La dotta, la rossa, la grassa are the three most popular nicknames Bologna is known for, but besides the curious nicknames, what is Bologna Italy known for?
Situated in Northern Italy, Bologna is the capital and biggest city of the Emilia Romagna region. It is about midway between two of the most popular cities in Italy, Florence and Venice. They are easily reachable by train in about an hour’s journey. On the other hand, Rome is 400 km south, which takes about 4 hours by car and 2 hours by train.
With roughly 400,000 inhabitants and a metro area of about 1 million people, Bologna is a reasonably large city, the 7th largest in Italy. Despite not being one of the most visited cities in Italy, Bologna is a fascinating destination. One that offers some of the best food in Italy (which by itself says a lot) but also several fascinating monuments, a lively vibe, and an attractive young crowd.
So, with no more delays, let’s examine what is Bologna Italy famous for.
10 Things Bologna is known for
University of Bologna
The University of Bologna is one of the most notable things about Bologna and the reason why the city is sometimes called “la Dotta” (the learned one). Alma Mater Studiorum – the actual name of the University – is considered the oldest University in continuous operation in the world.
Founded in 1088 by a guild of students, it was the first University in the sense of a higher-learning and degree-awarding institution. The creation of Alma Mater Studiorum marked the city forever, attracting people from all over Italy (and Europe) to study. The city grew exponentially in size and importance, establishing itself as one of the leading international learning centers.
Naturally, the University has an incredible alumni list, including writers and artists like Dante Alighieri, Petrarch and Erasmus of Rotterdam, four former popes, and scientists like Marconi Copernicus and even Enzo Ferrari.
Today, the University of Bologna is still considered the best in Italy and almost the best in Europe, ranking first in international rankings. It has more than 85,000 students (more than 5000 are international students) and 11 schools, including campuses in Cesena, Folí, Ravenna, and Rimini.
The University of Bologna is especially renowned for its medical school, where some of the first official dissections in Europe were made. It is possible to visit the anatomical theatre in the Archiginnasio of Bologna. It was once the University’s main campus and one of Bologna’s best places to visit.
Fun fact: The first woman to earn a University degree was Bettisia Gozzadini in Bologna. She was also the first woman to teach at a University.
La Rossa – the Red
Another of Bologna’s nicknames is “la rossa,” or the red. This nickname has a double meaning. Originally it referred to the red rooftops and reddish buildings of the historical center of Bologna.
The best way to see why Bologna is called the red is by climbing one of the many towers and seeing the city from above. From there, you’ll find a sea of red rooftops and other buildings. It is pretty beautiful.
Another explanation for this nickname came much later in Bologna’s history. After WWII, the city was often regarded as a communist bastion, and a large portion of the population supported left or far-left ideologies.
Bologna is also known as la turrita, or “the towered” because of its many medieval towers. Constructed between the 12th and 13th centuries, these were mainly defensive stone towers reaching as high as 97 meters.
The explanation for this massive construction of towers isn’t fully understood. Still, most scholars believe that the wealthiest families of Bologna used them for defensive reasons, which as usual, later became like a pissing contest of who had the most prominent tower! The higher your tower, the more important you were.
At one time, there were more than 100 medieval towers in Bologna. It was something really impressive. So much that Dante even mentioned it in Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy. Most of the towers were demolished during the posterior centuries; others fell. Yet, some remained and became a famous sight of Bologna through the centuries.
Today, there are about 20 towers you can still see in Bologna. The most famous are the Twin Towers, the Asinelli Tower with 97 m, and the Garisenda Tower. However, there are a few impressive others. Fewer than twenty towers can still be seen in today’s Bologna. Among the remaining ones are the Azzoguidi Tower (61 m), the Prendiparte Tower (60 m), the Scappi Tower (39 m), the Uguzzoni Tower (32 m), the Guidozagni Tower, and the Galluzzi Tower.
What is Bologna known for? The network of porticoes is one of the most significant symbols of the city and clearly another of the famous architectural features of Bologna. The porticoes are so substantial that in 2021, UNESCO made them part of its World Heritage list.
As UNESCO says, “the porticoes have become an expression and element of Bologna’s urban identity.” There are more than 62km of porticoes in Bologna; some were built in wood, others in brick or stone, and others reinforced concrete. They cover roads, squares, paths, and walkways, sometimes on one side of the street, others on both.
Like other cities, the porticoes were originally built almost spontaneously as a projection of private buildings on public land to increase living spaces. This was particularly important with the migration of students and scholars to the city after the creation and growth of the University. The town grew fast, and it was a way to increase the urban living spaces quickly.
Bologna’s porticoes became a popular private and public place where people could socialize and trade, an open-air symbol of Bologna’s hospitality. They make the whole city look elegantly different. Even today, they are appreciated as sheltered walkways and prime locations for merchant activities. They make walking and traveling in Bologna delightful, even if it’s raining, snowing, or scorching hot.
Famous Landmarks in Bologna
Despite not being one of the most popular destinations in Italy, Bologna is a beautiful city with plenty of impressive and notable landmarks. Some of the most famous Bologna landmarks include:
- The Twin Towers – as mentioned above, these towers are the most famous and impressive in Bologna. They are both leaning, but today they are far from similar. One is much taller than the other. Garisenda Tower, the smaller one, is considered the most leaning medieval tower in Italy.
