Bologna, a city rich with cultural jewels, has long been one of the best-kept secrets in northern Italy. Tourists in the know bask in the shadow of its leaning medieval towers and devour the city's wonderful food.

The charm of the centro storico, with its red-arcaded passageways and sidewalks, can be attributed to wise city counselors who, at the beginning of the 13th century, decreed that roads couldn’t be built without portici (porticoes). Were these counselors to return to town eight centuries later, they’d marvel at how little has changed.

Bologna, with a population of about 388,000, has a university-town vibe—and it feels young and lively in a way that many other Italian cities don’t. It also feels full of Italians in a way that many other towns, thronged with tourists, don’t. Bolognesi come out at aperitivo time, and you might be struck by the fact that it's not just youngsters who are out for the passeggiata or a glass of wine with affettati misti.

From as early as the Middle Ages the town was known as "Bologna the Fat" for the agricultural prosperity that resulted in a well-fed population. In the 21st century Bolognese food remains, arguably, the best in Italy. With its sublime cuisine, lively spirit, and largely undiscovered art, Bologna is a memorable destination.

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Fodor's Essential Italy 2024

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