In the image, we see the bustling square of Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, Italy with the prominent feature being the Basilica di San Petronio, a large church made of brick with a marble facade. The sun is shining brightly, casting shadows and highlighting the architectural details of the surrounding buildings, which are a mix of medieval and Renaissance styles. People are milling about the square, some in groups, others alone, enjoying the warm day. The foreground is framed by the edge of a stone building, and in the lower right corner, a woman is seated on the ground, her attention directed toward the Basilica. The sky is a clear, vibrant blue, suggesting it's a clear day.

15 Best Free Things To Do In Bologna In 2024

Bologna is a great place to start exploring Italy, especially if you are traveling on a budget. There are plenty of free things to do in Bologna. Keep reading and find out the best free Bologna attractions.

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Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. It is a beautiful city with a historic center that dates back to Roman times. Bologna is often referred to as “La Dotta, La Rossa, La Grassa,” which means “The learned, the red, the fat”. It is “the learned” because it is home to one of the oldest universities in the Western world. “The red” stands for the red terracotta-colored buildings, part of the city’s amazing architecture. And the nickname “the fat” is well deserved for its great food. Bologna is considered the culinary capital of Italy.

Bologna is one of the Italian cities that has it all: history, culture, and gastronomy, but you don’t have to spend a lot to experience this charming city. This article highlights some of the best free things to see and do in Bologna Italy.

Piazza Maggiore: The Heart Of Bologna

If it is your first visit to Bologna, a great way to start exploring the city is to go to the city centre, i.e. to Piazza Maggiore. The city’s main square is the focal point of Bologna’s historic center. The magnificent buildings of Basilica of San Petronio, Palazzo d’Accursio, Palazzo del Podestá, Palazzo dei Notai, Palazzo Re Enzo, and Palazzo dei Banchi are all around it. 

The Basilica Of San Petronio

The photograph shows the interior of the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna, Italy, which houses the longest indoor meridian line, or sundial. The sundial line is clearly visible on the floor, marked by a strip of different colored tiles cutting across the basilica's patterned floor, ending at a spot illuminated by sunlight. This indicates the precision with which the sundial was designed to track the sun's path. Visitors are gathered around, admiring this feature. The towering arches and columns of the basilica give a sense of height and grandeur, while the soft lighting accentuates the peacefulness of the sacred space. Ropes and stanchions suggest that this is an area of special interest, and to prevent people from walking on the sundial. The combination of scientific innovation and religious architecture speaks to the historical importance of churches as centers of learning as well as worship.
Basilica di San Petronio, the longest sundial in the world

The basilica is dedicated to Saint Petronius, Bologna’s patron saint who was the bishop of Bologna in the 5th century. The construction of the Basilica di San Petronio began in 1390 and it has never been finished according to the original plans. Despite being unfinished, it is the tenth-largest church in the world and the sixth-largest church in Italy. 

The façade of the church is made of marble and is partly unfinished. The main gates are adorned with a bas-relief depicting scenes from Genesis. 

Inside the Basilica of San Petronio, you will find 22 chapels decorated with artwork from the Renaissance. Don’t miss the frescoes by Giovanni da Modena, which depict scenes, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy.

On the floor of the Basilica di San Petronio, you can see the longest sundial in the world. In 1655, the astronomer Domenico Cassini created this 66.6-meter-long sundial to determine accurately the length of the solar year.

In the Basilica of San Petronio, you will find another record-breaking object. It is the oldest working organ in the world, which was built in the 15th century.

Palazzo d’Accursio

In this image, we see a grand historic building with a clock tower, arches on the ground floor, and several flags waving from the roof. The spacious square in front of it is filled with people. The building's façade displays detailed brickwork, statues, and decorative elements that speak to its historical and cultural importance.
Palazzo d’Accursio

The historic building of Palazzo d’Accursio or the Town Hall stands on the western side of Piazza Maggiore. This elegant medieval building is made of several structures that have been added over the years.

During the early 13th century, a weekly market was held in the square. If you take a look at the front of the Palazzo d’Accursio, near the Neptune Fountain, you’ll notice the measures utilized by medieval merchants. Under a window on the same wall of the measures, there are two eagles. The window above them dates back to the 16th century. The eagle on the left is believed to be crafted by the young Michelangelo Buonarotti, while the one on the right is attributed to Niccolò dell’Arca. However, the people of Bologna didn’t appreciate the eagle by Niccolò dell’Arca, stating that it looked more like a pigeon. Nevertheless, both authorships remain disputed.

