Rome is the most romantic city I know. Sardenia is vast and hauntingly beautiful. Puglia is magic. Yet, as someone who has traveled through and been charmed by much of Italy, the place I always want to go back to is Bologna. It’s less glamorous than Milan and less photogenic than Venice, but Europe’s oldest university town boasts a culture that is ancient and young, posh and gritty, dignified and funky. Unlike many Italian culture-capitals, which appear frozen in the past and choked with tourists in high season, Bologna’s historic streets and rust-colored porticoes feel very much alive. On weekends, traffic shuts down and pedestrians invade the major roads. This is a city as famous for its progressive ideals and acceptance of diversity—it hosts one of the continent’s largest transgender film festivals—as it is for its tortellini, lasagne and ragù.
It’s also arguably one of the best cities in which to be a student. I would know, because I spent one glorious semester abroad there. Officially, I studied art history. In reality, I spent most of my days riding on the backs of busted bicycles, eating everything, and practicing my broken Italian to anyone who would listen.
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing and each time I return to Bologna, I worry that it won’t quite live up to my glowing memories. On a recent research trip, I was happy to find that it actually surpassed them, that the city has retained its alternative edge while adding slick new attractions like the Museum of the History of Bologna.
Thankfully, one thing hasn’t changed: the gelato is still some of the best anywhere. Although Berlin’s Eis is terrific, I’d gladly book a flight just to visit some of the following.
Before the world careened towards pumpkin-spice saturation, this beautiful shop was selling pastel-hued Zucca e Cannelle. Unlike a syrupy latte, this barely sweet scoop tastes like an especially smooth, rich bite of pumpkin pie. It was and still is perfect in every way. Other unconventional flavors, including goat’s milk with blueberries and Il Regno delle Due Sicilie, with almonds and pistachios (for those of us who can’t make up our minds), are equally lovely. This was my favorite place as a student.
There's more than gelato to Il Gelatauro.
There are so many reasons to love this spot near Bologna’s ritziest shopping district. Not only do they do a brilliant, boozy hot cocoa, but they’ll also coat the inside of your cone with melted chocolate. Also, I cannot imagine a social occasion that wouldn’t be improved by one of their gelato cakes. Their selection errs on the traditional side, but they throw in a few creative extras like New York New York, with maple syrup and pecans, and Contessa, with an almond base sprinkled with amaretti cookies and almonds brittle.
Twenty-one years old and still going strong.
A classic for more than two decades, La Sorbetteria sets itself apart by offering “healthier” options made with fructose and natural ingredients. Many of their flavors are egg- and gluten-free. While I’m always skeptical of such claims when it comes to desserts, the gelato here is quite tasty. They offer all the usual flavors, but really shine with specialties like Dolce Emma, with ricotta and caramelized figs, or Cremino Guglielmo, with espresso, mascarpone and cacao nibs.
Nearby Piazza Santo Stefano is one of the most atmospheric in the city.
The New York Times recently pronounced this the best in Bologna. It’s a tall claim, but one that’s difficult to dispute. Opened in 2013, the shop’s new location is just off of one of my favorite piazzas in the city and crammed with all kinds of confections. I tried my usual (pistachio) and one of their seasonal flavors (speculoos!) and both were flawless.
All sorts of other delicious things at Cremeria Santo Stefano.
Sadly, this place is located outside the historic center of Bologna and I didn’t have a chance to visit on my last trip. Years ago, I took a class with the owner here, a self-professed gelato geek who has production down to an exact science. Flavors range from conventional to wildly eccentric—think Parmigiano-Reggiano with figs, gorgonzola with nuts, curry, or even ricotta with mortadella.
Gelateria Gianni may not be as fancy as some of the competition, but it sure is pretty.
The aforementioned may be my favorites, but there are dozens of other worthy gelaterias in town. Grom may be a chain, but the quality is still excellent and you won’t have to shell out US$5.25 for a small scoop like in New York. Il Gelato di San Crispino is a delicious import from Rome. The original near the Trevi Fountain is terrific, but I’ve left it off this list as it’s not native to Bologna. Finally, Gelateria Gianni under the city’s iconic towers remains a popular student hangout. The ice cream here is candy-colored and on the commercial side, but still pretty great..