The Top 10 Free Things To Do In Bologna20 March, 2022by Bounce
When visiting Italy, there are plenty of cities that come to mind. However, one that has recently emerged as a noteworthy destination is the lovely city of Bologna. Found in the Emilia Romagna region in northern Italy, Bologna use to be a hidden gem that only locals knew about and an afterthought for those traveling through the country.
One of the first things that come to mind when talking about Bologna is food; the Italian city is described as la grassa, which translates to “the fat one”, because of its rich culinary tradition. In fact, the iconic Bolognese sauce, which is among Italy’s most popular cuisines, originated in the city. More than its rich dining scene, Bologna is also home to some amazing architecture, historic landmarks and other interesting attractions.
Luckily, like most cities in Italy, Bologna has a treasure trove of activities that you can enjoy without breaking the bank. In fact, there are plenty of things to do here for free that can keep you occupied for days – from hanging out at the iconic Piazza Maggiore to visiting some of the loveliest churches in the world. If you’re planning to make your way to the city soon, here are some of our picks on top free things to do in Bologna.
Travelers tip: Don't let heavy bags weigh you down as you tour this Italian gem. Stow extra belongings and shopping purchases in a convenient Bologna bag storage locker.
See the University’s Botanic Garden
The University of Bologna was established in 1088 and is the oldest university that continues to operate in the world. It has also become one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and one that constantly draws visitors and tourists. While there are plenty of noteworthy spots across the campus, one of the must-see areas in the university is the botanic garden. Spanning nearly five acres in size, the lovely green space dates back to the 16th century, making it one of the world’s oldest botanic gardens.
The garden, which boasts more than 5,000 species of plants, is unique because of its reconstructions of natural ecosystems, such as tropical forests that feature orchids and flesh-eating plants. There are also different sections of the garden that are especially dedicated to succulents, medicinal plants and more. You don’t need to know much about botany to appreciate the beauty and serenity that the botanic garden offers.
Admire the Basilica di San Petronio
Perhaps the most beloved building in Bologna, the Basilica di San Petronio is the main church in the city and a fine example of Gothic architecture. Situated within the Piazza Maggiore in the city center, the church is characterized by an unfinished but striking façade, which is due to the church’s troubled history. It is the inside of the church, however, that draws millions of tourists every year.
The Basilica boasts an amazing collection of frescoes, works of art and other impressive features. One of the most unique elements found inside the church is the Cassini’s meridian line, which was designed and calculated by renowned astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini. Measuring 66.8 meters in length, it is the longest meridian line in the world and among the biggest astronomical instruments in existence.
Pro tip: Admission to the church is completely free of charge but taking photos and visiting the terrace will cost you a minimal fee. Moreover, tourist admission may be restricted during religious ceremonies and services. Time your visit well to ensure entrance to the church.
Browse the Archiginnasio of Bologna Library
The Archiginnasio of Bologna is one of the most significant buildings in the city and definitely a must-visit. The architectural wonder was the former main building of the University of Bologna campus but has now become an important landmark for the city. It also houses several points of interest, including the Archiginnasio Municipal Library.
One of the oldest libraries in Europe, and the biggest in the Emilia-Romagna region, the Archiginnasio Municipal Library is a historic and vital learning institution for the city. The library’s permanent collection features works spanning the 16th to 19th centuries, specifically around 850,000 volumes and pamphlets, 15,000 16th century editions, nearly 8,500 manuscripts, 7,500 magazines, 2,500 incunabula, 250 archives and other works such as drawings and prints.
The most impressive part about the library’s spectacular collection is that it was amassed from some prominent scholars and intellectuals of Bologna, including the likes of Giovanni Gozzadini, Giuseppe Mezzofanti, Jacob Moleschott and Riccardo Bacchelli. The library is also open to the public for free every day with the exception of October 4th, which is the feast day of Bologna’s patron saint – San Petronio.
Hang out at the Piazza Maggiore
Most Italian cities have their own version of a main square and for Bologna, it would be the Piazza Maggiore. Located in the city center, this public space is home to some of Bologna's recognizable landmarks, including the Basilica di San Petronio and the Neptune Fountain. Additionally, the Piazza Maggiore is also a top free attraction to take advantage of when in the city; it is a favorite hangout space among locals and a great spot for tourists to rest their feet and people watch after exploring the city of Bologna.
If you happen to be visiting the lovely city during summer, you might be lucky enough to attend the annual summer film festival held in Piazza Maggiore. Usually held between mid-June and mid-August, the festival hosts free screenings of original-language films as well as fairs throughout the weeks. It is a truly unique experience to be able to watch Italian movies free of charge with the beautiful Piazza Maggiore as your backdrop.
