Venice, Rome or Bologna – which should you Visit?
Two Italian tourism heavyweights and a city most people associate with lunch meat. But wait, don’t be too quick in dismissing Bologna.
Last year Lissette and I spent 5 weeks based in Italy. Among the cities visited this time around (we’ve been to Italy a few times now) were Venice, Rome and Bologna. So which city should you visit?
Time to Rumble – Italian style!
Venice is magic. It is probably the most fairy tale city anywhere. St Marc’s Square is the most beautiful square in Europe (I don’t care what anyone tells me, it really is). Besides some incredible sights (St. Marks’ Basilica, Doge’s Palace, Campanile, Rialto bridge, Bridge of Sighs, the Grand Canal…) the thing about Venice is that every view looks like a painting that you would happily hang on your wall. I can’t say it enough: Venice is gorgeous.
Now for the downside of Venice: It is packed with tourists, locals aren’t happy to see you, it’s expensive, food will often be disappointing. Getting into many of the museums requires long lineups. If you’re unlucky you might be walking around with dirty water up to your knees (the city is sinking).
Our first time in Venice (we stayed 3 days) we left feeling more stressed than when we arrived. There were just too many people. The second time we came we decided not to do the tourist stuff: we walked off the beaten path (getting lost) and sat down on a square drinking Spritz while watching everyone else getting in line for tourist sites. It was heaven. So you have to sometimes just forget about the checklist if you’re going to enjoy Venice. But just the fact that we came back a second time tells you how beautiful Venice is. Having said all that about the highlights – make sure to see Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica. They’re incredible. This 2 hour skip-the-line tour lets you see both. Recommended. After that you can enjoy your gelato.
Related: Highlights of a trip to Venice
I had read so many negative things online about Rome that I didn’t want to go. People will tell you that it is a big and dirty city, that transport is bad and that highlights are spread out and hard to see on a short visit. They’ll say that it’s packed with tourists, that locals are unfriendly and the food horrible.
Lissette insisted on going, she wanted to see the Vatican. So we spent a long weekend in Rome. We were amazed.
There are so many things to see, the most famous among them being the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, the Vittoriano, the Pantheon, Piazza Navano, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps. And of course the Vatican.
Note: the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill get a lot of visitors. Take this “fast track package” to avoid the lines at these 3 destinations.
What did we do right? We did a bit of planning (details on that here). Contrary to what we had heard, we found Rome very manageable.
Rome is the cradle of one of humankind’s greatest civilizations. There’s TONS to see and we’re already planning our next visit. Rome is incredible.
Related: Forget everything you’ve read because Rome is Incredible
Bologna might be the most underrated city in Italy.
It is unique. Forget the Leaning Tower in Pisa – your jaw will drop when you see (and climb) the 97m high Torree degli Asinelli. In the 12th century Bologna was the city of towers with over 100 of them (today 20 remain). Bologna is also famous for porticos and you’ll see beautiful porticos (covered sidewalks) all over the city. You’ll also find gorgeous squares (Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno) as well as some of the most incredible churches we’ve seen in Italy including Basilica de Santo Stefano, a complex of churches, crypts, and tombs built in 430 AD. Take a private tour with a local guide.
But Bologna is more than just about tourist sites. It is a city famous for its food and is known as “Italy’s culinary capital” (Prosciutto di Parma, parmesan cheese, and stuffed pastas – lasagna, tortellini, ravioli, cappelleti, and cannelloni – all originated in Bologna). Recommended: 3 hour Bologna food tour.
The city also has a lively vibe (it is a university town) and very few foreign tourists. Most tourists you’ll see are Italian. It is also a very walkable city.
We had visited Bologna as a day trip. That was a mistake. It’s a wonderful city that deserves more time.
Related: The unique sights of beautiful Bologna
So which city should you visit?
The obvious answer is all of them. They are all fantastic cities. But the one you choose might be based on your interests.
– Go to Venice to see one of the most beautiful and romantic places on earth. If you’re a photographer you’ll think yourself in heaven.
– Go to Rome if you want to see some of the most famous historical sights anywhere. You’ll never get bored in Rome, there’s lots to see (more than Venice).
– Go to Bologna if you are on a cultural holiday and want a place to fully immerse yourself into everything Italian (many people come here to take language or cooking classes). Venice and Rome would drive most people crazy after a week. Bologna won’t.
Lissette and I both agree that if we absolutely could only choose one city it would be Rome. Just because of the history.
– Many airlines fly to each city including Ryanair and EasyJet if coming from European destinations.
– train service is very good in Italy. Venice to Bologna takes 1 hr, 10 min, Bologna to Rome takes 2 hours.
Venice, Rome or Bologna – which would you choose?