The photograph showcases a detail from the exterior of Palazzo d'Accursio in Bologna, highlighting a pair of sculpted eagles flanking a coat of arms. They are intricately carved, with each feather defined, giving them a textural and dynamic appearance. The coat of arms between them is slightly eroded, but still prominently displays a shield and accompanying decorative motifs. Beneath each eagle, there are inscriptions.
Palazzo d’Accursio, eagles

Bologna has many historic buildings that feature picturesque courtyards hidden away behind their grand facades. Take the time to explore these charming spaces. Many of them are open to the public, so step into the courtyard of Palazzo d’Accursio to relax and take some nice photos.

 After crossing the courtyard, go to the right and you will find a 16th-century staircase designed for horse carriages. This beautiful staircase leads to Sala Farnese, a baroque masterpiece with magnificent frescoes.

If you want to enjoy a panoramic view of Piazza Maggiore and the historic center, take the stairs on the right or the elevator to climb to the top of the Clock Tower. Note that climbing to the top of the Clock Tower is not free. The entrance fee is 8 euros and the ticket gives you access to the Municipal Art Collections too. 

Salaborsa

Sala borsa is the municipal library and is part of the Palazzo d’Accursio. The public library’s main hall is worth a visit for its spectacular architecture. It is open to visitors, but remember to be quiet and respectful of others when entering the library. 

The photo captures an archaeological excavation site, revealing layers of historical construction. The visible stratification of walls and foundations speaks to the various periods of human habitation and construction techniques used over the centuries. The modern metal walkways and lighting systems installed around the site allow for visitors to safely view and walk above the excavation.
Sala Borsa, the archaelogical excavations

You can visit Roman-times Bologna below the library. After entering Salaborsa, turn left and you will find two flights of stairs leading down. Take the right one and follow it to the door to the excavations. Behind the door, you can admire the ruins of ancient buildings, wells, and a cistern. Admission is free, although a small donation is appreciated.

Neptune Fountain

The photograph features the famous Neptune Fountain (Fontana di Nettuno) in Bologna, Italy, with the grand figure of Neptune himself poised atop the fountain. He is depicted in a commanding pose, trident in hand, a classic example of Renaissance sculpture that emphasizes anatomical precision and dynamic form. Around the base, there are additional figures and intricate details that are hallmarks of the period's attention to mythological themes. In the background, we can see part of Piazza Maggiore and the historical buildings that line the square, including the crenellated Palazzo d'Accursio with its distinctive merlons.
Neptune Fountain

In front of Palazzo d’Accursio, in the center of Piazza del Nettuno, stands the Neptune Fountain. The fountain was constructed in the 16th century, symbolizing the power of the Pope who ruled the world as Neptune ruled the seas. Four angels represent the Danube, the Nile, the Amazon, and the Gang, the largest rivers of the known continents at that time. One of Bologna’s 7 secrets hides in the Neptune Fountain. Giambologna, the author of the statue, was asked to reduce Neptune’s virility to comply with religious laws. He obeyed but designed the statue so that, from a certain angle, Neptune’s finger looks like an erect phallus. If you go behind the fountain of Neptune, you’ll uncover its secret. 

Palazzo Del Podestá

Here we have an image showcasing another elegant building featuring a mix of architectural styles, with a prominent tower that adds to its historic appeal. The arched portico at ground level creates a welcoming passageway, while the upper floors display a more restrained design with uniform windows. There is a large square in front with people in it.
Palazzo del Podesta

The Palazzo del Podestá is located in Piazza Maggiore, opposite the Basilica of San Petronio. You can see thousands of ornamental tiles on the columns, representing flowers, coats of arms, animals, and faces. Legend has it that there are two identical tiles somewhere, but no one has been able to find them yet. If you are interested in solving the mystery, you can try to find the two identical tiles. In the Palazzo del Podestá is located the Bologna Tourist Information Office. Go in to buy your ticket for the Asinelli Tower if you plan to climb it.

Palazzo Re Enzo Street Lamp 

The photo showcases an ornate street lamp, known as "Lampione dei Neonati," set against a backdrop of historical buildings.The elaborate design of the lamp, with its intricate ironwork featuring organic motifs, is typ ical of the decorative street lamps that can be found enhancing the ambiance of many Italian squares and streets.
Lampione dei Neonati

Stand with your back to Palazzo d’Accursio and look to the left at the corner of Palazzo Re Enzo on the side of Via Rizzoli. You will see a beautiful street lamp called Lampione dei Neonati. The lamp was installed to announce the birth of a child and was supposed to be lit each time a child was born in the city. No one can tell whether or how long it served its purpose. 

