Bologna is a great place to visit with kids.
I love Bologna. Peter does too. Years ago, we spent a wonderful long weekend in the city and the surrounding area. Incredibly, we had not made it back since. When we spent the week in Italy, we decided to take the opportunity to visit the wonderful city again and take Miss M. Now she loves Bologna too.
There is much to do in Bologna that both adults and children will enjoy. It is also the birthplace of the favourite foods of many children – spaghetti bolognese, mortadella (AKA Bologna for the Americans) and parmesan cheese.
Getting there and accommodation
We stayed on a farm about 75km from Bologna, so we don’t have any accommodation to recommend in Bologna. If you are planning to see more of Bologna and the surrounding area, we would recommend staying in the city.
Driving is frustrating in Bologna, with numerous one
If you can, get a train to the city.
Tip: Numerous private tours include the Ferrari Museum or traditional food manufacturers in the area. You don’t necessarily need a car if you are looking to take your child to see one of these sites.
The best way to get around Bologna is to walk. Almost all of the main sites are all in the historic centre of the city. The main exception is the Madonna di San Luca, where the views while walking up the hill under the porticoes are the main drawcard.
What to do in Bologna with kids
Take a cooking class or foodie’s tour
During our first visit to Bologna, we spent a wonderful day doing a culinary tour and a cooking class with Marcello and Raffaella of Bluone.
We learnt about parmesan cheese and Aceto Balsamic di Modena, tried various types of cold meat, watched tortellini being made and chose the menu and the ingredients for our meal.
Later in our hosts home, we learned to cook traditional lasagna bolognese, including the spinach pasta, and made panna cotta. We enjoyed our home-cooked meal as well as grissini with traditional cold meats, parmesan cheese with syrupy-thick balsamic vinegar, and veal scaloppine with greens. It was all absolutely delicious. We shared our meal with the family and discussed a broad range of topics, while the men and boys watched the soccer.
It was very memorable day – I remember it clearly even now.
Tip: Take a cooking class or go on a foodies tour in Bologna. This visit was very last minute, so we did not have an opportunity to arrange a tour. However, there are even cooking classes for children of all ages – let your child learn how to make their favourite pasta!
Try the food
Bologna is known as ‘Bologna the Learned’ (for its university), ‘Bologna the Red’ (for its politics) and ‘Bologna the Fat’ for its food. It a foodie Mecca. There are so many delicious things to try and, thankfully, so many foods that kids love too. When you are visiting Bologna with kids, go shopping, have a picnic, stop for drinks and a snack and take a long lunch.
Watch pasta being made. Buy some real ‘Bologna’, better known as mortadella. Try some syrupy balsamic vinegar (caution: it’s like whisky – the older it is, the more expensive it is). Find some fresh fruit for a picnic. Eat gelato in Summer or roasted chestnuts in Winter. Try the Tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese – what the English speaking world calls spaghetti bolognese or cook some at home using this local recipe.
Tip: Try the Quadrilatero, Via
Stroll under the porticoes
You can’t visit Bologna with kids without taking time to stroll under its famous and extensive porticos. There are 38 kilometres of porticoes in the historic city centre, and over 45 km in the city proper. Take a stroll under the porticos of the historic town centre.
Perhaps the longest portico in the world, the Portico di San Luca connects the Porta Saragozza with the church of Madonna di San Luca. It has 666 vaulted arcades and is 3.8 kilometres long and shelters the annual procession of Luke the Evangelist’s
Tip: The return trip walking up to Madonna di San Luca takes around 2 hours. However, little legs (or those that just climbed a tower) might prefer to take the train up the hill. See below for more information.
Say hello to the rather large statue of the god Neptune on Piazza Nettuno. He was commissioned by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo for his uncle who had just been elected Pope Pio IV. Locals consider Neptune’s trident to be lucky and it is the symbol of Maserati, the car manufacturer that was founded in Bologna in 1914.
Look down on history
Unfortunately, we managed to pick one of the few days of the year when the library was closed, so we didn’t get to see this for ourselves.
