A guide to Bergamo: an Italian Capital of Culture for 2023

Surrounded by green hills and towering Alps, this Lombardy beauty is a playground for lovers of art, antiquities and exploring the great outdoors.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in PIazza Vecchia.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Julia Buckley
Published 19 Mar 2023, 06:00 GMT

For most people, Bergamo is a city of two parts: the historic Città Alta (Upper Town), and Città Bassa (Lower Town). Zoom out a little, though, and you’ll see those two halves are surrounded by a spectacular whole — nature herself. While the famously flat Po Valley unfurls south of the city towards Milan, clasping Bergamo in a gentle embrace are tumbling green hills, while poking up behind them, north of the city, are the snow-capped Orobic Alps. That makes this one of Italy’s best outdoor cities — a place where you can start the day with a hilly hike, pop into town for lunch and some art or history tours, and then head out to the mountains in the afternoon. 

Perched on a bluff overlooking the Po Valley, Bergamo’s Città Alta was founded by Alpine-dwelling Celts, and then taken over by Romans, who made it into an important stop for those crossing the Alps. In 1428, the Venetians arrived, making it the western outpost of their empire — that’s why the historic centre has the elegant porticoes of a Veneto town. It’s also why the Città Alta is wreathed in gargantuan city walls, rippling around the hill as they turn nature itself into a defence. Today, those walls are still standing — protected by UNESCO, they’re one of the many reasons Bergamo was selected as Italian Capital of Culture 2023, alongside its neighbour, Brescia. 

This is a place of split personalities, too. The Città Alta oozes history — it’s a place where Roman mosaics hide under shop tills, a ruined medieval church lurks below the cathedral and snarling Venetian lions guard the city fountain. Below the walls, connected by a funicular, the Città Bassa is the ‘modern’ part, where former countryside villages have been enfolded into Bergamo’s sprawl. 
The one thing uniting it all? The great outdoors. Whether it’s riding a tuk-tuk around the hills, e-biking in the mountains, or even sitting down in the centre with a plate of casoncelli — Bergamo’s famous stuffed pasta, drenched in butter, is a true Alpine dish — those peaks are never far away. 

Venetian walls in Bergamo.

Venetian walls in Bergamo.

Photograph by Getty Images

What to see and do

Piazza Vecchia: This square has been the heart of the Città Alta since Roman times. Once the ancient Forum, it’s now a stately Venetian affair with grand palazzos wrapped around the ornate, 18th-century Contarini fountain, guarded by lions and sphinxes. 

Don’t miss the Romanesque basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, stuffed with ancient tapestries and inlaid wood carvings by Lorenzo Lotto, or the Cappella Colleoni, the bombastic resting place of a legendary renaissance mercenary. Beneath the cathedral lies a Roman street housing the Museo e tesoro della Cattedrale, home to frescoed walls of the original medieval cathedral. 

Accademia Carrara: Just below the Venetian walls is Bergamo’s fine arts academy, with its bijou but first-rate gallery. Dutch and Flanders artists get a good showing, but the focus is on Italians, particularly Venetians: Titian, Tiepolo and Bellini, alongside Pietro Longhi’s cameos of 18th-century lagoon life. 

Palazzo Moroni: This outré 17th-century palazzo in the Città Alta — all wildly frescoed walls and trompe-l’œil figures dangling from the ceiling — opens on to beautiful grounds at the back. Rose-filled gardens and neatly clipped topiary lead to a rolling meadow pointing towards the mountains, with deckchairs inviting passersby to sit a while. 

Aperitivo in Piazza Pontida: Once a village below Bergamo and now part of the Città Bassa, Borgo San Lorenzo comes alive at aperitivo hour, especially around Piazza Pontida. Il Maialino di Giò offers an array of wines by the glass, including local Franciacorta labels (Lombardy’s legendary Champagne-like sparkling wine), and taglieri (boards) of local salami and cheeses. 

Tuk-tuk city wall tour: The Venetian walls are so vast — up to 75ft high and three miles in circumference — that last summer the city launched tuk-tuk tours to help you make the circuit. You’ll loop the Città Alta, glimpsing the Alps, the Po plain and, on a clear day, Milan glittering in the distance. 

San Vigilio funicular: From Largo di Porta San Alessandro, Bergamo’s second funicular cranks passengers 300ft above the Città Alta to the top of San Vigilio hill. Up here, in one of the quieter corners of the city amid terraced fields with thick chestnut forest, there are views across Lombardy, and a network of hiking trails taking in Parco dei Colli (‘Hills Park’), a protected green area of more than 11,600 acres. 

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Citta Alta.

