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Bergamo is a lovely small town in Lombardy and one of Italy’s best secret gems. Unknown to many visitors to Italy, it is often bypassed in favour of its more glamorous neighbour, Milan. But if you do visit, Bergamo will win you over with its hilltop medieval citadel, romantic cobblestone streets, amazing views and delicious local food. After all, this is the place that created stracciatella ice cream. Yum!
Bergamo is two cities: the upper, older Città Alta, and the lower, newer, Città Bassa. Although nowadays Milan and Venice are the stars of northern Italy, Bergamo used to be a very important place in the Middle Ages. Back then, Venice and Milan even went to war over it!
The top things to do and see in Bergamo, Italy
1. Take the funicular (cable car) from the lower Bergamo to the upper city
Nowadays the upper and lower cities are easily accessible by car and bus. However, one of the most authentic things to do in Bergamo is to take the old funicular that connects the two cities. In operation for 120 years now, the “funicolare di città” is much loved by the locals and offers breathtaking views along the way. It also passes through the Venetian walls that were used to defend the medieval city.
2. Take the funicular from Bergamo Alta to San Vigilio
Another authentic experience to have in Bergamo is to take the city’s second funicular, from the upper town to San Vigilio hill. This route is less busy, as San Vigilio is the city’s highest area. Once there, you can go for a walk in the “Parco dei Colli” (“Hills Park”), a protected green area of 4,700 hectares.
3. Enjoy a café at Piazza Vecchia
Piazza Vecchia (Old Square) is the heart of Bergamo’s upper town. Le Corbusier called it “the most beautiful square in Europe”. The square has been the centre of Bergamo since Roman times, as this is the location of the city’s ancient forum. Nowadays it is a great place to have coffee or dinner while admiring all the historic buildings around you.
4. Take a stroll along the Venetian Walls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The 5-km long Venetian walls are one of the city’s highlights. Moreover, UNESCO added them to its World Heritage Sites list in 2017, much to the delight and pride of the people of Bergamo. As you walk along the walls, you’ll notice a few viewing telescopes: on a clear day, you can even see Milan from there!
5. Visit Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni Chapel)
Perhaps the most beautiful Rennaisance building in Bergamo, with an interesting story to boot. The chapel was built by Bartolomeo Colleoni, a famous mercenary captain of the time, born and raised in Bergamo.
Given his violent lifestyle, at some point, he felt the need to do penance for all the violence he committed as a soldier. So, he built this ornate chapel, which is also his final resting place.
Legend has it that touching the coat of arms on the Chapel’s gate at midnight brings good luck. But Bartolomeo being Bartolomeo, his coat of arms depicts his, ahem, testicles. Nevertheless, if we are to judge by how shiny they are today, apparently a lot of people don’t mind rubbing them for luck!
6. Admire the impressive basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
Very conveniently for the modern traveller, all the main churches of Bergamo are built next to each other. So much so that a part of Santa Maria Maggiore was destroyed for Bartolomeo Colleoni to build his chapel. What a nice guy, huh?
Anyway, the thing with the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is that it doesn’t catch your eye on the outside. But it’s a completely different story inside! Gorgeous frescoes, tapestries, golden gilded decorations, paintings and statues adorn the church.
The locals went all the way to make this a grand church and for good reason. The basilica is much older than the Colleoni Chapel and it was built in the mid-1100s. At the beginning of the 12th century, a terrible plague spread across Europe.
So the people of Bergamo turned to the Virgin Mary to save them, promising to build her a beautiful church if she did. Their prayers were answered, ergo the basilica. Lastly, inside there is also a memorial to famous composer and Bergamo native, Gaetano Donizetti.
7. See Italian Renaissance art at Accademia Carrara
It is probably my favourite museum in Bergamo, it is also the oldest art academy in Italy. The Accademia hosts great works by famous 15th-century artists such as Raphael, Botticelli, Canaletto, Lorenzo Lotto and Giovanni Bellini. This is one of the most valuable art collections in Europe.
8. Climb the Campanone (Civic Tower) for amazing views
One of the best places for panoramic views of Bergamo is the top of the Campanone tower in the Upper City. Unfortunately, when I visited the place, it was rainy and foggy (it was autumn), so I didn’t get to see much of it. Nevertheless, the locals say the view is worth the 230-steps climb to the top. Thankfully, there’s also a lift.
By the way, if you stay overnight in the Città Alta, don’t be surprised to hear bells ringing at 10 pm. That’s the bell of the Campanone, ringing a hundred times (yes, 100 times!), a remnant from the Middle Ages. During the Venitian domination of Bergamo, the ringing of the bells reminded the residents of the upcoming closing of the city’s gates.
9. Watch an opera at Teatro Donizetti
Bergamo is the birthplace of Gaetano Donizetti, the renowned 19th-century composer. So no visit to Bergamo is complete without a night at the opera. I was fortunate enough to have this experience and I totally recommend it.
The theatre itself is impressive and beautifully decorated. When the play ended, and on our way out, theatre personnel offered the ladies red roses. I don’t know if it was a special occasion that day or if they do it every time. But it was a beautiful gesture anyway.
