There are some Italian cities where it’s obvious what to do and see with kids – the Forum in Rome, for instance, or Saint Mark’s Square in Venice. But Bologna is a bit trickier because its treasures are more obscure. I was lucky on a recent Italian vacation to learn that Bologna is in fact a fun destination for families, especially when it’s seen with a guide.
That I learned this is even more impressive given that we visited on the last day of a very successful family vacation, which is in my experience always the hardest. There’s the melancholy feeling of imminent departure. There’s the specter of packing and traveling home. And there’s the tiredness that comes from days spent on the road, sleeping in strange beds and straying from any sense of routine or schedule.
We only had one full day in Bologna and knew next to nothing about the city. It could easily have ended up being not just the last day, but the lost day of our trip spent wandering aimlessly. That’s why I said yes when Mamma Cult tours offered us a chance to take their Symbols of Bologna tour.
Mamma Cult’s Symbols of Bologna Tour Review
My sons, 9-year-old Teddy and 12-year-old Tommy, are both history and science buffs. Like most pre-teen kids they do best with adults who don’t talk down to them and who also keep the pace moving. Friendly and speaking excellent English, our tour guide Francesca was perfect for us in no small part because she is a huge booster for her home city. We needed someone to sell us on Bologna, and sell us she did.
Her expertise as a guide was immediately apparent. We started our tour in the Piazza Maggiore next to Neptune’s Fountain. She asked the boys if they knew whose statue was behind us. Well versed in Percy Jackson books, they both eagerly responded with the correct answer along with a few salient details about the god of the sea.
Sensing that my two little history wonks might like something a bit more obscure, Francesca (who charmingly responded to each of their correct answers throughout the tour with an enthusiastic “Bravo!”) quickly shifted gears and started talking about Bologna’s rule by the Papal States and how its famous son Pope Gregory XIII is responsible for our current calendar. They were fascinated to learn that there is no date of October 5, 1582 because in that year the city lost ten days when they made the switch. We were off to the races.
The boys’ favorite part of the tour was the huge Basilicia San Petronio, also in the Piazza Maggiore. Francesca explained many things about the church’s history, but the most interesting thing was when she showed us a long line on the floor with dates and astrological symbols on either side of it. This is called Cassini’s Meridian Line and it was created in 1655 by the man who discovered Saturn’s rings as a proof of Galileo’s theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. Every sunny day around noon the light hits the floor on the correct date, traveling for six months up one side and then back six months down the other.
Francesca asked at the information desk what time the light would hit that day (it’s always around noon) and made sure we returned to the cathedral to see it, although I took no photos, as they weren’t permitted. The boys thought this was fascinating and couldn’t believe anyone would build a scientific instrument like this inside a church.
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Other highlights of our tour included:
- An explanation of why Bologna is known as the Red City and why there are so many porticoes or arcades. (The first has to do with a lack of local marble and an abundance of sandstone, the second with the need for families in the Middle Ages to accommodate university students in their homes. The porticos are beloved and as Francesca said “We didn’t invent them, but we use them very much.”)
- Long moments spent admiring the Lamentation over Christ in the church of Santa Maria della Vita. This remarkable set of sculptures was made in the fifteenth century out of terracotta. Francesca explained how they were once brightly painted and served as “almost a 3-D movie” and expression of genuine emotion for common people of the time who had little color or art in their lives.
- A visit to the “whispering walls” inside the Palazzo del Podestà.
- Recommendations (all of which proved to be excellent) of where to spend our afternoon, which included a visit to the Basilica of Santo Stefano whose baptistery is built on the remains of Roman shrine to Isis and a visit to the Anatomical Theatre in the Archiginnasio, one of the oldest university buildings in the world.
Francesca finished our tour at Bologna’s famous two 12th-century towers, one of which is half as tall as the other, she explained, because it almost fell over and had to be reduced. Before she said good-bye, she recommended her favorite gelato restaurant, Funivia, throwing down the gauntlet that Bologna has the best gelato in Italy (those sounded like fightin’ words, even to our American ears).
But later that afternoon I sat in the Piazza Cavour sampling a generous cone full of marscapone and chocolate gelato that was easily the best I had eaten in over a week in Italy I conceded that Francesca was right. There definitely is something special about Bologna. I’m so grateful that she opened my family’s eyes to that fact – and made sure our last day of vacation was as fun as our first.
You can book private Mamma Cult tours in a number of Italian cities, including Rome and Venice. All tours are family-friendly and can be adapted to the age of your children (some tours are listed as specifically stroller friendly; others offer worksheets for children).
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Best family hotels and things to do in Italy with kids on Ciao Bambino
Editor’s Note: Mara and her family enjoyed a complimentary tour of Bologna courtesy of Mamma Cult. All opinions, including any claims about gelato, are her own. Photos by Mara Gorman.