Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, Bergamo is one of the prettiest towns in Lombardy, yet most travelers arriving at Orio al Serio Airport (one of Northern Italy’s main hubs) simply get on a bus to Milan and ignore it. What a mistake!
Bergamo is well known throughout Europe for being a low-cost gateway for northern Italy. However, most travelers tend to ignore how beautiful this town is and the many treasures it contains. Here below I’ve put together a list of great reasons why Bergamo should be on your travel list.
1. A perfect blend of old and new
Bergamo is divided into two districts, Bergamo Bassa (Lower Town, the more modern area) and Bergamo Alta (Upper Town, the charming old town). You can take a walk through the wide streets and tree-lined boulevards of the Lower Town, with its elegant buildings and fashion boutiques, and then be catapulted into the Medieval charms of the Upper Town, a fairy-tale-like area of narrow cobbled streets and old-fashioned shops and cafes.
These two districts are connected by a funicular railway, which was opened in 1887 to save the upper town from isolation after the development of the lower town.
2. Beautiful sights
Bergamo can seem quite small compared to neighboring Milan, but it’s packed with interesting things to see and explore. Highlights of the Lower Town include the Donizetti Theatre, named after the famous music composer Gaetano Donizetti, who was born here, and the Accademia Carrara, which is one of the oldest and most important art galleries in Italy. It hosts a valuable collection of paintings by great artists such as Mantegna, Canaletto, Raphael, and Botticelli. Partnered with the Accademia is the GAMeC, the modern art gallery founded in 1991 which houses a large selection of Italian paintings from the XX century, as well as works by contemporary artists.
Once in the Upper Town, it could be a good idea to head straight to the tourist information office in Via Gombito and grab one of their helpful maps. All the main routes through the Upper Town lead to the lovely Piazza Vecchia, the heart of Bergamo’s old town, overlooked by beautiful medieval and Renaissance buildings, such as the 12th-century Palazzo della Ragione, the symbol of Venice’s long reign here, the bell tower known as “Campanone” (so called because in the past the bell used to toll 100 times at 10 pm every night to remind citizens of the old curfew, a tradition that continues today), and the Palazzo Nuovo, which used to be the seat of Bergamo’s Town Hall and today houses the Angelo Mai Library, with an incredible collection of ancient books.
Everything is so picture-perfect here that “you can’t move a single stone, it would be a crime”, as architect Le Corbusier commented during his visit to Bergamo in 1949.
3. Architectural wonders
The rich historical heritage of Bergamo is well reflected in the multitude of remarkable buildings and palaces scattered around town. Bergamo’s architecture was strongly influenced by Venice since the town was under the rule of the Republic of Venice between the XV and the XVIII century.
One square not to be missed is Piazza del Duomo, encircled with three religious buildings characterize by stunning architectural details: the Duomo (the town’s cathedral), the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore (the most remarkable religious building in town, housing Donizetti’s grave) and the Colleoni Chapel (the tomb of the renowned soldier Bartolomeo Colleoni) with its extraordinarily colorful marble façade.
4. Stunning views
From its scenic position, Bergamo offers plenty of spots to enjoy pleasant and panoramic strolls. I suggest taking a walk along the Venetian Walls (recently awarded the status of Unesco World Heritage site), one of the symbols of Bergamo. Built in the XVI century by the Republic of Venice to defend the city, this 6km circuit shapes the town’s landscape and offers spectacular views over the lower town and the surroundings. Surely a great place to enjoy beautiful sunsets!
Another great spot is the Campanone in the Upper Town, where you can climb up to its top and enjoy great views over Bergamo and beyond. Also, when you are in the Upper Town, take a second funicular at San Alessandro gate and go even higher to San Vigilio. It’s an old hilltop settlement with a ruined fortress (nothing particularly impressive, I have to say) and fantastic views over the surrounding mountains. I particularly liked the tranquillity of this area and I strongly suggest not to limit your visit to the castle but also to take a walk around. There are beautiful villas and panoramic spots to enjoy. You could also stay for dinner in one of the lovely restaurants dotting the area.
Back in the Old Town, don’t miss the Rocca fortress on the St. Eufemia Hill. The fortress was built in the XIV century and hosts the city’s history museum and is surrounded by Parco delle Rimembranze, a flowery park with sweeping views over the city, the mountains, and Milan.
4. Excellent food
Did you know that Bergamo has been named European Region of Gastronomy 2017 together with Brescia, Cremona, and Mantua and that the city hosts the Food Film Fest? Food plays an important role in Bergamo and locals know how to indulge themselves in delicious food. You’ll have plenty of choices, from savory to sweet dishes!
Bergamo’s gastronomy is based on simple local products, with a strong influence of the Venetian cuisine. On top of a series of delicious cheeses and cured meats produced locally, typical dishes of Bergamo include casoncelli (fresh pasta filled with meat and served with a butter sauce) and polenta (boiled cornmeal that can be cooked in different ways, for example with butter and cheese or with a succulent stew). A famous polenta dish is the so-called polenta e osei, a Venetian recipe with roasted small birds. There is also a sweet version that populates the windows of bakeries and patisseries and consists of a sponge cake covered with yellow marzipan and topped with little chocolate birds.
Another popular dessert is Torta Donizetti, the cake created to mark the centenary of the death of the famous composer and has now become a signature product of Bergamo.
Bergamo is also the birthplace of stracciatella ice-cream (aka the vanilla-flavored ice cream with crunchy chocolate pieces), which was invented by Enrico Panattoni, owner of La Marianna restaurant, in 1961. This place is a must when you are in town and you’ll find it on the way to the San Vigilio funicular, at San Alessandro gate.
5. Off the tourist radar
Bergamo is a great option to spend a pleasant day away from the crowds of Milan amid cobblestone streets and old palaces As I said earlier, many people make the mistake of missing out Bergamo on their way to more popular places in northern Italy, hence the town retains a peaceful and more authentic atmosphere. The majority of people you’ll see are locals, which is great because it will give you a much better feel for the local community.
As you can see Bergamo is a fantastic city with loads of things to see and do. Try to plan an extra day or two next time you’ll fly to Orio al Serio airport, I promise you won’t be disappointed!
- Bergamo city center is only 5 km away from Orio al Serio airport and you can easily reach the city center by taking the no.1 bus. Alternatively, if you are in Milan you can catch one of the many trains departing from the Central Station that will bring you to Bergamo in less than one hour.
- If you travel by car, parking can be a problem. There are many blue-zone parking spaces but these usually have a maximum stay of two or three hours – not ideal if you plan to spend the day there (plus, they have an hourly cost). Here’s my tip: drive up to the entrance of Orto Sociale and then turn into Via delle Tre Armi, where you can park your car for free. This is a great spot that not many tourists know – just beware of the various restricted traffic zones (ZTL)! From there you are right at the entrance of Porta San Giacomo, one of the city gates that lead to the Upper Town.
- If you need some refueling before heading back to the Lower Town, then grab a seat at Caffè della Funicolare on Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe for a refreshing drink and great views of the Città Bassa from the terrace.
Until next time,