The shadow of twilight had fallen.
We walked down the stairs of the underground garage to go and retrieve the little car that had been parked all day waiting for us while we wandered along the medieval walls.
We had been completely absorbed, mesmerized on a physical and emotional journey through time travelling back about a thousand years.
We collapsed in our seats to catch our breath and collect our thoughts.
As we rushed along the little streets guided by the warm light of the street lamps, leaving that tiny jewel on the hill behind us, we glanced at each other from the corner of our eyes.
We shared a smile, which was enough to express all the beauty that our eyes had taken in on that intense day.
Days later, our thoughts kept running through the narrow streets and along the mighty walls of the city that had charmed us.
This is why we know that discovering what to see on a day trip to Bergamo Alta is an absolute MUST!
One day is all you need to take this delightful journey through art, history and cuisine.
Lombardy has a rich heritage of historical cities and Bergamo is certainly one of these.
The city is unique because it is structured on two levels: the Upper Town, where you can enjoy Bergamo’s varied historical and artistic heritage, and the Lower City, where the center’s residential and commercial life has developed.
We generally speak about a town’s History as a single story, but actually, the city walls have many different stories to tell.
The blocks of the 16th century Venetian structures lie on top of older medieval remnants, which in turn cover the ancient Roman foundations. Subsequently, the Austrians also left their mark on the city as well as the aristocracy know as the “Mille di Garibaldi”.
Thus, the colorful villages, the cobbled streets and the shops set in the walls of the historical buildings take us back in time to a city bustling with the spirits of our ancestors.
The picturesque town is framed by flourishing vegetation, which further embellishes the view.
In 2017 the Venetian Walls, built in the 16th century to protect the whole of Bergamo Alta, were named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and are among the first places you must see on a day trip to Bergamo Alta.
The best way to visit “Bergamo Alta” (Upper Bergamo)
“Visit Bergamo” is the Agency that deals with the initiatives aimed at promoting the tourism system of the Province of Bergamo. The agency constantly updates its’ site where visitors can see a full list of activities, facilities and events in the area.
The City of Bergamo Tourist Guide Group, called in Italian "Guide Guide Turistiche Città di Bergamo", is one of the official associations that organize guided tours in the city. This association provides very comprehensive tours, both individual and collective, in a number of different languages to show visitors the most interesting points of the city.
For more information on these tours and rates, we advise you to visit their website.
How to get to “Lower Bergamo”
We have already mentioned the fact, that Bergamo is divided into two levels.
If you travel to the city by car, you should take the Bergamo exit from the A4 Turin-Venice, and then we suggest you leave your car in the Lower Town area, to avoid the ZTL (Limited area) in the historic center. There are several covered paid parking areas, which provide a discounted rate if you leave your car for the whole day.
If you want to arrive by train, however, there are many train routes that connect to the city, especially from Milan and Brescia.
The Orio al Serio airport is only 5 km from the city center and it connects to more than 100 world destinations.
The funicular inclined railway is not just a means of transport!
To reach the Upper Town you can take the bus or the funicular railway.
The bus lines 1 and A1 lead to “Città Alta”. If you arrive from the airport, you can reach the city by Airport Bus.
There are two funiculars in Bergamo, located on opposite sides of the city.
For example, we used the “Città Alta” funicular.
Initially, the funicular railway was designed to avoid the isolation and economic crisis of the Upper Town following the enormous development of the Lower City. It is now mainly used as a link to move between the two levels.
The first ride of this funicular is dated 1887 and connects Viale Vittorio Emanuele with Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe.
The second funicular is the one connecting “Città Alta” to the San Vigilio hill, the highest peak, located outside the walls. It was inaugurated in 1912 and today it is mainly used by tourists. This is the perfect spot for a relaxing walk immersed in the lush natural landscape.
The 24 ORE city ticket costs € 2.60 each way per round trip.
There are also two other tickets, from 24 or 72 hours which also include the transportation to the airport.
The ride on the funicular inclined railway to Bergamo Alta is quite short.
However, it allowed us to appreciate the city immediately by enjoying an otherwise inaccessible view. This is why we recommend it in our itinerary of “must see” locations on your day trip to Bergamo Alta.
Travelling up the slope in the red tram is fun and exciting, the trip feels like a journey over the vast panorama below, while leaving behind the modern world.
A short of history of Bergamo
Bergamo began as a settlement pre-dating Rome, so it has very ancient origins.
