Bergamo is the hidden gem of Lombardy, an Italian destination often missed or forgotten in favour of its more famous neighbour, the design capital and fashion city of Milan. But if you do choose to head to Bergamo, then make sure to wander its cobbled lanes and soak up its historic atmosphere. After all, you certainly won’t be disappointed! Here’s a quick travel guide to this beautiful Italian city and the best things to do in Bergamo.
Visit the Tempietto di Santa Croce
Lying in the shadows of the Basilica di Santa Maria, this stunning and incredibly ancient 11th-century chapel is hidden in plain sight, to the extent that most simply pass it by, never even realising that it exists (even the locals!). The octagonally shaped Tempietto di Santa Croce is small and filled with murals dating all the way back to the middle ages. Though the interior of the ecclesiastical building is often closed to the public, it can still be enjoyed from the outside!
Admire the Old Bishop’s Palace
The ‘broletto’ is located next to the Basilica di Santa Maria and was built on the site of the old Roman forum. Open to the public and free to visit, the Old Bishop’s Palace is covered in ancient murals and old paintings and is often empty, meaning that you’ll most likely be able to admire this masterpiece free from the distraction of others. Wander around its dark depths and emerge on the other side to enjoy the delights of the Piazza Vecchia.
Dine in Il Circolino
Tell me: have you ever dined in a former prison? Well, neither had I until I headed to Bergamo. Stroll down a small pedestrianised path away from the old town centre and you’ll end up in front of a vintage wooden door. This is the beginning of your ultimate dining experience at Il Circolino. Outside, the sound of music drifts into the alleyway and the smell of fresh pizza lingers in the air. Head inside for some authentic Italian cuisine and plenty of local wine!
Visit the Duomo di Bergamo (Bergamo’s Cathedral)
Bergamo was once home to two cathedrals, though only one survives to this day. You’ll find the sole surviving cathedral in the very centre of the old city, just next to Piazza Vecchia. Part of the Roman Catholic church, this ecclesiastical building is often overlooked by its more sumptuous counterpart, that of the basilica Santa Maria.
Dedicated to Saint Alexander of Bergamo (whose remains are now housed in an urn on the cathedral’s grand altar), it’s the seat of the city’s current bishop and was constructed in the 15th-century. Wander inside, and you’ll see intricate decor, beautiful frescoes, and the tiara of Pope John XXIII, now Saint John XXIII.
Admire the Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni Chapel)
Ornately designed and even more intricate to its interior, the chapel of Colleoni is a breathtaking mausoleum dedicated to Mark, Bartholomew, and John the Baptist. Built in the 15th-century, this church is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture you could hope to find anywhere in Northern Italy, let alone in Bergamo!
Please note that as much of the collection is in private hands, photography is not allowed inside the chapel. However, this should definitely not put you off visiting as the Cappella is a true feast for the eyes… After all, this number of beautiful carvings and oeuvres d’art are best experienced without the distraction of modern technology.
Visit the Museo Donizettiano
Housed in a 12th century former Palace (what isn’t in Italy?), a museum was established in 1906 to celebrate the life, works and collections of Donizetti, the iconic Italian composer. Enter inside to explore the exhibitions, admire the interior of an old palace and be amazed by the sheer volume of frescoes, paintings and courtyards located within the museum’s walls.
Donizetti and friends – oil on canvas – Bergamo (Italy) museo donizettiano
Enjoy Coffee in the Piazza Vecchia
Like many smaller Italian towns and cities, the prices of Bergamo are much less than those of major cities such as Rome and Milan. As a result, it’s often possible to enjoy coffees and other beverages at reasonable prices, even in the centre of town. Granted, the prices are obviously more expensive than in other parts of town. But then again, there’s nothing quite like admiring the old town square while enjoying your first espresso of the day. Birds, the buzz of tourist chatter, and all!
Take the funicular up to the Citta Alta
There is not one but two funiculars to take when you head to Bergamo. This is as the city is roughly divided into two main parts, with a further sub-division once you reach High Bergamo (known in Italian as the Città Alta). Built in the Alpine foothills, hills are obviously abundant! Known as Bergorum during the Roman era, the Città Alta dates back thousands of years.
Below, the newer part of the city (though also dating back at least five centuries) is known as Città Bassa (lower city). In other words, Bergamo is full of steep climbs and if you want to save time (and a fair bit of energy), you’ll want to utilise the funiculars to travel around!
Take the funicular up to the Rocca di San Vigilio
With breathtaking views of the city and beyond at the top, the funicular (or ‘mini sky train’) up to the very edge of the city is well worth the nominal fee. Ths view is such that it’s well worth bringing some photography equipment along to capture the moment; so don’t forget your camera!
Sit and stay a while, or enjoy a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants and cafés located on the edge of the rocks. The view is best seen in the morning or at sunset when golden hour lights up the scene and an orange glow pours over the stunning city.
Enter the Basilica of/di Santa Maria Maggiore
Bergamo is a city of churches, and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is sandwiched between the Cappella Colleoni and Bergamo’s cathedral. Constructed from the 12th-century onwards, the church is said to have been built by men who prayed to the Virgin Mary when a plague broke out in 1100.
