Two cities in Italy’s northern Lombardy region have been chosen as the Italian Capitals of Culture for the year 2023: Bergamo and Brescia. They are both about an hour away from Milan by train and also about an hour from each other. Lombardy has gone to great lengths to make visiting these cities a fantastic experience for tourists. Here is a practical guide that will help you sort out Bergamo’s most important sights to see in just a day or even in a weekend. Andiamo!
Bergamo actually has two distinct areas to visit: upper (known as alta) and lower (bassa). It is possible to see both in a single day, but dividing your visit into two days would allow you to explore both parts of the city in more depth. The Venetian Walls built to defend the city between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are six kilometers in length and were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017.
If you are up for the climb, you can walk uphill to reach Bergamo alta, otherwise, you can take the funicular which has been operating for 128 years. The first stop is the Rocca, or the fortress, which dates to the 14th century. You cannot beat the panoramic view of the Orobie Prealps and the surrounding area. There is also a museum that traces Bergamo’s history through the 19th century. Tip: Museum opens at 11 am and is closed on Mondays.
If there could be one location that is the very essence of Bergamo it would definitely be Piazza Vecchia. This square is by far the most loved by Bergamascans and has been for centuries, actually since Roman times because it was built where the ancient Roman forum once stood.
Here you’ll find the Palazzo della Ragione (the oldest town hall in Lombardy dating to the 11th century), as well as the civic tower known as the Campanone, the striking Contarini Fountain, and the Palazzo Nuovo which also houses the spectacular Angelo Mai Library. Tip: The civic tower’s bell is one of the largest in the region and still chimes exactly 100 times every night at the stroke of 10 just as it has since Venetian domination.
Where the Duomo stands today there once were two cathedrals, one dedicated to St. Vincent and the other to St. Alexander. A massive excavation recently took place underneath the current cathedral uncovering a Roman settlement dating to 1,000 BC. You can visit the underground museum Friday through Sunday and the Duomo itself is open daily.
Bergamo’s Baptistery has a fascinating history going back to the 1300s. It has actually been rebuilt and moved from its original location inside the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. You’ll immediately notice that it has eight sides and eight statues representing the eight virtues. Its most recent additions were done in the late 1800s giving it a neo-Gothic appearance.
If you are pressed for time, skip anything but the Colleoni Chapel, by far the most magnificent building in the entire city. Built for Bartolomeo Colleoni, a famous soldier from Bergamo, this chapel and mausoleum is attached to the twelfth-century Santa Maria Maggiore Church. Tip: The chapel is closed on Mondays and also closes during lunch hour.
Piazza della Cittadella
Finally, the tour of upper Bergamo ends by visiting the fourteenth-century citadel built by the famous Visconti family. The palace houses the archaeology museum and right next door, the Enrico Caffi Science Museum.
Bergamo bassa offers just as much art and culture as the upper city and also has great shopping and nightlife.
Any art or history buff absolutely has to visit the Accademia Carrara Museum, one of the most impressive in all of Italy. It contains over 1,800 paintings and sculptures from some of the greatest artists of all time including Raffaello, Botticelli, Pisanello, Mantegna, and Bellini just to name a few. Tip: Closed Tuesdays.
The Donizetti Theater was built in 1800 and was originally named Teatro Riccardi. This magnificent building took the name of Bergamo’s most famous musician and composer, Gaetano Donizetti, in 1897, one hundred years after his birth. It is considered one of the most magnificent theaters in all of Italy and is worth seeing a performance or taking a tour.
This is the heart of lower Bergamo where you’ll find shopping, restaurants, and open-air markets. The pedestrian walkway is known as the sentierone where you’ll also be able to see the elegant marble quadriportico.
If you have time, go inside the Church of Santo Bartolomeo and Santo Stefano where you can see the Martinengo altarpiece by Lorenzo Lotto. Piazza Dante is also a must-see with its magnificent Triton fountain.
are you ready to go?
Last but not least, you will need to have at least one meal while you are touring Bergamo and it should definitely be something authentically Bergamascan. The classic pasta dish here is known as casonelli, or casonsèi in local dialect, a fresh stuffed pasta containing veal, pork, breadcrumbs, Grana Padano cheese, raisins, amaretto cookies, and topped with a butter sauce containing pancetta, more Grana Padano and sage. Polenta is also very common and served in many ways.
Bergamo also has an airport with great connections within Europe and Italy and a bus connection to the city center.
If you plan to visit multiple museums in Bergamo, Brescia, and within the Lombardy region, you can purchase a special discount card available online as well as in the tourist information centers throughout the city.