City break to Bologna, Parma and Modena

Tucked in the lee of the Bologna Hills on the Po Plain of northern Italy, Bologna ticks all my boxes for a city break with its mix of cultural attractions, fabulous food, and buzzing lifestyle. But stay a couple of extra days and you can easily take a train to nearby Parma and Modena for a trio of terrific towns. Here are my top five things to do in each city.

Bologna

Bologna from the San Petronio terraceSee the city from on high. Most famous viewpoint is the Torre Asinelli, tallest of the ‘Twin Towers’, but be warned, there are 498 steps. So my vote goes to the viewing platform at the back of San Petronio Basilica which has a lift. Or take the hop-on-hop-off bus to the church of San Michele in Bosco in the hills.

A Bologna Welcome Card Plus includes free entry to all the major cultural sites, plus an excellent two-hour walking tour, the city sightseeing bus, and the San Luca Express to the hilltop sanctuary that has become a symbol of the city. This little land train is a tad rickety over the cobbles and up the steep hairpin bends but much easier than hiking up the 4km portico with almost 600 arches! The card costs 40 euros and is valid for one year, one entry per site. 

Bologna arcadeStroll through the maze of small streets known as Il Quadrilatero lined with fabulous independent food shops offering gastronomic temptation in every window. Signature local charcuterie is pale pink Mortadella and tortellini pasta shapes were invented in the city, supposedly representing a woman’s navel! Remember that true Bolognese sauce – ragu to the Italians – is served with tagliatelle and never, ever with spaghetti!

Admire the free art and architecture in Bologna’s many huge churches. Most are in lavish Baroque style, but my favourite is San Stefano, a complex of seven small churches in simple Romanesque style, all connected with bijou cloisters. Tucked behind a busy street, San Stefano fronts an idyllic cobbled triangular ‘square’ surrounded by arcades.  

Bologna does arcades big time, some 40 km of them in a variety of styles and degrees of decoration, which provide shelter from both sun and rain. The historic centre of the town is only open to commercial vehicles but on Sat and Sun, the whole area becomes a pedestrian zone and everybody comes out to see and be seen!

Parma

Parma charcuterie and fried bread puffs!Visit the magnificent Farnese Theatre and the ornate Palatine Library, two of five heritage attractions inside the Palazzo della Pilotta, once the power base of the influential Farnese court.  Just ten minutes’ walk from Parma station and an hour from Bologna by train – ticket around 14 euros return.

Enjoy a leisurely lunch and sample different variations of that famous ham. Portions tend to be substantial so maybe share a starter if planning on a main course. And do order a side plate of crispy fried bread puffs. Just scrumptious and the perfect local accompaniment to Parma ham!

Parma BaptisteryParma Cathedral is modest in size but full-on in impact. Every last inch of the walls and ceiling are intricately painted with religious scenes. Just soak it all up, but prepare for a crick in the neck!

Marginally easier on the neck is the Baptistery next door where the wall paintings at least start at eye-level. But the highlight is the magnificent ‘umbrella’ ceiling, lavishly decorated with pictures of the saints.

On the way back to the station, make like a Duke and chill out in the Ducal Gardens beside their summer palace. Expect statues, water features and tree-lined avenues.  

Modena

Piazza Roma, ModenaShop for edible gifts in the home of Balsamic vinegar, less than 30 minutes by train from Bologna on the line to Parma, Piacenza and Milan (8 euros return). Like fine wine, the price of Balsamico di Modena reflects the age and you could pay over 300 euros for a modest bottle aged 150 years. But you can easily pick up a younger alternative for a tenner or so.

Sit at a cafe table on Piazza Roma and just soak up the huge facade of the old Palazzo Ducale, now the Military Academy, whilst children – and adults! – enjoy playing in the water jets on hot summer days.

Enjoy the UNESCO listed harmony of the gleaming marble cathedral and the lofty Torre Ghirlandina. But there’s no lift-up this beautiful belltower, so maybe admire from Piazza Grande instead. Don’t miss the ornate public rooms of the Palazzo Communale or Town Hall, free to enter except on Sunday afternoons.

Piazza Grande, ModenaStep back in time at the Former abbey complex of St Agostino, which offers three free attractions – the ornate Baroque church, the historic pharmacy and anatomical theatre. Then skip across to the Palazzo dei Musei for the city’s art treasures.

Drool over cars of the super-rich at the Enzo Ferrari Museum close to Modena station and centred on the house where Enzo was born. Discover the story behind the brand, the secrets of design and the legendary motor racing champions who steered the cars to victory. 

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays for city breaks.


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Gillian Thornton

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