15 Jul Bergamo: A Day Trip to the City Beyond the Airport
Much like London Stansted, Paris Beauvais, and Brussels Charleroi, the airport known as Milano Bergamo isn’t really anywhere near the city it’s named after.
In fact, Bergamo’s Orio al Serio is a good 50 kilometres from the hustle and bustle of the real Milan. The city itself is tucked away in the greenery of Lombardy, with not a skyscraper or a fashion blogger in sight.
Bergamo is often ignored entirely by travellers, who arrive in what they thought was Milan on low-cost flights, and promptly hop on the first bus out, towards the city they actually meant to visit.
And, until recently, this was how I’d always experienced Bergamo too.
However, when my original flight to Gdansk was rescheduled, leaving me with a day off work and nothing to do, I decided it was a sign. I set an early alarm, and made my way towards a city I’d only previously seen flash past from a bus window, for a solo day out.
The two Bergamos
The first thing you need to know about Bergamo is that it’s divided into two parts: the Città Bassa (Lower Bergamo) and the Città Alta (Upper Bergamo). As you can see from the photo below, one is situated right on top of the other – no prizes for guessing which is which.
Lower Bergamo is more modern than its upper counterpart, and isn’t particularly different from many other normal, Italian towns. You can find a handful of pretty buildings (and a few less beautiful ones), some shops, churches, and restaurants cheaper than those in the Upper town, but it’s nothing I’d personally write home about.
Upper Bergamo, on the other hand, is an absolute gem. It’s one of those classic postcard Italian towns – a collection of higgledy-piggledy, red-roofed houses perched on top of a lusciously leafy hill, with the Alps in the background. Aside from the fact that its position offers incredible views over the surrounding area, the Città Alta is also historically fascinating, architecturally stunning, and easily explorable in just a day (or even less, if needs be).
If you like walking uphill all day (and consuming yellow food in all its forms – more on that later) Bergamo’s Città Alta is for you.
The great benefit of Bergamo being an airport town is that it’s super easy to get to.
I took the high speed Frecciarossa train from Turin to Milano Centrale, and then changed onto a Regionale for the last leg, which took about an hour. By 11am, I was ready to start my adventure.
If you’re arriving in – or leaving from – Bergamo’s Orio al Serio airport, the almost disconcertingly punctual bus n°1 takes you from the airport to the centres of both Upper and Lower Bergamo, stopping at the train station on the way.
In the spirit of adventure, I decided to skip the bus and go on foot from the station instead.
I briefly pondered taking the funicular (viale Vittorio Emanuele II 60) for the final part of the ascent, but took one look at the queue for tickets and decided against it. If you’re a bit less impatient than I am, the funicular is a super quick and inexpensive way to avoid a steep climb.
Admittedly, on a hot day and with all my belongings for a 4 day trip packed into a heavy backpack, the footpath (the entrance of which is slightly before the Funicular station) was quite a mission.
I did arrive at the top looking somewhat more dishevelled than I would have liked, but the view from the top (luckily) turned out to be worth the effort.
See what I mean?
From the top of the path, you can catch your first glimpse of the famous Venetian Walls – the result of Venice being in control of this part of Italy for around 300 years, and one of the most famous features of the city (also a UNESCO Heritage Site, dontcha know).
What to do in Bergamo Città Alta
Like many of Italy’s prettiest cities, despite having a few museums and monuments, Bergamo was really designed for aimless wandering.
Not having a whole lot of things to actually do makes it a pretty great day trip destination.
Explore the town centre
The Città Alta is a pocket-sized town, and it only takes about an hour to feel like you know your way around.
Even if you’re particularly orientationally challenged, Upper Bergamo is closed in by the city walls, meaning that it’s impossible to ever be totally lost. If in doubt, keep on walking, and you’ll eventually find the edge of the town, and your bearings.
After my uphill struggle from the Lower town to the Upper one, I made my way towards the quaint, narrow via Bartolomeo Colleoni.
This road – which turns into Via Gombito at a certain point – runs pretty much all the way through the Città Alta. It has restaurants and shops on either side, and a whole lot of tourists in the middle.
Despite the crowds, the road is well worth walking down, as it’ll take you past Piazza Vecchia, where most of Bergamo Città Alta’s main sights are located.
