If you're looking for an alternative to Italy's tourist-swamped cities then head to Bologna, far enough off the mainstream tourist trail to retain an authentic local vibe. Its old town is crammed with red-hued monuments and churches and tangled with atmospheric alleys and arcades, yet Bologna also has a lively, youthful university population to give it contemporary energy and enthusiasm. Street markets, delis and innumerable restaurants create Italy's most finger-licking, wine-sipping food scene.
Bologna's university, founded in 1088, is Europe's oldest and gives the city its nickname La Dotta (The Learned). The university district to the south of Piazza Maggiore is crammed with coffee bars, street arcades and bookstores. Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio (archiginnasio.it) is decorated with the family crests of aristocratic former students and has a superb, wood-carved 1637 Anatomical Theatre. Pop into the university's free Museo di Palazzo Poggi (museopalazzopoggi.unibo.it) if you have an interest in optics, botany or palaeontology.
Traditional tavern Osteria del Cappello (alcappellorosso.it) in the city centre provides the chance to try tagliatelle al ragu – the real spaghetti bolognese – amid office workers on their lunch break. It offers a wide selection of local wines. Otherwise, rub elbows with the punks and poets of this university city at Osteria dell'Orsa (osteriadellorsa.com). Arco degli Albari (facebook.com/larcodeglialbari.enoteca) in the old town's back streets is a little wine-and-nibbles bar with agreeable, English-speaking owners.
Piazza Maggiore at the heart of old Bologna is the place for coffee under the arches as you admire the town hall, cathedral and famous Fountain of Neptune that inspired the trident logo of local firm Maserati. Around spread red-brick towers, colonnaded squares and alleyways lined with Gothic architecture. The improbably skew-whiff Two Towers and several churches are worth visiting, especially the Basilica di Santo Stefano (abbaziasantostefano.it), whose architecture has been added to since Roman times.
Several streets just east of Piazza Maggiore have great fruit stalls, ham-hung delicatessens and food bars that make a lively perch from which to watch the passing parade of visitors and shopping locals. Then wander on into the old Jewish Quarter for a quieter atmosphere, interesting architecture and local-frequented wine bars. Pinacoteca Nazionale (pinacotecabologna.beniculturali.it) is hung with canvasses by Raphael, Giotto and other Italian greats and far less crowded than Italy's other great art museums.
Hotel Metropolitan Bologna (hotelmetropolitan.com) is a stylish, contemporary hotel unexpectedly tucked down an alley of lively eateries. Its sleek rooms have glimpses over old-town chimneypots, and the rooftop terrace is the spot for a sunset cocktail. At the top end, Grand Hotel Majestic (lhw.com) is a worthy member of Leading Hotels of the World, swathed in marble and silk and studded with antiques. Its restaurant offers upmarket Bolognese cuisine under a fabulous 15th-century frescoed ceiling.
Gelatauro (gelatauro.com) might well have the city's best gelato. Try unusual flavours such as squash and cinnamon, candied fennel, or goat's milk with caramelised strawberries. Its fig, almond or lemon granita provide the perfect summer refreshment.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of the Italian Government Tourist Office and Emilia-Romagna Tourism.