When people ask what is Bologna Italy known for, most people immediately think about the food. Many people can spend hours wandering the streets exploring the Fat City through food and wine. But, there are also loads of fun and free things to do in Bologna Italy. After all, Bologna is a beautiful city, filled with amazing architecture, making it feel more like an outdoor museum.

Some of the most fun and free attractions in Bologna take travelers farther afield, away from Piazza Maggiore. Not only are these free Bologna attractions a great and cheap way to fill the day, but by exploring away from the city center they are a more sustainable way to explore the city. Because Bologna is a university town, there are loads of opportunities for free, or at least cheap, ways to spend a day.

What You Will Learn In This Post:

  • What are some of the top free things to do in Bologna
  • What are a few super unusual things to do in Bologna, things that some locals don’t even know about
  • Because Bologna Living was founded by Bologna locals, we also include some pro tips on how to make the most of these top fun things to see in Bologna
What are the best free things to do in Bologna Italy
What are the best free things to do in Bologna Italy

What Can You Do For Free in Bologna?

1. People Watch At Piazza Maggiore

Piazza Maggiore is the main square in Bologna and includes the Neptune Fountain as well as one of the most unique churches in Europe. One of the reasons why the Basilica is so architecturally unique is because the facade includes pink marble on the bottom, but brick towards the top. Whether you just want to chill and people watch or rest your feet from exploring the city, stop and sit with the locals on the steps of Basilica of San Petronio. Join the youth of the city who often spend an evening in Bologna perched on the steps.

Piazza Maggiore is also home to a summer film festival and other fairs throughout the year. The square alone is one of the most famous places in Bologna Italy, but it comes alive during events and festivals.

Visit the Basilica di San Petronio Bologna
Visit the Basilica di San Petronio Bologna

2. Visit The Basilica di San Petronio

Looking for something a little more active than sitting on the steps? The Basilica of San Petronio is a unique exhibit of gothic architecture. The original plan was to make the church larger than St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Apparently, the Pope took offense and ensured this was not the case. The Basilica includes a wide variety of artwork, frescoes, and even one of the world’s largest sundials.

The Basilica is open in the mornings and again in the afternoons Monday through Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday. Although admission is free, they charge €2 to take photos, €3 to visit the Cappella dei Magi, and €3 to visit the terrace with Panoramic Bologna views.

Bologna Living Pro Tip: Admission for tourists may be restricted during religious ceremonies. If this is on your list of must visit things to do in Bologna, plan it early on your first day in case you need to reschedule.

3. Window Shop At The Local Markets

Looking for a way to learn about Bologna food specialties on the cheap? Wander some of the Bologna food markets. Start in the Quadrilatero, one of the most atmospheric areas of the city, which served as the main city market in the Middle Ages. The Quadrilatero is a series of narrow streets just off of Piazza Maggiore. Or, check out the Mercato delle Erbe, which offers more fresh produce and flowers on display.

There is also a big Bologna market on the weekends. La Piazzola Bologna Market has been around for hundreds of years. It’s held in the Piazza dell Agosto, on the way into the city center from the Bologna train station. The market is like an Italian version of a flea market, selling everything from clothes to housewares from over 400 stalls.

Bologna Living Pro Tip: The La Piazzola Market is for locals and tourists, but probably more locals. That said, knowing that tourists can be found meandering the stalls, watch for pick-pocketers!

4. Wander The Porticoes

Free Things To See In Bologna - Wander the Porticoes

There are over 600 porticoes (or portici in Italian) in Bologna. They are a series of covered arcades stretching about 45 kilometers. And, they’ve been recognized for their historic significance from UNESCO. One way to spend a day seeing the best of Bologna is to wander the porticoes and admire the architecture. The father you explore from Piazza Maggiore the more of a chance there is of witnesses how the locals live in Bologna. This is also a great way to visit Bologna when the weather is not so nice.

The longest portico walk (almost 4 kilometers) takes you to San Luca on top of the Colle della Guardia, just outside Bologna city center. San Luca is a point of pride for the Bolognesi. It’s the perfect way to organize your own free Bologna walking tour. It’s also a way to take in one of the most famous Bologna views, over the Bologna Hills, which produces some of the top wines in the region. The road to San Luca starts from Porta Saragozza.

Bologna Views

5. Feel The History Of The Canals of Bologna

Bologna once looked more like Venice than it does today. It was a city of canals, which helped to transport people and goods around the city. But over the years many of the canals were paved over as the city exploded in size. To get a glimpse into Bologna’s past, head to Via Piella, only a 10-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore to look through the Finestrella di Via Piella (and snap the obligatory Instagram photo). It’s located just next to Trattoria Biassno. Visit the Canale delle Moline, which connects the city’s rivers.

6. Search For Bologna Street Art

Another free Bologna must-see attraction is just out there in the open on the city walls. Bologna is one of the top spots for street art in Emilia Romagna and in Italy. Some of Italy’s best-known street artists have left their mark on the city. Although the Bologna Tourist Office used to offer a map to help find some of the best street art in Bologna. But, because the installations change so quickly, it’s best to just explore. One place to look is in Bolognina, north of the train station.

7. Visit the Seven Churches of Santo Stefano

So, the Basilica of Santo Stefano once included a full seven churches, which is why it is known as le Sette Chiese. The oldest church dates to the 5th Century and was built on top of a pagan temple. Today, only four churches remain. The Piazza Santo Stefano is lovely, with porticoes, bars, and cafes. The churches that remain are set around quiet courtyards as well. It’s a unique place to visit in Bologna because all of the buildings are connected and you can wander among them while enjoying the architecture. One of the main reasons to visit is to see all the different architectural styles in the complex.

8. San Michele In Bosco

There is no shortage of views over Bologna. Some of them require an admission fee, like the the top of the Basilica di San Petronio and from the top of the Two Towers. But, some of the views are free things to see in Bologna. San Michele in Bosco was once a monastery and church but is now a hospital. Regardless, there is a stunning view over the city.

9. Read A Book At the Archiginnasio of Bologna Library

Imagine perusing a book while feeling like you’ve stepped back in time. This is the feeling when walking inside the Archiginnasio library. The walls include ornate paintings, symbols, and old family crests. The library, one of the oldest in Europe, also houses some ancient manuscripts. It’s like breathing in history.

The library is open all day Monday through Friday and on Saturday morning. They are closed on Sunday. It’s located just behind the Basilica and Piazza Maggiore on the Piazza Galvani.

10. The Anatomical Theater

The Archiginnasio used to be one of the main buildings of the University of Bologna and it deserves a visit on its own. But, it now houses the Anatomical Theater, which is a truly unique things to see in Bologna. It includes carved statues of some of the most famous doctors and medical practitioners of Italy. It’s certainly unique when considering that in the center is an old anatomical table, where students once watched surgery demonstrations. And, perhaps, a few dissections, as far back as the 1600s.

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