In Piazza Vecchia, you’ll find the intricately decorated Cappella Colleoni (below) and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, as well as the cathedral, the 12th Century Palazzo della Ragione (the old administrative headquarters of the city), and the civic tower, as well as a few little cafés.
Much like in Venice, I found that the main street of Bergamo was a bit too crowded for my liking, but the rest of the place was a total ghost town.
When agoraphobia struck, I swung a left down a random street, and explored the rest of the city almost totally alone, finding pretty buildings and adorable little viewpoints along the way.
See Bergamo from above
If there’s one thing pretty much all my trips have in common, it’s an almost obsessive need to see places from above. So as soon as I set eyes on the Campanone tower in Piazza Vecchia, you can bet your life that I wanted to climb up it.
I paid my €5 and prepared myself for the 230 stairs. However, they were closed to visitors that day, and I ended up having to take the lift instead.
Word of warning: the lift is tiny, and goes up a dark, stone shaft… it’s not for the claustrophobic (which I didn’t realise before getting inside it, naturally).
The view from the bell tower is stunning – you can look down on the rooftops of the town, check out the main sights of the city from above, and see mountains and green hills for miles around.
This spot also offers a particularly great bird’s eye view of the Cappella Colleoni, which is even more stunning from above, like some kind of Italian Hogwarts.
The ticket for the Campanone also includes a visit to the Palazzo del Podestà underneath, which houses a surprisingly high-tech exhibition about the history of Bergamo, which is worth a visit while you’re there.
Taste some local delicacies
As I mentioned earlier, the Bergamaschi are big on yellow food.
Although sunny and glorious in the summer, this area of Northern Italy can get very cold in the winter. So it’s really no surprise that the local delicacies mainly consist of carbohydrates soaked in butter and covered in melted cheese. If you’re on a low cholesterol diet… well… I hear Japan’s nice at this time of year.
If you want to try out the local delicacies while in Bergamo and aren’t all that fussed about your arteries, order casoncelli alla Bergamasca (a kind of ravioli stuffed with different types of meat, sultanas, amaretti, and breadcrumbs, and covered with a buttery sauce), polenta taragna (a deliciously creamy dish of polenta which contains almost illegal quantities of cheese), or any kind of risotto you fancy.
If dessert is more your thing, pop into any of the pasticcerie and pick up a serving of polenta e osei – a dome of cake topped with a thin layer of marzipan, with a chocolatey marzipan “bird” on the top (seeing the bird requires a bit of imagination, but trust me, that’s what it’s supposed to be).
My trip to Bergamo was – uncharacteristically – not particularly food-centric, as a) I’d already had a big breakfast and wasn’t particularly hungry when I arrived and b) the restaurants in the Upper Town were just. so. expensive. The vast majority of eateries in the Città Alta are located on the main thoroughfare, and all therefore come with tourist prices. I ended up grabbing a slice of pizza from the Tresoldi bakery instead and finding a nice, quiet spot to eat it before continuing to explore.
Discover a peaceful oasis at the botanical gardens
After my speedy lunch (ok, ok, and a polenta e osei cake – when in
Rome Bergamo…) I was ready for a bit more walking. I decided to make my way a little further up the hill (I did warn you this place had a lot of those) and discover the Orto Botanico.
Bergamo’s botanical gardens are open every day and are totally free to get into.
They’re peaceful, blissfully empty, and full of shady spots to sit down and relax. They also offer some pretty nice views over the Città Alta, as they’re located on a different hill from the rest of town, and are spread out over various levels, divided by geographical area.
By the time I arrived at the Orto Botanico, a big storm cloud was already making its way towards Bergamo, mercifully bringing with it some refreshingly cool wind, but threatening a bit of a damp end to the day.
I wandered around the exotic plants for as long as I could justify, but when the storm clouds were well and truly overhead, I decided it was best to leg it back to the town centre. I dived into the first café I could find for shelter and a bit more caffeine before catching the bus to the airport.
Bergamo may not top many Italy itineraries, but if you’re flying into Orio al Serio, or spending some time in Milan, it’s close enough to merit a day trip, and – unlike many other more popular destinations – feels like a charming little discovery.
And hey, even if the history, architecture and views don’t win you over, the yellow food certainly will.
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