Related: Lecce, one of our favorite cities in Italy
Related: A Local’s Travel Guide to Italy
Related: Trieste. And remembering the things we don’t like about Italy
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Hy, I just spoke to a fellow I know, recently returned from a trip to Italy (Oct 2017): two weeks in a small town in Tuscany, with a side trip to Venice. He says avoid the weekends — Friday was bad enough, but Saturday was awful. Maybe mid-week in the winter might not be so bad??
“So bad” is always relative in Venice. Compared to other places it’s always busy, especially if walking the usual route through the city that most people follow. On the other hand, the good thing about Venice is that you can get lost and wander off and suddenly there’s no one around. It’s a bit like Prague that way: certain parts extremely busy but if you stray a few blocks away you can actually get off the beaten path…
You’re right, all three of them should be visited! But I think you should add Florence as well for art lovers; and Florence is full of history as well. It is true that all these cities are full of tourists, but who can blame them? lol Some simply cannot stay away from these beauties, and go back again and again
Oh yes, definitely Florence! We were there about 10 years ago and it is an incredible city.
I only covered Venice, Rome and Bologna in this post because we visited them recently – but totally agree, can’t visit Italy without seeing Florence 🙂
Hmmm – a hard choice since you make each city sound so tempting! I have yet to visit Italy so perhaps the thing to do would be to start with Bologna to slowly absorb the culture and enjoy the food then move on to Venice for an experience of romance and beauty. And then, Rome. With history steeped in each stone and street and building, it’s always been a city I’ve dreamed of seeing.
Agness of a Tuk Tuk
Each one of these places is astonishing and remarkable in its own way! I’ve been recent to Rome and I am still under impressions. Learning that Bologna is so underrated, and I love such place, makes me wanna go there as soon as possible. How many days would be enough to explore all the highlights there, Frank?
Bologna? 2 days. But depends how you travel, it would make a nice base (we stayed in Padova for a month using it as a base to explore. Bologna would be just as nice).
To live, we would both pick Bologna as we both loved it and he has always said if he ever moved back to Italy, it would be to Bologna or Sicily. I agree :-). I do love Rome though, warts and all and l never get tired of visiting. I just find it amazing to be walking where the old Romans did..so much history. Venice, I have been twice. It’s okay in my book. I have a sensitive nose and the canals stink to me, and that is what comes to mind first overtime l think of it. It is very much a tourist trap now. 100 euros for a gondola ride! 🙁
You summed it up nicely Kemkem! Happy to see a vote for Bologna.
Rome. Probably because I have been living in a big city almost all my life, I don’t like big cities and capitals. Rome is only one exception.
Venice. It is my favorite city. A trick is to visit it in the low season, for example, in November or February, and to eat not in the tourist districts (the same in Rome).
Bologna. We stayed there for five days. It was a mistake. I am sorry, Frank, but Bologna is not my kind of city. But I am agree with you regarding its cuisine.
So your pick is Venice Victor? I think we went in October the first time, in April our 2nd. Packed both times. We actually made the mistake the first time of sitting at one of the cafes on St. Mark’s square and ordering a couple of coffees. $50! (they charge you for the music). We should have known…
Sorry to hear you didn’t like Bologna. It’s not as spectacular as either Rome or Venice but we actually enjoyed it, just much more of a liveable city.
Thanks for sharing your opinion Victor!
…for the music and for the age. For example, Caffe Florian is the oldest still working coffee house in the world.
Why choose ? Venice or Rome are always the magnets , so why not make a really fantastic ‘circular tour’ (no matter where one starts..) ? Venezia, Bologna, Roma, Verona, Padova for example ? Just as is often done with the Tuscany cities. Another great ‘tour’ in the rich, sophisticated , pseudo-Suisse northern part of Italy , would be Milano, Genova and Torino and the Lake District – all incredibly rich architectural, historical, cultural and economic centres in their own right – and very beautiful to boot ? A few days – or even a couple of days – in each is far better than no visit at all – assuming of course that the average voyageur has already been and seen the classic tourist Italy already , otherwise its again v unlikely they will visit such cities not on the main or major beaten track.
Although its a lot easier for ‘slow travellers’ like you and Lissette , Frank, to revisit certain places, its very often extremely hard to do – even fr ‘slow’ travellers. And so much more for the average traveller on his 2 or 3 week annual holidays, where its nigh improbable, impossible or unlikely to re-visit any such favourite places or cities at all, without at least seriously neglecting other, maybe better, sites and attractions ! . The world (or even just Europe…) has too much to offer, to see, to be seen – and experienced, and Life is just far too short. A line has to be drawn somewhere, sometime and for each of us that line is in a very different place.
After 3 visits to Venezia (over 45 years…the most recent just 4 years ago) I will not be going back – or at least not until they bring in that admission tariff that reduces the unacceptable numbers (and yes, type…) of tourists – and allows some renovation and maintenance to be done to this fading jewel. To revisit it today is too much of a downer – too depressing . Having experienced Venezia when it was a living, lively, vibrant ‘real’ city of close to 200.000 people (versus 60.000 today) when it had all it facilities and functions, – ‘real’ shops, boutiques, theatres, markets, schools, hospitals etc its impossible for me to enjoy, let alone accept the ‘cheap’ museum city it has become today, that is literally falling to pieces in its neglect. Its wonders and beauties are there, intact somewhere, but who wants to, or can, fight the tourist masses swamping everything ?
