Bologna Introduction Walking Tour, Bologna

Bologna Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Bologna

Bologna is the Emilia-Romagna region's capital. This large northern city is the seventh most populous city in Italy and has been a vital cultural center for millennia.

Archeological discoveries indicate the area has been settled since the third millennium BC. First, the Etruscans settled the area, then the Celts, and then the Romans. During the Middle Ages, Bologna was a free municipality and one of the largest cities in Europe.

During the fifth century, Bishop Petronius, later Bologna's patron saint, rebuilt Bologna after the Goths damaged it. The University of Bologna, established in 1088, is the oldest in the Western world. Long-standing educational tradition gives Bologna an energetic character.

Today, visitors can soak up the fascinating history, gorgeous architecture, and vibrant culture of old Bologna. The Piazza Maggiore is the cultural and geographical heart of the city. Many of the magnificent buildings in the square date to the 14th and 15th centuries.

Visitors will find the Accursio Palace, home of the Salaborsa Library. From the library, visitors can see ruins dating back to the seventh century BC. The Basilica of San Petronio dates to the late 14th century and dominates Piazza Maggiore. The Fountain of Neptune is another don't-miss site in the ancient square.

Visitors interested in the religious history of Bologna will love the St. Stephen Complex. Seven historical sites remind the faithful of Jerusalem and Jesus's life and resurrection. The oldest church in this complex, the Church of the Saints Vitale and Agricola, was built before 393 AD. Several impressive towers dominate the skyline. Visitors will love climbing the tallest leaning tower in Italy, the Asinelli Tower.

Take this self-guided tour to explore the impressive history and culture of Bologna.
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from Apple App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

Download The GPSmyCity App

Bologna Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Bologna Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: Italy » Bologna (See other walking tours in Bologna)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.3 Km or 1.4 Miles
Author: vickyc
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Piazza Maggiore (Main Square)
  • Basilica di San Petronio (Basilica of St. Petronius)
  • Archiginnasio Palace
  • Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita (Sanctuary of Holy Mary of Life)
  • Mercato di Mezzo (Middle Market)
  • Complesso di Santo Stefano (St. Stephen's Complex)
  • Due Torri (Two Towers: Asinelli and Garisenda)
  • Via Rizzoli (Rizzoli Street)
  • Biblioteca Salaborsa (Salaborsa Library)
  • Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune)
  • Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro (St. Peter's Cathedral)
  • Torre Prendiparte (Prendiparte Tower)
  • Via Indipendenza (Independence Street)
Piazza Maggiore (Main Square)

1) Piazza Maggiore (Main Square) (must see)

On a sunny day, there's no better place to be than soaking up the atmosphere at café tables in Bologna's Main Square, known as "Piazza Maggiore", or lounging on the steps under the arcades. This historic square, one of the oldest in Italy, underwent expansion in the 14th century and saw the addition of many grand buildings in the 16th century.

At its heart stands the impressive yet incomplete Basilica of San Petronio, a beloved landmark among locals. Nearby, you'll find notable structures such as the Municipal Palace, Notaries' Palace, Podesta Palace, and the Palace of the Banks. Adorning the center of the square is Giambologna's renowned statue of Neptune.

The slightly raised platform in the middle, familiarly known as the "crescentone" after the local flat bread "crescente" it resembles, holds historical significance. Damaged by Allied tanks during the liberation of Bologna in 1945, it serves as a commemoration of that historic day. In July and August, the space transforms into one of Italy's largest outdoor cinemas during the Under the Stars of Cinema ("Sotto le stelle del Cinema") film festival, with over 3,000 chairs arranged on the "crescentone", solidifying its status as the cultural heart of the city.

For visitors seeking convenience, the excellent tourist office on the square offers the Bologna Welcome Card, providing excellent value by offering free admission to many city museums and attractions, as well as discounts for shops, restaurants, and events.
Basilica di San Petronio (Basilica of St. Petronius)

2) Basilica di San Petronio (Basilica of St. Petronius) (must see)

Dedicated to Petronius, the city's patron saint, this 14th-century edifice stands as Bologna's principal church, containing an impressive 22 side chapels and featuring the Four Crosses, one of the oldest Christian symbols in the city. As one of Italy's most monumental Gothic basilicas, capable of housing up to 28,000 people, it was on track to surpass Saint Peter's in Rome until Pope Pius IV diverted funds to establish a new university, the Archiginnasio. Consequently, the façade, designed with cosmological and esoteric "diagramming", was left incomplete, with only partial cladding in pink Verona marble and a truncated transept visible down the alley to the right of the basilica. Nonetheless, San Petronio remains monumental, symbolizing civic will rather than religious authority. Built atop Roman foundations, the vaulted church reveals columns repurposed from the Augustan era, seamlessly integrated with medieval additions.

