Bergamo is a city with two unique city centers. There’s lower Bergamo or Città Bassa and upper Bergamo, or Città Alta.
In general, Città Bassa is the commercial heart of Bergamo and Città Alta is the touristy centro storico. Bergamo Alta is the oldest part of the city, dating from the Middle Ages, with 16th-century Venetian walls fortifying the city then and preserving the city now. Like a crown placed on a king’s head, towers and steeples poke out above the walls encircling the hilltop. Though Bergamo itself has plenty to see, Bergamo Alta merits most of the attention.
From afar the ancient walls circling the hilltop, spiked periodically by towers and steeples make the town seem like a crown on a king.
The safe vantage point and beautiful view have made Citta Altà prime real estate since the Middle Ages, but now the cost of living in the privileged peak is so high that most of the houses sit empty. Today, fewer than 2% of Bergamo’s population can claim to be from Bergamo Alta. Still, at 10:oo p.m. you’ll hear the bell tower ringing just as it has ever day since its construction in the 12th century.
The best way to see the ancient city is to simply wander, turning only once you’ve bumped into a wall of the town, but knowing a bit of the city’s history and background only add to the haloed aura this hill-town. The city is elegant. With the lights of Bergamo Bassa twinkling below you, it’s the perfect place for an evening date.
What to See
The Venetian Walls
The powerful Venetian Republic controlled most of northern Italy at one point or another, but Bergamo represents its westernmost outpost. An important city for the Republic for its strategic geographic location, the walls were built between 1561 and 1588 to protect the city from Milan and France. Though eventually Venice’s control of the city fell, the walls never have. Instead, they’ve preserved Città Alta nearly exactly as it was when the walls were built. Visitors can walk alongside the walls, a part of which runs through a park ….
Città Alta is accessible from four different gates called porte in Italian: the Porta San Giacomo, Porta Sant’Agostino, Porta Sant’Alessandro e Porta San Lorenzo. Which you use depends on the direction you’re coming from and your means of transportation. Porta San Giacomo is the only of the four gates that is exclusively for pedestrians. Porta Sant’Alessandro seems to sneak up on the city from behind, spitting visitors out at the second funicular. Perhaps Porta San Giacomo is the most beautiful of the four with its rose-white marble.
There are two ways to get to Città Alta from Città Bassa: walk or take the funicular. The walk can be meandering if you follow the road, or straight up if you take the medieval brick stairs. The walk is a satisfying way to introduce yourself to the city satisfying, but the funicular itself is a Bergamo institution.
The funicular has two tracks. The first, inaugurated in 1887, connects the lower city to the heart of Città Alta. The second heads from Porta Sant’Alessandro to San Vigilio, a higher part of the hill and a castle of the same name. Essentially, upper upper Bergamo.
The heart of the city is Piazza Vecchia. Here you’ll find most of the major sights. Front and center you’ll see the fountain, aptly named the “Fontana di Piazza Vecchia.” Beyond that are the porticos of the 12th-century Palazzo della Ragione and the adjacent bell tower, Torre Civica or Campanone, built around the same time. Its this bell tower that rings 100 times each evening at 10 pm, in memory of the curfew Città Alta once had when the gates were locked and the city closed for the night.
Pass under one of the brick arches of the Palazzo della Ragione in Piazza Vecchia and you’ve officially entered Piazzetta Duomo. Though technically part of the same plane, the fact that it has its own name seems to separate the civic from the spiritual. Here, you’ll find four of Bergamo’s most beautiful religious sights: the Duomo of Bergamo dedicated to Sant’Alessandro, the city’s patron saint; the awesomely Baroque Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore; the Cappella Colleoni and its beautiful façade and finally, the Baptistry or Battistero.
Tempietto di Santa Croce
Castello di San Vigilio
At the highest point of the Upper City, for centuries Castello di San Vigilio was the home of the most powerful rulers of Bergamo. The first records of a fort on the location date back to the 6th century. Today, more than a castle stands the ruins of a castle. The structure would probably not be worth visiting if it weren’t for the 360 degree view. From the San Vigilio Castle you can see over Bergamo, the fields beyond, the foothills of the Alps and, on clear days, the skyscrapers of Milan, some 25 miles south.
What to Eat
Bergamo’s food isn’t such a uniquely developed cuisine, rather it shares and steals from nearby locales in northern Lombardy, like Valtellina and Brescia, as well as Venice, particularly the hinterland ruled by the Venetian Republic. Still, there are a few tastes to try while exploring Bergamo and Città Alta. Look for polenta, local cheeses, foraged mushrooms and lake fish. Here are some other suggestions for your visit:
Especially famous in Milan, the reach of ossobuco spans far beyond the city limits. You can be sure that the Bergamaschi know how to cook the favored cut just as well. Named after the hole in the bone of the veal shanks, the marrow in the middle is like the prize in the center of a cereal box. Most ossobuco is served on a bed of either risotto or polenta.
Bergamo and its surroundings have obtained DOP, Protected Origin Denomination, status for nine of its local cheeses. There’s the ancient “Strachitunt”, said to have been made as far back as 1380, Branzi from the city of the same name, and Taleggio cheese and all its variations, from Val Taleggio.
How to Get There
Bergamo is about 25 miles from Milan, roughly one hour away. Trains and buses run frequently, and the A4 highway connects the two cities directly.
Highway buses (bus autostradale) and North-east transport buses (Nord Est Trasporti) run from Milano Lampugnano, Cadorna and Piazza Castello directly to Bergamo Station. Trains from Milan, Lecco, and Brescia take you into the city center, running about 40 minutes to an hour.
Bergamo also has its own airport, Il Caravaggio International Airport most known as Orio al Serio. Port to Ryanair, Europe’s budget airline, Orio al Serio has supposedly become the 4th busiest airport in Italy.