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Bologna, Italy, at little or no cost

Bologna, Italy, might be one of the most expensive cities in the country, but that doesn’t mean you have to mortgage the kids’ home in order to have a good time there.

Most major attractions are in close proximity to one another, so it’s easy to see a lot in a limited amount of time. Better yet, Bologna is relatively flat, and thanks to 38km of porticoes, it’s possible to walk just about anywhere in the city no matter what the weather. And there is a lot to see and do around town.

Sometimes called “The Learned”, Bologna boasts the oldest university in Europe (Dante is but one famous student). Educational opportunities are not limited to students, however. The city has close to 100 museums, most of which are free. One of my favourites is found on the first floor of the Palazzo Archiginnasio. This was the university’s original anatomy theatre – the layout of the highly-carved wood-lined room is a far cry from today’s classrooms.

For €3, those who wish to brave the 500 steps of Torre degli Asinelli (one of the Due Torri) will be rewarded with magnificent views over the city. From that vantage point, it’s easy to see how Bologna also came to be known as “The Red” as terra cotta is a widely used building material in the area. One fine example is the Basilica of San Petronio which dominates the Piazza Maggiore. The fifth largest church in the world, it stretches 132 meters in length and 60 in width, while the vault reaches 45 meters. Politics prevented its completion, so marble clads only a portion of the building’s terra cotta façade. No matter, the interior almost overwhelms with its beauty. Yes, it's free.

Nearby buildings house other free surprises: Palazzo Comunale, Bologna’s city hall, has a very interesting staircase – it was designed to be used by horse-drawn carriages! In the newest section of Bologna’s city hall, the city library occupies the former stock exchange. Glass panels embedded in the floor enable visitors to look at the Roman ruins upon which the stock exchange was constructed. A gelato to the one who finds the most wells and staircases!

Speaking of gelato, Bologna is the site of many gastronomic pilgrimages, and not without reason. Nicknamed “La Grassa – The Fat”, the city’s residents are responsible for concocting the original lasagna Bolognese, tortellini, Mortadella sausage, and a list of other palate pleasers. The Bolognese take their food so seriously, the Chamber of Commerce preserves the authentic recipes of the most famous Bolognese dishes. Food is so big here, it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal. Author John Grisham certainly thought so: He used his own culinary explorations in Bologna as “research” for his bestselling novel, The Broker.

But good, regional fare needn’t come with a hefty price tag.

An inexpensive, fun way to try out many regional foods is to visit the streets of Bologna’s Quadrilatero district, home to bounty-filled produce stalls as well as a vast array of food shops. Tamburini on Via Caprarie is the place to go for real Mortedella – they’ve been making it there for three generations. Over on Via Carbonesi is Majani, the finest chocolate maker in the city.

Bologna also has some wonderful restaurants that won’t break your pocketbook. A la carte dining is often the most economical. My favourite Bolognese eateries are always packed with locals – a sure sign of good value. Trattoria Anna Maria is a popular choice as evidenced by the celebrity photos that cover nearly every inch of wall surface. If you opt to eat at Osteria Dei Poeti, stay to hear live music in the back room.

No doubt about it, hotels here are expensive as elsewhere in Italy. For those on a tight budget, there are alternatives. In nearby Bagnacavallo, there is a youth hostel that welcomes families and older guests. Rates range from €14.50 to €20. Another option is a farm stay - a great way to explore the source of many of Bologna's culinary delights.

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