Everyone knows about airport layovers. That block of time that’s usually too short for you to leave the airport and see the city you’re in, meaning you have to make do entertaining yourself with overpriced chain restaurants, books off the New York Times bestseller list, duty-free shops, and maybe choreographing a dance routine on the moving sidewalk.
But airport layovers are for the lucky. What about terrestrial transport layovers? If you’ve ever been to a bus or train station, you know you’d be hard-pressed to find something to keep you occupied for 6 hours. The employees at the station McDonald’s will eventually notice that you haven’t bought anything and are stealing their wi-fi. Plus, sitting on your phone for 6 hours is boring. So shove your bags into a luggage locker/ leave them with a left-luggage service and set off to see what can be seen in a short time.
I flew into Bologna from Barcelona, and luckily their airport is a quick 30-minute shuttle ride from the city. Bologna is a city of the perfect size for layovers, just enough to keep your occupied but not too much to be overwhelming.
Walking towards the city center from the bus/train station, you pass by a beautiful old medival archway (Porta Galliera) and a nice park (Parco della Montagnola), giving you a running start on the whole sightseeing thing.
Walking down the Via dell’Indipendenzia leads you straight to the main old town square, and from there the first thing to check out is the the Two Towers, both slightly bow-legged. The Torre degli Asinelli is actually taller than the leaning tower of Pisa, although it’s not leaning so severely that you can’t climb up. The other tower, the Torre di Garisenda, has a more extreme lean, looking like it’s trying to kiss the other.
Now my rule of thumb is to always find the highest spot you can, especially if your time is limited. I guess that was you can literally claim that you saw everything. (Hey, no one said you had to see it up close!) You can climb the Torre degli Asinelli for about 3 euros. I looked it up and it’s 97 meters tall, almost 500 steps. Which means you get your panoramic view, plus you can eat some more gelato.
Leaving the towers, I wandered southeast down I dolci di Nonna Vincenza, which had amazing chocolate cannoli and other delicious snacks, like arancini, fried rice balls with cheese or ham in the center. Walking back towards the center, I stopped by Il Gelato di San Crispino, which had so many interesting and unique flavors of gelato and sorbet that I almost went for four scoops, but ultimately I restrained myself.and found a bakery called
Next, I wandered back to the Piazza Maggiore to see the Basilica di San Petronio and explore the Palazzo d’Accursio, the old town hall the currently houses a small art gallery (5 euro, but free for students, and they ain’t picky about seeing your ID wink wink).
Now, there is still more to see in Bologna. Tons of churches, the Neptune fountain (which was actually closed for renovation), plus a modern art museum which had an exhibit on David Bowie that I would have loved to see. But after about 4 hours of looking at landmarks, I had to make some time to just wander down small alleys, because that’s where you can find the weird, quirky things that can make your vacation. That’s how I found the excellent bakery where I ate lunch. I also found a great thrift shop that was also a salon, where two old ladies were getting their hair set while gossiping (about what, I couldn’t tell you, but I know enough Italian to know it was gossip).
With such a short time in one city, it can feel imperative that you tick off as many sights as possible, but that makes me too nervous. I always take some time to just wander, get lost. Maybe I’ll find something amazing, maybe I won’t. But for me the travel magic happens when I let the guidebook go, and let what piques my interest guide me. It’s never failed me yet.