The name of the city is rather curious, because it comes from the Germanic Berg, or mountain, and Heim, which means home. The name can be defined as “home in the mountains”.
Bergamo, in fact, is located in an elevated position overlooking the Po Valley with access routes stretching all the way to the countries of Northern Europe.
When considering its historical evolution, it must be said that, unlike many other historical Italian city-states, Bergamo has never been an independent kingdom.
In 50 BC it was a Roman municipality but later it was sacked and looted. Sadly, many of the ancient Roman monuments were lost.
In the Middle Ages the Roman walls were reinforced and the Municipalities were created.
Later, in 1428 it became the western outpost of Venice, following this it passed under French rule during the Napoleonic era, then to Austria with the Kingdom of Lombardy-Veneto, until it finally became the “City of a Thousand” with the help of the great leader Garibaldi, in a daring succession of Kingdoms.
The solid walls that surround the city were created in the 16th century by the Venetians.
Venice was interested in Bergamo because it had turned its attention to the trading commerce that took place in central Europe.
Bergamo was historically considered a valuable city because the valleys and provinces were rich in minerals.
Itinerary through the streets of Bergamo Alta
Our journey suggesting “what to see on a day trip to Bergamo Alta” starts right from Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe, which is connected to all of the main routes on the Città Alta bus line.
Personally I can assure you that I immediately felt the unique personality of the city, with its narrow uphill streets, where the sun's rays are mere shadows of light for most of the day. I was especially intrigued by the small shops, some still display their historical signs.
The windows were slightly raised from the street-level, real jewels, set in ancient walls.
These shops are worth a visit in person to discover more about all the activities that take place inside.
The Rocca Viscontea and the Torrione
On the wall of a house, on the edge of the square, the age-old letters denoting the historical “Shoe Market” has weathered the sands of time.
It should be said that the squares in Bergamo take their names from the activities that were once carried out there.
Right under this sign there is a narrow road, called Via alla Rocca. The name is evocative of what you will find at the end of the street and gives you a taste of the historical era. Cobble-stones line the path, while the houses make it impossible to see beyond a certain point, they are jealous of the places they guard.
This fortress is located on one of the 7 hills of Bergamo, the hill of Sant'Eufemia.
Around the XIV century Bergamo was conquered by the Visconti, who created 2 citadels on the two opposite summits of the main roads in Bergamo.
To be precise, it served to control the area and to better defend the city.
The walls were then reinforced by the Venetians, because the medieval constructions were not robust enough.
Today, inside the structure houses the Museum dedicated to the nineteenth century and in the so-called Parco delle Rimembranze, in front of the fortress, you can admire the war relics, such as cannons and tanks.
If you approach the wall, at the edge of the estate, you can enjoy a wonderful view of the suburban area of Bergamo.
Everywhere you look in Bergamo, there is always something new and interesting to see.
The Convent of San Francesco
As you go back to wandering through the medieval streets of the city, you can head to the nearby Convent of San Francesco, which is still well preserved.
It dates back to the thirteenth century. Although there is very little documented testimony from this period. The convent consists of two cloisters: the cloister of the Arche, the first and the larger of the two that you find as you enter, and the cloister of the Pozzo, the smaller one, which can be reached by following a dark slope downhill opposite to the door of entrance.
The monastery, during the course of the centuries, was also used as a prison and, later, as an elementary school.
Today it houses the Historical Museum of Bergamo, where exhibitions are held to discuss the history of the city as well as other meetings and conferences.
Admission to the museum is free, so you can easily make this a part of your day trip to Bergamo Alta without spending any money.
Just beyond the cloister of the Pozzo, this is a parapet terrace where you can enjoy another breath-taking view of the area. Visitors can experience the panorama of the Maresana hill, which separates the Brembana Valley and the Seriana Valley.
The Piazza Mercato del Fieno (The Hay Market Square)
In this small, apparently residential square, you can see evident traces of the medieval era in Bergamo. This is apparent, initially when examining the tower-home structures, typical medieval houses. It was strategic point when the city went through a period of intense aristocratic feuds.
The Venetians, however, strongly disliked these feuds, so they demolished most of the tower houses and later residents remodeled the structures to create simple houses.
The largest tower house, which still stands in the Piazza Mercato del Fieno, is home to an old blacksmith's shop.
Via Gombito with the fountain and the tower
If you walk down Via S. Pancrazio, you will arrive on the main street of Bergamo Alta, Via Gombito.
This name comes from Torre Gombito, which is located in the middle of this Roman road.
