Bologna has always had an independent nature, like an irreverent but brilliant child. Europe's first university, L'Università di Bologna, was founded here in 1088, earning the city the nickname la dotta, or "the learned," for its medical and scientific advances (Dante and Copernicus were both alumni). During the Renaissance, plans to make the town's basilica larger than St. Peter's in Rome provoked papal intervention; in 1895 Bolognese inventor Guglielmo Marconi revolutionized telegraphy with the discovery of wireless transmission. But it was only in 2000, when the Emilia-Romagna capital (45 minutes north of Florence) was selected as a European City of Culture, that tourism became a priority. Vast sums were spent on new arts facilities, hotel renovations, and museum openings. The airport's runway was lengthened to accommodate international arrivals; nonstop flights from New York begin next month on Italy's Eurofly carrier.
The city's most endearing attribute, which I came to appreciate while living there in the nineties, was its non-reputation. The streets in Bologna are laid out like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, and at the center, in the Piazza Maggiore, old men would discuss politics on Sundays. Shopkeepers tempted passersby with slices of mortadella—a type of bologna studded with pistachios and black peppercorns. At the market, wonderfully coiffed matrons wearing their weight in gold helped me buy tomatoes when my early attempts at Italian proved futile. At a time when menus are written in three languages in other Italian cities, Bologna is perfectly positioned: it's anonymous, yet on the verge of being discovered.
WHERE TO STAY Recent development in the city center has brought some stylish hotels to the scene, and the best are found near Piazza Maggiore. With gilded mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and 16th-century paintings adorning its 124 spacious rooms, the Grand Hotel Baglioni (8 Via Indipendenza; 39-051/225-445; www.baglionihotels.com; doubles from $377) is a favorite among visiting celebrities such as Woody Allen and Naomi Campbell. The 300-year-old palazzo brims with reminders from its past: the restaurant frescoes were painted by the Carracci brothers in the 1500's and part of an old Roman road can be seen on the way to the breakfast room. • The two-year-old Hotel Novecento (4-3 Piazza Galileo; 39-051/745-7311; www.bolognart hotels.it; doubles from $250) is the spot for fans of modern design who crave crisp lines and bold colors. Mahogany headboards evoking the 1930's are paired with crimson bedspreads; dandelion-yellow marble bathrooms have views of quiet, pedestrian-only alleyways. • Once the home of a 15th-century noble family, the Hotel Corona d'Oro 1890 (12 Via Oberdan; 39-051/236-456; www.bolognart hotels.it; doubles from $250) still maintains its medieval wooden portico (most of the others in the city have been redone in stone) and a glass-enclosed courtyard. The soft lighting and comfortable sofas make catching a pisolino, or short nap, after a day of sightseeing effortless.
WHERE TO SHOP Bologna is no stranger to fashion: La Perla, Les Copains, and Furla all got their start here. The highest concentration of luxury boutiques is found in the area dubbed the quadrilateral, bordered by Via Rizzoli, Via Castiglione, Via Farini, and Via D'Azeglio. Considered Bologna's first concept store, L'Inde Le Palais (6 Via de' Musei; 39-051/648-6587; www.lindelepalais.com) draws the avant-garde set with periodic art exhibitions and a hip café across the alley serving 35 bottles of wine. The impossibly cool staff sells everything from rare CD's to John Galliano couture gowns. • Nearby, Spazio Minghetti (3 Piazza Minghetti; 39-051/265-670) is Italy's only Fendi furniture store open to the public. The Baroque, gold-laminated entryway and a garden with 19th-century statuettes offer a fitting contrast to the 18,000 square feet of contemporary pony-hair-covered sofas and antelope-skin rugs. • Arnold Schwarzenegger caused a stir when he showed up in Washington, D.C., two years ago with a pair of rugby-style treads from Branchini Calzoleria (19 Strada Maggiore; 39-051/648-6642); the brand is known for its hand-stitched dress shoes, which carry price tags of up to $4,000. • In the center of town, designer Giovanna Guglielmi features her two clothing labels at 37 San Felice (37 Via San Felice; 39-051/221-846): the Working Overtime line plays with bias-cut pleats and ruffles, while vintage-inspired Tadashi creates wrap skirts from wool sweaters. • Set on a wide avenue that attracts residents for a nightly stroll, Cappelleria Trentini (33E Via Indipendenza; 39-051/224-276) more closely resembles a double-decker closet than a store, but the friendly assistants ensure a pleasant experience browsing items from up-and-coming designers, including Bolognese-English duo Fiorentini + Baker's forties-style leather sandals and Flu's Ear white cotton dresses.
WHERE TO EAT Also known as la grassa, or "the fat," Bologna is the mother of many culinary staples—tortellini is practically an official city symbol. Legend has it a local baker modeled the shape after the belly button of the woman with whom he was having an affair. One of the best places to find this stuffed pasta in brodo (broth) is the elegant Pappagallo (3C Piazza Mercanzia; 39-051/232-807; dinner for two $130). Autographed portraits of artists, actors, and diplomats testify to its affluent clientele, who come for spinach tagliatelle with rabbit and artichokes, and duck drizzled in aged balsamic vinegar imported from nearby Modena. • Outside the city's medieval walls is Al Cambio (150 Via Stalingrado; 39-051/328-118; dinner for two $130), a restaurant that once served as a way station for travelers during Roman times. Chef Massimo Poggi updates seafood classics—cauliflower-stuffed agnolotti with mussels and cuttlefish, and baccalà with broccoli sauce and tomato sorbetto. • It's an international (and family) affair at Scacco Matto (63B Via Broccaindosso; 39-051/263-404; dinner for two $90), on a side street near the university. Chef Mario Ferrara celebrates his Basilicata heritage with dishes such as bonito stuffed with raisins and pine nuts, and his Japanese assistants prepare a sashimi plate of tuna tataki, smoked salmon, and fresh anchovies. Oversized tarot cards and antique board games (scacco matto means "checkmate") surround the restaurant, and Ferrara's brother, Enzo, sees to it that wineglasses are kept full. • For an authentic Italian family-style meal, visit the pocket-sized Trattoria ai Butteri (20 Via Murri; 39-051/347-718; dinner for two $115), south of the historic center. The 13 wooden tables, one of which is regularly taken by owner Augusto Santinami's wife and mother-in-law, fill up fast with patrons dining on oversized spinach-and-ricotta tortellacci and a thick-cut fiorentina steak. • Just off busy Via Indipendenza, Trattoria Caminetto d'Oro (4 Via de' Falegnami; 39-051/263-494; lunch for two $105) is a popular spot for lunch. Mamma Maria cooks potato gnocchi in a creamy cabbage sauce with organic ingredients while Papa Gino and son Paolo oversee the intimate dining room and cantina.