Bella Bologna! All photos by Craig Nelson
Maybe you’ve been to Rome, Florence, and Venice, but what about Bologna?
Boasting Europe’s oldest university and a rich food culture, Bologna entices travelers that love exploring Italy but might want to get off the beaten path. And as the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the culinary riches of the region will impress even the most discerning foodie.
And did we mention the low prices?
The intriguing mix of students and gastronomic treasures makes Bologna a tempting destination for Cheapos. If you can picture yourself wandering under ancient porticos, sampling fine foods at a fraction of the cost back home, and staying in historic hotels, it’s time to add Bologna to your Italian itinerary!
In this guide
• When to go
• Getting there
• Getting around
• Free and cheap things to do in Bologna
• Eating on the cheap
• Recommended cheap eats in Bologna
• Saving on nightlife
• Cheap hotels in Bologna
Budget guide to Bologna, Italy
When to go
Bologna doesn’t attract throngs of tourists like Florence or Rome, but you will still find plenty of foodies, backpackers, and a day trippers from Florence. We recommend going when the university is in session during spring or fall to get a good feel for this vibrant city.
Related: 11 Tips for saving on your trip to Italy
Bologna makes an easy day trip from Florence. Trains run frequently throughout the day and the 35-minute ride costs about €15. Bologna is only an hour away from Milan and two hours from Rome on the high-speed train (Frecciarossa).
Related: Driving in Italy: 7 Tips for staying safe and on budget in a rental car
If you’re coming from Milan or Rome, Bologna will feel tiny. After you disembark from the train station, you can walk to Piazza Maggiore, smack dab in the center of town, in about 15 minutes.
The city center is fairly flat, so it’s easy to walk to almost any destination. If you go up into the surrounding hills, then you’ll need to be ready for a steep climb or consider a bus or taxi ride.
Bologna also features miles and miles of covered porticos making it easy to stay out of the rain or the sun, depending on what season you’re visiting. The city does have public buses and a bike share system, but I became addicted to exploring the winding streets on foot.
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Free and cheap things to do in Bologna
In Bologna, it isn’t about the blockbuster attractions. To find the charms of the city, look at and experience the city itself…
The main square in the city is a great place to begin your stay in Bologna. Flanked by beautiful palaces and churches (like the enormous Basilica di San Petronio), it’s still the hub of Bologna. Come in the evening to see the beautiful buildings all lit up.
You can’t miss the famous porticos in Bologna, as they line just about every street. In fact, when you add them all up, they measure more than 38 kilometers long. They make for a refreshing respite from the sun (or the rain in the winter) and endless photos ops for architecture geeks (like me!).
In fact, the longest portico in the world stretches almost four kilometers up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, a hilltop church overlooking the city.
Le Due Torri (The Two Towers)
Piazza di Porta Ravegnana
Bologna is famous for a skyline of ancient towers but only a few still stand. Today, the Two Towers (Le Due Torri) are the city’s most famous landmark. The Asinelli Tower boasts 498 steps up to the top and is the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. You can buy tickets in advance for €5 if you want to make the climb. The Garisenda Tower is not quite as impressive but was made famous by Dante.
University of Bologna
As the oldest university in Europe, this institution can trace its roots back to 1088! Roaming around here is fun and free. Just bring a youthful spirit to blend in and see how students live (but mostly play) today.
The International Museum of Music
Str. Maggiore, 34
See ancient instruments up close in a 16th-century palace building and learn about the rich history of music in Bologna. The day we toured the museum, there was a school group enjoying demonstrations by local musicians, so we got a free concert, too!
Piazza Galvani, 1
Located inside a spectacular public library, this lecture hall was used for anatomical demonstrations. The carved wood ceiling and walls of the Teatro Anatomico date back to the 1600s.
Museo della Specola
Via Zamboni, 33
Take a guided tour through a historic observatory with an astronomy student. The tour ends with a wonderful 360-degree view of the city. You need to sign up online in advance to reserve a spot.
Should you buy a Tourist Card?
If you come to Bologna with a long sightseeing checklist, you might want to consider the Bologna Welcome Card. You can get the Easy card for €25 which gives you admission to the top attractions, a 2-hour walking tour, and discounts at local restaurants and shops. If a hop-on, hop-off bus tour is your idea of fun, it might be worth it to get the Plus card for €40.
I was more focused on food, with a few museums and tours squeezed in between meals, so I decided not to get the card. However, I did stop by the tourist office in Piazza Maggiore to inquire about football tickets, and the staff was extremely friendly and incredibly helpful with local tips.
