City break to Bologna, Parma and Modena

Date published: 04 Dec 19

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Tucked in the lee of the Bologna Hills on the Po Plain of northern Italy, Bologna ticks all my boxes for a city break with its mix of cultural attractions, fabulous food, and buzzing lifestyle. But stay a couple of extra days and you can easily take a train to nearby Parma and Modena for a trio of terrific towns. Here are my top five things to do in each city.


Bologna from the San Petronio terraceSee the city from on high. Most famous viewpoint is the Torre Asinelli, tallest of the ‘Twin Towers’, but be warned, there are 498 steps. So my vote goes to the viewing platform at the back of San Petronio Basilica which has a lift. Or take the hop-on-hop-off bus to the church of San Michele in Bosco in the hills.

A Bologna Welcome Card Plus includes free entry to all the major cultural sites, plus an excellent two-hour walking tour, the city sightseeing bus, and the San Luca Express to the hilltop sanctuary that has become a symbol of the city. This little land train is a tad rickety over the cobbles and up the steep hairpin bends but much easier than hiking up the 4km portico with almost 600 arches! The card costs 40 euros and is valid for one year, one entry per site. 

Bologna arcadeStroll through the maze of small streets known as Il Quadrilatero lined with fabulous independent food shops offering gastronomic temptation in every window. Signature local charcuterie is pale pink Mortadella and tortellini pasta shapes were invented in the city, supposedly representing a woman’s navel! Remember that true Bolognese sauce - ragu to the Italians - is served with tagliatelle and never, ever with spaghetti!

Admire the free art and architecture in Bologna’s many huge churches. Most are in lavish Baroque style, but my favourite is San Stefano, a complex of seven small churches in simple Romanesque style, all connected with bijou cloisters. Tucked behind a busy street, San Stefano fronts an idyllic cobbled triangular ‘square’ surrounded by arcades.  

Bologna does arcades big time, some 40 km of them in a variety of styles and degrees of decoration, which provide shelter from both sun and rain. The historic centre of the town is only open to commercial vehicles but on Sat and Sun, the whole area becomes a pedestrian zone and everybody comes out to see and be seen!


Parma charcuterie and fried bread puffs!Visit the magnificent Farnese Theatre and the ornate Palatine Library, two of five heritage attractions inside the Palazzo della Pilotta, once the power base of the influential Farnese court.  Just ten minutes’ walk from Parma station and an hour from Bologna by train - ticket around 14 euros return.

Enjoy a leisurely lunch and sample different variations of that famous ham. Portions tend to be substantial so maybe share a starter if planning on a main course. And do order a side plate of crispy fried bread puffs. Just scrumptious and the perfect local accompaniment to Parma ham!

Parma BaptisteryParma Cathedral is modest in size but full-on in impact. Every last inch of the walls and ceiling are intricately painted with religious scenes. Just soak it all up, but prepare for a crick in the neck!

Marginally easier on the neck is the Baptistery next door where the wall paintings at least start at eye-level. But the highlight is the magnificent ‘umbrella’ ceiling, lavishly decorated with pictures of the saints.

On the way back to the station, make like a Duke and chill out in the Ducal Gardens beside their summer palace. Expect statues, water features and tree-lined avenues.  


Piazza Roma, ModenaShop for edible gifts in the home of Balsamic vinegar, less than 30 minutes by train from Bologna on the line to Parma, Piacenza and Milan (8 euros return). Like fine wine, the price of Balsamico di Modena reflects the age and you could pay over 300 euros for a modest bottle aged 150 years. But you can easily pick up a younger alternative for a tenner or so.

Sit at a cafe table on Piazza Roma and just soak up the huge facade of the old Palazzo Ducale, now the Military Academy, whilst children - and adults! - enjoy playing in the water jets on hot summer days.

Enjoy the UNESCO listed harmony of the gleaming marble cathedral and the lofty Torre Ghirlandina. But there’s no lift-up this beautiful belltower, so maybe admire from Piazza Grande instead. Don’t miss the ornate public rooms of the Palazzo Communale or Town Hall, free to enter except on Sunday afternoons.

Piazza Grande, ModenaStep back in time at the Former abbey complex of St Agostino, which offers three free attractions - the ornate Baroque church, the historic pharmacy and anatomical theatre. Then skip across to the Palazzo dei Musei for the city’s art treasures.

Drool over cars of the super-rich at the Enzo Ferrari Museum close to Modena station and centred on the house where Enzo was born. Discover the story behind the brand, the secrets of design and the legendary motor racing champions who steered the cars to victory. 

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays for city breaks.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 2 Comment(s)

  • Gillian-Thornton
    almost 2 years ago
    You're so right! Bologna is a delight in every way, from culture to cuisine, art to atmosphere. Picking five highlights from each town was quite a challenge, so thanks for adding some of the things I didn't have room for! Hopefully Silver Travellers will be tempted to go and discover the city for themselves.
  • TravelwriterLisa
    almost 2 years ago
    That’s a welcoming introduction to Bologna, an edible city that should be better known, and would be if it weren’t sandwiched between the starry attractions of Florence and Venice. Bologna itself is a warmly welcoming city, with none of the artistic or social airs and graces found in neighbouring Florence. If it’s solely about food wars, Tuscany is often trounced by Emilia Romagna.

    As its capital, Bologna represents the land of plenty, set in the most civilised region in Italy. A few of the finest vaulted inns have been around since medieval times, when the city mastered the art of living. A pink-bricked city on a human scale grew up around Europe’s oldest university. Bristling with towers, like a medieval Manhattan, Bologna prospered from its foodie setting, surrounded by fertile plains and vineyards, which still supply its cosy inns.

    Welcome to Bologna "La Grassa" ("the Fat"), not that the Bolognese are. The locals’ love of rich food has made this Italy’s undisputed gastronomic capital. Famous for its inns, Bologna celebrates robust yet refined cuisine, based on pasta, velvety sauces, meat, charcuterie and cheese. Tuck into pale-pink Bolognese mortadella, studded with black peppercorns and green pistachios, very different from Parma ham in the next foodie city. But above all, there’s pasta. In Bologna, tagliatelle, second only in popularity to tortellini, were supposedly invented in 1487 to honour Lucrezia Borgia’s golden hair. A hair-splitting regulation determined that each strand should be precisely eight millimetres wide, one-12,276th part of the height of Bologna’s main leaning tower. Anything else is simply not tagliatelle.