Architecture, fast cars, and amazing food – the region of Emilia Romagna in Italy has it all. And guess what?
Unlike some other regions, it's super easy to explore by train, especially if you choose the centrally located city of Bologna as your base.
What follows is a week's worth of fun day trips from Bologna by train. I had a blast doing them and I hope you will too.
Quick history of Emilia Romagna
Emilia Romagna is one of the 20 regions of Italy, sweeping across the country’s northern plains. With the Po River to the North, the Adriatic Sea to the East and the Apennine Mountain chain rising southwards, it’s one of the most diverse regions of Italy.
This specific geographical blend has given the region highly fertile and productive lands that have been farmed and re-shaped by man since ancient times. This is one of the reasons why Emilia Romagna has long been one of the wealthiest and most developed regions in Europe.
The region has a complex and interesting past, and much of modern-day Emilia Romagna stems back to Etruscan rule between the 9th and 6th century BC. It then passed into the hands of the Gauls two centuries later, and eventually the Romans in the 2nd century BC. It was the Romans that really carved out the foundations of Emilia Romagna, building the great Roman road the Via Emilia (that gives the region its name).
You can see evidence of Romanesque and Byzantine artistic marks stamped indelibly throughout the region. With its lavish castles, thermal spas, fortresses, porticoes and palaces, Emilia Romagna has remained a prosperous and wealthy area ever since.
Some fun Emilia Romagna facts
Did you know…
…that Spaghetti Bolognese is not actually from Bologna? The bolognese bit is (often called ragu), but spaghetti itself does not come from the region. The traditional pasta dishes from Bologna are tagliatelle, tortellini, and lasagna – so it’d be more authentic to ask for tagliatelle al ragu, or tortellini Bolognese instead.
…legend has it there is a real diamond hidden in the Ferrara landmark Palazzo dei Diamanti. One of the Dukes of Este hid ancient treasure in one of the many diamond-shaped bulges on the palace exterior. Only he and the man who built it knew where it was hidden. To stop the workman from telling, the duke cut off his tongue and made him blind, to stop the secret from ever escaping!
…Parmesan has caused a spate of organized crime. The Mafia have lead numerous hijacks and ambushes of delivery trucks carrying shipments of Parmigiano-Reggiano over the years. Between 2013 and 2015, one gang stole a massive 2039 wheels of Parmesan cheese!
A map of Emilia Romagna
Click the photo below and a map of Emilia Romagna with sights to visit on your day trips from Bologna as well as in Bologna will open in a new tab.
Cities in Emilia Romagna that make for great day trips
The capital of Emilia Romagna is the ancient town of Bologna. It has a vibrant student population and a university that dates back to 1088! Bologna is an ideal city to stay in during your trip to the region as it has great transport links (its rail station is one of the largest in Italy). It is geographically positioned bang in the middle of Northern Italy.
But don’t just use it as a base for visiting other places – it has a myriad of attractions and a unique atmosphere that is well worth exploring in its own right! This beautiful terracotta-roofed city at the foot of the Apennines is the perfect blend of cultural sites that aren’t thronging with tourists.
The main square is impossible to miss – the Piazza Maggiore. This is home to the beautiful Neptune Fountain and the Basilica of San Petronio, an architecturally unique gothic church made of pink marble. It’s packed with stunning frescoes, diverse artwork and one of the world’s biggest sundials.
The steps outside the Basilica make a great picnic perch for a spell of people-watching. The piazza comes alive with festivals, fairs, and events throughout the year.
Just off the Piazza Maggiore is the Quadrilatero, an atmospheric labyrinth of medieval streets perfect for casual meandering. Make sure you get to one of the city’s thriving markets. There’s the Mercato delle Erbe, or the ancient flea market Piazzola Bologna held in Piazza dell Otto Agosto every weekend, with over 400 stalls.
Bologna is famous for its magnificent porticoes – it has over 600 in total. These archaic sheltered walkways make it an easy city to tackle, no matter the weather.
Keep an eye out for Bologna’s famed street art too. Bolognina, just north of the train station is a good area to see some edgy street artwork.
And last but definitely not least is Bologna's amazing food scene. To find the best spots and learn all about the traditions and history of Emilia Romagna's food, consider going on a food tour.
Parma is the first of several beautiful cities near Bologna that's on our list. When you say “Parma”, there are two things that spring instantly to mind. Parma ham and Parmesan. It’s true that Parma is a very foody city, and its beloved Prosciutto di Parma (parma ham) and Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) are doubtlessly two of Italy’s most famous food products.
