While all roads may lead to Roma, sometimes it’s worth going against the grain. If you’re going to Milano and you fly into BGY, you’ve already done most of the work. So take a day and get to know Bergamo. Home to classy cathedrals, cobblestone streets, and culinary delights, this engaging city gets overlooked by the swarms of tourists headed straight to Milano. Their loss is your gain: avoid the crowds and take some time to relax and explore the historic Citta Alta.
If you’re short on time, or only spend half a day in Bergamo, head straight to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Like many of the major sites in Bergamo, it is located off of the Piazza Vecchio. As you round the corner after entering the basilica be sure to pick up your jaw. It will be on the floor. I wasn’t prepared for the elaborate interior and an audible gasp escaped from my wide open trap.
This church has art for everyone, no matter what your preference is. 16th century tapestries from Firenze, marble lion sculptures from Verona, 12th century frescos, and ornate wooden confessionals. Don’t even get me started on the ceiling.
Like many churches in Italy, this 11th century church was built on top of an ancient Roman temple. And also, like many churches in Italy, it was continually added to, repaired, and reworked, depending on the fashion of the ruler of the day up to the 19th century.
Next door, the Cappella Colleoni, is also worth a quick visit, as is the neighboring Battistero. There’s not much inside either, but you’re there, so you may as well walk the extra 20 feet and check them out.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore dazzled me with the complexity of its decoration, but the Duomo’s clean lines and liberal use of gold also left me awestruck. Two completely different houses of worship located literally 15 steps away from each other. I happened to visit as the choir was in rehearsals so I sat down for a few minutes to take it all in.
A thought struck me as I sat down and looked up to the heaves: maybe my next career should be a cathedral light-bulb changer! There certainly are lots of them up there that must need to be changed. And I’m not afraid of heights, so… I see potential! Also take a quick visit downstairs. The crypt was straight out of a sci-fi movie, with its sleek coffins and minimal decorations.
As I hinted at earlier, if you only have half a day to explore, go straight here. The major churches are just off of the square as are many restaurants and shops. I enjoyed climbing up the old city hall for a bird’s eye view of the square and some of the town. If you are up on the top of the hour, plug your ears; those bells aren’t decorative! In the evening there were musicians around the fountain as well.
If you take the Funicular up to Citta Alta, you’ll have to backtrack a bit to see the historic city walls, but if you’re taking the bus from the airport, there is a bus stop right there. A very convenient way to start your trip in the Citta Alta. There are several gates around the old town, but the Porta S. Giacomo was the easiest to visit and gives the best views. The benches along the wall are a great opportunity to rest for a bit if you’re so inclined.
The main thoroughfare is Via Bartolomeo Colleoni.This street passes through the Piazzia Vecchio and along its cobblestoned streets you will find an assortment of shops, bakeries, restaurants, and of course, more churches.
It wouldn’t be a vacation if I didn’t try the local dessert! In Bergamo that happens to be Polenta E Osei. My love of anything and everything corn is no secret, so when I saw “polenta” in the title I didn’t ask any other questions and just ordered one. I wish I had ordered two!
Marzipan, chocolate, honey, sponge cake, need I give you more reasons to try this? Ok… rum, hazelnut cream, and more butter than I feel comfortable publishing. The name and look is a bit misleading, ironically there is no polenta in this sweet dessert. The name refers to its look which comes from yellow fondant or marzipan. I’m tempted to re-create the dish on my own; the Bergamo tourism site has the recipe on hand if you want to taste this unique dish in whatever place you call home.
With a history of Venetian, French, Austrian, Roman, and Hunnic rule, Bergamo has seen its fair share of conflict. The Fort of Bergamo has several tributes to the various branches of the Italian military, including extinct branches like Cavalry. Walking the perimeter of the fort gives sweeping views of the lower city and surrounding hills. From the backside of the fort, you have a nice eye-level view of the many church towers in the Citta Alta.
The small museum in the fort is focused on the city’s more modern history, starting with the invasion of Napoleon in 1796. It continues through the unification of Italy in 1870, with the conquering of Rome.
If you have kids, buy the combo ticket to the Archaeology and Natural History Museums in Bergamo (only a couple of Euros). The Archaeology Museum has information on the founding of Bergamo from its Celtic (yes, Celtic) roots through the middle ages. The Natural History Museum has a very extensive collection of taxidermy animals from around the world, it is worth a stroll through. And with almost all of the information in Italian, the kids won’t feel the pressure actually learn anything either! Win-win!