[The courtyard of the Archiginnasio, the first official seat of the University of Bologna, built in 1563.]

Besides being recognized as the oldest university of the Western world, the University of Bologna can now boast another record: it is among the most beautiful universities in Europe, if not the world, according to Times Higher Education, which released its top ten ranking last week (Bologna claimed the number one spot). The London-based magazine cites the beautiful architecture of its historical buildings, such as Palazzo Poggi and Collegio di Spagna (to which I add the Archiginnasio), and the Botanical Garden as reasons for its inclusion in the list. We agree (personally, I was a student at the University of Bologna, so yes, I'm partial); below is an itinerary to immerse yourself in the university history and life of Bologna. 

Archiginnasio

[The library at the Archiginnasio, where classes were once held.] 

Start at the Archiginnasio, the first official seat of the University of Bologna, inaugurated in 1563, in order to have one single place to host the Schools of the "Legisti" (canon and civil law) and of the "Artisti" (philosophy, medicine, mathematics, natural sciences and physics); before then, classes were held in various locations around town.

The building, on two floors, features a central courtyard. The walls of the rooms, the vaults of the staircases and the loggias are decorated with inscriptions, celebratory monuments for the professors, thousands of coats of arms and names of the students.

On the first floor is the beautiful Municipal Library and the fascinating Anatomical Theater, which was used for anatomy lessons. Made of fir wood, it is decorated with statues representing 12 famous doctors and 20 of the most famous anatomists of the university.

[The Anatomical Theater inside the Archiginnasio where the first scientific studies of the human body took place.]

Palazzo Poggi

The Archiginnasio was the seat of the University of Bologna until 1803, when Palazzo Poggi on Via Zamboni acquired that fuction. Still today, it is the headquarters of the university, with many faculties located on the same street, Via Zamboni.

Palazzo Poggi dates to the mid-16th century. In 1714, it housed the Institute of Sciences of Bologna, founded by Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, which would become a place of study and experimentation with a prominent role within the European scientific debate.

The ancient rooms of the Institute of Sciences are located today in the Museum of Palazzo Poggi, with Mannerist and early-Baroque frescoes by painters Pellegrino Tibaldi, Nicolò dell'Abate and Prospero Fontana; the museum houses the furnishings and collections from what were once the rooms of geography and nautical studies, military architecture, physics, natural history, chemistry, human anatomy and obstetrics.

[The Museum of Palazzo Poggi, with collections from the prestigious Institute of Sciences of the 18th century. Photo credit: www.sma.unibo.it.]

The tower of the Specola was erected to house the astronomical observatory. That’s where you’ll find the Museo della Specola, where the instruments used by Bolognese astronomers through the centuries are on display.

On the ground floor, the Aula Carducci is dedicated to the poet Giosuè Carducci, the first Italian to win the Nobel prize for literature, and a lecturer on the Italian language at the University of Bologna for more than 40 years.

To immerse yourself in Bolognese student life, spend some time around Via Zamboni. 

[Via Zamboni, where many of the university's faculties are located.]

Botanical Garden

Not far from Via Zamboni, on Via Irnerio 42, is the Botanical Garden of the University of Bologna, one of the oldest in Europe. It is a museum of the vegetal world, with collections of dried plants collected since the 16th century for a total of approximately 130,000 plants. Besides the collections, the current Botanical Garden features several recreations of natural environments.

Collegio di Spagna

In a different area of the historic center, closer to Piazza Maggiore, the main square, is the Collegio di Spagna, founded by Cardinal Egidio Albornoz in 1364 to house the Spanish students enrolled at the University of Bologna. It has been in operation ever since.

Protected by high walls, the building’s architecture and design stand halfway between the Gothic and Renaissance styles. A beautiful 16th century porch leads to the brick courtyard, where the students’ rooms face.

[The courtyard of Collegio di Spagna, the only foreign college at the University of Bologna in operation since the Middle Ages.]

The rooms in the building are richly decorated, especially the library, the archives, the Emperor’s room.

The Collegio di Spagna has hosted such prominent figures as Ignazio di Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire Charles V.

The Collegio di Spagna wasn’t the only foreign college at the University of Bologna, but it is the only one that has been in operation since the Middle Ages. It is open only to male students with a degree from a Spanish university coming to Bologna to obtain a specialization, preferably in law subjects. Access is only for the most deserving students.