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A city guide to Bergamo, Italy

With its hilltop medieval citadel encircled by Venetian walls, views of the snow-capped Alps, a top-notch fine arts museum, and some of the region’s best restaurants, Bergamo is more than just a gateway to its starry neighbour Milan.

Published 28 Feb 2021, 08:00 GMT
A view of Bergamo from the top of City Hall Tower.

A view of Bergamo from the top of City Hall Tower. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Most Italian hilltop towns are hard-won, accessible only for those up to navigating long, winding mountain roads. Not so Bergamo. This vibrant city has all the charm of a remote Tuscan town, but is just 15 minutes’ drive from its own international airport. Despite Ryanair putting Bergamo on the radar when it landed at the then tiny airport in 2004, this is still an unsung destination. Often used as a jumping off point for skiers bound for Lombardy’s eight mountain resorts, or as gateway to the region’s lakes and vineyards, Bergamo also draws fashion-focused travellers who fly in, hit the Oriocenter mega mall (Italy’s largest, adjacent to the airport), or dash to one of Milan’s design emporiums, then fly straight out. All of which makes Bergamo’s beautiful medieval hilltops even more of an exclusive joy.

In the foothills of the Alps, this is a two-for-one city-break experience with the Città Alta (upper city) and Città Bassa (lower city) offering dramatic contrast. The former is all cobbled streets and narrow vicoli (alleys) overhung with leafy balconies, centred around the small but immaculately formed Piazza Vecchia. Bergamo Alta crackles with medieval atmosphere in winter, overlooked by the austere clock tower that once rang nightly curfew for Bergamaschi to return within the city walls. Then, fanning out beneath the fortifications, Bergamo’s other half is a handsome Italian conurbation of wide boulevards, opera houses and buzzing bars. Connecting Bassa and Alta is a 19th-century funicular whose two little red coaches make an almost vertical climb through elegantly stacked gardens and parkland, offering expansive views over the Po Valley’s plains: as unexpectedly charming as this two-tiered city itself.

See and do
 

Go to church: Hidden behind the lion-topped loggia overlooking Bergamo Alta’s central Piazza Vecchia — a feline symbol of Venetian rule over the city for more than three centuries — you’ll find hidden not one but three spectacular religious edifices: the Duomo, Colleoni Chapel and Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. The latter’s plain sandstone exterior belies a boggling confection of marquetry mapping the vast vaulted ceiling — hundreds of limbs and wings of saints and angels intertwined. It’s also the burial place of Donizetti, Bergamo’s beloved 19th-century bel canto opera maestro. Next door, the pink and white marble Renaissance exterior of Colleoni Chapel signals the resting place of one of Italy’s most feared mercenaries, Bartolomeo Colleoni, whose coat of arms features three testicular attributes — he suffered from orchitis so had three testicles — which are often rubbed for good luck.

See the nativity: From November to January, the Duomo Museo displays La Luce Del Natale nei Tesori Miniati, nativity scenes set among archaeological treasures from the Cathedral’s collection amid foundations honeycombed with Roman ruins. Visit in early December during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to hear carols broadcast around the cathedral and across Città Alta. 

Walk the walls: You can pay to climb Piazza Vecchia’s vociferous Campanone bell tower for panoramic views of snow-capped Alps and misty plains but, frankly, Città Alta itself is one big bella vista. Roads and ramparts encircling the hilltop citadel provide endless vertiginous vantages, while the hardworking two-carriage Città Alta Funicular allows easier ascent from new town to old, and equally panoramic views. San Vigilio Funicular climbs higher, for distant views
of Milan across agricultural plains and acres of parkland to the northwest. It’s like stepping instantly into the quiet, leafy Lombardy countryside.

See priceless paintings: Accademia Carrara hosts some of the greatest hits of Italian art. Some 2,000 works dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries reside in this heavy-hitting provincial museum, with religious and Renaissance masterpieces by the likes of Mantegna, Lorenzo Lotto, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Titian and Botticelli. 

Teatro Donizetti, an 18th-century opera house in Città Bassa, has a year-round season.

Photograph by Gianfranco Rota

Sleep
 

B&B La Torre House: For a cosy stay, B&B La Torre House sits just off Alta’s main shopping and dining street, offering rooms in a 19th-century townhouse, with part-exposed brick walls, contrasting terracotta tiles, and simple modern fixtures, fittings and bedding. 

Gombit Hotel: The closest thing Bergamo has to a design den, Gombit Hotel is a contemporary standout on a central-yet-quiet Città Alta cobbled side street. Ignore the somewhat whimsical frontage that looks like a Vespa shop circa 1980. All the shiny red and silver is banished upstairs in the generously sized guest rooms in exchange for cool browns and earthy tones. 

Relais San Lorenzo: This seems like a minimalist hotel by Bergamo Alta’s medieval design standards, but since the five-star Relais San Lorenzo is set around a spectacular sprawling Roman ruin, embellishment probably seemed redundant. The hotel’s highlight is its restaurant, sunk underground with tables set among ancient columns of masonry. 

The city’s funicular connects the neighbourhoods of Città Alta and Città Bassa.

Photograph by Getty Images

Eat
 

Polentone: Polenta defines Bergamo dining. Italy’s first kiosk dedicated to this ultimate winter warmer, Polentone, opposite the Funicular Alta top station, serves up the city’s cornmeal favourites done every which way — from creamy and cheesy to sauteed with porcini, and topped with hare, wild boar and pancetta. 

Da Mimmo: This place serves local classics — exemplary winter comforts like saffron risotto, meaty pizzas, and casoncelli — pasta stuffed with rich pork and beef, sometimes sweetened with raisins or amaretti biscuits. Adjoining Mimi La Casa dei Sapori resembles a medieval Carluccio’s; deli-dine under vaulted ceilings, eyeballing shelves stocked with the legumes, grains, pastas, wine and rice produced in northern Italy. 

Da Vittorio: In a former private members country club on Bergamo’s outskirts, Da Vittorio is a fun fine-dining one-off. A phalanx of waiters attends diners, head chefs (brothers from the proprietorial Cerea family, see page 37) give patrons cheery guidance, and dishes include painted Sicilian prawns, the signature tomato pasta for which you’re provided a bib, and cannoli piped tableside. Bookending dinner: a trolley of locally made Franciacorta fizz, a treasure chest of truffles, a vast bureau of cheese, and a towering dresser of chocolates and candy made in-house, all wheeled to your table. 

View of the city from the top of the City Hall Tower.

Photograph by Getty Images

After hours
 

Theatre: Bergamo produced one of Italy’s most beloved opera composers, Gaetano Donizetti, with twice annual festivals held in his name in November and June. Teatro Donizetti, an 18th-century opera house in Città Bassa, has a year-round season including his works. 

Cocktails: Have a pre- or post-opera cocktail at T-Bakery or adjacent Bu Cheese Bar: sleek, late-opening, snack and drinks spots on Città Bassa’s Via Petrarca. On Alta’s central Via Gombito, Location 58 is the best address for cocktails, in a glam 1950s-style setting, while La Birreria offers a broad selection of craft brews; Il Dispensario does both in an intimate bar on lovely little Piazza Mascheroni, by the north-western wall.

Dine and dance: It’s more about wining and dining than dancing and cocktails in Bergamo, but Setai, near the Orio mega mall is the place to dress up, see and be seen against a backdrop of disco-techno served up by Italian DJs and a respectable number of international names. 

Published in the Lombardy 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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