Top 10 Most Guarded Secrets of Bologna (and Why You Should Visit Italy’s Most Underrated City)

By: Sarah Dowling

For me, Bologna is without question the most underrated city in Italy. My suspicions for this come twofold. For one, Bologna is a medieval city, which means that from the outside you can’t see everything. You have to remember that medieval cities were built in such a way to protect the beautiful palaces and rich artwork from a not so great public sanitation system. So, although it is now safe to walk in the streets of Bologna, you still have to go inside a building to find a lot of the good stuff.  

But I also have a sneaking suspicion that the people of Bologna don’t want tourists to know about their city. They want to keep the city and all of its treasures guarded and safe from guidebooks, travel channels, and overly obnoxious tourists. Selfish? Maybe. But anyone who has ever visited Florence, Rome or Venice on a crowded hot summer day might not think so.

Before I moved to Bologna, I wasn’t exactly hard sold on the city’s attractiveness. But after spending over a year here, I've discovered many of the city's hidden treasures and, well, you could say I've fallen in love. So whether you like music, art, architecture, food, or simply a good adventure, these top 10 secrets of Bologna will make you see the city like you’ve never seen it before and have you wishing you could stay forever. So I challenge you, dear readers, to put your detective hats on and uncover the top 10 most guarded secrets of Bologna!

1. The Shadow of Lucio Dalla – Lucio Dalla, a Bologna born jazz singer-songwriter, is pretty much considered a musical legend here in Bologna. Dalla is so highly renowned that you often find artwork dedicated to him throughout the city. In fact, there is one particular piece that is really beautiful, yet so subtle that you wouldn’t know it’s there unless someone pointed it out to you. On the corner of Via D’Azeglio and Piazza dei Celestini, across from the church, turn your eyes upwards. Can you see the shadow of Lucio Dalla playing his saxophone to the birds?

2. The Hidden Ancient Roman Road – A long long time ago, like most other cities in Italy, Bologna was part of the Roman empire. Today, you can still see bits and pieces of the ancient Roman ruins. Many people in Bologna know about the roman ruins visible through the glass floor in the Sala Borsa Library. However, what many people don’t know, is that there is also an ancient Roman road that is completely open to the public for free on which you can physically stand. Go to Strada Maggiore and find the furniture store called Roche Bobois. Go inside the store and walk down the stairs. Towards the right, you will see a glass wall and behind the glass wall, a road, made of Roman stone, still intact. Can you see the carved line where the Roman carts used to move?

3. The Treasures of San Domenico Basilica - While it might not seem like much from the outside, San Domenico Basilica is absolutely stunning on the inside. It’s a little bit off the beaten path, but I can tell you from personal experience that this church has something special about it. For one, it houses a statue sculpted by Michelangelo, as well as many other famous works of art including an organ that Mozart used to play on when he visited Italy. Second, I’m convinced this church brings good luck. I’m normally not a superstitious person, but every time I have visited this church something good has happened to me afterwards. Can you find the angel statue sculpted by Michelangelo? 

4. A 360 Degree Cafè Terrace View – In Bologna, rooftop restaurants and terrace cafés are nearly impossible to find. Apart from the towers, there aren’t too many tall buildings. Nevertheless, there is one place that you can go to enjoy a morning cappuccino with a beautiful, 360 degree view of Bologna. You can find this magical place at Hotel Touring, located on Via De' Mattuiani near Piazza San Domenico. When you go inside, just ask the receptionist if you can go up to the terrazza for a coffee. They’ll point you in the right direction. You can also go here in the evening for an aperitivo. It’s a bit more expensive than most bars, but it’s definitely worth paying the few extra euro for the view. Can you spot all 21 towers in Bologna?

5. The Best Panoramic View of Bologna – Although many people talk about the beautiful view from San Luca (which is really beautiful), nobody ever says anything about a place called San Michele in Bosco. For me, this place has a way better view of Bologna! Not only that, but there is a small forest nearby where you can enjoy some quiet solitude among nature. During the summertime you can stop for a snack with some locals at one of the outdoor bars on Via Codivilla. Can you spot the only skyscraper in Bologna?

6. The Whispering Walls  – Did you know that there are walls that whisper in Bologna? Go to Piazza Maggiore and enter Palazzo del Podestà, just behind the Bologna Welcome Tourist Office. Stop at the intersection where you will see four corners. Go to one corner and have a friend go to the corner diagonally opposite of yours. Each of you should face the corner (you have to get really close) and then say something. Can you hear what the walls are whispering?