The Porta Magna, or central portal, features highly expressive reliefs, the final masterpiece of Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia, which occupied the last 13 years of his life (1425−38). Adorning the architrave are scenes from the New Testament, while dramatic reliefs on the two pilasters flanking the door depict scenes from the Old Testament. Michelangelo, during his visit to Bologna in 1494, admired these reliefs and incorporated several motifs – such as "The Creation of Adam" – into the Sistine Ceiling. The lunette above the portal showcases the Madonna and Child between Saint Petronius and Saint Ambrose.

Also inside lies the world's longest indoor meridian line, inlaid into the pavement of the left aisle in 1655. Stretching 66.8 meters (219.16 feet), it was calculated and designed by astronomer Giovanni Cassini, who taught astronomy at the University. A sunray enters from a hole in the vault 27 meters high and precisely strikes the line, enabling accurate time measurement.

Admission is free, but there's a small fee for photography. Visitors should adhere to the dress code, ensuring that shoulders and knees are covered. From the newly renovated panoramic terrace (reachable from Piazza Galvani via elevator and a short flight of stairs), one can enjoy magnificent views of the cityscape and the Apennine hills to the south.
Archiginnasio Palace

3) Archiginnasio Palace (must see)

Just past the Archaeological Museum lies the historic Archiginnasio Palace, constructed in the 1560s as the first permanent home of Europe's oldest university. Prior to its erection, the faculties of law and medicine were like lost socks, scattered across various sites within the city. The palace served as the university's headquarters until 1803, when it relocated to its present site on Via Zamboni. Presently, it hosts the esteemed collection of 800,000 works of the City Library ("Biblioteca Comunale"), the lavishly decorated Sala dello Stabat Mater, which once hosted Rossini's inaugural Italian performance of "Stabat Mater" in 1842 under the baton of Donizetti, and the captivating Anatomy Theatre ("Teatro Anatomico").

The elegant courtyard, with its fancy double loggia, along with the staircase and halls, are decked out with tributes to the big brains of the ancient university, alongside some 6,000 student coats of arms. This courtyard often served as the backdrop for university ceremonies, including the intriguing Preparation of the Theriac, a medicinal concoction for animal bites and later a panacea, developed by the Greeks in the 1st century AD, comprising fermented herbs, poisons, animal tissue, honey, and various other ingredients.

The Anatomy Theatre, designed in the shape of an amphitheatre and adorned with wooden sculptures depicting renowned university anatomists and celebrated physicians, hosted some of Europe's earliest human dissections. Despite the presence of depictions of "gli spellati", or skinned cadavers, supporting a canopy, the tiered seats and professors' podium lack any macabre elements. Although the Church initially prohibited regular dissection sessions, when they did occur, they became popular public events. Photographs at the entrance showcase the devastation suffered by this wing of the building during the 1944 bombardment, yet immediate post-war reconstruction efforts utilized salvaged original wooden sculptures retrieved from the rubble.
Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita (Sanctuary of Holy Mary of Life)

4) Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita (Sanctuary of Holy Mary of Life) (must see)

Just a stone's throw east of the bustling Main Square ("Piazza Maggiore"), the Church of Holy Mary of Life offers a serene retreat. Despite its boldly frescoed 17th-century High Baroque interior, the true highlight is Niccolò dell'Arca's "Lamentation over the Dead Christ" (1463), a remarkable terracotta composition depicting life-size mourners grieving the death of Christ.

It's said that dell'Arca drew inspiration from the faces of the sick and suffering in the religious hospital complex where the church once belonged, capturing their raw expressions of grief with remarkable skill (apparently, the figure of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of the artist himself). Meanwhile, in the oratory, which hosts temporary exhibitions, visitors can find another poignant terracotta masterpiece: Alfonso Lombardi's "Death of the Virgin", which again presents an unusual perspective on a familiar story.
Mercato di Mezzo (Middle Market)

5) Mercato di Mezzo (Middle Market) (must see)

Tucked away from the Main Square ("Piazza Maggiore") lies the Quadrilatero, a historic maze of food shops bustling with the same lively energy it had during its medieval prime. This ancient enclave was once the domain of the city's guilds, including blacksmiths, goldsmiths, butchers, fishmongers, and furriers, whose legacies live on in the street names today.

