The heart of Northern Italy: Florence and Bologna

Italy is a living open-air museum and there’s no question about it. This country has it all, from beautiful sandy beaches to picturesque mountains. Doesn’t matter where you’ll go, you’ll find excellent food, tasty sweets, exquisite wines and impressive architecture. I’ve always wondered myself if I would be able to live in one of the big Italian cities. It’s a beautiful chaos, it’s close to living inside a beehive, and I like to think that I would get used to that life eventually. So I guess that the answer is “yes”.

This trip was supposed to help me clear my mind and disconnect from my daily job…And there’s no doubt that it did it brilliantly. I went for the heart of Northern Italy: Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. Since I had only three days to spend there, I went for the capital cities of the two regions: Bologna (1st time visit) and Florence (2nd time visit). This meant that I had to eliminate from my itinerary the stunning rural side of Tuscany. It’s a pity, I know, but there will be a next time…I’m pretty sure. It’s on my bucket list. (Later edit: And I’ve managed to do it! Check out the full article here.)


I arrived in Bologna on a chilly Thursday evening. A bit ironic, taking into account that I left behind similar weather in Bucharest. And I had high hopes that I would escape the cold weather and change it with the mild Mediterranean climate… Unfortunately, it was not the case.

Bologna lies in the center of the Emilia-Romagna region and has a very long history. Nowadays, the city has three pretty unique (but representative) nicknames:

  • La Dotta (because it’s hosting the oldest University in  Europe, dating since the second part of the 11th century);
  • La Grassa (thanks to the impressive range of food specific to the city and to this part of Italy);
  • La Rossa (deriving from the color of the roofs in the historic center).

Piazza Ravegnana viewed from the top of the Asinelli Tower


Accommodation

I had only one night and one day to spend in this city, so I had to make them count. I stayed at the Hotel Holiday (Via Bertiera, 13), which offered me what I needed for such a short stay. Everything was fine overall, including the breakfast. Not impressive, but good enough. In the end I was pretty happy with the choice, since the hotel was just a 5-10 minute walk from the beautiful city center.


Guide to Bologna

Now here are some places/activities I have enjoyed visiting/doing while in Bologna, and I would encourage everyone to try at least a few:

  • Palazzo Archiginnasio, in the past the main building of the University of Bologna. Now it hosts the Municipal Library and the Anatomical Theater. Entry costs just €3 and it’s totally worth it:

Bologna Palazzo Archiginnasio

  • Le Due Torri, built in the 12th century. You can go to the top of Torre Asinelli (97 meters high) and have an amazing panorama over the city and surroundings. It’s only €3 and almost 500 steps to climb. Next to the towers, you’ll spot the impressive Renaissance church of Santi Bartolomeo e Gaetano.

Santi Bartolomeo e Gaetano - Bologna

  • Piazza Maggiore, the heart of the city, with it’s stunning palazzi, Basilica di San Petronio (one of the biggest in the entire world) and Fontana di Nettuno (which unfortunately was under renovation at that time, so no sight of the God of the Sea):

Bologna Basilica di San Petronio

  • Mercato di Mezzo – go local and have a panino with Mortadella at Salumeria Simoni () or some tigellinos with different fillings (from meat/cheese to sweets) at Tigelleria Tigellino (Via Calzolerie, 1/D)…

Bologna Salumeria Simoni

  • …and afterwards have a cappuccino and something sweet (it’s a must), like tiramisu, pistachio cheesecake or gelato.

Bologna Impero Caprarie

  • If you’re into shopping, Via dell’Indipendenza will probably satisfy most of your needs. It’s also the perfect place to take a walk when it is raining, because most of its buildings have big arcades. So do some shopping and stay dry while raining…a perfect match.
  • As a bonus, try to find the small window to the Canale di Reno, it reminds a bit of Venice. I’m not going to share the location, but discovering it is not that complicated if you walk throughout the city center streets.

The only day in Bologna passed really fast. So at around 5:30 PM I had to wave goodbye to the city and head towards the train station. Train over bus? Yes. I know that the bus would have offered a more pleasant trip, but the time was pressing me and I didn’t want to spend two hours on the road. The Frecciarossa (Red Arrow in Italian) covered the distance between the two cities in just 35 minutes. The tickets were purchased online, about two weeks before, at a cost of €17 (one-way). At 7 PM, I was descending in Florence, looking forward to (re)discover the city. It was going to be my second visit, 13 years apart from the first.

Florence is such a charming city and it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with it’s architecture and art. After all, this is the birthplace of the Renaissance, probably the most important and fascinating cultural movement in the history of mankind. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli, the Medici family, Galileo Galilei, Dante Alighieri…You’ve probably heard of them before. All lived and created masterpieces in Florence. Can you ask for more? Probably not.

Florence at sunset


Accommodation

Hotel Plus (Via Santa Caterina D’Alessandria, 15), approximately 10-15 minutes away from the city center and from Santa Maria Novella train station. It is a combination of a hotel and a hostel, with multiple annexes. Lots and lots of people of all ages were around the lobby at any hour and the atmosphere was lively all the time. The hotel offered me almost everything that I needed. It’s perfect for a short stay on a budget. The only thing missing was breakfast, but you can include it in your booking for an extra fee of €7. I chose not to.