7. The Secret Bakery – Almost every single cafè, hotel or bar in Italy has freshly made brioche (croissants) delivered to them every morning. There are several places that bake these delicious concoctions during the wee hours of the morning before delivering them throughout the city. If you know where and when to go, you yourself can get your hands on the freshest brioche in the city, even before any other bar does. Remember that saying, “Those who ask, shall receive”? Well, it kind of works like that.

And yes, dear readers, I know where to find one of these hidden gems. Follow my directions closely:

*After 2:30am only* Go straight down Strada Maggiore, past Corte Isolani. Turn right onto Via Borgonuovo. Find the only closed restaurant on this street and turn your nose towards the opposite side of the street. Can you smell something insanely delicious?

8. The Underground Canals - Did you know Bologna used to look a lot like Venice? During the 12th and 13th centuries, water canals were built to connect Bologna to the Po River for transportation and plumbing purposes. Although tucked away behind the city’s walls, a few of these canals can still be seen today. The most popular one can be viewed from Via Piella through a secret window right next to Trattoria Biassnot (which is a fantastic place to eat typical Bolognese pasta - I recommend the pasta trio!). There are at least 5 other canals throughout the the city. Can you find all 5 of them?

For the more adventurous souls, it’s even possible to go rafting down these canals on what is called an Urban Rafting Adventure. For more information, visit The Virtuvio Association website.

9. The Legend of the Three Arrows - Once upon a time there lived a very rich Lord of Bologna whose wife had cheated on him. To seek revenge, he hired three assassins to come during the night and shoot her with an arrow. However, the wife being very clever, appeared completely naked when the shooters came. They were so distracted that they completely missed and shot their three arrows into the ceiling of the portico.

Today, if you go to Strada Maggiore and stop underneath the old wooden porticoes of Casa Isolani, you can still see the three arrows, stuck in the ceiling of the portico. I’ve only managed to find two. Can you find all three of the arrows?  

10. Annamaria’s Secret Ragù Recipe – For this secret, you are going to have to work for it. Let me explain. Trattoria Anna Maria is very popular trattoria in Bologna. There, you can eat all the delicious specialities of Emilia-Romagna – Tortellini in Brodo, Tagliatelle Ragù, and of course, Lasagane Bolognese, all created by the chef and owner, a little old lady named Annamaria. Her ragù sauce is one of kind – it’s just not like other ragù sauces. It’s creamier. It’s not too vegetabley or tomatoey or acidic. It’s just really good. Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a rare fortune of obtaining her secret ragù recipe. I can’t tell you how and I don’t want to spoil her business by just giving it to everyone. So if you want the recipe, click here and follow the instructions on the site.  Maybe, just maybe you will be as fortunate as me!

Sarah Dowling is an American born expat living, teaching, and studying in Bologna, Italy. She has been writing about all things Italy for over two years on her blog, Italy Project 365.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingSarah Dowling is an American expat living in Italy. Blog description: Whether you're actually in Italy, or in some far off place, Italy can be found! Italy Project brings you advice on Italy, Italian cultural tidbits and personal ramblings about the everyday Italian life.
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Contest Comments » There are 59 comments

Suzanne wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks so much for the insider scoop on Bologna, Sarah! I love reading your blog, and I can't wait to make it back to Italy one day. Keep up the good work!

Ellen wrote 10 years ago:

Thank you for sharing these secrets!!I am a fellow Bologna lover too but I didn't know half these things! Your blog is fantastic!

Troy wrote 10 years ago:

So many incredible places! Hopefully I will make it back to Italy some day so I can check out that 360 degree cafe! Thanks as always for the great posts.

Carlotta wrote 10 years ago:

These are real hidden places of Bologna. And I'm from Bologna but I didn't know them all!! So..wonderful work Sarah!!

Suzanne S wrote 10 years ago:

Loved the blog, can't wait to visit the are some date

Margaret wrote 10 years ago:

Your article has convinced my I must visit Bologna soon!

Vee Chick wrote 10 years ago:

Well, now I really would like to go to Bologna. To see this historic city undisterbed for the most part by tourists, would be fantastic. And I want to go to all 10 spots Sarah has mentioned in her blog.

Jenne wrote 10 years ago:

Fantastic list, Sarah -- how delightful to live in such charming city. Enjoy your time there!

