DW and I just returned from a 2-week trip to Bologna and Florence, with day trips to Ferrara (from Bologna) and Siena (from Florence). Everything was perfect.
Even now, the weather is relatively mild (average highs in the 50s, F.) with only patchy drizzle. Tourists were more in evidence this year in Florence as compared with last November, but crowding was minimal, and several churches, museums, and outdoor venues that would typically be mobbed during much of the year were all but empty. Air fares from the US are reasonable, and some real bargains can be found if you hunt around a bit. The same goes for lodging.
This was our first time in Bologna. We stayed for five nights and enjoyed it thoroughly. We walk a lot, and Bologna is absolutely a city for walkers. It’s compact, car-free in much of the historic center, and the many miles of porticos (which have earned Unesco world-heritage designation) are delightful. Public transportation is frequent, cheap, and simple to use.
Bologna is famous for its food, particularly its meat-based dishes. We’re vegetarians, but we found excellent options everywhere we went, whether at simple pizzerias or local trattorias. Service was uniformly friendly and helpful, and the value was outstanding.
If you fly into Bologna, you may not want to bother with the Marconi Express into town unless you’re traveling solo. For one thing, it takes you to Bologna’s main train station, which is situated at the northern edge of the historic city, from which you may likely have a long-ish walk or bus ride to your destination. For another, it’s not particularly cheap, at 11 Euros p/p for an approx. 5-mile ride. A taxi directly to your where you want to go will average about 20 Euros and will be at least as fast, end to end.
We stayed in a walk-up, roof-top apartment in an 1890s building at the south end of the historic center, in the Santo Stefano area. The apartment had a little terrace off the kitchen and was utterly quiet. A terrific neighborhood eatery (Osteria De’ Coltelli Da Biagio) was half a block away, and some of the best gelato in the city (Cremeria Santo Stefano) was around the corner. That said, there is nowhere in town where you’ll be more than a block or two away from great food and friendly surroundings. Bologna is the major university city of Italy, and culture, music, art, and historic sites are omnipresent.
In sum, I recommend that you put Bologna right up there with Florence, Rome, Venice, and other great places to visit in Italy. We can’t wait to return.
PS: I took three years of Italian in college a half-century ago, so I can ask a simple question or make my way around a menu. Virtually everyone we encountered spoke at least some English, however. More generally, we find that if we’re polite and respectful, everything goes well. A smile and a simple “Buongiorno, signore,” or “Grazie mille, signora” can work wonders.
PPS: Yes, we still mask on flights, on public transportation (unless its nearly empty), and in crowded museums. And we avoid large, packed indoor restaurants. Covid aside, if I can minimize the chance catching a cold on a long flight or bus ride by slapping on a mask, I’ll do it.