Bergamo is located in the northern part of Italy, in the Lombardy region which also includes Milan and Lake Como. It used to be a part of La Serenissima — the Most Serene Republic of Venice — and the wall built by the Venetians around the city to defend it from invasions now divides Bergamo into the Città Alta, its historic center on the hills, and the more modern expansion into the plains below, the Città Bassa.
You arrive by train at the Città Bassa, which is only 50-ish minutes from Milan, but you can easily walk across the road from the train station and take Bus No. 1 to the old city. On the way up you’ll travel along the Viale delle Mura (literally, the avenue of the walls) from which you’ll have spectacular views of the city below.
From the Città Alta, a funicular ride will take you up to the castle of San Vigilio, the residence of Bergamo rulers of old. It’s a legit castle with towers, tunnels, and even a secret passage to another fortress in the area. The sweeping views at the top of the Castello di San Vigilio were key to the defense of the city in the past but nowadays the panorama is the major draw for visitors.
The funicular going up is located just behind the stone arches of Colle Aperto, which in turn is accessible by the same Bus No. 1 that stops at the train station down in the Città Bassa. You can purchase a 24-hour transpo pass for 5 euros or a 72-hour pass for 7 euros — these will work on both the bus and the funicular, and even on the bus going to/from Bergamo’s Orio Al Serio (Il Caravaggio) Airport.
Straight up, one of the best things about Bergamo? The lack of crowds. Of course, it was winter when we were there, hardly peak season, but even so, it was a stark contrast to the scenes we encountered outside the Duomo in Milan, where we stopped by before heading to Bergamo. When you can’t move around freely because you’re trying not to photobomb anyone’s Insta-poses…that gets old pretty fast. In Bergamo, although there were definitely tourists, you get the sense they were there to see Bergamo, not to be seen in Bergamo. And an environment like that makes a world of difference in the way you are able to appreciate a place.
Probably the most photographed building in Bergamo is this one: the Cappella Colleoni. The Colleoni were one of the most prominent families in medieval Bergamo and Bartolomeo Colleoni one of the most important condottieres (or mercenary leaders) of the age. If you’ve been to Venice, you might have seen the statue of him there, riding his horse, as he was one of La Serenissima’s most valued captain-generals. However, his remains (and that of his beloved daughter Medea) lie back home in Bergamo, inside this beautiful chapel.
(Fun fact: the family name Colleoni is said to have come from the Latin word coleus, which means testicle, and the family’s coat of arms used to feature two pairs of white testicles on a red field above one pair of red testicles on a white field. Bartolomeo, therefore, in every sort of way, had balls.)
Another important landmark in Bergamo: the Piazza Vecchia. It is said that Le Corbusier adored the piazza so much, he called it the most beautiful square in Italy (or the world, depending on your source). Of Bergamo itself, he declared, “you can’t move a single stone, it would be a crime.” And while the Most Anything of Anything is always up for debate, what’s undeniable is that the Piazza Vecchia, the heart of Bergamo’s Città Alta, is a pocket of old-town Italian charm ringed by beautiful architecture. You can sit in the sunshine, eat gelato, and people-watch as locals and visitors alike drift through the arches of the Palazzo della Ragione. Or you could stay till 10 PM and listen to the Campanone, the bell tower looming over the piazza, ring 100 times to signal the closure of the city gates, a tradition dating back to the Venetian days. Personally, one of my favorite memories of Bergamo is the hour we spent just hanging out between the columns of the Palazzo Nuovo, waiting for the Cathedral across the square to open, thinking, “Ahhh, now THIS is a vacation.”
Speaking of the Palazzo Nuovo: it’s the beautiful building that forms the northern border of the Piazza Vecchia, serving as Bergamo’s Town Hall for 300 years. It now houses the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, one of Italy’s most important libraries. It’s also not a bad place to soak in the winter sun while people-watching at the piazza.
As beautiful as Bergamo was, I don’t think it would have been as special for us if we hadn’t had the perfect place to call home while were there.
We were so lucky we found this bed and breakfast in Citta Alta. It was gorgeous — even more beautiful than its marketing photos, if you can believe it — and perfectly located a short walk away from Colle Aperto and the funicular going to Castello di San Vigilio. A narrow stone-walled alley leads to a private entrance and, outside the room, a private hillside garden overlooks Bergamo town.
There’s a microwave, a generously stocked fridge, and a Nespresso machine. The free breakfast includes freshly baked croissants personally delivered each morning by our host’s sister.
Most of all, the warmth and kindness showered on us by our gracious host and his family made us feel safe, welcome, and at home. I could not say enough good things about this B&B and would stay here again in a heartbeat, if I am ever lucky enough to find myself back in Bergamo.
* I’m using my phone to post this — my first time — so if anything looks funky, I’ll fix it in the morning. ^_^