10. Visit GAMeC, the modern art gallery in lower Bergamo
With so much history around you in Bergamo, you’d be forgiven to think that’s all there is to it. But Bergamo has a lot to offer for lovers of modern art too. More specifically, GAMeC is the modern art centre of Bergamo. It has over 3,000 works by modern masters, namely Balla, Boccioni, de Chirico, Kandinsky, Morandi and more. The name, GAMeC, stands for “Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art” and it is right in front of Accademia Carrara.
11. Taste stracciatella ice cream where it was first created
Admittedly, food in Bergamo (and Italy in general) is so good that it deserves a post of its own. But if it’s authentic experiences you’re after, then this is one you can’t miss. The ice cream flavour called stracciatella was first created in Bergamo, in 1961.
Back then, the owner of café La Marianna (still open in upper Bergamo), who was also the owner of a restaurant and a gelateria, had an idea. He wanted to create an ice cream that would “tear itself up”, or “stracciare” in Italian. After a few tries, he succeeded in 1961, thus creating one of the world’s most popular ice cream flavours. At La Marianna, to this day they make the real stracciatella, in the same way, using the same ice cream machines. Delicious!
12. Enjoy a breathtaking view of lower Bergamo from Torre dei Caduti
If you enjoy panoramic views, then this place is for you. In the lower town, just off the old city gates of Porta Nuova, stands Torre Dei Caduti, or Memorial Tower. This tower is dedicated to the memory of those lost during WWI.
In addition to the views at the top, on your way up you get to learn more about the city’s modern centre, as designed by 19th-century architect Marcello Piacentini. That said though, the tower is six storeys high, so it’s not for the faint of heart (or legs, for that matter!). Still, if you can make it up, the amazing view will make it up for your troubles.
What to eat in Bergamo
It’s difficult to find a place in Italy where food is anything less than awesome and Bergamo is no exception. So here are the places I like the best while in Bergamo, just to get you started:
- At Da Mimmo for real Pizza Margherita, made to a secret 60-year-old recipe.
- Almost any bakery for Polenta e Osei, Bergamo’s famous dessert. It is a cake made of polenta (corn mash) and marzipan (almond paste).
- Hostaria del Relais San Lorenzo, to dine among ancient Roman ruins.
- Caffè del Tasso, for delicious cakes and coffee in Piazza Vecchia.
- Al Donizetti, in the chic Via Gomboti, for coffee and dessert.
- Vineria Cozzi, for the cosy, warm atmosphere.
- La Marianna, where the stracciatella ice cream was first created in 1961
- Delicious focaccia at Il Fornaio
Where to stay in Bergamo
It’s hard to beat Città Alta for its charm and beauty. In fact, I stayed in a lovely B&B in the upper town and greatly enjoyed it. To be honest, I preferred staying in the upper town, as I like it better (I’m romantic like that ☺️)
However, there are plenty of accommodation options between 4-star hotels, B&Bs and holiday rentals, both in the upper town and the lower.
For instance, one of the highest-rated 4-star hotels is Relais San Vigilio al Castello, in Città Alta, near the funicular station of San Vigilio. Its location, at the highest point of Bergamo, means it has great views of the whole area.
If you’re looking for an eco-friendly stay, then you can check out GombitHotel, also in Bergamo Alta. The hotel is just a 2-minute walk from Santa Maria Maggiore and the other two churches, right in the centre of Bergamo. In addition, it is part of Booking.com’s Sustainable Travel programme, which means it takes significant steps to make your stay more sustainable (according to Booking.com).
How to get to Bergamo
Bergamo has an international airport, the Orio Al Serio. It is well connected to many European cities, mostly by low-cost carriers.
It’s fairly easy to get from the airport to the centre of Bergamo. The best option is to take the No 1 bus. It runs every 30 minutes, daily from 6.00 am till midnight. The trip takes just 10-15 minutes. You can buy tickets from kiosks at the airport, Bergamo train station and the Transport offices at Largo Porta Nuova.
By Train from Milan
Bergamo is just about 45 km from Milan. This is less than an hour by train. Especially if you take the high-speed “Frecciarossa”, or “Red Arrow” trains. In this case, you’ll be in Bergamo from Milan in just 40 minutes!
There are around 43 train trips to Bergamo from Milan every day. The first is in the early morning and the last is just before midnight. All trains depart from either Milano Lambrate or Greco Pirelli stations.
Prices depend on the time and day of travel, as well as the type of train (regular vs express). Trains also have two classes: Economy and First Class.
Day trips from Bergamo
If you have more time in Bergamo and have a car, then it’s worth exploring some more of Lombardy. Idyllic Lake Iseo, the island of Monte Isola and Lovere, one of Italy’s most beautiful villages, are just around the corner.
If it’s wellness you’re interested in, then you should visit the thermal spa of San Pellegrino Terme, with its elegant Art Nouveau buildings and gorgeous mountain backdrop. If the name sounds familiar, this is the birthplace of the mineral water by the same name.
To sum things up
Bergamo is one of Italy’s most underrated destinations. Often overlooked for its more famous neighbours, Venice and Milan, it pleasantly surprises the visitor with its charming medieval town, great food and culture. Although you can visit it on a day trip from Milan, Bergamo is worth at least a weekend. You won’t regret it!