Bologna Piazza Santo Stefano Orange Buildings Evening Light Students In Square Bike And Cafe Tables

Bologna: Architecture of the Red City

For those of us who tend to fixate on color, Bologna’s nickname of La Rossa  might feel slightly misleading. The city is predominantly orange, while “The Red” refers to its history as a center for Communism. But the city’s palette – caramel stone with brick blending into shades of saffron and pumpkin – comes close enough to red for most people.

Bologna Asinelli Tower And Porticoes Medieval Architecture

Besides its distinctive color scheme, Bologna also stands out for the prevalence of porticos and terrazzo. Many streets in the historic center feature raised walkways on either side, with smooth expanses of colored stone beneath vaulted loggias. Besides providing protection from the elements, these glossy platforms make the simple act of walking feel elegant.

Bologna Piazza Santo Stefano Orange Brick Building Portico With Faces

Lured to Bologna by its historic university and renowned cuisine, we were captivated by its unique urban character. Thanks to a progressive early layout, Bologna never needed to cut massive boulevards through cramped medieval quarters. The historic center retains its pedestrian-oriented scale, making the city a pleasure to navigate.

Bologna Orange Buildings Porticoes Medieval Architecture Morning Light Person Walking

All major sites lie within walking distance and are marked on our Google map.

Introduction to Bologna: University & Porticoes

The Early City: “Seven Churches” & Piazza Santo Stefano, San Domenico

Around the Piazza Maggiore: San Petronio, Due Torri, Santa Maria della Vita, Archiginnasio

University District: Palazzo Poggi & Astronomy Tower, San Giacomo Maggiore

Visiting Bologna & Further Reading


Bologna Porta Galliera Medieval Gateway To City
Porta Galliera, near the train station

10 of Bologna’s 12 monumental gateways (portas) remain from medieval times, connected by boulevards in a circle. Bologna Centrale, the city’s main train station, lies on the northern edge of the ring. The portico-lined Via dell’Indipendenza connects the station to the geographic and symbolic heart of the city, the Piazza Maggiore. A few blocks east, streets fan out from the iconic Due Torri (Two Towers) – including the Via Zamboni, which passes through the university neighborhood.

Introduction to Bologna: University & Porticoes

Bologna Archiginnasio University Entrance Frescoed Ceiling Medieval Heraldry

Bologna’s Alma Mater Studiorum (“Nourishing Mother of Studies”) dates to 1088, making it the oldest continuously-operating university in the world. Unlike most schools, it was founded by students. Their legal expertise during a tumultuous era helped promote social reforms during the city’s explosive growth. Student organizations lobbied to improve living conditions, and Bologna became the first place in Europe to formally abolish serfdom in 1256.

Bologna Santa Maria Servi Church Brick Exterior And Portico Medieval Architecture

In 1288, the city passed a remarkable regulation that all buildings had to feature a portico along their main façade. This made private property owners responsible for maintaining public passageways – a clever way to improve urban conditions in an era when civic administration was barely a concept. The regulation also improved traffic flow by specifying the porticoes’ size: high enough to ride horseback, wide enough to permit market stalls and pedestrian groups, and raised off the muck on the main street.

UNESCO listed Bologna’s porticoes as a World Heritage Site in 2021. They span over 39 miles (62 km), with 24 miles (38 km) in the historic center. The longest single stretch, known as the Portico di San Luca, runs for over two miles (not quite four km) with 666 arches. It connects the Porta Saragozza to the Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca, a church begun in the 11th century on a nearby hill. 

The Early City

While evidence of human habitation in the area dates back over 4,000 years, the first major settlement in Bologna occurred under the Etruscans around the sixth century BCE. When Celtic tribes invaded northern Italy, they renamed the town “Bononia” and made it their new capital. Romans took over two hundred years later, establishing a street grid still used today. 

Bologna Ancient Ruins Castle Galliera Early City
Ruins at the Castello di Galliera

As the Roman Empire disintegrated, Bologna suffered from repeated sackings by invaders from the north. It shrank to a fraction of its original size, until Charlemagne’s conquest in 774 finally brought some security. 

