Ahead of our trip to Villa Pia in Umbria we spent 36 hours in Bologna with Kids. Read on to see what we got up to and what are our top tips.
Why Bologna with Kids?
Our decision to visit Villa Pia at October half term was decided upon when I found flights from Liverpool to Pisa with Ryanair for £200 return for all five of us. On closer inspection the return flight from Pisa was far too early to be practical (no fun when actually on holiday) so I tried to find similar flights in and out of other airports in the region using the really handy function on Skyscanner. We ended up booking return flights from Manchester to Bologna including one checked in bag for £249.
Tip: If you’ve not used this function on Skyscanner before then you really should, it’s a fantastic way of finding cheap flights if you’re flexible as to where to go. It’s how we ended up spending February half term in Porto in 2018 and February half term in Lisbon in 2017. Flights for both trips were under £250 for the 5 of us.
You just click the ‘add nearby airports’ button and leave the flight search as ‘everywhere’.
So as we were flying into Bologna on Friday morning and weren’t due to be at Villa Pia until Sunday afternoon, I decided that we may as well stay in Bologna and explore the city. Neither of us had ever been and as it’s famed for food it seemed to call out to me.
City breaks with kids can be fun and we’ve done a few now, but there are certain things we do to make sure they work for all of us and they aren’t bored.
There are also 19 Easy Day Trips from Bologna that we could have done too.
Family Friendly Airbnb in Bologna
One of the main things we do to make city breaks work for kids is around accommodation. Whilst I love nothing more than a swanky city hotel with sumptuous king size bed, room service, a mini bar and a spa, with the kids we’ve realised that space is the key. This can be space in the hotel for them to play if that’s an option, but apartments and airbnb’s are amazing too.
We were kindly given an Airbnb voucher to use in Bologna by Airbnb and I set about trying to find the right place for us to stay.
Last time we used an Airbnb in Porto I set out the things that it was useful to look for when choosing and I used the same methodology this time. Wy not read the linked post.
What I was a little confused by this time was whether or not I needed onsite parking. When we travelled to Porto we didn’t have a car so it wasn’t a concern but as we were driving onto Umbria a car was essential. Needing a car parking space with the accommodation seemed to mean that we would have to stay quite far outside Bologna as all the accommodation with room for cars (within our £300 budget for 2 nights) seemed to be in the countryside. That was until I discovered this family friendly apartment in Bologna run by Marino.
The parking was in a residential area and was on street parking but all the previous guests had been pleased with the location and the parking so we decided it looked like it solved our parking problem. It also looked like the perfect size with three double bedrooms, a large bathroom, a nice balcony and a kitchen stocked with bits & pieces to make breakfast too. Oh and it was above a pizza restaurant – win win.
It really was the most fantastic place to stay. A 15 minute walk took you through a lovely residential area, that always felt very safe, into the city walls of Bologna, and a further 15 minutes into the Centre itself. Marino met us on arrival, found us a safe free parking space on the street behind the apartment, gave us some tips about where to find the shops and left us to explore.
We set off wandering into Bologna at around 2pm on a Friday afternoon. Never the best time in fairness to explore an Italian city as it’s siesta time and many shops and restaurants still do shut, but as we’d been up early and only had breakfast we decided to treat the kids (and us) to a bag of crisps and a large ice cream to try and stave of hunger until 5/6pm. That’s good parenting right there I hear you say!
So ice cream in hand we mooched into the city in some warm late October sun.
Bologna has the most beautiful architecture all around you and much of it is above so don’t forget to look up. The kids enjoyed the slower pace of the walk, and we could take in more of what was going on around us. We eyed many many restaurants that we would have loved to have been visiting later that evening but could tell, with a gut instinct, that they wouldn’t serve anything our three would deem suitable! We silently cried a little inside but resolved to put Bologna on the list of places to pop back to for a food focused kid free weekend one day.
The first square we stumbled upon was Piazza Santo Stefano, where the basilica of Santa Stefano is located. We needed to find the inevitable toilet spot and I can confirm that there is a toilet in the gift shop at the back of the basilica Santa Stefano for a E1 fee. Thank goodness for that!
According to the Lonely Planet the Basilica di Santa Stefano is “Bologna’s most unique religious site .. this atmospheric labyrinth of interlocking ecclesiastical structures, whose architecture spans centuries of Bolognese history and incorporates Romanesque, Lombard and even ancient Roman elements. Originally there were seven churches – hence the basilica’s nickname Sette Chiese – but only four remain intact today: Chiesa del Crocefisso, Chiesa della Trinità, Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro and Santi Vitale e Agricola.