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Eating on the cheap in Bologna
As the capital of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna sits at the heart of an incredible food region. From aged balsamic vinegar in nearby Modena to the famous ham and cheese from Parma, the city offers foodies an unforgettable culinary experience.
While many of these delicacies might cost a small fortune back in the US, you can pick up local delicacies like Proscuitto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano in Bologna for only a handful of euros. Browse the markets to see what looks good and don’t be afraid to engage with the folks behind the counter.
Tagliatelle al Ragu is the most famous dish in Bologna — and for good reason! This rich sauce coats hearty plates of pasta for one of Italy’s most delectable creations. A plate of tagliatelle al ragu costs around €6-12 depending on how fancy you want to get.
Remember to order the house wine that usually comes straight from a barrel. A liter won’t cost you more than €7 or €8!
Gelato is another standout of Bologna’s gastronomic scene. Many of the shops stay open until 11 pm or midnight, so you can plan a late-night stroll with a final stop for a cup of gelato.
Our favorite cheap eats
Here are a few restaurants, bakeries, and gelato shops from my recent trip that get the Cheapo stamp of approval:
Via Marsala, 11
A neighborhood trattoria in every aspect, Trattoria Belfiore is a great spot to grab a sidewalk table and watch the city go by — while eating an amazing plate of ragu of course!
Via Saragozza, 65
For a bit of cheapo splurge, a meal on the outdoor patio of Ristorante Biagi is a lovely way to spend an evening. You’ll be surrounded by families and groups out for a special night. The antique interior of Ristorante Biagi is beautiful, too. Reservations are recommended on weekends.
Osteria dell’ Orsa
Via Mentana, 1
One of the cheapest plates of ragu can be found at the loud and bustling student eatery, Osteria dell’ Orsa. The bill for two bowls of pasta, a liter of wine, and a huge salad was less than €30. It gets bonus points for staying open until 12:30 am every night!
Osteria del Sole
Vicolo Ranocchi, 1
Essentially untouched for decades, this old-school wine bar is popular with locals and tourists alike. Hidden off an alley near Piazza Maggiore, glasses of wine cost just €2. Swing by a market beforehand (or stop by the food stand just outside the door) because Osteria del Sole lets you BYOF — Bring Your Own Food!
Via Marsala, 31
Lined with classic cassette tapes, Caffe Rubik is a cozy coffee shop that turns into a cocktail bar in the evening. Start your morning with a cornetto (Italian croissant) and perfect cappuccino in a porcelain cup for about €2.
Related: How to order coffee in Italy: Navigating coffee culture like a pro
Cremeria Santo Stefano
Via Santo Stefano, 70
The blissful gelato shop creates unique and delicious flavors. There’s a menu in English to help you decipher wonderful concoctions like mascarpone cheese and pine nuts.
Via Clavature 22
This tiny but beautiful bakery has been serving traditional local pastries since 1920. Point at whatever looks good and load up a few bags to take back to your hotel room.
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Hungry for more? Keep this list handy of 5 must-try classic dishes for your next trip to Rome.
Nightlife for less
The vibrant student scene adds a lively (and sometimes loud depending on where you’re staying) element to Bologna when the sun goes down. Check out a jazz club for live music, join the fun-seekers in a student pub, or just buy a bottle of wine and head to a piazza to hang out like the locals do.
For a list of live music venues, you can check the Bologna Tourism website.
For a more sophisticated night out, check the schedule at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna (Largo Respighi, 1). This beautiful opera house dates back to the 1700s and hosts everything from classical music and dance performances to classic operas by Italian greats like Verdi.
Cheap hotels in Bologna
Bologna is so small that it’s hard to choose a bad location for a hotel. That said, we prefer to stay closer to the city center, although there are some cheapo picks just north of the train station. And as mentioned before, if you are sensitive to noise, you might want to avoid any rooms that face the street close to the university.
Here a few cheap hotels in Bologna worth considering:
Albergo San Vitale
Although it won’t win any Italian design awards, the San Vitale will surprise you with incredibly low rates in the heart of the university district. Accommodations are simple but all come with private bathrooms, TV and free Wi-Fi. Single rooms start at just €52.
Nuovo Hotel Del Porto
This three-star stay has a modern feel with air-conditioning and handsome decor. Wake up each morning to a free breakfast buffet. They even have a parking garage for those brave enough to navigate the streets of Bologna by car. Rates start at $90 per night for a Double or Twin Room.
A one-star spot near the University, Hotel Perla is perfect for those looking for very simple accommodations with free Wi-Fi. It gets extra points for the friendly staff. Rates start at $80 per night.
Need more hotel ideas for a trip to Bologna? Search over 750 hotels in Bologna.