For an authentic taste of Emilia, look no further than this vibrant culinary hub. Open-air stalls, specialty food shops, and the Middle Market—now transformed into a chic food hall—offer a tempting array of regional delicacies and freshly prepared tapas-style snacks. Visitors are encouraged to indulge in a bit of "gaze and graze," sampling juicy peaches, cherries, intricately crafted pastries, handmade pasta, savory delights like pink Parma ham, and freshly caught seafood.

For a quick bite, grab some fried fish from Pescheria Pavaglione or listen to the satisfying smack of pizza dough being prepared at Rossopomodoro pizzeria. And let's not forget about the Baladin microbrewery tucked away in the basement—a haven for craft beer enthusiasts and burger aficionados alike. With its quirky, vintage-chic decor and two floors of inviting space, it's a must-visit spot for those seeking a taste of the unconventional.
Complesso di Santo Stefano (St. Stephen's Complex)

6) Complesso di Santo Stefano (St. Stephen's Complex) (must see)

Navigating through this ecclesiastical maze, a pilgrimage through Bologna's holiest sites, demands patience and time. Originally a complex of seven churches, akin to Jerusalem's architecture, it is known as Le Sette Chiese ("the Seven Churches"), though only four endure today. Dating back to the 5th century, Santo Stefano may have been established by Bishop Petronius as his cathedral atop a former pagan temple site; by the 10th century, however, it evolved into a Benedictine sanctuary. The complex is still overseen by stern Benedictines, one of whom reveals: "Dante often came here to meditate in 1287, but we are inclusive - even local prostitutes come here."

The interconnected churches and courtyards, including the Benedictine cloisters, create a harmonious ensemble. From the picturesque square, the larger church on the right is the Church of the Crucifix ("Chiesa del Crocifisso"), the central one is the Basilica of "San Sepolcro", modeled after Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre, and on the left stands Santi Vitale e Agricola, Bologna's oldest church.

Enter through the Church of the Crucifix, originally Lombard but extensively renovated. Ascend a central staircase to the Presbytery, then descend to a graceful crypt housing relics of early Bolognese martyrs Vitale and Agricola. A door on the left leads to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, a unique polygonal structure surrounded by ancient columns.

Bathed in mystical light, the 11th-century Santi Vitale e Agricola captivates with its Romanesque Lombard simplicity. Adjacent is Pilate's Courtyard ("Cortile di Pilato"), featuring a marble basin erroneously attributed to Pontius Pilate, while beyond lies the mysterious Martyrium, a transverse church illuminated by niches, including one displaying a sculpted scene by Bolognese artist Simone de' Crocifissi.

The peaceful Benedictine cloister features two tiers of loggias and houses a small museum of early Bolognese paintings and reliquaries, along with a shop offering liqueurs and lotions produced by the monks.
Due Torri (Two Towers: Asinelli and Garisenda)

7) Due Torri (Two Towers: Asinelli and Garisenda) (must see)

Dominating the scene at Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, where the main gate of the Roman walls once stood, are the iconic Two Towers, emblematic of Bologna's medieval past when the city boasted around 120 such structures. Dating back to the 12th century, these likely served as both lookout points and symbols of prestige. Legend has it that the Asinelli and Garisenda families, engaged in a fierce competition to erect the tallest and most magnificent tower in the city.

For a taste of history and panoramic vistas over the terracotta rooftops, brave the ascent to the top of the Asinelli Tower, rising over 97 meters (318 feet) high. Though the climb is steep, navigating a narrow spiral staircase of nearly 500 steps, the reward is well worth the effort. From the summit, you can spot other surviving medieval towers and, weather permitting, catch a glimpse of the Alpine foothills beyond Verona. Like many of Bologna's towers, both the Two Towers have a noticeable tilt: Garisenda tilts 3.33 meters (11 feet) northeast, while Asinelli leans 2.23 meters (7.3 feet) westward. Originally reaching 60 meters (197 feet), Garisenda was truncated by 12 meters (39 feet) in the mid-14th century due to unstable foundations; however, from certain angles, the two towers appear to be of equal height. Dante, who briefly sojourned in Bologna during his exile from Florence, famously referenced the leaning tower in "The Inferno" (before its reduction), likening it to the bent figure of Antaeus, the giant son of Poseidon, trapped in ice at the depths of hell.

