Things to do in Bologna


La Dotta
Home to the world's oldest university, Bologna is well known for its erudite personality, earning itself the nickname 'the learned one'. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna began life as a school of jurists (law), before being joined by medicine, philosophy, maths, astronomy, logic, grammar and rhetoric scholars. With notable alumni such as Dante and Thomas Becket, this is a University steeped in a rich and fascinating history. As an Oxford graduate, I felt an immediate affinity to 'La Dotta': a city overflowing with bikes, books, coffee shops and libraries. Indeed, for any other budding bibliophiles, this part of the city should be top of your list when deciding what to see in Bologna.
Palazzo Poggi
Three university museums and the original library are housed within Palazzo Poggi. As a library lover, with access to Oxford's Duke Humfrey's during my own studies, it was the prized library of Palazzao Poggi that I had come to visit. Following our guide - a local student - we climbed a few unassuming stone stairs before rounding the corner into an unexpected library dream. Glowing lamps cast a soft glow across the ceiling high bookcases that lined the library walls. Home to 1,250,000 volumes of work and 400 portraits, Bologna's University Library is like no other. No longer used for study, the library auditorium was now a serene, deliciously dusty-smelling haven, which truly brought to life Bologna's prestigious academic past. As we were (reluctantly) leaving, I made a mental note to let J.K Rowling know that I'd found a new location for her Harry Potter library, should a new book ever come exploding from her mind.
The University Museums also make for an interesting stop, just a few doors down from the library. The Museo di Palazzo Poggi was particularly weird and wonderful, with waxworks used for medical teachings housed next to the original natural history collection of exotic animals. The Observatory Museum also offers a guided tour of Bologna's first tower used for scientific purposes. Unfortunately, this was closed on the Saturday we visited but is open Tuesday - Friday during set times.
The Glossators
Located over two sites in the city - Piazze San Domenico and San Francesco - the 'glossators', or legal scholars, lay in impressive, green tiled tombs. Deriving their name from the term used to describe attaching annotations to law texts, the glossators were the original scholars of the University. Wandering passed each tomb, their importance evidenced by their lavish surroundings, it was clear that Bologna is a city inherently wedded to its rich academic past.
Teatro Anatomico (Anatomy Theatre)
Stumbling across this spot on our final morning in Bologna, I gazed upwards at the intricately painted palace (Palazzo dell' Archiginnasio) that houses the infamous Teatro Anatomico. Carved from cedar wood, this former medical lecture hall was an unexpected hidden gem of this city, and one of Bologna's most popular attractions. Built in 1637, the theatre was once used for anatomy lectures and public dissections. Watched over by a priest to ensure that the dissections were not religiously compromising, this is a particularly haunting spot to visit; the marble dissection slab still taking centre stage in the middle of the room.
The Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca
"When I see the Sanctuary of Madonna, I know I'm nearly home," a local said, mopping sweat from his brow after his weekly power walk up to the hilltop church. Gazing up at its deep orange walls, I considered what I used to identify my proximity to my hometown, Milton Keynes. At a push, it was a few high rise flats found shortly after the Luton turnoff. Pushing this depressing thought aside, we continued our climb up the spiralling stairs that lead to the Church's terrace, with panoramic views over Bologna below. Nestled within the deep green rolling hills of the surrounding countryside, The Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca is a place for contemplation, quiet and rest, and definitely a spot to consider when planning what to see in Bologna.