The Seven Churches & Piazza Santo Stefano

Bologna Piazza Santo Stefano Church Exterior Woman On Bike And Pedestrians Cafes Tables Cypress Trees

The Basilica di Santo Stefano provides a glimpse into Bologna’s earliest centuries. Often referred to as the Sette Chiese (“Seven Churches”), the Basilica of St. Stephen is actually a complex of five churches plus a courtyard, cloister, crypt, and museum. 

Bologna Santo Stefano Romanesque Church Exterior Cloister Patterned Brick And Fountain
An eighth-century Lombard basin

Portions of the complex date back to the first century CE, when the site held a temple to Isis. In the fifth century, the bishop Petronius (patron saint of Bologna) transformed the dodecagonal structure into an imitation of the round Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Seven columns of Greek marble remain, flanked by brick versions replacing others destroyed during invasions of the 10th century. Another repurposed Roman-era column, this one of black marble from Africa, was used to symbolize the column where Christ was whipped; according to historic scrolls, anyone visiting it received 200 years of indulgence.

The complex also includes a church dedicated to the Saints Vitale and Agricola, Bologna’s first two martyrs, who were persecuted by Diocletian. Documentation of their remains being moved to Milan testifies to a basilica here no later than 393 CE, making this church one of the oldest in Italy. Besides remnants of a Roman mosaic floor, it features an altar from pagan times which was used upside-down. 

Other curiosities in the complex include the crypt’s assortment of columns. According to legend, Petronius brought back one of them from Jerusalem, and it shows the height of Christ (1.7 meters).

Bologna Santo Stefano Medieval Church Cloister Columns With Faces

In the cloister, the upper-level loggia added in the 12th century contains some famous capitals. Their bizarre forms include a figure with its head turned 180 degrees, which some think inspired Dante’s portrayal of fortune tellers in Hell.

Basilica di Santo Stefano: Via Santo Stefano, 24. Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9:30-12:30 & 2:30-7 (Saturday & Sunday to 7:30)

Bologna Piazza Santo Stefano Orange And Brick Buildings Porticoes Medieval Tower
Bologna Brick Building With Sculptures Of Faces And Medieval Heads
Some of the many fanciful heads adorning the Renaissance-era Palazzo Salina Amorini Bolognini on the Piazza Santo Stefano.

The churches form the base of the Piazza Santo Stefano, one of the best spots for a drink or a meal in Bologna. Lines of lighter stones in the piazza’s rough paving emphasize its unusual shape, while the surrounding buildings offer plenty of interesting detailing. 

Basilica of San Domenico

Bologna San Domenico Interior Dome Renaissance Architecture

Saint Dominic settled in Bologna in 1218, and his church would become the prototype for his followers. The Dominican order rose to prominence quickly, erecting large churches for charismatic preachers conducting services in the local language. 

Two of Michelangelo’s sculptures

The star of the basilica’s impressive art collection is Dominic’s tomb, designed by Nicola Pisano in 1264. Later contributors included a young Michelangelo, who added three small statues. The church also contains a choir with 102 inlaid-wood stalls, circa 1529-41, whose delicacy earned it a reputation as the “eighth wonder of the world”.    

Adjacent to the church, the monastic cells include one purportedly inhabited by St. Dominic himself. The former convent houses cloisters used as a military hospital in World War II.

In front of the church, a statue of St. Dominic stands near a few curious tombs from the 13th century. The raised sarcophagi hold remains of legal scholars who helped shape Bolognese history.

Piazza San Domenico, 13. Opening hours: weekdays 8:30-12 & 3:30-6, Saturday 8:30-12 & 3:30-5, Sunday 3:30-5.