Beneath the towers, yet not overshadowed, stands the 17th-century Saint Bartholomew's Church, featuring a Renaissance portico. Inside, seek out Francesco Albani's "Annunciation" in the fourth chapel of the south aisle, and Guido Reni's small "Madonna with Child" in the north transept. On the square's north side, the abrupt appearance of a starkly modern office building sparked controversy in the 1950s.
Via Rizzoli (Rizzoli Street)

8) Via Rizzoli (Rizzoli Street)

The cafés, banks, and shops lining Via Rizzoli paint a modern picture of a street that has existed for over two millennia, originally known as Via Aemilia. This segment of the Roman "decumanus maximus" (the main east-west road axis) connects the heart of the city, Piazza Maggiore, with the Two Towers, emblematic of Bologna. Emerging in the early 20th century from the former Middle Market ("Mercato di Mezzo") area, it now bears the name of the renowned orthopedist Francesco Rizzoli, a Milan native who made Bologna his home.

On scorching days, the porticos offer pedestrians welcome relief from the sun, while their exquisite mosaic flooring adds a touch of Roman elegance to this historic thoroughfare. During peak hours, it comes alive with a variety of street performances.

For genuine Italian gelato, both creamy and light, with a selection of vegan options, be sure to visit OGGI Gelato Bologna.
Biblioteca Salaborsa (Salaborsa Library)

9) Biblioteca Salaborsa (Salaborsa Library) (must see)

Part of the expansive Municipal Palace ("Palazzo d'Accursio") complex, the Salaborsa Library occupies the former Stock Exchange (Borsa), ingeniously repurposed into a modern multimedia library and cultural hub, designed in Art Nouveau style. Beneath the library's expansive floor, a glass panel in the Covered Square unveils remnants of medieval and Roman settlements, including fragments of the forum and Roman pavement, offering visitors unrestricted access to these historical excavations from the lower basement level.

Before assuming its current role, this sizeable section of the Municipal Palace served a multitude of functions. In 1568, the renowned Bolognese naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, established Bologna's Botanic Garden in the courtyard here, dedicated to the academic exploration of medicinal plants, marking one of Europe's earliest botanic gardens (the present-day botanic garden is located in the university quarter). Subsequently, the courtyard transitioned into a military training ground and later housed bank offices, a puppet theatre, and even a basketball court before being transformed into the Stock Exchange.
Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune)

10) Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) (must see)

Adjacent to the historic King Enzo Palace ("Palazzo Re Enzo"), in the lively square bearing his name, proudly stands the Fountain of Neptune ("Fontana del Nettuno"), a masterpiece crafted by Giambologna in 1556. Born Jean Boulogne in Flanders, this sculptor found his creative groove in Florence; however, it was his aquatic masterpiece in Bologna that truly made waves.

At the heart of the fountain reigns a colossal Neptune (dubbed 'Il Gigante'), flanked by cherubs and four luscious sirens astride dolphins, playfully spouting water from, shall we say, unconventional sources. Initially causing quite the stir with its unabashed nudity, the statue eventually won over censorship, becoming a symbol of irreverence cherished by the locals who revel in uncovering the most strategic vantage points to admire Neptune's, ahem, commanding presence.

To accommodate the fountain, an entire city block was razed, making space for its imposing presence. Its base is covered with Verona marble, while each dolphin symbolizes prominent rivers of the era: the Ganges, Nile, Amazon, and Danube, while Neptune, in all his grandeur, reigns over the seas, symbolizing the Pope's dominion over Bologna and beyond.
Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro (St. Peter's Cathedral)

11) Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro (St. Peter's Cathedral) (must see)

At the southern tip of Independence Street stands the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Peter, offering free entry to visitors. Despite its cathedral status, this grand structure plays second fiddle to the city's beloved basilica, San Petronio, both architecturally and artistically.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII elevated the Bishop of Bologna to Archbishop, upgrading the cathedral to a 'metropolitan church'. This transformation aimed to showcase papal power, resulting in significant remodeling that obscured much of the original Romanesque-Gothic design. However, the interior boasts a majestic Baroque style and hosts several notable artworks. Among them are a 12th-century Romanesque crucifix carved from cedarwood and a 16th-century terracotta sculpture series titled "Lament over the Dead Christ" by Lombardi. Visitors can also admire a beautiful annunciation fresco by Ludovico Carracci, alongside paintings by various local artists.