- All the other towers
- All the Porticoes, including the impressive via San Luca, go all the way from the historic center to Church San Luca. It is an incredible 8 km urban hike, always under porticos.
- Piazza Maggiore – Bologna’s central square and the heart of the city. It has several other landmarks around. It also includes the well-known Neptune fountain.
- San Petronio Basilica – The unique-looking church in front of Piazza Maggiore. The lower part is covered with marble, but the higher isn’t. This happens because it was never finished, but it became a unique feature. It is huge. When it was built, it was supposed to be the largest in the world.
- Archiginnassio – Probably not the most famous or popular destination in Bologna, but it is the most important building in the city’s history, as it was the main building of Alma Mater Studium. Inside, you’ll find the Anatomical Theater, used for anatomy lessons for medical students.
- Quadrilatero – This central commercial area developed as people traded goods during the Middle Ages. It developed into one of the most important trading centers of the town, particularly if you want to try some of the amazing Bologna and Emiglia Romana food, which takes us to the next topic: the food!
Bologna’s Food – La grassa
Despite the other nicknames, towers, porticoes, and even the legendary University, today, Bologna is most famous for its food. Bologna is known for being the best (or one of the best) cities in Italy to eat. Some people even call it Italy’s food capital, which is why it has the nickname la grassa, or “the fat one.”
As the capital of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna is one of the best places to try all the delicious dishes and ingredients that originate there. This region is renowned for having some of the best products in Italy. Parma ham, Parmesan Cheese, Culatello salami, Balsamic vinegar from Modena, tagliatelle and tortellini pasta, ragu, and Mortadella all come from Emilia Romagna, some from Bologna itself, others from nearby cities.
The whole region is the Food Valley and has some of the most delicious food in the world. So, when in Bologna, one must try some of these delicious foods, go into the restaurants, and sample all these delightful dishes.
Ragu and bolognese sauce
We talked about the delicious foods of Bologna and the Food Valley. The most famous bolognese food is ragu, or bolognese sauce, as it is known worldwide.
Ragu is the meat-based sauce used to dress tagliatelle al ragù and prepare lasagne alla bolognese. Maybe you have never heard of ragu before, but you have surely heard of bolognese sauce and its most famous dish, spaghetti alla bolognese. We need to note that there’s no spaghetti alla bolognese in Bologna unless it’s a tourist restaurant. What you’ll find in Bologna is tagliatelle with ragu.
Typical ragu from Bologna is a slow-cooked meat sauce with ingredients like a soffrito of onion, celery, carrot, white wine, milk, and a small amount of tomatoes or tomato paste. The meat can be minced or finely chopped beef.
The bolognese ragu differs from the international bolognese sauce used to dress the spaghetti alla bolognese, usually a tomato-based sauce much more similar to ragù alla Napoletana.
Tortellini is another well-known dish from Bologna (and Modena). It is a stuffed pasta with a peculiar shape that resembles the shape of Venus’ navel. Legend says that when the goddess spent the night in an inn in Bologna (or Modena), the cook was so impressed with her beauty that he was inspired to create pasta with the shape of her belly button.
Tradicional tortellini is stuffed with meat (usually a mix of pork loin, prosciutto, and mortadella), cheese, egg, and nutmeg. You can eat tortellini with several kinds of sauces, but the most typical way is to eat it with chicken broth. This dish is called the tortellini in brodo.
There’s also a larger version of this pasta called tortelloni, which is very similar but a bit larger, with 5gr instead of 2gr. The filling may also differ, with ricotta cheese, parsley, or spinach.
It is typical to see both tortellini and tortelloni on restaurant menus and stores selling fresh pasta to cook at home.
What is Bologna known for food? Mortadella is one of the first things that comes to mind. It is one of Italy’s best-known cured meats and sausages, particularly popular in Bologna. In fact, it is believed that mortadella was invented in Bologna, and there is evidence that it is mentioned in a document from 1376.
Mortadella is a large sausage made of finely hashed or ground heat-cured pork. It contains at least 15% small cubes of pork fat, and traditionally, it is flavored with black pepper grains, though some versions use peppers, olives, and other herbs. Mortadella is usually served in very thin slices and used in sandwiches or snacks.
Bologna’s mortadella is different from other versions around the world. It is a high-standard meat sausage and is delicious. Mortadella is known as Baloney in America, but it is quite different from the original Bologna’s stuff.
Jazz may not be the first thing some people think of when talking about the most famous things about Bologna. However, music lovers know that this Italian city is home to some prestigious Jazz festivals and has given birth to some well-known bands.
In the heart of Bologna, in the Quadrilatero, there’s Jazz Street (La Strada del Jazz), where you can find Bologna’s Jazz Walk of Fame. It has marble stars dedicated to some of the greatest Jazz players like Miles Davis and Chet Baker. This was also the location of Alberto Alberti disco club, which made Jazz memorable in Italy and where the Festival del Jazz di Bologna happened.
Every year in September, this area of central Bologna receives the “La Strada del Jazz” Festival, which animates streets, squares, corners, and alleyways with excellent live music.