Parma is a great city to visit for many reasons, but you absolutely must include a food tour to celebrate these two renowned and delicious foodstuffs. Tours vary in length but will give you the chance to taste samples, and experience how the products are made. According to Italian law, true Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced in certain provinces, of which Parma is one.
At first glance, the city itself might not seem as overtly grand or ornate as Bologna or other towns in the region. However, if you take the time to wander through its streets you’ll unearth some stunning Romanesque architecture in the historic heart of the city.
The octagonal Baptistery is worth going to see – a striking building made from pink Verona marble. There are some lovely squares and parks like the Garibaldi Square, Piazza Duomo and the Parco Ducale (a grandiose community garden on the other side of the river).
If you’re an art lover, you’ll enjoy Parma as well. Dip inside the Cathedral and the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata and find beautiful old Italian frescoes. The Galleria Nazionale has a great number of works by Fra Angelico, Correggio, Da Vinci, Tintoretto and many more from the 12th to the 18th centuries.
You might want to take one of the free walking tours to get a bit more information about this city’s fascinating past, before spending the evening sampling some of Parma’s celebrated produce at a restaurant. Finish off the night by watching an opera at the Teatro Regio – buona notte!
How to get from Bologna to Parma
There's a direct train from Bologna to Parma. Travel times depend on which train you get but hover around an hour.
As it can get crowded at Bologna train station and the ticket machines don't always work, it's best to buy your ticket beforehand.
Modena is an easy one to get to if you’re staying in Bologna, as it’s just a half-hour train ride from the region’s capital. It’s also a deeply historic town, but is much smaller than Bologna at about a quarter of the size.
Another of Italy’s gastronomical capitals, Modena is known for its own variety of Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano and of course Lambrusco wine (a slightly fizzy red wine, the recent subject of a renaissance in wine fashion).
Another of Modena’s famous exports is the traditional balsamic vinegar – this authentic syrupy version is well worth tasting if you get the chance.
Many of these highly revered delicacies can be found and sampled at one of Modena’s markets, such as the beautiful Mercato Albinelli – a covered fresh food market. Bloom or Emilia Cremeria are the best places for artisan gelato. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get a table at the world-famous Osteria Francescana, voted number 1 restaurant in the world many times over.
The quaint city center is lined with charming cobblestone streets and medieval porticoes, and surrounded by stunning Italian countryside. For a great view of the city, climb to the top of the Ghirlandina Bell Tower.
Modena is UNESCO World Heritage registered as a Capital of Romanesque Art, with many impressive landmarks and monuments including the Cathedral, the Torre Civica, the Piazza Grande, and the Palazzo Ducale.
One of Modena’s most famous features, however, is its inextricable link to Ferrari cars. The city was the birthplace of Enzo Ferrari himself and remains the headquarters for car manufacturers such as Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini. You can visit the fantastic Museum to Enzo Ferrari which is just a short walk from the city center or leave the city for a while to visit the Lamborghini Museum in Sant'Agata Bolognese.
Modena isn't not just the birthplace of Ferrari, however. Globally-loved operatic tenor singer Luciano Pavarotti was born here too.
How to get from Bologna to Modena
There's a direct Bologna to Modena train which covers the same line as the train that goes to Parma. In fact, you could easily visit both cities in a day if you're short on time.
The travel time from Bologna to Modena is about half an hour. It's best to buy your ticket beforehand to avoid any issues with the machines at the train station.
While Emilia Romagna’s western cities like Modena and Parma are all about the food, the cities that lie to the east of the region are epicenters of history and culture. Ravenna is a perfect example of this – packed full of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and beautiful art.
Something that makes Ravenna a unique and notable destination is its plethora of stunning mosaics that decorate some of the most important buildings. Head to the Basilica di San Vitale (built in the 6th century) or the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia to see some beautiful examples. For perhaps the most exquisite mosaics however, you need to go to the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.
Being the capital of the Western Roman Empire during the 5th century, Ravenna has plenty of relics of bygone eras. Home to a well-preserved legacy of Roman and Byzantine architecture, it’s a honeypot for art history lovers, especially in the areas surrounding the Piazza del Popolo. There are several art history and mosaic tours to choose from if that’s your cup of tea.
It’s also possible to walk to the tomb of Dante, which isn’t far from Ravenna’s city center. A simple marble tomb that holds the bones of one of Italy (and the world)’s most prestigious poets.
Just northeast of Ravenna lies the city marina, the lifeline to the arresting coastline of the Adriatic Sea. It’s the perfect antidote to city life, a place to appreciate the peace and beauty of this golden stretch of coast. To the north, the harbor is a hive of activity with fishermen and sailing boats coming and going, and there are plenty of vibrant beach bars and restaurants to choose from.