Lindsey Re wrote 10 years ago:

This is a great read, Sarah! We will make our way out this way soon, especially now that you have given some great insight!

Tim Combatti wrote 10 years ago:

Italy was my first international trip and it changed my outlook on everything. Bologna sounds like an amazing place and I hope to get to experience it one day. This blog was a perfect way to put Bologna "on the map."

Matteo wrote 10 years ago:

really well done sarah! this is a work made by a person in love for the city where she lives. your passion is contagious, thank you! i love your blog!

Aunt B wrote 10 years ago:

Now I REALLY want to visit Bologna! Your 10 secret places each sound amazing. I always look forward to your posts, Sarah, because you bring day-to-day life in Italy straight to my in- box!

Julie wrote 10 years ago:

Following your 10 most guarded secrets feels like a treasure map that anyone with a sense of adventure will want to experience! I have to plan a trip and use your guide. Italy is definitely on my bucket list but you have now moved it to the top. Thanks for the tips and keep blogging!

Elizabeth wrote 10 years ago:

It's always a pleasure to read your posts and be transported to Italy for a brief time!! Keep it up!

Evans Bagley wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah, I enjoyed reading your blog because I can picture myself being there with you. Your writing entertains me and I look forward to seeing Italy, especially Bologna.

Roman wrote 10 years ago:

i live in Bologna since 2010 and since the beginning i marked the city as boring. Guess i was wrong. I have to check those places out, especially the secret bakery!!

Tony wrote 10 years ago:

You've done it once again! A sincere and unique look into Bologna. Keep it up, Sarah. Continue to do what you do. Its inspiring!

Leslie Rogers wrote 10 years ago:

Great article! Makes me want to hop on an airplane and visit Bologna!

Brooke wrote 10 years ago:

I'm so jealous of your continued travels and happy to hear that you've figured out the whereabouts of secret bakeries in several cities in italy now :D. can't wait to get back and visit bologna. <3

Danna DiNapoli wrote 10 years ago:

Wow! so many wonderful secrets to discover in Bologna! I have never traveled to Italy, but it is on my short list of places to go. Now, I will include the city of Bologna on my travel agenda! Thank you , Sarah, for writing such a delightful and educational blog!!

Severin wrote 10 years ago:

pretty interesting!! i've been living in Bologna for more than 3 years now but in this article she as made me uncover another face of Bologna.

Darlene Schultz wrote 10 years ago:

Cannot wait to return to this wonderful city and check out these secrets and MORE!

TASTE BOLOGNA wrote 10 years ago:

Great tips, really! I live in Bologna and have a blog about it but still i didn't know a few of them ;)

Serena wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah, what a fantastic article about Bologna.Come to see us at Arca! Thanks , e grazie mille! Serena

Sarah wrote 10 years ago:

A big thanks to everyone! I’m really proud to live in Bologna and honored that so many people think what I write about is actually interesting! I hope I can continue to bring italy to YOUR life, wherever you may be. :)

Jen wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah, I am your Grandma Lucy's friend. I really enjoyed reading about Bologna, Italy. It sounds exciting and like your on a adventure all the time. I am so proud you are enjoying your time there. Maybe one day Grandma Lucy can go to visit you and come back home and tell me more exciting things going on there in Bologna. Until then stay safe and continue your good work.

Patrick wrote 10 years ago:

Without you, I would have never known Bologna was such an amazing city :)

Eduardo Almonte wrote 10 years ago:

Awesome article! I definitely gotta make it out to there soon!

Elizabeth wrote 10 years ago:

So proud of you Cuz! Keep up the good work. Love reading everything you write-- it makes me miss Italy too, too much! Hopefully I'll take a trip across the pond again one day and make it to Bologna! It sounds wonderful. Hope to see you over the Holidays! xo

Andron wrote 10 years ago:

Very interesting article! Thanks Sarah, will save this page for future!

LuAnne wrote 10 years ago:

Great Article! It sounds wonderful ... Bologna will be an absolute must on our next trip to Italy!

Alayna wrote 10 years ago:

What a great guide to Bologna's hidden gems! From preserved ancient infrastructure to rooftop cafes, Sarah's suggestions are enough to satisfy any history buff, foodie, and art connoisseur. I will definitely keep this in mind for any future trips to Bologna.

Robert wrote 10 years ago:

This article has had the odd effect of making me want to return to Bologna - if only for a lazy afternoon - and re-encounter it with Sarah's enthusiasm.

