One of our favorite memories from our first trip to Italy was the time we spent in Modena – the people, the food, the rustic and timeless streets – we knew one day we would return to the Emilia Romagna region. Over four years later, we decided it to make a visit to this region our last trip of 2019 and explore all our love for Italy all over again.
Bologna is know by three names – La Grassa (the fat one – for all of the delicious food), La Rossa (the red one – for the red color of the building’s roofs), and La Dotta (for smart one – for the oldest university in Europe).
And while Bologna is just a portion of the Emilia Romagna, it is a great hub to explore the many offerings of the region. Emilia Romagna is a powerhouse of DOP products – “Protected Designation of Origin” that certifies the products are locally grown/produced and maintain a certain level of quality that only the DOP designation can guarantee. To name a few hits, balsamic vinegar, culatello, prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese all stem from this region. We already explored balsamic vinegar so we were looking forward to checking off a few more of them off our list.
Our flight departed for Milan Tuesday evening and we arrived early Wednesday morning, giving us a full day ahead. We made our way from the airport to Milano Centrale train station for our first stop of the trip – a return to Modena.
Read about our time in Modena here!
And what brought us back to Modena? One of the most coveted reservation spots in the region – Hosteria Giusti.
Read about the full dining experience at Hosteria Giusti here!
Simply amazed, we walked back to the train station to continue our journey south the Bologna. One of the first things we noticed coming out of the Bologna Centrale train station was how much busier it was from Modena. People lined both sides of the street constantly crossing lanes, bopping in and out of stores.
Our Airbnb was more in the center of town, about a twenty minutes walk from the train station. We were very pleased with the Bologna Airbnb market – both on availability, location, and price. This Airbnb had a simple apartment set up, plenty of room for two people, and ideally located right next to The Two Towers of Bologna.
We dropped our bags and it was time to explore Bologna! Similar to Modena, the Christmas lights were being put up and store fronts were already ahead of the game with fully decoration around the doorways and throughout the merchandise. All the walkways along the streets have covered archways – portos.
There were plenty of outdoor seating at various trattorias lining the streets, similar to what we saw in Lyon.
And then the specialty food stores began to appear – much like Premiata Salumeria Giuseppe Giusti in Modena. Enormous wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano stacked high above eye level and countless legs of Prosciutto di Parma hung from the ceiling, in addition to the supply of small portion sizes of both for purchase.
Still full from lunch, I knew one of the osterias was probably not a great idea tonight. Wanting something lighter, I read about sfoglia shops – sfoglia meaning “to thumb through” were shops you could buy homemade pasta. The window into the stores had all the pasta on display – all shapes, sizes, and kinds. Some of these stores have a small kitchen in the back to serve up a meal and that sounded like it would do the trick.
Sfoglia Rina was just around the corner from where we were and luckily was open for just a little longer. The front of the store was dedicated to purchasing their fresh hand made pasta and the back of the store was a small dining area and kitchen to eat – love this concept!
We sat down and were instructed to review their Traditional Menu on the blackboard and write down the items on a notepad we wished to order.
The Tortelloni with Butter and Sage caught my eye and Kevin went traditional the Tagliatelle with Ragu.
These dishes were just beautiful! Simple dishes executed very well, we both thoroughly enjoyed our pastas. Sfoglia Rina was the perfect choice and exactly what we needed tonight. The portion sizes were very generous, the dishes and wine are all very affordable, and it was a fast and easy meal.
Exhausted, we mapped our walk home but not before setting a detour to gelato. Nearby, Cremeria Cavaur called out to us and we enjoyed decadent gelato on our walk home.
We took another route and stumbled into Piazza Neptune with a large church and the Fountain of Neptune. The fountain itself was very elaborate sculpting and water works. We would spend more time here later but for now it was time to turn in for the night.
An early morning out the door for a 7AM train to Parma which is about an hour away from Bologna. The Emilia Romagna region is known for three things – Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and luxury cars (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati). Since we are not into luxury cars and would rather be eating, I looked into ways we could explore the process of making Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. Since we did not have a car, it provided a bit of a challenge to find a company that would accommodate our needs. Luckily, I found Parmalook Food Tour Experience who was not only able to provide transportation but also to incorporate both Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma experiences into one tour.
Read about the rest of our time in Parma here!
An hour train ride later, we arrived in Bologna. When we made our way out of the train station and towards the city center, we noticed many rows of white tents. Needing to investigate, we walked passed a few stands noting one and only one theme – chocolate!
