Bologna or Florence, eh? Not an easy choice by any stretch, a decision between two of Italy’s most historic, most culturally rich, most monument-packed, most culinarily gifted cities. The truth is that both these towns are well worth a visit. But what if you can only pick one?
Cue this guide. It runs through seven key aspects of traveling in Italy to offer info on the best sightseeing, the best day trips, the most enticing food menus, and a whole load more in both these destinations. The aim? To help you discern which one is better suited to you and your travel crew in the coming season.
We’re not going to lie – this one’s a close call. On the one side there’s Florence, the iconic home of the European Renaissance, where art bursts from every chip and crack in the uber-romantic old center. Then there’s Bologna, hailed as Italy’s foodie mecca but also a buzzy student city with a rich medieval core. Yikes!
Table of Contents
Bologna or Florence for ease of travel?
Bologna has by far the larger airport of these two towns (it serves over nine million passengers in a normal year, compared to Florence’s 2.5 million). It’s linked to cities all over Europe by both flag-carrying and low-cost airlines – you’ll find the likes of Ryanair next to BA and Iberia. There are also fantastic train links to Milan (just over an hour), Rome (2.5 hours), and Venice (1.5 hours), along with a direct motorway connection to the main E45 highway that runs to Rimini and Milan. Basically, getting here isn’t hard.
Florence also has its own airport, but most flights in are seasonal and there aren’t as many connections as there are to Bologna airport. That said, Pisa is just down the road, where there’s another international arrival point, and the duo of big international airports in Rome are also much closer. On top of that, Florence sits right on the main high-speed train line that links up the central spine of Italy, running from Bolzano in the north, through Milan and Rome, all the way to Naples. Those are trains that go upwards of 300 kilometers per hour, so it’s a swift trip.
Bologna or Florence for sightseeing?
Bologna is a sightseeing haven, there’s no doubt about that. The city is anchored on a particularly gorgeous Centro Storico district. Wander through that and you’ll be immersed between the medieval Tower of the Garisenda and the Tower of the Asinelli, the 12th-century, slightly leaning emblems of the town. Piazza Maggiore is the anchor of it all, from where you can head out to see other famous sights like the Neptune Fountain and the photogenic Porticoes of Bologna, which are now a UNESCO landmark.
Then there’s Florence. This is arguably the sightseeing mecca of Europe. Surveying the city, you’ll spy oodles of things that will wow from the very start, like the mighty cathedral that looms over Piazza del Duomo, the handsome Ponte Vecchio bridge that gaps the Arno River, and the palazzo-ringed Piazza della Repubblica. There are also stacks of indoor sights to keep you going on rainy days – the statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia and the priceless exhibits of the Uffizi Gallery (arguably the only art complex in the country that can rival the vast Vaticano galleries of Rome).
Bologna or Florence for day trips?
Bologna is the capital of the stunning region of Emilia-Romagna. Tucked into the northeastern half of Italy, it’s known for its cheese, its rolling hills, and its backbone of wild mountains. The city is the gateway to all that. You can cruise south to the ridges of the Parco Storico di Monte Sole, where WWII battlefields mingle with Apennine hiking paths. You could go east to Rimini, where golden beaches on the Adriatic beckon. Or you could cruise up to pretty Modena, a town of cobbled lanes and churches that’s the home of balsamic vinegar.
Florence is famously the capital of Tuscany. So, day trips from this town can help you check off some of Italy’s most beautiful areas. They include the Chianti Valley (a lush wine land covered in cellar doors) and even the more distant Val d’Orcia (a rustic area of slender cypress trees and hot springs). In the other direction, you can leave Florence to hike the Apuan Alps or even to wander through other historic towns like Lucca and Pisa, the home of a certain leaning tower.
Bologna or Florence for food?
Bologna is hailed as the foodie capital of Italy. Now that’s seriously saying something – this is the country that gave the world pasta, pizza, and risotto, remember? It all comes from the cooking traditions of Emilia-Romagna, which are about earthy ingredients and seasonal flavors. The things to try run the gamut from the thick ragu sauce that most match with tagliatelle to the meaty ground-pork mortadella sausage. But that’s really just scratching the surface!
