Although Bologna deserves an in-depth visit commensurate with its long history and luxurious museum collections, a one-day tour reveals a lot. A couple of hours walking the city center offers historical, architectural, and present-day treats.
The city is made of red brick, as clay was plentiful to the region and marble rare. Over the centuries, the town has kept up this red motif as its emblem. Long porticoes with terrazzo floors line the streets, forming the lower level of building facades. Although these chambers darken the atmosphere, they also make foot travel safe and inviting. Shops, cafes, and tall wooden doors to apartments lie under the thirty-five kilometers of arcades. First built in the eleventh century to deal with a housing shortage caused by the burgeoning university and migration from the countryside, the porticoes soon served as social connectors, joining private and public life. The oldest university in the Western world began here, and its intellectual, individualistic influence can be felt in the streets, which some people have compared to Berkeley, California.
Another immediate feature distinguishing Bologna’s old town is fresh food. Just east of the central Piazza Maggiore visitors experience a warren of narrow streets without arcades where fresh produce, fish, meat, cheese, bread and pastries, wines, chocolate, and all kinds of specialty foods are sold. Shopkeepers in this cuisine capital pay loving attention to their storefront displays that poke out a few feet into such streets as Via Draperies. Wonderful food aromas fill the air, stimulating the appetite; chic wine bars offer platters of tempting snacks. Small children amble these streets with their parents, learning early the shopping, cooking, and eating traditions of the gastronomic paradise to which they are heir.
A medieval and late-Gothic quality permeates the historic center, as does a robust civic aesthetic. Many of Bologna’s churches and crenelated public buildings date from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, with continuous restorations to the present day. The town itself dates back to pre-Roman times when it was several villages called the “Villanovian Civilization.” Potters and blacksmiths from this conglomerate traded with the Etruscans, Greeks, and Phoenicians. Around 700 BC, the communities became Etruscan with the name Felsina. In the third century BC, the Boi Gauls invaded and established Bona. The Romans arrived next, in 196 BC, and called their new colony Bononia. Road building and town works soon began, with Via Emilia the main artery in the system. Today, Roman’s core street grid still exists, and their Setta aqueduct even supplies one-fifth of Bologna’s water.
In addition to walking the old town streets to imbibe the city flavor, visitors with one day in Bologna should stop at Piazza Santo Stefano and Piazza Maggiore. Between these two architectural and artistic havens lie two leaning towers (Due Torre), the Asinelli (97m high and leaning 1.23m), and the Garisenda (shortened for safety to 48 meters and leaning 3.2m). They are among the few medieval towers remaining in Bologna out of 180, and standing close to each other, they seem like town mascots. Built by competing affluent families in 1109–19, they symbolize the wealth and commerce of the city’s past, especially as they are located next to the magnificent Palazzo Della Mercanzia (c. 1382), seat of trade, business, and commerce to the present day. For centuries Bologna produced silk, which Venice exported to European trading centers and as far east as Turkey. Many canals, now gone, supplied energy for mills and spinning machines.
Santo Stefano, the first stop on a one-day tour of Bologna, instantly charms the visitor with its grouping of churches from different eras. Handsome, even cosmopolitan palazzi surround this ancient centerpiece, increasing the square’s beauty. The decline of the Roman empire brought the fall of Bologna, which underwent a series of barbarian attacks. Then, under the pontificate of Petronio (431–50), Bologna’s patron saint, the town began a recovery, which included building Santo Stefano.
Three churches form the nucleus of the Santo Stefano complex: the Crocifisso (Crucifix) church, originally Lombard; the round San Sepolcro (Sepulcher) church, dating to a pagan temple to Iside, and where Petronio later was buried; and the medieval Santi Vitale and Agricola church. Each of these churches contains mesmerizing relics covering the ages, including the marble columns of the ancient pagan temple. Bas relief, sculpture, sarcophagi, frescoes, capitals, floors, ceilings, windows, and other brick and wall decorations can hardly be grasped they are so extensive. This marvelous complex also includes a crypt, cloister, courtyard, and museum.
The second stop on the one-day tour is Piazza Maggiore and its magnificent, fourteenth-century San Petronio basilica. The square is huge and inviting, a central meeting place for everyone in the city, particularly with its quickly spotted a bronze statue in the adjacent piazza: Neptune by Giambologna (1567). Few visitors can resist admiring at length the god’s rippling musculature. Handsome public buildings flank Piazza Maggiore as if proud supporters of the impressive redbrick church standing at center stage. Its first impression is of a façade unfinished. The lower part is marble, while the rest of the church is brick. Indeed, the plan was for a church twice this size. Begun in 1390, according to the designs of Antonio di Vincenzo, the building continued until the mid-1600s. Beautiful biblical relief work decorates the three entrances, the central doorway’s sculptures created by Jacopo Della Quercia. Inside lie many treasures in addition to the fabulous Gothic architecture that includes fluted, brick columns that seem upholstered in a dusty rose fabric. From marble screens to paintings, stained glass, and sculpture, the church is filled with the work of famous artists, including Michelangelo. An unusual artifact in the church is the meridian line running diagonally across the left nave’s floor. In 1655, Gian Domenico Cassini created the 67-meter-long astronomical instrument to determine the length of the tropical year. Still, its real purpose was to settle a dispute over whether the sun moved around the earth, or the earth moved, and a solar motion was only apparent.
This remarkable church on an impressive square in an art-saturated city has another claim to fame: the coronation of Charles the V as emperor took place at its high altar in 1530. The tourist information office facing the church offers many free guides to the city, including a booklet on historic sites.
The final stop on a one-day tour is the Portico di San Luca. Bus 20, leaving from Via Indipendenza next to Piazza Maggiore, goes to the Meloncello Arch, where the 3.5-kilometer arcade begins its ascent to the hilltop sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. The walk-up is gentle and not exhausting and covers 666 arches, some with decorations. At the top, a splendid panorama awaits—Bologna’s forested hills and farmland on one side and industrial sprawl on the other. Although the portico lacks artistic character, the walk to the hilltop sanctuary through a long arcade brings a sense of unique travel adventure. At some point during these three stops in a one-day tour, visitors relax over a memorable meal alla Bolognese.