Oh my goodness it was chocolate overload – chocolate in every form with any combination of flavors, shapes, state of matter – from gourmet chocolates to hot chocolate to fondue – it was chocolate heaven. I will be honest, it was overwhelming to make a decision without inspecting every single stand and product so we largely just walked through amazed.
Until I saw it – fonduta di cicocclato con fragole fresche e panna otherwise known as strawberries with chocolate fondue and whipped cream. Nom Nom Nom NOM.
We took an alternative route home to see a new area and passed one of the few remaining Finestrella in the city. While Venice is famously know for the canals that run through the city, Bologna used to have many canals (Finestrella) but they have since been covered up by construction. There are only a few remaining throughout the city and so it was great to stumble upon this one.
The Christmas Market from the day before had also expanded but a few stalls so we walked through again looking at the new selection of sweets, breads, pretzels, oysters, cookies, and more.
Mercato de Erbe was another recommended area to discover but I think this late in the evening it was not as active – reminiscence of other indoor markets showcasing produce and other local items.
One of our top dinner spots was All’Osteria Bottega. We arrived around 7PM, an hour before opening, to try and reserve a spot. We were unable to get in touch with someone so we decided to find a wine bar to kill the time and be there for the open at 8PM to get a table.
We ended up a few blocks away at La Fastuchera – cozy spot, constantly changing wine by the glass menu – this was our type of scene. Seated in the back, we each got a glass, enjoyed the atmosphere and conversed with the super friendly servers. I wish we got to spent more time here but 8PM arrived really quick.
It was 8:03PM and both dinning rooms at All’Osteria Bottega were completely packed with people. Kevin and I both looked at each other completely stunned.. They were open for three minutes! Where did all these people come from? We were told they could seat us at 9:30PM and would be the same tomorrow night as well. They did try and find us a spot but it just did not exist. Deflated, we walked away wondering what our options were. 1) take the 9:30PM slot and chill at the wine bar (not terrible but we were exhausted) 2) find another restaurant. Guess there were not that many options (haha!). We called Osteria da 15 and they also could not seat us tonight… at all. Okayyyyy. With that I only had one more star’ed location on the map – Oltre. I found Otlre through Instragram as a more upscale interpretation of traditional dishes. Kevin didn’t find it that appealing so I had it last on the list. Kevin called and of course they had availability. We booked it and hoped for the best. I had concerns since the other places we wanted to go had no openings but Oltre could fit us in… I guess secretly I was willing to wait out here at Bottega until 9:30PM and kick up back at the wine bar but we gave this a chance.
How did the dinner go? Read about it here!
After a stressful evening scrambling to find dinner plans, we would do better for tomorrow. The problem is I tried making reservations while at home but for one reason or another it did not work. Many places did not have dedicated websites or an online reservation system. Those that had Facebook either told me they did not accept reservations through Facebook or did not respond. Make sure you call when you get there or visit them in person to set up your meals! We could not believe how difficult it was to dine in real time.
A long walk home, a proper passagiata, we ended the day once again exhausted and looked forward to a day without travel tomorrow.
We allowed ourselves time to sleep in and recover from the miles of walking we did yesterday to and from train stations and then trying to find a place to eat – we were wiped out. I had robbed Kevin of a proper morning coffee in Bologna so we made our way to Pappare before heading out for today’d adventure.
While we have seen much of the city at night, we still hadn’t seen much during the day. We look the morning to visit churches and piazzas including Basilica di San Petronio, Basilica di San Francesco and Basiclica Santi Bartolomeo e Gaetano.
Our final destination on this self guided church tour was an apartment for our pasta making class with Dennis at Pasta Risotto Bologna.
Read about our pasta making experience here!
Bologna being known as “La Dotta” the smart one – it is the center of many educational pillars in history. Those studying law went to Bologna to learn it. One of the establishments that fascinated me was the The Archiginnasio – made up of a library, a lecture hall, and most importantly, an anatomy theater. I have learned about the Anatomy Theaters in school so to be able to visit one was super duper nerdy cool.
Wood from the ceiling through the floor, creating rows for seating and a pedestal resembling a parapet overlooking the marble table in the middle. I cannot even imagine what is was like to study medicine here! There was a book towards the front that detailed some of the procedures around broken bones – I wish there were more pages available for viewing.
Unfortunately, the library was not open to the public so we moved on to the Stabat Mater Lecture Hall. There was not too much to see except to wish we could read the hundreds of books stocked in here! We even got a glimpse of the massive library.