How to get from Bologna to Ravenna by train
It takes a little over an hour on the direct train to get from Bologna to Ravenna. Make sure you check the travel times beforehand, though, as some trains stop everywhere and take longer. This goes for any train you plan to take in Bologna.
As mentioned before, it's best to get your ticket beforehand so you're at ease.
The Republic of San Marino is the oldest republic in the world and the 5th smallest country in existence! It is a piece of history in its own right, and in many ways visiting its capital city, San Marino, feels like stepping back in time.
Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, Italy was divided into city-states which were individually ruled by wealthy families. For some reason, while the other city-states merged into the rest of Italy, the Republic of San Marino remained staunchly independent.
The city of San Marino is absolutely breathtaking. It sits atop a mountain, about 650 meters (2130 ft) above sea level. It’s a fairytale city, with beautiful towers, steep winding cobblestone streets and stunning views across the surrounding rolling hills to the Adriatic Sea.
Its iconic skyline features the picturesque castle fortress with its three towers at the top of Mount Titano. Two of these three towers can be explored by the public – Guaita and Cesta, that date back to the 11th and 13th centuries.
It goes without saying that the views from the top are staggering and well worth the hike up the hill. The towers are also home to points of interest, including Cesta’s Museum of Ancient Weapons.
You can look around the Public Palace, which is the official and administrative heart of the city, housing the country’s Parliament. It’s found on the Piazza della Libertà, where there is the spectacular white Carrara marble Statue Of Liberty, with the three towers of San Marino depicted on its crown.
There’s no end of interesting historical activities and landmarks to visit in San Marino, from the Basilica to the Torture Museum! It’s possible to buy a combined ticket to visit several of these sites at a cheaper cost, including the two public towers, the Public Palace, the Church of St Francis, and the State Museum.
Worth noting too is the tax-free shopping in San Marino, and the city’s fantastic wineries.
How to get from Bologna to San Marino
The easiest way to get to San Marino from Bologna by public transportation is to first take the direct train to Rimini, which takes a little less than an hour, and to then switch to the Rimini-San Marino BusExpress.
The bus from Rimini to San Marino goes a little less frequently than every hour. The same is true for the return bus, so make sure you plan your visit so you don't end up waiting for too long
The bus ticket is €5 and can be paid in cash to the driver. I tried purchasing my ticket beforehand at one of the newspaper stands (where you can usually get bus tickets) but the vendor said I had to get it on the bus.
Try to have exact change or close to it. I, unfortunately, only had a €50 note which I understand was a bit annoying for the driver but he was more than displeased – and expressed that quite strongly.
The Rimini-San Marino bus is a proper travel bus with air conditioning and comfortable seats so you don't need to worry about taking it on a hot day. The ride takes about an hour and provides nice views along the way, especially as you climb up to the center of San Marino.
You can find the current bus schedule here. It also includes the stops.
You can get your train ticket to Rimini here.
Ferrara can be found nestling on the southern shores of the river Po, roughly in between Bologna to the south west (a mere half-hour train journey away), and Venice to the north. It is often called the city of the Renaissance for its wealth of Renaissance-style architecture. With its impressive squares, stately porticoes and palaces it’s sometimes nick-named a mini Bologna!
Much of Ferrara’s grand architecture is a vestige of the wealth and success of the famous Este family. The Este (or Estense) dukes were responsible for the refined elegance of the city’s buildings, and its political clout during the Renaissance years.
The main Este legacy is the stunning Estense castle, which should make it to the top of your to-do list during your visit. This remarkable medieval castle dates back to its construction in 1385 and is surrounded by a dramatic moat. It was initially a fortress, but eventually became the royal residence and the lavish rooms and opulent corridors are open to the public. You can even look around the dungeons!
Many of the city’s key landmarks are bunched together in the same area, that you can easily get to by foot. There’s the stunning Ferrara Cathedral and its connected museum, the National Archaeological Museum and the extraordinary-looking Palazzo dei Diamanti right next to the Parco Massari.
Markets are always a great way to get a feel for a city, and Ferrara’s market days are Monday and Friday. Head to the Piazza Travaglio to get right in the action. While there you might feel brave enough to try the Ferrara delicacy of eel – washed down with one of the regional salt wine made from grapes that are grown near the seawater of the Adriatic.
It’s one of those cities where the whole world seems to be on a bike. You too can rent a bicycle from the city’s train station and meander through the streets on two wheels. Head to the Old Jewish Ghetto for fantastic restaurants.
Ferrara is also famous for perhaps the oldest medieval horse race in the world – the Palio of St. George in Ferrara, which takes place near the end of May.
