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 a bus to Milan ignoring the place entirely… 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 my favorite things…
The 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.
So many beautiful sights
Bergamo can seem quite small compared to nearby Milan but there are so many interesting things to see and explore here.
Highlights of the Lower Town include the magnificent 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 and 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 preserves a large selection of Italian paintings from the 20th century, as well as works by contemporary artists.
Once in the 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 “Campanone” (so called because in the past the bell used to toll 100 times at 10PM 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. Next to Piazza Vecchia is Piazza del Duomo, surrounded by three fine religious buildings: the Duomo (the city, ’s cathedral), the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (the most remarkable religious building in the city, housing Donizetti’s grave) and the Cappella Colleoni (the tomb of the renowned soldier Bartolomeo Colleoni, with an extraordinarily colorful marble façade – a masterpiece of the Lombard Renaissance).
Amazing views and walks
From its scenic position, Bergamo offers plenty of spots to enjoy pleasant and panoramic strolls.
My first recommendation is to take a walk along the Venetian Walls (recently awarded the status of Unesco World Heritage site) one of the symbols of Bergamo. Built in the 16th century by the Republic of Venice to defend the city, this 6km circuit shape the town’s landscape and offers spectacular views over the lower town and the surroundings – the perfect 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.
While in the Old Town, you can take a second funicular at San Alessandro gate and go even higher to San Vigilio, a 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 the area with its beautiful villas and panorama spots. 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. Built in the 14th century, the fortress hosts the city’s history museum and is surrounded by and is surrounded by Parco delle Rimembranze, a flowery park with sweeping views over the city, the mountains and Milan.
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, a unique event in Italy that celebrates the best movies about food from all over the world, with a series of side events including food and wine tastings and meetings with farmers? Food plays an important part here 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 include casoncelli, fresh pasta filled with meat and served with a butter sauce, and polenta, boiled cornmeal that can be cooked in different ways, from polenta taragna with wheat flour, butter and cheese, to polenta e osei, a Venetian recipe with roasted small birds. The latter has 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.
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.
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.
As you can see Bergamo is a fantastic city with loads of things to see and do, so try to plan an extra day or two next time you’ll fly to Orio al Serio airport – you won’t be disappointed!
Bergamo city centre is only 5 km away from Orio al Serio airport and you can easily reach the city centre 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 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 may 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,