The Gombito Fountain is located in the center of one of the self-administered ancient quarters, where you could find the tower, now completely reconstructed, as well as the Church of San Pancrazio and the cistern.
Torre del Gombito dates back to about 1200 AD and was considered an unassailable military area because there were no windows or openings to the top.
The main square- Piazza Vecchia
Following the street near the old shops now converted into bars and restaurants, you can finally see a ray of sunshine at the end of the street. If you can reach it, you will be in the most important square of Bergamo Alta, Piazza Vecchia, vital fulcrum of what to see on your day trip to Bergamo Alta.
In the past, it was the heart of the political and administrative life of the city.
Before the arrival of the Venetians it was not considered a real square, it was more like an group of buildings in the center where the markets were held. The Venetians, smoothed out the terrain and opened the square, characterized by the typical Renaissance shape with its ideals of the human form as the focal point of the square.
A curious thing to know is the fact that the shape is not square, in reality it is just an optical illusion.
With the arrival of the great General Garibaldi, the name was changed to Piazza Garibaldi. A statue that was once found in the center of the square, is now located at a roundabout in the Lower Town.
The Angelo Mai Civic Library
The large white building that will dazzle you at first glance is the seat of the Angelo Mai Civic Library.
It was initially a very rustic brick structure, only later was it covered with white Zandobbio marble.
The Palazzo Nuovo was designed by a student of the famous architect Palladio.
The central fountain and the Palazzo del Podestà
In the middle of the square you can see a beautiful eighteenth-century fountain donated to Bergamo by the Podestà Veneto.
This palace runs along the square where today the words denoting “University of Bergamo” can be found. The decoration of the facade was entrusted to Bramante. The palace of the Podestà also held a prison inside and later the headquarters of the captain, under the Austrian domination.
In fact, if you look at the column at the door at the base of the Campanone, you can see some scratch-marks made by the Austrians who sharpened their bayonets while coming out of the captain’s quarters.
Overlooking the entire square, with an imposing and intimidating form, you can admire the civic tower with its bell tower, commonly called Campanone.
At 10 pm every day, it chimes out 100 tolls which, in ancient times, represented a city curfew.
Moreover, the bell rang out to warn residents of calamities and major events. Today the entrance fee to visit the bell tower costs € 3.
The Palazzo della Ragione
Opposite the Civic Library visitors can admire the Palazzo della Ragione of Bergamo, where we can see the Lion of Venice.
It dates back to 1150 and is one of the oldest civil buildings in Italy.
Initially it was the town hall, until the 15th-16th century, then it was moved to what is currently the Library building.
Originally, the façade was on the opposite side, it was not facing the square. However, due to the scarcity of space, it has been moved to the other side, with a view of Piazza Vecchia.
On the ground lies an 18th century sundial which had been built by an abbot astronomer. It marks the months, the longitude and the latitude and in the 1850’s the zodiac signs were also inserted.
At 12.21 sunlight enters from the hole in a metal disk placed on the ceiling and reverberates on the sundial.
It was used to know the date and to create calendars accurately.
Today, the entranceway to the Museum and the treasure of the Cathedral is also located here.
The churches of Bergamo Alta a must see on your trip!
Just behind the Palazzo della Ragione there are a series of wonderful churches that, at first glance, might seem to be arranged without a specific criterion, as different styles are literally side-by-side.
The first monument that can be seen is an imposing baptistery from 1300, which was originally placed inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. It was moved in front of the Duomo towards the end of the 19th century.
The Colleoni Chapel
The Chapel is located next to the Baptistery, in Piazza del Duomo, it is characterized by its beautiful exterior architecture with colored marble in full Lombard Renaissance style, and for the large rose window.
This is a private chapel commissioned by Bartolomeo Colleoni, the Lombard bourgeois leader from the fifteenth century, as his own mausoleum.
It was built between 1470 and 1476 and the interior is also finely decorated.
Opposite the entrance is the sarcophagus where the body of Bartolomeo Colleoni was laid to rest.
In the central emblem, you can see a very peculiar distinguishing detail, the three testicles.
Actually, the coat of arms already existed dating back to 1100, so the characteristic was not his. Despite this, he jokingly decided to make it his own and use it to distinguish himself in battle, using it as a symbol of power.
Even his daughter Medea, who died at 14, lies in the chapel.