Around the Piazza Maggiore

Bologna Piazza Maggiore Medieval Architecture Torre Accursi Clock Tower

The university’s early focus on legal studies reflected the needs of a rapidly-changing society in the later Middle Ages. Bologna’s scholars helped to shape the peninsula’s emerging city-states, and often served as consultants to regimes further afield.  In 1200, the government commune cleared a space for the Piazza Maggiore and began constructing the first palaces to house the city administration. Today the Palazzo del Podestà and adjoining Palazzo Re Enzo serve as exhibition space, with cafés and bars scattered about the base. Overlooked by the Basilica di San Petronio, the square anchors the present to the past and remains the center of city life.

More buildings were added through the Renaissance, with smaller piazzas on either side of the Palazzo Re Enzo connecting to the Via Rizzoli. Interestingly, Giambologna’s Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) with its suggestive mermaids was added after the Papacy took control of Bologna.

Basilica di San Petronio

Bologna San Petronio Cathedral Exterior Half Finished Facade Marble And Brick Gothic Architecture

Unfaced church façades aren’t uncommon in Italy, but Bologna’s Duomo is something else: pink and white marble on the bottom, topped with raw brick. The odd juxtaposition of light and dark looks especially dramatic on such a monumental scale; San Petronio is the largest brick church in the world. Construction dragged on for centuries, thanks to a series of complicated designs intended to rival St. Peters in Rome; an irked Pope Pius IV pope called the cathedral a “megalomaniac dream”. Begun in 1390, it opened in 1663 but wasn’t consecrated until 1954. Over the centuries, many famous architects proposed designs for the unfinished façade, but the schizoid design has become a beloved feature of the city.

Bologna San Petronio Medieval Gothic Church Interior Brick Columns And Vaults Nave

Inside, the Basilica of San Petronio first presents as an example of the spare Italian Gothic style. But the presence of a line inlaid in the paving at a strange angle indicates that this is more than a church – it’s also a giant astronomical instrument. Added in 1655, Cassini’s Meridian Line works with a 1.066 inch (27.07 mm) hole placed 88.8 feet (27.07 m) above the ground. Tracking the projection of the sun’s rays through the hole enabled precise calculations of the solar year, as well as experimental verification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. 

Bologna Side View San Petronio Medieval Cathedral Marble Facade Piazza Maggiore

In 2005, the astronomy department set up a recreation of Foucault’s Pendulum, which demonstrates the earth’s lateral rotation. Author Umberto Eco, who taught for many years at the University of Bologna, gave the device its first push.

Basilica di San Petronio hours: daily 9-1 & 3-6

Due Torri

Bologna’s nobility competed to build the tallest towers in medieval times. Of the 80-100 estimated original structures, about 20 managed to survive earthquakes and air raids to the present day. Masons decreased the walls’ thickness as they built up in order to help prevent toppling.

At 313 feet (97 m), the Asinelli is the tallest private tower in Italy, and the third-tallest before modern times. Nearby, the Garisenda makes up for its lack of height with an alarming tilt of four degrees. In spite of having its upper portion removed, this tower is still not entirely stable, and the block was recently cordoned off for safety.

Santa Maria della Vita

Bologna Santa Maria Della Vita Baroque Church Interior Dome

Squeezed onto a tiny street, the complex of Santa Maria della Vita packs a colorful history. According to the website, around 20,000 flagellants arrived in Bologna around 1260. They founded a hospital and shelter, which eventually morphed into the Bolognese Baroque church we see today. The main draw is an extraordinary set of life-size terracotta figures by Renaissance sculptor Niccolò dell’Arca. The Compianto sul Cristo morto (“Lamentation of Christ”) depicts six highly emotional reactions to Jesus’s dead body. 

Via Clavature 8-10, Tuesday-Sunday 10-6. Purchase tickets (€5) via website or in person.

Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio

The Palace of the Archiginnasio was designed in 1562 to collect all the university schools into a single structure. Today it holds one of the most prestigious historic libraries in the continent, in a building which is itself a landmark.

Bologna Archiginnasio University Interior Courtyard Porticoes Renaissance Architecture

Over 6,000 coats-of-arms adorn the walls and ceilings, representing both students and major historical figures connected to the university. 