The weather messed up my plans for Friday evening, but at least it was nice enough to warn me before the storm started. Under these conditions, I had to stay inside the hotel. I had some luck though: I caught a short time frame with light rain and managed to go out to a nearby restaurant and enjoy a 100% Italian dinner, with pizza and local red wine. You know, this is a must in Italy.

Saturday morning…Time to start my Tuscan adventure! I’ve always liked discovering cities on foot and avoiding for as much as possible the use of public transportation. After two days, my Garmin watch was showing a total walked distance of 35 kilometers. You have to give me a kudos for that.

Il Duomo di Firenze

On the other hand, there’s one thing that I don’t like: waiting in line for hours in order to see a museum or a place of interest. Before advancing with the story, you must know that Florence is full of tourists all day long. So if you’re into visiting museums, you have to be extremely patient and have some money to spend, because the cheapest entry costs around €10.

So my choice was not to visit most of the places of interest, but rather do other activities, like enjoying the architecture of the buildings from the outside, eating Italian cuisine or local sweets, drinking an Italian glass of wines from time to time, while observing the continuous buzzing around me.


Guide to Florence

First stop of the day: the San Lorenzo market. Inside you will find fresh meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, plus a few local specialty shops selling olive oils, cheese or spices. Nearby, you can find a small shop named Il Cantuccio di San Lorenzo (Via Sant’Antonino, 23/red), which sells the best cantuccini (Italian almond biscuits) in all of Florence. Believe me, I’ve tried all their flavors, and couldn’t decide which one tastes best, because all were really good. Try also the pastry named Pan, which is a local fluffy cookie.

Florence sweets

Next I’ll make a selection (as shortly as possible, because you can probably write a book about this city) of the relevant activities/places or buildings I’ve done/seen in Florence and which I would recommend:

  • Piazza del Duomo, the heart of the city. This place is always very crowded, and it’s pretty clear why! The Battistero di San Giovanni (with its Gates of Paradise), the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Campanile di Giotto are an amazing display of Italian Gothic architecture. If you wish to enjoy the view without so many people around, I suggest to be there early in the morning. There is only one ticket that can be purchased and includes access to five different points of interest. It costs €15, but bear in mind that you’ll probably have to wait for some hours in line, cause there’s a separate line for each entrance.

Florence Piazza del Duomo

  • Second on the list is another “classic” of the city: Piazza della Signoria. What can you see here? The Palazzo Vecchio, which is the town hall of Florence, Fontanna del Nettuno, Loggia dei Lanzi and many, many works of art, including a replica of the well-known David by Michelangelo. It’s also the gateway to the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s best art museums. If you have hours to spend along it’s rooms and corridors, it’s totally worth it. I didn’t, this time…But I still enjoyed the statues of many notable people that marked the history of mankind, in the gallery courtyard.

Florence Palazzo Vecchio

  • While walking between the two squares, enjoy a gelato or some fine chocolate at Venchi. They’ve been on the market since 1878, so we are talking about serious tradition here. One kilogram of bonbons costs around €60, while the price of one gelato varies from €2.5 to €5, depending on the number of scoops.

Florence Venchi Cioccolato

  • Piazza della Repubblica is a nice place for a short break.

Florence Piazza della Repubblica

  • The Franciscan Basilica di Santa Croce, with it’s impressive 19th century facade and gardens.

Florence Basilica di Santa Croce

  • The famous Ponte Vecchio over the Arno river, the oldest bridge in Florence, and one of the symbols of the city. If you wish to spend money on gold jewelries, this is the place! My tip: enjoy a lambrusco in one of the bars along the Arno river. I’ve had one at Spumantino (Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli, 4r), overlooking the bridge.

Florence Ponte Vecchio

  • The Palazzo Pitti is nowadays the largest museum in Florence. Enjoy a drink or a gelato in front of this impressive building, while sitting on the pavement. You won’t be the only one. Or take a walk in the vast Boboli Gardens situated in the back of the palazzo or, my suggestion, in the Bardini Gardens. Although it has far less works of art, it’s smaller and more intimate.
  • Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can enjoy the sunset and have a panoramic view over the city and surroundings. This place gets very crowded at 5-6 PM. My tip is to keep climbing for 10 more minutes and reach Abazzia San Miniato al Monte, one of the most scenic churches you will see. The view over the city is really special.

Florence

  • End the day with sharing a pizza and a glass of wine at Mangia Pizza (Via Lambertesca, 24/26/R). The two owners really know how to make a good pizza, and the place is small and cosy:

Florence Mangia Pizza


Sunday evening, after three intense days, it was time to board the flight that was going to take me back to rainy Bucharest.

My Italian autumn story came to an end.

Italy proved me again why it’s a top destination for all travelers around the world. The three days were surely not enough, as I would have liked to stay longer, but it’s always like that when a vacation ends and you have to go home. You want more. But thinking back, I’ve had a lot of pleasant experiences in those three days. So the memories will have to cheer me up for now.

Until next time…Arrivederci, Italia!

PS: Forgot to mention, the weather in Florence on Saturday and Sunday was close to perfection! In the end, you could say that I had my share of luck. But it was definitely the time for that, since I had to endure a cold Thursday evening and a rainy Friday afternoon.

Author: Marian Bulacu

Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.

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