Admire the Porticoes in the City
A portico is basically a partially-enclosed pathway that is adorned with columns and arches. Bologna is known all over the country for its extensive array of porticoes, with more than 600 stunning porticoes found all over the city. As Bologna gradually grew into a university city, the number of porticoes in the lovely town also continued to increase. Furthermore, they have been recognized by UNESCO for their historic significance, which makes them all the more worth seeing.
One of the top free things to do in Bologna is to walk through and admire these architectural designs. Perhaps the most renowned portico found in Bologna is the walkway that leads to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. In fact, it has become somewhat of a Bolognese rite of passage to walk all 666 steps from the Porta Saragozza until the Basilica, which takes about an hour to complete, and offers some incredible panoramic Bologna views.
Other porticoes that are noteworthy include the Via Zamboni, the Biblioteca Sala Borsa, Portico dei Servi and the Palazzo de Banchi.
Visit the Basilica di Santo Stefano
Widely regarded as the most unique religious site in Bologna, the Basilica di Santo Stefano is a top attraction in the city that you can visit for free. Situated within the Piazza Santo Stefano, the complex once featured seven churches – thus its local nickname Siette Chiese (“seven churches” in English); the oldest church dates back to the 5th century. Today, only four churches remain, namely the Chiesa della Trinita, Santi Vitale e Agricola, Chiesa del Crocefisso and the Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro.
The Basilica di Santo Stefano is a great landmark to visit because it is all well connected and easy to wander and features a broad range of architectural styles. The remaining churches are also set within serene and lush courtyards, which is perfect for those who want some downtime from the city life. The Piazza Santo Stefano also boasts an array of porticoes as well as bars and cafés where you can hang out and grab brunch after exploring the massive complex.
Discover Amazing Bologna Street Art
Italy is world-renowned for its art and the nation gave birth to some of the most prominent artists of all time, which is why it really comes as no surprise that Bologna has its fair share of stunning works. However, unlike other Italian cities like Rome and Florence, most of the artistry in Bologna can be found in the streets; the city is arguably the best place in the Emilia-Romagna region for some striking street art.
Some of the most famous Italian street artists have left samples of their work across the city of Bologna. If you are unsure where to find the best street art in the city, one good place to look is in the area known as Bolognina, a lovely Bologna neighborhood in which to stay, which is located just north of the train station.
Alternatively, you can head over to the Bologna Tourist Office and ask for a map of the locations. However, since these installations change frequently, you can forgo the map and spend hours wandering on your own and discover some amazing Bologna street art along the way.
See the City’s Version of a Leaning Tower
When you mention leaning tower, the first place that comes to mind is the Italian city of Pisa. However, not a lot of tourists know that there is another place in the country that has its own version – Bologna. Situated in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, the Garisenda Tower is one-half of Bologna’s famed Due Torri (Two Towers), along with the Asinelli Tower – which is the tallest tower in the city.
Collectively, these towers are considered the city’s symbol and the site has become a popular meeting point for the locals. While it is not as famous as the leaning tower of Pisa, the Garisenda Tower actually leans at a more prominent angle than its counterpart; the Pisa tower leans at 3.97 degrees while Bologna’s Garisenda leans at an incredible 4 degrees. Although climbing the towers will cost you a minimal fee, it is completely free to admire and take photos of the towers from the outside.
Peek into Bologna’s History
A little-known fact about Bologna is that it was once a city that boasted a network of navigable canals, just like Venice, which helped transport people and products all over the city. Unfortunately, as the city grew in size, most of these waterways were paved during the 20th century. However, you can still see a glimpse of the city’s past when you head over to the Finestrella di Via Piella.
Located in the city center, about a 10-minute walk from the Piazza Maggiore, the Finestrella di Via Piella is a small, iron-framed window where you can look through and see the Moline canal, which is the remaining canal that still flows among the city’s buildings. This interesting attraction is a great way to travel back in time and a unique glimpse of Bologna’s history as a river town.
Get a View of Bologna from San Michele in Bosco
There are numerous places around Bologna where you can get incredible views. However, most of them require some sort of admission fee. If you want to do some exploring and get an unmatched view of Bologna without paying a single cent, head over to San Michele in Bosco. Situated just outside the city center, the site was a former church and monastery that now functions as a hospital. It is also a famous viewpoint, where you can make out different landmarks such as the Basilica di San Petronio and the Two Towers.
When in Italy, you should definitely make time to visit Bologna. This charming city is filled with plenty of historic landmarks from a free museum tour to lovely attractions like the city walls. Take in the views over the Bologna Hills or see one of the world's largest sundials in an ancient Basilica. Even if you're flying into Bologna Airport on a budget, you can still enjoy your time here because of the myriad of free attractions and activities available to you!