The men prayed that they would be kept safe from sickness, and if this were the case, then they would build a church in Mary’s honour. The men ended up surviving and true to their word, they built an enormous church in thanks for their health. Filled with frescoes, stuccos, tapestries and wooden marquetry, this is one of the most intricately designed churches in the region and is well worth a visit.
Museo di Scienze Naturali
Opened to the public in 1918, the Natural History Museum of Bergamo is filled with all things science related and is the perfect Bergamo activity for if you have kids in tow (or simply if it’s a rainy day). Filled with fossils, old animals and vintage scientific equipment, head here if you’re not so keen on traditional musuems, but want to still experience a little culture.
Torre Civica (Climb to the top of the bell tower)
Overlooking the entire Piazza Vecchia and in the heart of the city’s old town, one of the best things to do in Bergamo is to climb to the very top of the bell tower. Stroll up the historical steps and be rewarded by a breathtaking view over the city and beyond. Towering at 52 metres high, the Torre Civica is the Citta Alta’s tallest tower and was built during the 12th-century.
Bergamo was once (and technically still is) heavily fortified, and a testament to this are the Venetian walls which are now designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. The complete loop stretches over 6 km in length and walking along the high walls by foot is one of the very best introductions to the city you could hope to find.
Construction of the Venetian Walls first commenced in the 16th century under the Republic of Venice, for whom the walls are named. Today, the Renaissance era walls are some of the best preserved of their time still standing in the world today.
Castello di San Vigilio (Castle of Saint Vigilio)
At the very top of Bergamo, where the mountain touches the clouds and you can see for miles upon miles, there are the remnants of an ancient castle dating back centuries. the Castle of Saint Vigilio dates back to a time when Bergamo was constantly at war with other city-states. Dating all the way back to the 6th century AD, the castello is filled with fortified walls, casemates, stunning vistas, and views onto the villages beyond Bergamo.
Walk through the Bergamo City Gate
The Venetian walls which characterise Bergamo are punctured with ornate gates every once in a while, in order that foot and road traffic may pass between the Città Alta and the Città Bassa. Head between the two districts of Bergamo by foot, and no doubt you’ll wander through at least one or two of these ancient structures. Pictured below is the San Giacomo Gate, the old entrance to the city for those travelling to Bergamo from Milan.
Soak up some history wandering the cobbled lanes
Of all the best things to do in Bergamo, wandering through the cobbled lanes, and soaking up the history tops the list. This Lombardy city is a place to be savoured, its atmosphere to be absorbed, and you should go where your feet take you. After all, the best way to reveal Bergamo’s hidden gems is simply to allow the city to reveal itself to you.
Take a day trip to Milan
Bergamo has all the charm and none of the big-city prices of Milan, making it a great place to base yourself while exploring this Northern Italian region. However, if you do want to visit the Lombardy capital for yourself, then Milan is only a short train ride away. There, you can see the Duomo di Milano, an ossuary chapel, plenty of museums and the design hub of Northern Italy for yourself. Wondering what to do in Milan? Here’s how to spend one day in Milan.
Be amazed by the Accademia Carrara
Of all the reasons to visit Lombardy, the artwork held in many of its towns and cities is definitely near the top of the list. And one of the oldest collections of all is that held in the Academia Carrara. The collection exists thanks to the generosity of 18th-century count, Giacomo Carrara, who donated his extensive collections to the city following his death in 1796.
From then on, his properties were managed by various parties before the 1950s when the Commune of Bergamo took over. Today, the collections can be visited for a small fee and comprise of over 1800 paintings dating from the 15th to 19th centuries. Artists represented within the works include Botticelli, Bellini, and Raphael.
Where to stay in Bergamo
If you’re looking to make the most of this Lombardy gem of a city, then I highly recommend dedicating a couple of days to explore Bergamo, rather than just staying for a single day. Unlike nearby Milan, staying in Bergamo can be quite affordable and there are plenty of options on offer:
Mid-range accommodation in Bergamo
UpTown Bed and Breakfast: If you want to truly experience the best of Bergamo, then I recommend staying in the heart of the Citta Alta. For our second night in the city, we opted to stay in the UpTown B&B where the room was clean and comfortable. The room also came with a complimentary breakfast, of which there were several options to choose from. Deliciously cooked, we ended up having an amazing chat with the owner of the B&B!
Angolo del Poeta: If you love your accommodation with a slice of history, then I highly recommend staying in the Angolo del Poeta. Situated in the lower part of Bergamo and easy to reach from the train station, the ancient walls of this place were first built over 500 years ago. Today, the B&B offers a wonderful place to stay for a reasonable cost.
Luxury accommodation in Bergamo
Relais San Lorenzo: If you’re looking for a place that’s a little more luxurious during your stay in Bergamo then the Relais San Lorenzo (which is only open during the shoulder and peak seasons of the year) is incredibly well rated. Set against the backdrop of the beautiful Lombardy hills, this 5-star hotel offers all of the facilities you could wish for from a luxury hotel.