Heraldry spanning several centuries clusters in frescoes and reliefs, around monuments and across the vaulting. Many of the pieces were painstakingly reassembled after massive damage from bombing in World War II.

The Renaissance ushered in a new era for the sciences, and the university’s medical school offered lectures on anatomy. The Archiginnasio’s Anatomical Theatre allowed papal respresentatives to supervise dissections, which were held only during the winter in order to better preserve corpses.

Bologna Archiginnasio University Operating Theater Wood Ceiling With Suspended Statue Of Apollo
Apollo, the ancient god of Medicine, adorns the ceiling center

For modern visitors used to stainless steel and plastic, the all-wood interior may look more like a courtroom than a surgical space. Professors lectured from under a canopy supported by Spellati, statues of skinned bodies. On top, a cherub proffers a thighbone in lieu of the customary flower. 

Piazza Galvanni 1. Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 10-6. Purchase Anatomical Theatre tickets (€3) on-site or reserve online through the tourist information office.

University District

Bologna University Students On Bikes Porticoes

After papal repression and a series of catastrophic plagues in the 17th century, Bologna went into a decline. When Napoleon conquered the area, he moved the university to the Palazzo Poggi. Although it now sprawls across an entire district, the Via Zamboni remains the institution’s heart.

Bologna University Palazzo Poggi Interior Courtyard Brick Building Red Curtains Clock And Statue

Most of the university’s network of museums are quite specialized, but the Palazzo Poggi contains a broad array of curiosities. Standouts include a famous collection of anatomical wax models arrayed underneath Renaissance frescoes and painted ceilings.

Other exhibits include boats, maps, globes, and medieval military models. We wound up particularly fascinated by the fortress studies. Row upon row of exquisite wooden models show engineers exploring the best angles for deflecting enemy fire.

Bologna View Of University Rooftops And Hills From Palazzo Poggi
The view from the astronomy tower.

Constructed in 1712, the university’s Observatory Tower now houses the Specola Museum of Astronomy. University students lead all visitors in small-group tours of about 45 minutes; our guides made the subject matter appealing and comprehensible. With comfortably-sized stairwells and breaks along the way, the tower’s 272 steps shouldn’t present problems for most visitors.

Via Zamboni, 33. Opening hours: Tuesday-Friday 10-4, Saturday-Sunday 10-6. Purchase Palazzo Poggi tickets (€7) on site. Reserve astronomy tower tours (€5) on website or in person at the Palazzo Poggi.

San Giacomo Maggiore

A Renaissance remodeling of the 13th-century San Giacomo Maggiore made this church popular with Bologna’s most powerful residents. The Bentivoglio clan, who dominated the city in the 15th century, sponsored a chapel here, as did Cardinal Poggi. 

The dome was designed by architect Antonio Morandi, better known as il Terribilia. Apparently the nickname referred to some scary animals he designed on another project, but the name stuck with the family for four generations – and Bologna wound up with a bunch of “terrible” buildings.

Piazza Rossini. Opening hours: Monday-Friday 7:30-12 & 3:30-6:30, Saturday 9:30-12:30 & 3-6:30, Sunday 8:30-1 & 3-6:30.

Visiting Bologna & Further Reading

Bologna’s location at the crossroads of major east-west and north-south routes across the Italian peninsula makes it exceptionally well-connected. (Day trip possibilities are too numerous to list.) As a major center for conferences and expositions, it offers plenty of accommodations. Eating well in Bologna is a given – even among Italians, the city has a reputation for excellent food. A steady stream of business travelers plus the student population means there are lots of restaurant choices, all of them amazing. Our favorite gelateria is the Cremeria Cavour, where the staff transfers gelato to cone with an authoritative flourish.

They may not be set in Bologna, but Umberto Eco’s novels reflect the city’s spirit of intellectual curiosity, with lots of surprisingly engrossing historical minutiae. His most famous works are The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

For more Emilia-Romagna, see our post on Modena.