Florence isn’t a bad place to go on a journey through Italian cooking. It’s got some fantastic restaurants, especially if you drift away from the tourist core to areas like Novoli and Santa Croce, where more local kitchens with simple Tuscan menus await. The things you should try to sample in this town are the rich Florentine steak known as bistecca, fatty lampredotto sandwiches, and porcini pasta.
Winner: Bologna – it’s the food capital of Italy.
Bologna or Florence for price?
Both these cities are in northern Italy, which is generally considered to be the more expensive part of The Boot. So, they certainly aren’t going to be the cheapest spots to visit in the land of pizza and pasta. But which one is the cheapest of the two?
We think you’ll find that prices are roughly in line for food and day-to-day outgoings. You’re probably looking at about €60 ($68) for a meal for two in a midrange restaurant including local wine (why wouldn’t you drink the local stuff?). Coffees range from about €1.20-1.40 ($1.36-1.82) a pop. Local transportation costs about €1.50-2 ($1.70-2.27) a ticket.
Where Bologna and Florence differ on the price front is when it comes to hotels. Florence is WAY more popular than its Emilia-Romagna compadre in the peak summer months between June and August, which cranks up the cost of stays to almost astronomical levels – it’s easy to drop over $150 a night on something not that spectacular here, mainly because there’s so much competition for the best rooms.
Winner: Bologna. It’s all down to the hotels in the summer, which can cost loads in Florence.
Bologna or Florence for history?
Bologna lays claim to the oldest university in the whole of Europe, a UNESCO-tagged district filled with medieval porticoes, and a central old town that sprouts relics from the 12th century and beyond. There’s certainly no shortage of history. Come to wander under the Porta Maggiore, one of the original fortification gates of the town that date back to the Roman era, to wonder at the colossal San Petronio Basilica from the 1300s, and to shop through the 100-year-old trading spaces of the Via Pescherie Vecchie market.
Florence is probably just a little more famous than that, mainly since it was once one of the most powerful city states in Italy, capable of rivalling even Venice. That shows through its exquisite old town district, where you can go to get hit after hit of Tuscan history. First, check out the mighty Duomo, which is flanked by the fantastical Campanile, designed by revered architect Giotto in 1334. Second, take some time to explore the Galileo Museum, which chronicles the great discoveries of Italy’s most famous scientist. Finally, check the Palazzo Vecchio with its crenulated towers that once held the great Florentine dukes. That’s all just for starters, too.
Bologna or Florence for nightlife?
Bologna is one of the premier student cities of Italy. It’s like the country’s answer to MIT or Oxford, in England. That brings in a youthful crowd who can fuel a pretty wild nightlife scene. The place to go drinking on the weekend is the area around Via Zamboni and the old Jewish Quarter, which is collectively known as the University District. That hosts endless dive bars, rock clubs, cocktail lounges and whatnot. More touristy bars and aperitif places spill over into the old town.
In Florence, you can expect to fork out quite a bit for drinks in the historic center. Thankfully, there are some great parts of town to explore if you want to hit the clubs like a local. They include the boho neighborhood of Santa Croce, where you’ll find the noir-style lounge of Kikuya Pub and the rollicking Virgin Rock Pub. Later on, bigger disco clubs like TwentyOne and Space take over.
Bologna or Florence – our conclusion
Bologna and Florence should both be on an Italy bucket list. They’re each incredible cities in their own right. What’s more, they are only about 1.5 hours’ journey apart, so you should find it easy to do both in the same trip.
If that’s simply not an option, then we’d say foodies and nightlife lovers should go for Bologna. It’s a more lived-in, less-touristy town with buzzy bars and a long culinary history. Culture buffs and sightseers will almost certainly prefer Florence, which is up there with the most landmark-rich destinations in all of Europe.