Photograph by Getty Images

Where to shop

Evelyne Aymon and her fashion graduate daughter Fulvia hand-stitch chic headbands with fabrics by the likes of Gucci and Missoni in their shop set above a Roman mosaic on Via Bartolomeo Colleoni. 

When it’s cold up in the Città Alta, you’ll need this shop, full of cashmere clothes made by local artisans in a joyful colours. In fact, its a go-to even in warm weather — they do dresses and tops for summer. 

Rita carves and decorates beautiful items from wood, and even turns dried fruit into trinkets in her atelier. Want a unique souvenir? Get one of her wooden eggs, personalised with your favourite musical score or book quote. 

Where to eat

With tables outside overlooking the hills unfolding below, bar-pasticceria La Marianna is the perfect place for lunch on the hoof. Leave room for gelato – one of Italy’s iconic flavours, stracciatella (chocolate-veined cream), was born here in 1961, and the Panattoni family still make it with a bain marie to melt the chocolate by hand. 

In a 14th-century palazzo in the Città Alta, Da Mimmo focuses on Slow Food products, with most of its ingredients, from vegetables to meat, coming from local suppliers. If it’s full, its trattoria Mimì is just across the street, with excellent daily specials, from cheese-swirled polenta taragna to casoncelli swimming in butter. damimmoelina.com

Italian superchef Enrico Bartolini’s Bergamo outpost overlooks the tranquil garden of Le Funi hotel. The Michelin-starred restaurant offers ‘blind’ five-course tasting menus, where you’re not told what you’ll get, or a 10-course seasonal extravaganza. 

Bottoni, a type of ravioli filled with hen, lobster and lobster broth.

Photograph by Paolo Chiodini

Where to stay 

A block beyond the train station in the Città Bassa, a 10-minute trot from the centre, this old-school three-star is a perennial favourite, with each floor themed by a different colour. A little retro but comfy and friendly. 

An easy walk from the train station and a quick stagger from Piazza Pontida, this top-notch chain hotel has great views of the Città Alta from the top floor. Don’t miss the great little sushi restaurant next door, which is great for post-aperitivo food. 

Book early to get into this bucolic boutique hotel, just outside the Città Alta, where the San Vigilio funicular trundles up past the peaceful garden. The modern rooms have perky pops of yellow and pink, while breakfast is served in the cellar in winter and on the patio in summer. 

What to do outside Bergamo

Lake Endine

Just 20 miles northeast of the city is Lake Endine, etched between the mountains of the Val Cavallina valley. Head to Monasterolo del Castello, on the southeast side, where you can swim, rent a pedalo or try fishing at the Casa del Pescatore. 

The Val Seriana valley

E-bikes make the impossible possible in the Alps. A four-hour nature-focused tour of the upper Val Seriana valley includes cheese tasting at a baita (mountain dairy — only open in the summer) and views from the spectacular Salto degli Sposi near Presolana. 

Barbellino lakes

A three-and-a-half-hour hike takes you from Valbondione, 33 miles northeast of the city, to the two Barbellino lakes. Refuel at Curò refuge, at 6,383ft on the first (artificial) lake, before trekking for about an hour to a turquoise basin at the foot of the Torena and Strinato peaks. 

Orobic Alps

Unfolding beyond the city, the Alpi Orobie, or Orobic Alps, take up half the area of Bergamo province. They cover a 50-mile-wide stretch of peaks and valleys, with altitudes of up to 9,845ft.

The rhododendrons and lakes of Porcile Tartano Valley in the Orobie Alps.

Photograph by Alamy

Getting there & around

Bergamo’s Orio al Serio airport is a low-cost hub, so there are excellent non-stop flight connections from the UK. Ryanair flies from nine UK airports including Belfast International, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Stansted, while Wizz Air flies from Cardiff and Gatwick. EasyJet also flies from Gatwick and new Italian airline Aeroitalia flies from Heathrow. 
Average flight time: 1h50.

It’s also an easy journey by train: take the Eurostar to Paris, then the 6h40 Frecciarossa to Milan. From there, hourly trains take 50 minutes to Bergamo. Bergamo is compact and is easily explored on foot — though you might want to take the funicular from the Città Bassa to the Città Alta. Regular buses connect the funicular with the station. It’s best to hire a car if you’re heading into the mountains.

When to go

Bergamo is wonderful year-round though it comes into its own in spring, when temperatures average around 18C. Summer is warmer, at around 25C, while visiting in winter means you can cram in some skiing in the mountains.

More info

Travel Republic offers three nights’ B&B at NH Bergamo from £291 per person, room only, including EasyJet flights from Gatwick. 

Published in the Alpine 2023 guide, distributed with the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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