As my experience studying abroad in Bologna comes to a close, I'm ready to share what I've learned about this fascinating, medieval city, in the hopes that it might help others decide whether this city will be a good fit for their study-abroad experience. Read on to learn more about Bologna and my time here.
Study abroad programs in Bologna.
There are several study-abroad programs for American students located in Bologna. The biggest of these is SAIS Europe, a program offered by Johns Hopkins University. Brown University also has a strong program in the city. I attend a smaller program called the Eastern College Consortium (which is operated by Wesleyan University, Wellesley College and Vassar College). Each of these programs accepts applications from students that do not attend their home institution, and the biggest difference among them is how many classes you're allowed to take at the Università di Bologna versus how many in-program courses you take.
Where to live.
Since Bologna is filled with students, there's a lot of real estate turnover, but because of the constant demand, housing in a good location with a reasonable price is very difficult to secure. The most likely outcome is that you'll end up living outside of the ancient city walls, which can be a bummer in terms of getting to classes. Investing in a bike is a good idea at the beginning of your stay.
If your program offers an opportunity to do a homestay, that's surely the best way to improve your Italian. Unfortunately, a homestay can sometimes feel isolating and prevent you from meeting and forming friendships with other students.
The Università does own student housing in various apartments throughout the city, but for the most part, it's awarded to Italian students on academic scholarships, and there are long waiting lists to get a bed. These studentati have great locations, but there are rules that can seem rather strict after living in American dorms, such as room checks performed by the portieri to make sure you're keeping the space clean and risk of expulsion for sneaking in guests after midnight.
What to do in Bologna.
• Visit the Basilica di San Petronio.
This basilica sits on the end of Piazza Maggiore and is absolutely cavernous. It's worth a trip to see the meridian line and the fresco by Giovanni da Modena, which features a depiction of the devil eating one man with his mouth and another with his genitals.
• Go shopping on Via dell'Indipendenza.
The biggest street in Bologna is Via dell'Indipendenza, which closes for traffic on the weekends and is open for shopping 24/7.
• Dance the night away on Piazza Maggiore.
Piazza Maggiore is preferable at night, when all the palazzi are lit up and the crowds of tourists have cleared out. On Tuesdays in the warmer months, a local dance troupe teaches classic Italian dances to anyone who happens to be in the piazza. On other nights, there is bound to be at least one performer singing in the square.
• Take a trip to FICO (Eataly World).
A 20-minute bus ride from the city center gets you to FICO, an enormous compound run by Eataly. It's essentially a grocery store with incredibly fresh food, some of which is grown on a farm outside, but it's so big that you need to rent a tricycle (with a handy shopping basket) to get around, and there are numerous restaurants lining the walls in case you get hungry while shopping.
• Sample the local cuisine at literally any restaurant.
Bologna is known worldwide as a food capital, so you can't leave the city without trying tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo.
• Hike up San Luca.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is special because unlike most other hikes, this one is covered. To get to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, you need to walk 3.5 miles uphill under the longest series of porticoes in the world.
• Climb the Due Torri.
Because of a local superstition, UniBo students don't climb the Asinelli tower until after having graduated for fear of failing their exams. It takes 498 steps to reach the top, so it's no easy task, but the tower represents an important part of the city's medieval history and offers an incredible view, so it's definitely worth the strain.
What to know before you go.
1. Getting a visa can be difficult.
Italian bureaucracy is notoriously ill-managed. Depending on where you’re located in the USA, it can take months to get an appointment at an Italian consulate, and you may have to travel a considerable amount to do so. I had a nightmarish time securing an appointment, so I counsel everyone who is interested in studying in Italy to sign up to pay a visit to the consulate at least three months in advance.
2. Bologna is a smaller Italian city, which comes with pros and cons.
Bologna is an incredible place to go for students who are really serious about learning Italian. The city is surprisingly untouched by tourism, given its reputation as the food capital of Italy, and you’re likely to be spoken to in Italian by most people you meet. If your priority while abroad is European travel or partying, on the other hand, Bologna is less well-equipped. The airport is close to the city center but smaller and a little more expensive than airports in nearby Milan and Florence, and the nightlife is certainly vibrant but is by no means the best that Italy has to offer.
3. The Italian university system is very different from the American system.
Going from a small liberal arts school to the Università di Bologna was a striking transition. In America, I had grown accustomed to an emphasis on individuality and the value of developing a capacity for critical thinking. That’s not the case in Italy. UniBo, the oldest university in all of Europe (established in 1088), is perhaps the best example of a classic Italian education. In UniBo classes, the students are not expected to develop their own opinions on the course material but rather to studiously regurgitate exactly what was taught to them. At times, it can feel like you're engaging less with your courses, but that's just how this system works.
4. Bolognese food is, as billed, incredible (but also a tad homogenous)!
Traditional Bolognese food, from mortadella to lasagne, is delicious. The Emilia-Romagna region is in the northernmost part of Italy, and its farming history continues to dictate much of the food we continue to eat. The cuisine is based in carbohydrate-filled pastas and protein-rich beef and pork because old Bolognesi needed those food groups to deal with the winter chill. This means that the typical dishes all taste similar after a certain point, and you're hard-pressed to find a lighter meal at any restaurant. It's also not the greatest city for vegetarians.
5. Air hits differently here.
The Bolognese bring out their leather jackets on the first day of September and shiver their way into winter from then on. The temperature remained 60 degrees or higher until the first week of November this year, which seemed positively summery to me, but my Italian roommates have all been consistently shocked by my attire and amazed every time I insist that I'm not cold. Many Italians are scared of experiencing colpo d'aria, which means being hit by air — similar to the superstition in the U.S., they believe that being physically cold can heighten your chances of getting sick, so they do all they can to avoid getting "hit" by the cold air.
6. The city is very liberal...
You can tell that this city is liberal even if you barely speak Italian when you get here from the sheer amount of feminist graffiti on the walls. Bologna itself is a very left-leaning city due to its large student population, so it's not uncommon to see an antifascist sentiment scrawled on the walls or a communist hammer-and-sickle painted over a stop sign.
7. ... but it's not the safest place for women.
The number one thing that family and friends warned me about when I decided to study abroad in Italy was Italian men. Coming from New York City, I figured that I had already experienced catcalling and could handle male attention, but I've been very surprised by the sheer number of comments my friends and I receive on a daily basis here. I’ve been hollered at, which I don’t consider a huge deal, but I’ve also been followed, I’ve been cornered, I’ve been physically grabbed and men have groped me in the middle of a city street in broad daylight. All this in a very liberal city with a huge student population. I’m not sure how representative my experience has been, but it's been a difficult element of my time abroad that I would be remiss not to mention when illuminating the wonders of Bologna life.
All in all, I've had a wonderful experience in Bologna. The city is beautiful, the people are interesting and the language may be challenging, but I've found myself capable. Despite some negative aspects to my time here, I would still recommend studying abroad in Bologna because of the sheer amount of Italian you find yourself speaking. For true language lovers, this is the place to choose.