Yes, Bologna has become a touristic destination, with all the consequent increase in costs, and yes, life can sometimes be a bit pricey here, especially for students. Nevertheless, we are still in Italy, which means tons of artistic and architectonic beauty literally thrown at you at no cost, and with a little bit of research and curiosity you can still find plenty to do in the county seat of Emilia Romagna, without having to touch your wallet. Here’s a little list of nice stuff for you to enjoy during a day in Bologna, all for free. Pack a sandwich and join the experiment.
From MAST to Morandi
Art, we were saying. While Bologna’s most famous museums and many historical attractions ask for a little entry price (from the relatively inexpensive Asinelli Tower and the Anatomy Theatre up to the still very doable Pinacoteca and Archeological Museum), some less famous collections are still accessible for free. It is the case of Quadreria di Palazzo Magnani, housing a beautiful Carracci brothers’ fresco as well as a collection of paintings up to the XXth century, Museo della Resistenza, where you can trace the history of antifascism in Bologna and beyond, the iconic Casa Morandi, where the famous still life painter actually lived and worked, and the contemporary gem MAST Museum. (For visiting the latter, though, you’ll need at least a bus ticket).
Pretending to be a student
Nested between the iconic Piazza Maggiore and posh shopping center Galleria Cavour, the beautiful palace of Archiginnasio housed the University of Bologna between 1562 and 1803. You can see its traces in the impressive collection of emblems and crests on the walls and ceilings, and particularly in the monumental and still very much used library. In theory, access to this library isn’t allowed to tourists and visitors, but if you want to sit with a book while enjoying the beautiful main hall, all wood and silence, the intimidating collection of ancient tomes and the incredible passageway (over 130 meters of length and a “telescope effect”) between the reading room and the “Stabat Mater” room, nobody can actually stop you. Just pretend to be willing to study.
It might seem irrelevant, but in a society where water is a commodity (and for people like me who are always thirsty but hate carrying around water bottles), a city center’s café offering mineral water for free is a little sign of kindness and democracy, and worth a mention. Gessetto Bar, located on pretty Via Oberdan and a stone’s throw from Via Indipendenza, welcomes passers by with a free-access dispenser with still and sparkly water and compostable glasses.
Recharge and relax
Located just in front of the Neptune statue, former stock credit building and basketball arena (but the venue’s history is much much longer and articulated) the popular Sala Borsa is an impressive covered piazza as well as a place of culture and rest. Populated by students, freelancers, passengers and retired people, open to everybody, it has a ground floor library as well as a first floor where you can read current newspapers and magazines or watch a movie in one of the public computers. Some people just come here in between appointments to sit on an armchair while charging the phone. Sala Borsa also has underground Roman ruins and always hosts some free exhibition.
For those of you who follow me, you must probably know that my favorite green&free space is Le Serre at Giardini Margherita. However, that is more a summer place, and since we’re entering the cold season I suggest you to take a walk on the green side while visiting the Botanical Gardens on Via Irnerio. Little known, created by Ulisse Androvandi in 1568 and part of the Biology Faculty of the University of Bologna, this small garden hosts some 5000 different species, has greenhouses with exotic plants and also hosts a reconstruction of a “giardino dei semplici” (“Simple people’s garden”), a medieval ensemble of medical plants.