram-worthy photograph.
The most famous of these little windows is located near some impressive cathedrals like Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro, Basilica di San Petronio, and Basilica di San Giacomo Maggiore. After a walking tour through the center of the city, treat yourself to a classy dinner in one of the city’s top-rated restaurants, such as Oltre, All’Osteria Bottega, or Drogheria della Rosa.
Visit the Old Markets
By now, you know that Bologna has a vibrant market culture. Therefore, don’t miss out on the experience of visiting the Bolognese markets, where you can find all kinds of vegetable varieties you didn’t know existed and enjoy some Bolognese street food.
If you want an authentic experience, join the old market tour and home cooking class, where you’ll explore the open markets of Bologna with a downtown walk tour, shop for the freshest ingredients, and meet the friendly people who produce them.
At the end of the day, you’ll learn how to make tagliatelle al ragu and tortellini from scratch with the help of an experienced Italian chef!
Enjoy the Delicious Gelato
Gelato is a serious business all throughout Italy. We can’t say which city is best at making it, but we can definitely say Bolognese artisan gelato isn’t less than sublime perfection. If you’re interested in more than just munching on gelato, hit the gelato museum in Anzola dell’Emilia, dedicated to gelato’s history, technology, and culture.
If you’re more interested in indulging yourself with as much gelato as possible, you’re in luck. You can have a treasure hunt of gelato stalls in the city while doing a walking tour. Find artisan gelaterias that use strictly natural products and keep clear from artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.
Add Galliera 49, Cremeria Santo Stefano, Cremeria Scirocco, Gelatauro, and Cremeria San Francesco to your list of checkpoints. While at it, try drizzling your gelato with a bit of balsamic vinegar, and thank us later.
Over and Out!
Now that you know some tidbits about Bologna’s history, culture, and cuisine, it’s time to see Bologna for yourself. Take in all the wonderful food experiences this little but unique Italian city has to offer.
And if you’re visiting Northern Italy, don’t forget to check out our Best pasta-making classes in Tuscany and in Florence, the top foods to try in Venice, and the top 10 desserts you must try in Italy.