Ellen wrote 10 years ago:

Your wonderful insight on Bologna's discrete enchantments are beyond enticing! I've been dying to revisit Italy and Italy Project 365 affirms that Bologna is a must-visit destination. Thank you for sharing your adventures and passion, it is my pleasure to live vicariously through you state-side!

Joanie wrote 10 years ago:

Great article Sarah enjoyed reading it and what a earning experience....

Laurie wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah - your entire blog is incredible and the 10 secrets list is so interesting. I have never been to Italy, but reading your blog makes me want to plan a visit. I love the history and rich detail you provide with each secret. I can almost picture all of the things you describe and I want to go find them all myself. The Secret Bakery is the best. I would definitely stay awake past my bedtime to track down fresh brioche!

Mike wrote 10 years ago:

Awesome, interesting post! definitely have to go on my next trip

Ritz wrote 10 years ago:

Great blog! I love your recipes and my friends can't wait to visit Bologna so I can show them all the secrets! You'll have to join us!!

Barbara wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Sarah, I also really love Bologna and have been living in the city for about 2 years now. But, I still discovered some new things by reading this entry. Thank you for sharing these interesting tips, will definitely give some of them a go!

Brus Wayne wrote 10 years ago:

This is awesome! I live in Bologna and it's probably the best tourist guide I've ever read! Go Sarah! ;)

Sandra wrote 10 years ago:

My wanderlust has kicked in once more. I really do hope to visit Italy one day and when I get there I hope to check Bologna off my bucket list!

John wrote 10 years ago:

Buon lavoro, principessa. E' meraviglioso che sei diventata cosi innamorata con Bologna, te lo descrivi come nessun'altro potrebbe. In bocca al lupo con il concorso.

Becky Bulris wrote 10 years ago:

After reading this blog, and having been to Italy, but not Bologna, we would love to go back and visit the locales of the 10 most guarded secrets of Bologna. Sounds quite intriguing. Thanks for sharing this with us!

Jennifer wrote 10 years ago:

I don't know why more people don't make the trip here. It's so beautiful, it has a great energy and THE FOOD!

Marcus wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah - Great insider info - just the type of local perspective that makes visiting new places fun. Will have to put Bologna on the list for the next trip to Italy.

Tori wrote 10 years ago:

I always wanted to visit Italy but now Bologna is on my list to hopefully see one day!

Meaghan Duffy wrote 10 years ago:

Great article, Sarah! I wish that I could come and visit! Maybe one day soon!

Laura Hamilton-Moseley wrote 10 years ago:

This Blog on Bologna and the 10 most guarded secrets is so interesting! We definitely want to travel to Italy soon as we have not been to that part of Europe and will put Bologna on the travel route for sure! We want to visit the rooftop restaurants and bars that Sarah described and view the 360 degree views!! How beautiful and the of course visit the Secret Bakery.... Loved the blog thank you! Laura Moseley and family.....

Josephine Bagley wrote 10 years ago:

So happy that you are proud of your roots and that you love the country of my beloved parents. They would be as proud of you as I am. Tua Nana

Pam Fran Bagley wrote 10 years ago:

Great job with the hidden treasures. I would love to see it some day. :)

Phillip Bagley wrote 10 years ago:

Great blog, Sarah! I hope to go to Italy one day!

Crisitan wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah, Great job. From a fellow expat whose been to the beautiful country numerous times, you give a really great and honest perspective of the country, its culture, food and people. keep up the good work.

Stella wrote 10 years ago:

Wonderful and informative blog. I will definitely visit Bologna again to see these top secrets!

Laura wrote 10 years ago:

E'molto divertente vedere la nostra citta'con gli occhi di un'americana doc! Thank you Sara!

LuAnne wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah, congratulations on the blog and on following your dreams. So excited to read more about your journey! Best, Mr. U

Ernie wrote 10 years ago:

Loved the post. Who know Bologna was cool - I sure didn't... Keep up the great work.

Tony wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah, Hearing your story and seeing your work inspires me to do more. It inspires me to travel more. To be more open to the world. I loved the post. Good Luck!

Anthony wrote 10 years ago:

I tell all my friends about you and your blog. You're both incredible. I wish you nothing but success!

Chris wrote 10 years ago:

Found this post on facebook after a friend sent it to me. Loved it. Now I get why he raves about you... good luck!

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