Many European travellers visiting northern Italy consider Bergamo just an airport, a gateway to other Italian cities. There are even tourists flying in and out on the same day just for shopping. But there are plenty of things to do in Bergamo, a beautiful medieval town yet often underrated.
Sitting on the foothills of the pre-alps, close to Milan and Lake Garda, Bergamo is one of the most charming towns in the Lombardy region. Bergamo is an easy day trip from Milan, and once there, you’ll wonder why this beautiful little city is not yet on the radar of anyone loving Italy.
There Are Two Bergamo: The Modern “Lower City” And The Old “Upper Town.”
Indeed, Bergamo is split in two. The contrast between the modern lower Bergamo, lying on a plain, and the old town Bergamo, sitting on a steep hill, is striking. The Venetian walls and their four monumental entrance gates divide the two parts of the city.
Bergamo Alta, as the old “upper town” is called in Italian, might be small, but there’s a lot to see.
Here are my recommended things to do in Bergamo for a memorable day.
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1. Admire Piazza Vecchia, the heart of Bergamo old town
Whichever direction you walk, even without a map, you’ll soon find yourself in Piazza Vecchia. You’re in the heart of Bergamo old city, and at one of the most beautiful squares in Lombardy.
Surrounded by magnificent buildings and landmarks spanning from the Middle Ages to the late Renaissance, you’ll hardly know where to look first.
Indeed, the white classical Palazzo Nuovo (home of the Angelo Mai library hosting an impressive collection of old books), the sober medieval Palazzo della Ragione, the bell tower, also called Campanone, and, at the centre of the square, the Contarini fountain – encircled by mysterious sphinxes -, all combine in pure harmony.
2. Travel back to the Middle Age at Piazza Duomo
Walking under the pointed arches of the Palazzo della Ragione you’ll reach the small, asymmetric Piazza Duomo. It will only take you a glance to see more astounding buildings. Unlike Milan’s cathedral, whose imposing facade overlooks a large square emphasizing the sculptures and the spires which seem to stretch toward the sky, the entrance to Bergamo’s cathedral is so squeezed in the tiny square that it’s barely noticeable.
During the Middle Age, Piazza Duomo was the religious and political centre of the city. Therefore, this small square hosts some of the most important landmarks.
3. Discover the beautiful Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica
However unassuming the bare medieval entrance of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore may seem, the grandiosity of its interior and the beautiful frescoes decorating the walls and the dome will blow your mind away.
According to popular tradition, a vow made to the Virgin to protect Bergamo from the plague led to the decision to build Santa Maria Maggiore, whose erection started in 1137. During the following centuries, the Basilica was progressively enlarged and beautifully decorated with sculptures, tapestries, and frescoes. If you’re passionate about music, have a look at Gaetano Donizetti’s tomb.
4. Marvel by the lavish Colleoni Chapel
Adjacent to the basilica is the Colleoni Chapel, probably one of the most famous buildings in Bergamo. Bartolomeo Colleoni, a condottiere from one of the most outstanding families in the area, commissioned the mausoleum. The erection of the Chapel, housing the tombs of Colleoni and his beloved daughter Medea, took place between 1472 and 1472.
The polychrome facade, with its white, red, and black intarsia, and the exquisite sculptures and columns, is a masterpiece of late Renaissance art. Inside the chapel, the white funerary monument dedicated to Medea strikes for its classical and serene composition and how the sculptures stand out from the background of black and white lozenges.
5. Admire Bergamo Old Town From Atop The Bell Tower
Unless the weather is awful, one of the best things to do in Bergamo old town is to climb the bell tower (there’s also an elevator if you prefer avoiding the stairs). From the top of the Campanone, you have a 360 degrees view of the city and a stunning perspective on the Colleoni Chapel and the old town.
As you look from top to down, rather than the opposite, you might be reminded (I am, very often) that this is one of the most important aspects of life: being able to look at things from opposite angles. Walking on the tower, you’ll also discover Bergamo’s context: the “lower town” and the plain on one side, the foothills and the pre-Alps on the other. From this elevated viewpoint, you get an idea of this geographic area between the Alps (further north) and the plain.
6. Have a stroll in the picturesque alleys of Bergamo upper town
Bergamo Old Town is small, and there’s no better way to enjoy it than strolling through the charming cobblestone streets.
Let your eyes wander around. Look at the pretty shops, and spot fascinating old signs reminding you of the time before neon. Similarly, savour the elegant ancient bakeries and pastry shops with their beautifully displayed food specialities. Lastly, don’t miss looking at polenta e osei – literally polenta with birds. It’s a local pastry which is very pretty to see although, at least to my taste, way too sweet.
7. Discover the masterpieces at the Accademia di Carrara
Unless art and museums give you a skin rash, you shouldn’t miss visiting the outstanding Accademia di Carrara.
This art collection is much smaller than the Uffizi in Florence, the Vatican Museums in Rome, or the Ducal Palace in Venice. Still, it showcases amazing masterpieces from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance and is a must-see for art lovers.
8. Walk along the Venetian Walls
Among the things to do in Bergamo, you can’t miss a walk along the Venetian Walls. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Venetian Walls were erected in the sixteenth century by the Republic of Venice to defend the city from enemy attacks.
The 5 km long path offers beautiful views of the city. Moreover, on a clear day, you can see as far as Milan.
9. Take a ride with the funicular to Bergamo old town
Enjoy the trip on the funicular, which for over 120 years connected the new and the old Bergamo.
Once there, continue your journey with the second funicular from Bergamo old town to San Vigilio hill. From San Vigilio, you’ll discover more beautiful views.
10. Taste the delicious local food specialities
In Italy, every region has its food specialities. Here are a few local Bergamo dishes you have to taste:
- If you like pasta, you can’t miss eating Casoncelli. These homemade ravioli filled with beef, bread crumbs, egg, parmesan cheese, and sausage and seasoned with melted butter and sage are divine.
- Polenta alla Bergamasca: made with local cornflour and simmered, stirred in an artfully way,
- and the Donizetti cake, dedicated to the famous opera composer, a native of Bergamo.
If you have the chance, don’t miss out on tasting the local Moscato di Scanzo, a rare meditation wine, and heaven in a glass.
A quick Bergamo travel guide
How to get to Bergamo
Orio al Serio International airport has many flights, mostly operated by low-cost carriers, connecting Bergamo with many cities throughout Europe. Check out the schedules and the cheapest flight options here.
From Orio al Serio, a regular bus service (every 20 minutes) connects the airport with Bergamo train station and the upper town. Alternatively, you might consider renting a car if you want more freedom.
From Milan, regional trains regularly leave from Milano Centrale and Milano Porta Garibaldi. The journey takes about 50-60 minutes.
Where to stay in Bergamo
The stylish Relais San Vigilio al Castello is the perfect choice for a romantic getaway in the old medieval city. The property had been recently refurbished, and the style is delightful. You can also enjoy a special treat at the gourmet restaurant and its unique setting within an archaeological site.
Modern and stylish, the boutique Hotel Petronilla in lower Bergamo has a small fitness and wellness centre and is only a few steps from the shopping district and the bus stop.
The Gombit Hotel is in the heart of Bergamo’s old town. It features a design decor in an old building, giving it a boutique-style vibe.
Search for -> more accommodations in Bergamo.
Where to eat in Bergamo
Warm and cosy, La Tana serves local dishes in a lovely décor.
Vineria Cozzi, in the heart of Bergamo’s old town, is another popular restaurant for locals and tourists.
Note: This article was written in the context of the #inLombardia365 campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with Lombardy Tourism. As always, Wild About Travel retains all editorial control.
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