We spent around an hour inside the Basilica exploring the different parts of the building before being pressed to move on.
From the Basilica we seemed to do a tour of Bologna’s best stationary shops. I have three girls who are obsessed with stationary and with their holiday money burning a hole in their pocket they were eager to pop into each and every shop they found, leaving one of us free to spend some time in whichever square or street we were in soaking up the atmosphere or plotting which church we should go into next.
Tip: Give them holiday money to spend, there are so many things to buy in a city so rather than continually being asked for more and more money we give them a certain amount each that they can spend on tat, postcards, toys etc – as long as it fits in the carry on to come home.
We managed to visit about 4 churches that afternoon and see what art Bologna had hidden away in them, before the kids patience wore a little thin. We usually manage to stretch out their enthusiasm for visiting churches by creating a little treasure hunt of things to find and count.
How many statues of Jesus can you find in this church and how many pictures contain the Virgin Mary are often key parts of the treasure hunt and can take some time to complete in a Catholic Church.
Today the girls decided to spend some time creating their own sermon too and we listened to those on what we should all be thankful for before moving on. (Thank you CofE primary school).
It was about 5pm by then and hunger had kicked in so we tried to find a restaurant that was open (many opened at 7pm) served pizza and pasta and lovely platters for us. That was actually pretty tricky and we ended up not satisfying daughter number 1 by only finding pasta and platters in a lovey café “Osteria del Podesta’ on the street which had a distinctive yellow menu and signage and I’d recognised from the menus in the Airbnb.
We had a lovely early evening meal with some frizzante and wandered home to rest after our 5am start.
You can read our tripadvisor review of Osteria del Podesta here.
Saturday in Bologna
We slept well in lovely cozy beds and had a fairly lazy start to the day. The sun was still shining and so we wandered back into Bologna with not many aims apart from seeing the market, the Archaeological Museum and the Cathedral.
The kids found a couple more stationary shops on our way to the market and then we were persuaded to stop in the Cathedral. Well I say Cathedral, what we had thought was Bologna’s cathedral was in fact actually the Basilica of San Petronio which stands on Bologna’s main square, Piazza Maggiore. It is the Bolognesi’s most beloved church and is one of the world’s largest churches (the sixth largest in Europe).
Basilica of San Petronio was surprisingly heavily guarded. That was until we realised that they have a painting hanging inside which is one of the most original depictions of Heaven and Hell, painted by Giovanni da Modena and inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Inferno is dominated by a gigantic figure of Lucifer, and facial expressions are all dramatically accentuated. There is feeling that the painting depicts an image of Mohammed in hell, hence the security but from an untrained eye, from a distance, it’s tough to see if it does or does not. In any event we weren’t particularly enamoured by the painting and moved on.
Mercato delle Erbe
Bologna’s covered market was a highlight of the day. The market itself is fairly standard with fruit and veg and various other goodies on sale, but the food offering around the outside were fantastic. It was lunchtime ish when we arrived and we really didn’t know what to choose. Eldest finally got her pizza slices and went back for more, we got a lovely platter of cooked meats (which the twins ate a lot of) and some tasty bruschetta. It was a lovely place to people watch, such a relaxed friendly atmosphere and clearly where lots of locals chose to spend their Saturday mornings.
The Archaeological Museum had been on Lily’s list of places to visit, but sadly on arrival we realised that most of it was shut. We were told the basement and first floor was open so we paid our E6 for the family and entered. It perhaps took us 30 minutes to see what was available, and perhaps only that because the kids are studying the Egyptians at the moment so spent at least 10 minutes recounting to us the tale of Tutankhamun and the possible tomb next door that’s not yet been opened, and copying faces of the statues.
So sadly we can’t really tell you how good The Archaeological Museum in Bologna is but if you’re wondering about visiting it’s definitely worth checking what’s open.
As it was such a lovely afternoon we decided to head to the park. Giardini Margherita park was conveniently situated a 5 minute walk from our Airbnb so we wandered into the park and let the kids play on the large bouncy castles that were out for the afternoon.
After that we found a lakeside café, played cards, drank fizzy pop and mused about how much café life is part of the Mediterranean life and how relaxing that can be.
The kids also gave us their potted summary of Italy so far – Italians like Smoking, Kissing and Eating Pizza and Pasta. We found it hard to disagree.
Whilst Matt and I would have loved an evening out in Bologna in one of the many restaurants we had spotted along the way, we realised the kids had reached their limit and needed some sleep. So we meandered back to our apartment, ordered some take away pizza from the shop downstairs and drank some frizzante on the balcony whilst the kids slept.
We had a lovely 36 hours in Bologna with kids!