Bologna: the alternative city

It’s not far from some of the most popular cities in Italy but Bologna is slightly off the tourist radar. It’s part of the charm that helps it feels so hip.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Living in Bologna, Italy

Every few weeks I seem to find a city that I think I could live in for a while. These decisions are always accompanied with pronouncements to anyone nearby.

“You know what? I think I could spend a bit of time here. It’s got a great vibe about it,” is normally how it goes.

The poor people who have been pronounced at normally mutter polite affirmations but, I assume, think I’m only saying this because I’ve been caught up in the moment. Perhaps they’re right – I can’t even remember half the cities I’ve said that about.

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, Italy

Perhaps my impression of Bologna will change after time has rubbed away the sheen of my week there. Or maybe it really is one of Italy’s best undiscovered cities.

I use the word ‘undiscovered’ in a relative sense. By that, I mean it is no Rome, Florence, Venice or Milan.

It is not swarming with tourists and hawkers. It has not sacrificed its soul for the foreign dollar. If anything, it has nurtured a soul in harmony with its rich history and its poor student population.

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, Italy

I’ve dubbed it ‘The Alternative City’.

Not just because it is an alternative for the travellers who are looking for something to explore away from the tourist hotspots.

Not just because it is an alternative place to stay for those who would like a base to visit places like Florence, Milan and or even the beach.

But also because the young student population is at the forefront of the alternative Italian lifestyle that’s emerging in the 21st century.

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, Italy

You can see it in the streets with the fashion and the haircuts. But it’s at a deeper level that the real shift is happening.

Some recent university graduates I speak to one night tell me that many of the young people are moving away (literally) from the older values that insisted they stay at home with their families.

This generation is less likely to follow into the family business and more likely to create its own jobs within new economies. Gay and lesbian culture, for instance, is much more acceptable in a city like Bologna and the modern art and music scene is developing much faster here than in other parts of Italy.

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, Italy

Young Italians

It seems like a slightly odd segue but I start talking with these students about the current political situation and the economic woes that Italy is grappling with.

Unlike some other European countries there’s no sense of anger and – it’s true – I can’t think of any large scale student protests here. The feeling amongst these young people seems to be that innovation is the key and isolationism would be a mistake.

If the country is going to grow from the predicament of today it needs to look to tomorrow by embracing new industries, empowering individuals to create small modern businesses and engage more with the wealthier European countries – even if that means people need to move and work abroad for a while.

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, Italy

One of the locals I talk with explains that Italy used to be a wealthy country and many of the older citizens have good savings. The problem is that money is now being eaten away to support the new generation in this time of economic troubles.

The only way to make the system sustainable is to use this buffer as a period to prepare for the next boom.

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, Italy

Bologna is home to Europe’s oldest university and when you’re surrounded by the buildings you can feel the history and tradition. But history can only take you so far.

There seems to be a feeling of hope that the students of this ancient house of education will be the ones to lead Italy into a brighter future.


Bologna is a great place to base yourself to explore the region. Here are my tips for some of the best accommodation.


For a good budget option, I would suggest the Dopa Hostel near the city centre.


For an affordable hotel, Albergo Panorama has good rooms right in the town centre.


If you’re looking for an interesting design hotel, I would suggest Art Hotel Commercianti.


And to splurge, the Savoia Hotel Regency is probably the best in Bologna.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Emilia Romagna tourism board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

13 thoughts on “Bologna: the alternative city”

    • Part of its charm is that people haven’t heard a lot about it. It’s got as much to offer as many Italian cities of the same size, but without having to battle the hordes of tourists!

  1. I knew Bologna was a big university town so I’m not too surprised to find it’s got an “alternative” scene. I’m headed there in a few weeks and looking forward to discovering the city myself!

    • I’ve got a feeling you’re going to love the place! Cities that have a strong link with a university always have such a great vibe about them, I find. This is definitely no exception.

  2. Bologna is my favorite city in Italy so far. I spent a few weeks there at a language school learning Italian. There is something great about being in a city that is there to live and be,not cater to tourists. I was able to practice my Italian in shops without them switching to English for the sale.

    I am also really drawn to University towns. I live in one now and always gravitate toward them.

    • Yeah, university towns always have a natural vibe about them. I’m now sure whether it’s the students who create it or whether the community makes an effort to accommodate them. Either way, they’re always fun so it’s good to hear you’ve landed up in one!

    • A good question, Pedro, but I think the list is so long! Every time I go to a new country, I find new cities that I would be happy to live in. I’m wondering at the moment whether I should spend some time in the south of Spain, for instance. Or maybe in the Baltics when it gets warmer.


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