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New York, Paris and Tokyo may be on your travel bucket list, but there are plenty of places that don’t get enough credit and are well worth a visit. Underrated cities have their benefits — they can often be less crowded, more affordable, and just as interesting.
As a travel journalist for over 20 years, I recently asked 175 travel enthusiasts, experts and agents about what they think is the most underrated city to visit. The most popular answer by far was surprising: Bologna, Italy.
“Bologna is very up-and-coming and poised to be the new ‘hot’ city to visit,” says Tom Marchant, founder of luxury traveling company Black Tomato. “And as the home of pasta Bolognese, it’s a foodie mecca.”
Bologna’s many nicknames — La Rossa (the “Red,” for its red-tiled roofs), La Dotta (the “Learned,” for the ancient University of Bologna), and most famously, La Grassa (the “Fat,” for its rich cuisine) — explain the best parts of the city.
Street in Bologna with Asinelli tower in the center
Here are the top three reasons to put Bologna on your travel list this year:
1. The food scene is unparalleled.
“[Bologna] quite possibly has the best food scene in all of Italy,” says Jeff Miller, a travel blogger at Our Passion for Travel.
Food lovers can explore the city’s open-air markets and hidden pastifici (pasta shops) and visit the restaurants that created favorites like Bolognese and Tortellini.
You can also spend a day at FICO Eataly World (a.k.a. the “Disney World of food”), Bologna’s 20-acre theme park entirely dedicated to Italian cuisine.
Bologna’s food markets often tumble into the streets. Produce, cheese and wine from local farmers can be bought around the city.
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Or, you can take a day trip to the Emilia-Romagna region, where Italian gastronomy was born.
“Bologna has great access to Modena and Parma, both with famous products [Modena prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano] named after them,” says David Hawkraven, owner of Designed Travel.
Hawkraven often sends travelers to local farms, where they can taste Modena prosciutto, which is rarely found in the U.S., or learn about the delicate process behind authentic balsamic vinegar.
2. Its architecture and history rival other Italian cities.
The city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its 38.5 miles of porticoes, or arched walkways.
It’s also home to 24 medieval stone towers, including Bologna’s most iconic landmark, the Two Towers.
The porticoes of Bologna are often covered in decorative tiles or paintings.
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Travel writer Ann-Marie Cahill says climbing the Asinelli Tower, the one of the Two Towers that’s open to the public, is exactly where history buffs should start.
She also suggests visiting the unfinished San Petronio Basilica and touring the Roman ruins that run under Bologna’s library (you can also see them through the library’s glass floors).
3. It’s convenient and accessible.
Bologna is “entirely walkable,” according to Marchant, and it will save you the cost of a car rental. If you want public transit options, city bus tickets start at just 1.30€.
Marchant says locals are friendly, and the city is generally safe, making it a comfortable vacation spot. The average hotel room costs under $200 per night for eight months out of the year, according to travel search engine Kayak.
Located in Northern Italy, it is convenient to travel from Bologna to other Italian hot spots. It’s only about 70 miles from Florence, 95 miles from Venice, and 135 miles from Milan.
Still, the city is a destination all on its own.