What can you do for free in Bologna?
Trying to save up my euros for summer vacation, I’ve recently had to cut back my trattoria spending and mortadella intake. To make matters worse, my tummy has been angry with me all week long and so eating out has been the last thing I want to do, even if Bologna offers some of the best food in the world. Naturally, this no eating out policy really left me with a dilemma: what is there to do in Bologna besides eat? Better yet, what is there to do that’s free?
After all, I live in a wicked cool city in the middle of Italy. There has got to be something I can do that won’t break my wallet besides stay at home staring at Bologna outside my living room window.
I decided it was time to intervene or die a couch potato. Obviously not wanting to die like a vegetable on a piece of furniture in the middle of one of the most beautiful countries in the world, I opted for the self-intervention.
Let me tell you, self-interventions are the best.
How does a self-intervention work? Well, for me, I like to write down all the possible solutions to my problem. Here’s how it went:
Problem: I cannot spend any more money on mortadella and gelato. Period. What can I do in Bologna for free?
Solutions: 1) Sit at home and watch re-runs of Jimmy Fallon lip syncing battles. 2) (see list below)
1. The Road to San Luca
Outside of Bologna’s city walls, way up high in the countryside, this peach colored Basilica sits majestically like the queen of the Bolognese hills. This is San Luca, a symbol of home to many Bolognesi, as it’s usually the first thing one sees when they drive into Bologna.
While San Luca is in itself a beauty to see, it is really the road to San Luca that makes it unique. 666 porticos and approximately 3,800 meters is the path one must take to arrive at the top. Of course, it is possible to drive or take a shuttle, but walking is more gratifying in my opinion, not to mention 100% free. Starting the road to San Luca from Porta Saragozza. From there you can count the archways as you walk up and admire Bologna from afar. For more info on how to get there, check out this handy PDF from Bologna Welcome.
2. The Best Panoramic View of Bologna
Another stupendous view is from San Michele in Bosco . It had previously been a religious complex composed of a monastery (now an orthopedic hospital) and a church. Be sure to bring your camera! From here you can see a perfect panoramic outline of Bologna’s skyline – one of the best views of Bologna in my opinion! More info here.
3. Walk on top of Ancient Roman Ruins
Libraries in Italy are pretty cool, generally speaking, just because they are so old and often have some really interesting ancient manuscripts and books. Still I have yet to find a library in Italy as cool as the Sala Borsa. To understand why, all you have to do is walking inside and look down through the glass floors, where you can see archaeological excavations revealing ancient Roman ruins that possibly date back to the 2nd or 3rd century when Bononia (Roman name for Bologna) was founded. You can visit the excavations for free during opening times.
4. Admire the one of the Most Emotional Sculptures Ever
A masterpiece by Niccolò dell’Arca, this terracotta sculpture represents a scene from the “lamentation of Christ”. You don’t have to be an art historian or religious expert to appreciate the poignant facial expressions that dell’Arca so masterfully captured in this work of art. The sculpture scene is located inside the Santa Maria della Vita church and can be viewed for free from Tuesday to Sunday 10am – 7pm.
5. Visit one of the Oldest Libraries in Europe
Truly a hidden gem in Bologna, the Archiginnasio library will have you feeling like you are at Hogwarts. Here you can witness ornately painted halls covered in family crests and symbols of all sorts, as well as sit an old university lecture hall where they used to study human anatomy. You can also browse through some of the oldest manuscripts and books in Europe and feel as though you are stepping back in time. Opening hours listed here.
6. Breathe the fresh air from over 5,000 plant specimens
Fully operated by the University of Bologna, the Orto Botanico is one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe. Today it houses nearly 5,000 specimens including trees, tropical greenhouses, succulent plant greenhouses and carnivorous plant greenhouses, as well as ponds, and even a herb garden. It’s a really lovely place to escape the city hustle and bustle and walk around in peace for awhile. Opening hours listed here.
7. Discover the Secret Window
One of Bologna’s little secrets sits unassumingly on the quiet street of Via Piella. Here you can take a peek through a small square window to see one of Bologna’s canals. A little piece of history that many people are unaware of is that Bologna, much like Venice, used to be a city of waterways. Today some of these canals still remain intact, although they are hidden underneath the city. Located on Via Piella, just next to Trattoria Biassnot (a fabulous trattoria!).
8. One…two… Seven Churches?
The Basilica of Santo Stefano, or more commonly known in Bologna as “Le Sette Chiese” – the seven churches, is a favorite of many. Since it is made up of literally seven different churches that date back to the 5th century. The first church built here was built on top of a pagan temple. Later additions were added over the centuries, an interesting piece of architectural history that can be studied in further detail inside the church. For opening hours and more details, read here.
9. Clap your Hands for Bologna’s Street Artists
On a Saturday and Sunday afternoons, it is quite common to catch a glimpse of one of Bologna’s many street artists. Usually they are spread out along Via dell’Indipendenza, Piazza Maggiore, Via Ugo Bassi, Via Rizzoli, and other small streets nearby, which are closed to traffic and made pedestrian only zones on Saturday and Sunday. Among the most famous street artists include the legendary 70’s rock guitarist, Beppe Maniglia, who puts on shows every Saturday and Sunday afternoon just outside of the Sala Borsa library, usually accompanied by a female dancer and a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Others include a complete Emilia Dixie Jazz band, fire jugglers, bubble men, and other bizarre characters in full costume.
10. Savour Piazza Maggiore to the Fullest
Piazza Maggiore is the heart of Bologna. It’s wear all people, young or old, Italian or not, go just to be with one another or, as Bolognese singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla once sang, Piazza Maggiore is where you can go to steal love. To really enjoy this Piazza, bring a set of headphones with you and listen to Dalla’s Piazza Grande as you sit on the steps of San Petronius watching the people and life go by.
11. Ride your Bike to Casalecchio di Reno
Casalecchio – meaning “collection of little houses” – is a tiny town located on the Reno River just a few kilometers outside of Bologna. To get here by bike, take the bike bath that begins at the end of Via della Grada. The path takes you past the Certosa Cemetery and through a long park. Continue on for about 30 minutes until you arrive at Parco Talon (park) in Casalecchio.
Other free seasonal activities:
· Occasionally, museums will open to the public for free particularly during “white night” celebrations. Check the Bologna Welcome website for updated event info.
· During the July and August, Piazza Maggiore is transformed into an open outdoor cinema (called Sotto le Stelle del Cinema), projecting films almost every night for free.
· In the spring, there is an annual garden day called Diverdeinverde where private gardens and courtyards are opened to the public.