Alternative Italy, pt 3: Like Florence? Try Bologna.

In this five-part series taken from Lonely Planet Magazine (Aug 2010 issue) we show you just where to step off the tourist trail and start exploring the real Italy - from the hills harbouring the country's finest wines to a coastline to rival the Amalfi.

Like Florence? Try Bologna.

Climb the 498 steps of medieval Torre degli Asinelli and the city unfurls before you like a map. It's the colour of autumn leaves: rust, gold and dark apricot. Massimo Medica, director of Bologna's Musei Civici d'Arte Antica, explains, 'The colour of the city is terracotta; the surrounding land is rich in clay, from which the bricks were made.' There were once more than 100 such towers here. Massimo points to the 20 that remain, and the skyline they create. 'In the Middle Ages Bologna was an important city. Its university was comparable to Paris's. There wasn't the space to have a castle, so every tower belonged to a powerful family – the height showed the extent of their power. When a family was defeated, their tower would be cut.'

Back at street level, 25 miles of portici (covered walkways) run alongside the narrow lanes. The walled medieval city had limited room for expansion: 'The students coming to Bologna were rich and had servants. They needed places to stay, so the municipality created more space by building above the pavements,' says Massimo. The stately colonnades make this Italy's most pedestrian-centred city.

There are more artistic and architectural riches. Most chasteningly beautiful is the medieval complex of churches, the Basilica di Santo Stefano: three dim, stark, candlewax-scented interiors, the earliest built using recycled Roman columns. The Pinacoteca Nazionale is filled with paintings by the Carraccis, Raphael, Giotto, El Greco and Titian; and the 13th-century Basilica di San Domenico contains works by Michelangelo.The city's museums are housed in gilded palazzi: the Museo Civico Medievale traces the city's history through bright manuscripts and decorated armoury, while the Museo Civico Archeologico contains Italy's best Etruscan collection.

Bikes whir past, a reminder that Bologna is still a university city, home to more than 100,000 students. There's more grunge-chic and Amy Winehouse eyeliner here than anywhere else in Italy. Bars are always busy and in the central square, Piazza Maggiore, locals and tourists recline as if at the beach. They're probably considering Bologna's other achievement, its food. Besides the wheels of parmesan and dangling Parma hams, this is the home of yolky pasta: fine ribbons of tagliatelle entwined with ragù, tortellini in brodo (pork pasta parcels in a thin soup), and the artisanal ice cream of 1950s parlour La Sorbetteria Castiglione.