How to get from Bologna to Ferrara by train
Ferrara is an easy 30-ish-minute direct train ride away from Bologna. Trains run frequently so you can decide rather last-minute to go. Just make sure to buy your ticket beforehand as the machines at the train station aren't reliable.
The coastal town of Rimini has long been one of Europe’s favorite vacation destinations and it’s not hard to see why. Gorgeous golden beaches peppered with brightly colored umbrellas flanking the Adriatic are popular with the tourists for good reason. It’s the ideal spot for sunning and clubbing.
Rimini may be known for its wild nightclubs, high-end restaurants and sandy beaches, but there is also a cultural side to the city to take in if you delve a little deeper. The city itself was founded all the way back in 268 BC by the Romans, and is steeped in history.
Among its key historic sites is the Roman Bridge of Tiberius which is still a fully functional bridge despite being built in 20 AD! A pretty place for a photograph, especially when the light is dimming in the evenings.
The Castle Sismondo was built in the 1400s and is now the base for multiple interesting cultural events and exhibitions – worth a visit. You’d also be wise to go and see the archaeological site of Domus del Chirurgo, the Arch of Augustus (dating back to 27 BC) and the spectacular Teatro Galli.
Rimini also hosts the National Motorcycle Museum, open since 1933 and displaying over 250 bikes of 55 different brands including Harley Davidson and Ducati among others. Chronicling the history of motorcycles in Italy it hosts two-wheeled vehicles that hark as far back as the end of the 1800s. Keep in mind though that this museum has seasonal opening times.
How to get from Bologna to Rimini
Rimini is a little less than an hour by train from Bologna. However, make sure you get one of the fast trains as some take much longer than an hour, especially in the evening.
Get your train ticket beforehand so you don't need to worry about it anymore once you get to the station.
An Emilia Romagna itinerary
I visited all of the cities above in a week's time while having Bologna as a base. I did combine Parma and Modena in one day trip as well as Rimini and San Marino as they just made sense.
If I'd had more time, I would have taken things a bit more slowly and would have dedicated a day to each. I just also wanted to make sure I had enough time to wander around Bologna as well.
You could do all of these day trips back-to-back or sprinkle them out a bit more when you're creating your itinerary.
Keep in mind that I created this program so that I could do everything by train. If you do decide to get a rental car or if you're driving to Italy, you can also easily visit some smaller places.
Emilia Romagna tours
If you prefer exploring Emilia Romagna with a guide, there are quite a few tours that allow you to do just that. The ones below come recommended by other travelers:
And that's it! I hope you enjoyed my personal Emilia Romagna highlights.
Plan your trip to Emilia Romagna
I travel a lot and I have built up a catalog of favorite sites that I always use when booking trips. These are reliable websites with good prices and a wide range of options. Read on to find out which ones I use.
If you choose to book something through these links, I'll get a small commission while the price remains the same for you. This way I can keep creating new content on this blog and not charge you to read it.
Where to stay in Emilia Romagna
- Booking.com is where I book most of my hotels because it always offers a wide range of filtering options. Its Genius program entitles you to special discounts after you’ve made a few bookings.
- Airbnb is my preferred site for booking apartments. In a similar way to Booking, it has several filtering options and I find the reviews helpful for choosing the right place.
Booking your flight to Emilia Romagna
- Kayak offers a comparison of flight prices across many different airlines. It has a useful price alert feature and very flexibel search options
- Momondo also searches the smaller airlines but I find its search function a little less flexible.
Taking the train to or in Emilia Romagna
I've personally always used Omio to buy my train tickets. It does charge a small fee but I find it very user friendly and the app is great too. On top of that, it shows you the trains for all the companies, not just TrenItalia.
Renting a car in Emilia Romagna
Rentalcars.com has hundreds of rental car companies to compare in order to find the best deal based on your personal search criteria.
Taxi2Airport is a useful tool for booking airport transfers. They operate worldwide with strict quality criteria and also have a handy online booking tool and messaging platform.
Tours, tickets, and activities in Emilia Romagna
GetYourGuide is easy-to-use and offers everything from day trips to skip-the-line tickets.
Don't forget travel insurance
No matter how well you plan your day trips from Bologna – or your trip to Italy for that matter – , something can always go wrong. A reservation gets canceled, you break a leg (literally) or you drop and break that new camera. When something like that happens, travel insurance has you covered.
I've had ongoing travel insurance ever since I started traveling to make sure I'm covered for every trip I go on but if you travel just a few times a year, you can get insured for each trip separately as well.
Don't have travel insurance yet? Check out World Nomads. They cover a wide range of activities for people from 140 countries.
PIN FOR LATER
I was invited to explore Emilia Romagna by the Emilia Romagna tourism board and iAmbassador. I designed my own program and traveled as I always do.