Is Bologna a jumping off point for Emilia Romagna? Or should you stay in Parma or Modena or even Ferrara?
Bologna is a big city. You can easily fly in from Paris or Frankfurt and be at your apartment/hotel in 20 min. The main train station, Bologna Centrale is part of the downtown and you can be in Parma or Modena within an hour by train.
Bologna has everything, high-end shopping, a nightlife, Michelin restaurants. It also has a lot of students, hordes of tourists, and plenty of trinket dealers. The town is big. You could easily explore a quarter of the town and not get bored. The guidebooks can detail walking tours and sites to see. Bologna is a culinary focal point, so there are plenty of cooking classes and schools you can attend to fill your time.
Parma and Modena by comparison have much less in the way of tourists, students, or hordes of people. They are quaint towns compared to Bologna. You can walk the entire city center of Parma around the edge in an hour on a fast walk. Modena, is even smaller if you don’t venture out of the old center.
By train, Parma is an hour to Bologna, Modena is 30 minutes. If you want a Gucci bag, take the train to Bologna and go back to Modena. Modena has very well regarded restaurants, one of the best in the world actually. Parma has a great apertivo culture.
While I’ve never stayed in Ferrara, I visited. It is north of Bologna on the same train line that would take you to Verona/Vicenza/Venice. The city has an intact wall, similar to Lucca, although much larger. The town itself is also bigger than Lucca, but with charming streets. I could see an extended stay in Ferrara if you wanted to get both Emilia Romagna and some day trips in to the Veneto.
It’s a give and take, Bologna or the outlying towns? I think it depends on you and your personality. You want slower, eat lunch within a 10 minute walk, take a nap, don’t wanna fight a busy Main Street or smell the stank of yet another student’s cigarette smoke? Parma/Modena are your places.
If you just want to trophy hunt and say you “saw the sights” stay in Bologna and day trip everywhere. There’s always a train passing through Bologna to take you somewhere else for the day.