The presence of the oldest university in the western world (Alma Mater Studiorum) has characterised the city's life since the institution was founded in 1088, its conventional date of foundation, established by a commission of scholars. Bologna immediately began to attract the movers and shakers of Italian culture and, in recognition of this tradition, it was named a European Capital of Culture in 2000.
The city is dominated by the two leaning medieval towers, "della Garisenda" and "degli Asinelli" (the second is 97.6 m high) that have always symbolised it. They were built by the two noble families who gave them their names. They have disappeared, like many aristocratic families before them, and instead of protecting the city from invasion, the towers are the destination of hordes of tourists who come for a panoramic view of the city by climbing their rough, interminable stairs. Alongside the towers, Bologna's other symbols are the warm colours of the city's facades, which blend the pallet from red to bright yellow and the endless, and very characteristic, porticoes that were constructed during the expansion of the town centre.
The covered passageways reach Piazza Maggiore, the heart of Bologna, which contains the grandiose city hall, the medieval Palazzo del Podestà, the crenellated Palazzo dei Notai, built between the 14th and 15th century and the imposing Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, the city's patron: it is the fifth largest church in the world and its construction lasted from 1390 to 1659. It has a characteristic facade, the lower part covered in marble and the rest left raw, with an ornate portal with splendid 15th-century sculptures. Inside, there are three naves, polychrome altars and, on the counter-facade, a meridian from 1655.
The centre of Piazza Maggiore is occupied by the Fountain of Neptune, one of the loveliest fountains of the 16th century, adorned by bronze statues, masterpieces by Giambologna. Bologna's old town centre deserves particular attention because each street hides a large or small treasure and leads to a piazza where a pearl of art is not hard to find. For example, one can't leave the city without visiting the austere Church of San Domenico, built in the 13th century by the Dominicans and remodelled in the 18th century, which contains the marble sarcophagus of San Domenico, a masterpiece of 13th-century sculpture; or pausing in Piazza Santo Stefano, in front of the homonymous Basilica that consists of an enchanting complex of medieval buildings, or having gone inside the Church of San Francesco, one of the city's most characteristic buildings.
There are always new reasons to visit Bologna, which has very active museums that take advantage of the large number of buildings available to fully satisfy the thirst for knowledge that Bologna has traditionally aroused. The Pinacoteca, the national art gallery with its masterpieces of Bolognese painting from the 14th to 18th centuries, the Museo Civico Archeologico with its precious prehistoric and Etruscan collections, and the Galleria d'Arte Moderna are simply not to be missed.
For a real taste of Bolognese life, don't miss an opportunity to dine in one of the city's characteristic trattorias that preserve the lively and cordial atmosphere of days gone by. In fact, Bolognese cuisine is one of the best in world, especially for first courses and the city's simple, popular trattorias and inns are its jealous guardians. So, no one can say that they know the city well unless they've tasted at least one of its excellent first courses: tortellini, tagliatelle or lasagna. Finish your visit with a stop at the colourful open-air market in Piazza VIII Agosto, called "La Montagnola," the king of antiques and second-hand clothes.