Quadrilatero

This image gives us a glimpse into a shop bustling with local delicacies. Hanging cured meats, wheels of cheese, and an assortment of bread and pastries fill the space. The display of products, such as bottles of wine or olive oil in the foreground, suggests a focus on high-quality, artisanal goods.
Local delicacies at Quadrilatero

On the eastern side of Piazza Maggiore is located Palazzo dei Banchi. Go through the pedestrian passage in it and you will find yourself in Quadrilatero, the foodies’ paradise. It is the perfect place to discover why Bologna is nicknamed “the fat” and is considered the culinary capital of Italy. Quadrilatero is the old merchants’ district. Its lively streets and food stalls offer endless culinary delights. You can find fantastic fresh produce such as fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, fish, homemade pasta, and other local delicacies. Many of these family businesses have been passed down from generation to generation. It is one of the best places to shop for gifts to take home. While you will most probably be tempted to buy at least a piece of parmesan cheese, window shopping, taking pictures, and enjoying the colorful atmosphere is free.

The Two Towers

This image captures a vibrant street scene set against the backdrop of the famous Asinelli and Garisenda towers in Bologna, Italy. These medieval structures, known for their distinctive lean, dominate the skyline. The Asinelli is the taller of the two and has been a symbol of the city since the 12th century. In the foreground, the daily life of the city unfolds: people are walking, engaged in conversation, and cycling, while a bus makes its stop, suggesting a bustling urban atmosphere. The mixture of historic architecture with the modern rhythm of life highlights Bologna's blend of the old and the new.
Asinelli and Garisenda Towers

Bologna is known as the “city of towers” and Due Torri has become its symbol. The Two Towers are Torre Garisenda and Torre Asinelli. Garisenda Tower was once taller, but part of it was destroyed to prevent it from collapsing. Only Torre Asinelli can be climbed. 498 steps separate you from the breathtaking panoramic Bologna views from almost 100 meters high. While there is a fee of 5 euros to climb the Asinelli Tower, admiring the Due Torri from below is free.

TIP: If you plan to climb the Torre Asinelli, buy your ticket in advance at the Bologna Tourist Office on Piazza Maggiore. 

The Church Complex In Piazza Santo Stefano

This picture offers a glimpse into a serene square. The buildings around it, are a mix of brickwork, rounded arches, and varying rooflines. The cobblestone square provides a quaint and charming atmosphere, with a café terrace inviting visitors to sit and enjoy the surroundings. Trees and a clear blue sky add a sense of tranquility to the scene, as people meander or rest, enjoying the peacefulness of the piazza.
Piazza Santo Stefano

The Basilica of Santo Stefano is known as the “sette chiese” or “seven churches”. It is a complex of several interconnected churches, chapels, and crypts built in different periods, thus representing different architectural styles from Romanesque to Baroque. Once there were seven churches, but today only four churches remain.

The heart of the complex is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro). This round-shaped church was built in the 5th century over the ruins of an ancient temple of Isis. The Church of the Crucifix (Chiesa del Crocefisso) houses an 8th-century crucifix and frescoes from the 14th century. The Chiesa di San Vitale e Agricola is the oldest one within the Santo Stefano church complex. You can see ancient mosaics and artifacts in it. Pilate’s Courtyard (Cortile di Pilato) contains a replica of the basin where Pilate is believed to have washed his hands. The Basilica di Santo Stefano museum exhibits paintings, sculptures, and works of art from different periods. Admission is free.

Archiginnasio: The Oldest University

This image frames the façade of the Archiginnasio through an archway. There is a clock tower above the building. Below the tower, the building itself displays a symmetrical array of arched windows and a row of decorative statues between the floors, which are typical of Renaissance architecture.
The Archiginnasio

Even if it was a long time ago when you were a student, you should visit the University of Bologna. Founded in 1088, it’s one of the oldest universities in the world. You can explore for free the courtyard and the Archiginnasio. The Archiginnasio is a 16th-century building that was once the heart of the university. The courtyard is decorated with frescoes and sculptures. The Teatro Anatomico is also worth checking out, though you’ll have to pay a 3-euro admission fee to enter. It is a 17th-century lecture hall with wooden statues of the human body and a marble table used for dissection. Somewhat creepy and astonishing at the same time.