For a unique experience, take a leisurely stroll down Via Altabella to catch sight of the soaring bell tower. Here, you'll find "La Nonna" (the grandmother), the largest bell in Bologna, weighing a hefty 3.3 tonnes. This bell is played using the traditional 'alla bolognese' method, a form of full-circle ringing developed in the 16th century, though sadly becoming increasingly rare.
Torre Prendiparte (Prendiparte Tower)

12) Torre Prendiparte (Prendiparte Tower)

The Prendiparte Tower, also known as the Coronata Tower, was erected in the 12th century by the guelph Prendiparte family as a defensive stronghold. Standing tall at 60 meters, it ranks as the second tallest tower in Bologna, trailing only the Asinelli Tower. Interestingly, it was originally intended to be even taller, but for reasons lost to history, its height was reduced.

Thanks to recent restoration efforts, all 12 floors of this historic structure are now fully accessible. Clad in the characteristic red bricks and robust selenite blocks typical of Bolognese architecture, the tower exudes the aura of a medieval fortress. Originally commissioned by the influential Cardinal Paleotti, it saw centuries of contention. Initially serving as an extension of the Archdiocesan Seminary, it later transitioned into use as the Archbishop's prison for offenses against religion or Christian ethics in 1751.

Remnants of the tower's storied past still linger within its walls. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors, once cells, bear reddish inscriptions and graffiti—testaments to the struggles of its former inhabitants, now brought to light through recent renovations. Conversely, the first three floors were converted into living quarters in the late 18th century when the tower fell into the hands of Napoleon's troops. It was during this period that significant alterations, including the addition of large windows, were made to improve its habitability.

Ascending the secure stairs to the pinnacle, visitors are rewarded with access to a spacious terrace. Here, ensconced behind sturdy parapets, one can bask in panoramic vistas of Bologna's rooftops, buildings, hills, and plains. No longer a bastion of defense, the tower has assumed a new role as a guesthouse, hosting events and romantic retreats amidst its historic ambiance.
Via Indipendenza (Independence Street)

13) Via Indipendenza (Independence Street) (must see)

Via Indipendenza, as we know it today, emerged in the 1880s, tracing the path of the ancient Roman Cardo Maximus to forge a vital link between the city center and the railway station. This bustling thoroughfare serves as a prime promenade, particularly the stretch extending from the Arena del Sole Theater to the crossroads of Via Rizzoli and Via Ugo Bassi.

It's a street of juxtapositions, where epochs collide harmoniously. Medieval and Renaissance buildings rub shoulders with faux antique 19th-century structures; high-end boutiques share sidewalks with street stalls; the world of business blends with the world of shopping.

Amidst this tapestry, don't overlook the Majani building, or "Palazzina Majani", an exemplar of Art Nouveau elegance crafted in the early 19th century to house the café and chocolate shop of the renowned Majani factory. While it now hosts a budget clothing retailer, its architectural finesse remains captivating – take note of the floral motifs adorning the portico capitals and wrought iron balconies.

Walking Tours in Bologna, Italy

Create Your Own Walk in Bologna

Create Your Own Walk in Bologna

Creating your own self-guided walk in Bologna is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Bologna's Shopping Areas

Bologna's Shopping Areas

When it comes to shopping, Bologna walks tall amid grands like Milan or Rome, with a harmonious mix of international chains, exclusive boutiques, luxury stores and open-air markets lining the streets in the city center, offering a wealth of international fashion, designer brands and top quality local delicacies in rich supply.

Shopping here is particularly pleasant on weekends when Zone...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.8 Km or 0.5 Miles
Historical Churches

Historical Churches

The historic city of Bologna is one of the most sumptuous medieval places in Italy, as well as one of the country's most visited destinations. There are churches everywhere in the city, many of which are well-preserved and well worth a visit. Magnificent and centuries-old, each of them has its own specialty and history carved into, replete with great historic artifacts associated with world...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.2 Km or 1.4 Miles
Bologna Palaces

Bologna Palaces

Bologna is famous for a huge number of ancient buildings and unique historic sites, closely associated with a huge number of mysteries and legends. There are numerous incredibly beautiful palaces in the city, richly adorned with art by great masters, intricately decorated interiors and luxurious old furniture. Each palace is fit to leave an unforgettable impression upon visitors, firmly imprinted...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.4 Km or 0.9 Miles