Italy has some serious problems, especially its inegalities with the southern portion of the country. The rich north (Lombardy/ Veneto) may be making things even harder in the future if they proceed with greater autonomy . But already the ongoing inegalities have led to an often serious neglect of its heritage and treasures , including its many World Heritage Sights. Even Pompeii has been put on the UNESCO ‘warning list’… Roma lies very much along the ‘division’ line between the two Italys – the rich north and the poor south. In recent years Rome, as magnificent as it is, has been hard hit by the economic crisis (despite being the national capital) , and funding, and accordingly its services. Garbage collection is often highly erratic, variable and notoriously inefficient – as are its bus services – once the pride of the nation. Alleged Mafia ‘infiltration’ in various city departments/services sup[posedly has a lot to do with the problems. But as a tourist, if you are visiting while its streets are garbage strewn, or are a commuter or user of the city’s buses (where reportedly most days between 30% and 50% of the buses are inoperable, under repairs or just ‘abandoned’ …) , it makes for a tough visit – especially when any traveller has seen ‘better days’ of another Rome ! Apparently, with a lot of luck, you can be there on a day when its the wonderful ‘old’ Rome; when everything works and is working… or you can be there when its not at all a great or a pleasant experience, or as a user of the buses (few tourists are…) put face to face with its mass transit problems. In the last couple of years I have experienced both sides – a beautiful functioning city, as well as its dirty, non-functioning opposite.
Other cities, specifically in the south, as in the Napoli region, have been living with similar, but even worse problems . The garbage situation there is often of crisis proportions, yet v little seems to be able to be done or can be done about it. Neglect of priceless and irreplaceable historical treasures like Pompeii and Herculeneum (if you think the ruins of Rome are something, Pompeii has to be visited … !!!) is heartbreaking to see.
All to say – see as much as you can, while you can . If that includes re-visits to favourite places, so much the better. But invariably it does not . Its always Time to move on, to see something different . Tomorrow is a rather unreliable element . And often the’ attraction’ is not what it was either. Or circumstances and conditions have changed, evlolved – or devolved . Egypt was a wonderful, incredible destination just a few years ago. Today, much less so. Ditto for Turkey ? What happened to Barcelona – and who would have thought ? Or Maroc, Tunisia ? Once prime, warm, lovely destinations. Most tourists today seem to think not. Such a pity.
Agree Tony – why choose? The cities you listed at the top are the exact ones we visited. All different and interesting in their own ways. But sometimes people don’t have more than a couple of days so I was just having fun on this post with “what city would you choose if you could just choose one?”.
And you’re right, staying a month in Padova as a base made it easy seeing Venice as a day trip, with no pressure to do the sightseeing we had done the 1st time. Otherwise we wouldn’t have made a return trip…
Some people would say that having to pay a 50 Euro (for example) is elitist. But again, I agree with you. I also agree that Italy is in many ways a horrible mess. Try finding a decent public toilet, you’d sometimes think yourself in some South American hovel. Never forget the time Lissette had to use the toilet at the Trieste train station. One look at it and she was able to hold it in until we crossed the Slovenian border. Anyway…despite that it is a country with so many incredible sites. We both love and hate Italy.
I think for a really unique city you can’t go past Venice, but Rome is THE ancient city of Europe.
City Rumble hey? That sounds I good I should do one of them…. 😉
I was thinking of you Andy and feeling slightly guilty when I used the word “Rumble”…but it sounds so much better than “City Battle” doesn’t it? You have full licence to use one of my often-mentioned catchwords.
Yup, I think it has to be Rome…although I don’t know if any place beats Venice in terms of being photogenic.
Well, our trip to Venice was 15 or 20 years ago, and it was fantastic, and not so crowded then. But Rome? Ah, Rome! Last winter (2016) Paula and I were staying in Seville, Spain for three months, and in mid-December we took off for Rome for four days ($50USD each round trip on EasyJet, Seville to Rome). We stayed in an Airbnb apartment near the river, and had a fantastic time. Always something going on night and day. Here’s a bit more about our Roman holiday
We have not been to Bolonga yet, but you make a powerful case for going there, Frank! Maybe next year…
Some nice photos and sounds like the two of you enjoyed Rome.
Yes, I daresay Venice has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Everyone is there now and budget flights and cruise ships don’t help. It particularly pisses off locals that tourists come for a daytrip and don’t spend a cent in Venice itself…I know there’s been discussions of imposing some kind of flat tax for everyone that comes through but I don’t know if they’ll actually do that. Kind of like an admission fee to the city.