The Porticoes Of Bologna

This image beautifully captures the ornate ceiling of an arched portico in Bologna. The detailed frescoes, decorated with motifs, crests, and intricate patterns, suggest a blend of art and architecture that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The arches provide a covered walkway for pedestrians, offering a glimpse into the daily life of the city as people stroll along the shops and cafes that line this elegant corridor.
Portici di Bologna, Via Farini

You can spend hours wandering under the porticoes of Bologna. These covered walkways stretch for over 60 km, with 40 km in the city center alone. Twelve of the porticoes are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their unique architecture. The porticoes have been a part of Bologna since the Middle Ages, providing gathering places for socializing and commerce. You’ll find a range of styles as you explore the city, from wooden porticoes like the Casa Isolani to the semi-porticos of Palazzo d’Accursio and Palazzo Ghisilardi-Fava. One of the most famous porticos is that of Bastardini, which was once used as an orphanage. The portico of the Archiginnasio, known as “Pavaglione”, is also very popular. If you’re looking for something unique, check out the four-sided portico of the Basilica of S. Maria dei Servi or the narrowest portico on Via Sanzanome.

Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca

The photo depicts the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca, an important historical and religious site. The sanctuary's distinct Baroque architecture, characterized by its rounded dome, symmetrical design, and the warm color of the façades, stands out against the blue sky. The surrounding trees and the pathway leading to the sanctuary create a peaceful atmosphere.
Santuario di Madonna di San Luca

Leave the historic centre and take a short walk under the longest portico to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. The Portico di San Luca consists of over 600 arches and stretches for 3.8 kilometers. The view of Bologna and the surrounding countryside from the top of the Basilica of San Luca is spectacular. Admission is free, though the access to the dome is with a donation of 5 euros and to the crypt – 3 euros.

Basilica of San Domenico 

The image shows the Chapel of San Domenico, capturing the dramatic effect of the altar with its magnificent sarcophagus—the Arca di San Domenico, which is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. Above, the dome is adorned with a fresco that bathes the chapel in a narrative tableau, depicting scenes from the life of Saint Dominic or other religious iconography. The chapel itself is framed by opulent red drapes and marble columns. The iron railings in the foreground add a delicate touch to the composition, separating the sacred space from the viewers and preserving its sanctity.
The Chapel of San Domenico

The remains of San Domenico rest in the Arca di San Domenico inside the Basilica of San Domenico. The Arca di San Domenico is decorated with sculptures by Michelangelo, Nicola Pisano, and Alfonso Lombardi. One of the three sculptures by Michelangelo is believed to be the prototype of David, which can be seen in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. To find the young Michelangelo’s David, enter the Chapel of San Domenico, on the right side of the Basilica. Walk past the Arca di San Domenico. The sculpture on the right is said to be the prototype of David. The entrance to the Basilica and to the Chapel is free.

Finestrella

This image shows a group of people gathered around a small window, known as "La Finestrella," in Bologna. This iconic little window offers a view onto one of the city's hidden canals, a surprise glimpse of water amidst the urban landscape. The sign above the window, "Consorzio di Canale di Reno e di Savena in Bologna," suggests that this site is maintained by a local consortium, connected to the management or preservation of Bologna's canals. The individuals in the picture are focused on the window, with some looking through it to catch a sight of the canal, while others are waiting for their turn or simply taking in the surroundings. One person is crouched down, perhaps taking a photo or just observing. Their varied postures and expressions capture the curiosity and interest that "La Finestrella" sparks in residents and tourists.
La Finestrella

Bologna’s canals, also known as La Piccola Venezia (the Little Venice), offer a unique and picturesque view of the city’s historic buildings reflected in the calm waters. La Finestrella or la Ventana al canal (the window on the canal) is a small window in a wall overlooking the canal. This almost unnoticeable window offers a unique perspective of the canal.

Read more: How To Get To Ischia: The Ultimate Guide For 2024

Conclusion

In conclusion, Bologna is the Italian city worth visiting for the enchanting mix of architecture, history, culture, and food. The best way to explore its historic center is on foot and thus discover its numerous Instagram spots and photo opportunities locations. If you are for the first time in the city you will be amazed to find out how many tourist attractions in Bologna are free. By taking advantage of these free attractions and free things to do in Bologna, you can make the most of your visit to the Emilia Romagna region without breaking the bank. 

So, book your ticket to Bologna and Buon Viaggio! (Have a good trip!)

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