The former financial exchange in the Palazzo d’Accursio (next to Neptune) now houses the Biblioteca Salaborsa. The central hall with its corinthian columns is just gorgeous. The glass floor lets you look down on the ruins of the ancient city of Bononia from 189 BC.
Tip: This is also a good place to have a rest and a coffee (and catch up with your social media).
Marvel at Piazza Maggiore
Right next to Piazza Nettuno is Piazza Maggiore. Take a moment to admire the different buildings that surround the square.
We actually bought Miss M a gelato and then sat on the steps of the Basilica di San Petronio to eat it. Originally, the church was supposed to be the largest in the world. However, the Pope refused to let the church be bigger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Basilica di San Petronio now sits unfinished.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to visit the internal courtyards or go into the Basilica – the tenth-largest church in the world.
Under the arcade in the centre of
Tip: Give older children the challenge of working out why it works.
Established in 1088, the University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world. Two of the highlights of the university are the Library and the Anatomical Theatre.
If your children are bibliophiles and are likely to be quiet (which Miss M was not), check out the gorgeous old university library at Via Zamboni 35. Older kids will appreciate the anatomical theatre at Piazza Galvani 1.
Tip: The anatomical theatre at the university in Padua, where Galileo Galilei taught, better. Make sure you check the opening times!
Visit the dinosaurs
If you have a little dinosaur aficionado and are in Bologna early enough in the day (we were not), visit the Carnegie Diplodocus and other fossils at the Museo Geologico Giovanni Capellini. The museum is rather small and the focus is research, but kids still love it. Entry is free!
Look through a window
In the past, Bologna was a water town with five harbours. Much of this maritime past is long hidden, but at 2 Via Piella, you can glimpse the Moline canal through a little window. This canal used to power 15 mills located throughout the city.
This is another site that we missed. We looked for it, but could not find it. See if you can find it when you are in Bologna with your kids!
Climb a tower
At the end of the twelfth century
Instead of climbing the 498 steps to the top of the leaning Asinelli tower, we chose to visit the temporary panoramic terrace of the Basilica di San Petronio, which has a lift and just two flights of stairs.
Word to the wise: Although it has a lift, you don’t want to visit the viewing platform if you don’t like heights. It is a temporary structure: the ‘stairs’ and terrace are scaffolding and the lift is a freight lift. It is a very bumpy ride and you have to sign an insurance waiver before you are allowed to ascend.
Miss M loved it, but I am not sure whether she liked the views or the picture of Mummy standing back next to the church after the terrifying ride up more.
Take a train
If you are like us and don’t feel like motivating your child to walk the 3.8 kilometres up to the Madonna di San Luca, catch the little ‘San Luca Express’. The audio guide (in ten languages) will give you some information about some of the more unusual sites of the city on the way. The views are definitely worth it!
The train leaves from Piazza Maggiore near the start of Via degli Orefici.
Tip: If you are in Bologna with older kids, they will probably find the train a little babyish. Challenge them to walk up to the top under the 3.8km of porticoes instead!
Visit a church
There are a number of churches worth a visit in Bologna. Pick one depending on your (and your children’s) interests.
- Madonna di San Luca on the hill for the views
- Basilica di San Domenico for the artwork (including by Michelangelo) and the marble ark holding St Domenico of Guzman, founder of the Dominican order.
- For sheer size, Basilica di San Petronio
- Basilica di Santo Stefano, also known the Seven Churches for peculiarity. Did the patron saint of Bologna (when he was still bishop) order the building to be divided into seven to represent the places where the Passion of Christ occurred? Or did Saint Petronio commission the erection of the church on top of a pagan temple?
For older kids
There are a number of tours and activities which are particularly interesting for older kids. Take a bike tour through the city or an
What to do in Bologna with kids
Bologna is a great place to visit with kids. It makes a great day trip, and if you do a cooking course, or have automotive lovers who wish to tour the museums, it can be an enjoyable and delicious long weekend.