A rapid sightseeing day, gelato fun? But we could not find it so we ended up back at Cermera Cavaur again. After our discovery of marscapone last night at Oltre, I tried that gelato flavor and it came with melted chocolate syrup all throughout the cone – win win!
With time to spare, we decided to book the last time slot to climb The Two Towers at 4PM. Only one of the two towers is climbable – the other is in bad shape, less than half the height of the other and significantly leaning. The condition of the second tower definitely made me think twice about the integrity of the climbable tower but the line outside the tower made me think I was the only one thinking that. Built between 1109 and 1119, the main tower is 97.2 meter high and is the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world – 1.3 degree off center lean!
Once the line started to move, it was obvious most of the people in line did not book ahead of time – make sure you book online! This did slow the number of people going up into the tower – it is only one set of stairs up and down – some parts are quite steep and narrow so the number of people start to add up.
For there being 498 steps, it really did go fast – we must be getting better at climb historic towers – not even out of breath at the top. It was completely mobbed but after waiting back and letting others start to head down, we had unobstructed views from the tower giving a 360 degree view around Bologna.
The “La Dotta” name for Bologna has another reason as well – the oldest university in Europe is in Bologna. We decided to walk to the university, which was not far from The Two Towers. I am not sure what I expected but there was nothing much to see. Though the area around here was so different than the other parts of Bologna – everyone was young and enjoying themselves (to say the least).
Since visiting the university did not consume the amount of time I expected, we had one more recommended spot I could squeeze in. We were told Osteria del Sole was a bar with a bring your own food option in a convivial environment. Locating the star on my Google Maps, we lapped the block twice looking for the entrance. Baffled, we took one more look, dissecting each entrance on the street and found an unmarked one with a herd of people converged outside. We forced out way inside, identifying a few suns on the wall – Osteria del Sole (sun) – this was it.
No menu, just a bunch of open bottles on the counter with wine glasses at the ready. Kevin found a spot at the bar and grabbed wine for us. I hung back, stunned at this place. The walls were covered in photographs – some of cartoons, some of the Osteria “back in the day”, some of famous people – there was really no rhyme or reason here. We enjoyed our wine and soaked in the crazy.
Since we had such a difficult time finding a place for dinner last night, we knew tonight being Saturday would be more challenging. From the pool of restaurants I had, we tried making reservations at all of them with no luck. Thankfully, we asked Dennis from our pasta making class for a recommendation and without a hesitation offered Trattoria da Me, which also had some seating for walk ins.
Not wanting to miss the chance, we arrived outside Trattoria da Me at 7PM – it opened at 7:30PM – so we sat on the sidewalk and waited. Closer the 7:30PM, a few more waiters appeared but we were hopeful they would respect the order of operations. But then we remembered, we were in Italy and lines are not a thing anywhere. Kevin slowly made his way to the door to ensure we would have the best chance of eating tonight as the time neared 7:30PM. Just as the gate lifted and the clock hit 7:30PM, a mob of people appeared out of no where! I have no idea where all these people came from and it happened so fast – I lost sight of Kevin completely! There was no way we would get in with all these people here. And then I saw Kevin’s head pop up and a hand in the air waving me in. We did it.
Read all about our dinner at Trattoria da Me here!
We were over the moon walking home from this dining experience – the perfect way to end this amazing trip!
As we walked back to Bologna Centrale train station for our journey back to Milan, Bologna graces us with a beautiful sunrise, a sun we had not seen in days!
We returned to Milan a day before our flight to meet up with my brother and friends that live there – read about our time in Milan!
We hit almost everything on our list for Emilia Romagna, even with the limited time we had in the region. The only big item we did not get to was the walk up to San Luca – a path covered by porticos leading up to the hill where Basilica di San Luca sits giving a beautiful view of Bologna below. If interested, this blog outlines how to get there and from the people I spoke with, it definitely seems worth it.
The three names of Bologna – La Grassa, La Rossa, La Dotta – we experienced them all – the richness of the food, the rustic architecture with porticos down every street, oh and the oldest university in Europe. Even though everyone “makes pasta”, it is really amazing how different our dining experiences still were despite it being “all pasta”. It is way more versatile than can be imagined. The excitement of everyone ready to share their pocket of the world always amazes us and it was no different on this trip. Emilia Romagna is truly a magical place and essential to the make up of Italy.