Bartolomeo's body was initially thought to be missing because archeologists could not find it. Scholars eventually discovered that the sarcophagus was equipped with a double bottom. This was because he had been buried quickly and the church had not yet been completed the tomb on the day of his death.
Bartolomeo was the first to use mobile cannons, as the leader of the ground troops.
I can personally attest that there are many curious details in the chapel.
As sunlight shines through the rose window, watching from the outside, it creates the form of cannons!
Today the chapel is managed by the family’s descendants.
Bartolomeo was the only leader to have a chapel entrance onto the square, because all the others had side chapels.
Just imagine that he even wanted to demolish the Palazzo della Ragione in order to have a huge square in front of his chapel.
A legend states that touching the blazon on the gate of Cappella Colleoni will bring you luck!
We obviously do not know if that is true or not, but you must definitely include a visit here on your trip.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
This marvelous Basilica, whose façade seems to stand out from the rest, is located near the Colleoni Chapel and it is an authentic artistic jewel.
It dates back to 1137 and was built following a natural disaster.
In particular, the legend says that it was built following a vow made to the Virgin Mary by the people of Bergamo to protect the residents from the plague that was afflicting the rest of northern Italy. It seems to have been erected with funds donated by the citizens and, at the beginning, constituted a place of charity for the needy.
It is said that the doors were always open to those in need and that in the past you could even enter with horses.
Today, the liturgical mass is held here.
Initially it had a medieval style but later it was completely remodeled.
The interior is decorated with a vast array of colors in the Baroque style, it literally leaves you breathless.
In addition, it is further embellished with huge tapestries hanging on the walls.
The area of the matronis has become a museum displaying works of art donated by the people.
In the Middle Ages this area was the main city, where politics and religion lived together.
The Duomo of Bergamo
Erroneously, one might think that the main church is the Colleoni Chapel, rather than the Cathedral located right next to it. It dates back to 1450 although it was finished much later, in the 1600s.
It was dedicated to St. Alexander the martyr, a valiant Roman soldier, who was persecuted for his faith.
According to the legend, the first time attackers tried to cut off his head they did not succeed because, after a miracle, his head became enormous. He lived preaching the word of the Lord but, unfortunately, he was eventually beheaded because the miracle did not happen a second time.
It is said that, where his blood flowed, white lilies sprung up, for this reason a lily can be seen on his coat of arms.
S. Grata collected his head, after having found the remains, and took it to the site where the church of S. Alessandro in Croce was built, because a field of lilies had grown in that exact spot.
Il Caffè del Tasso
Attached to the Palazzo della Ragione visitors can find one of the historic cafés of Bergamo, called Caffè del Tasso in honor of Torquato Tasso, who often went to visit Bergamo. It dates back to 1476 and saw the passage of several famous figures, such as the composer Donizetti.
It also owes its fame to the fact that it was here that soldiers had been recruited for the expedition of “the Thousand men”.
A historic “must see” location to be include on your trip and an excellent spot to drink something warm on a cold day as well!
The famous Via Corsarola
This is the street that starts from Piazza Vecchia where visitors can visit all the artisans' shops and elegant bars.
Along this street there is also the Social Theater designed by Pollack in about 1800, where you can see a fabulous opera by Donizetti.
The former prison of Sant'Agata
This is an ancient convent designed by Pollack. It was designed as a place of redemption and converted into penitentiary, in use until 1978, the date that is written above the front door.
The corridors and the shape of the ceiling are very reminiscent of the cells of the convent, the original shape has not been lost.
You can still enter the cells, in some there are certain essential pieces of furniture, framed by a peeling wall that falls apart with each passing day.
It is a truly evocative place to visit which creates restlessness, as well as a certain urgency to escape from it. Entering the cells can leave visitors with a sense of oppression, as they imagine the inmates who lived there.
Towards the end of the Upper Town
We suggest a stroll towards the end of Via Corsarola following the road that will then lead outside the walls.
Before passing through the door, however, we find ourselves in Piazza Mascheroni, first called Piazza Nuova.
A very elegant place, commissioned by the Venetians, where games and markets were held.
You can admire a medieval municipal well in this square and, consider that at the time, the square was lined with shops and inns.
The square is famous because in 1567 a bullfight was organized with bulls and dogs.
You cross Torre dell'Orologio, or Campanella, named after the small bell on the top.
The passage of the Austro-Hungarian empire is made evident by a coat of arms on the tower that shows the divisions of the Veneto- Lombardy.
After passing the door, you arrive in Piazza della Cittadella.
Looking at these buildings one understands why Bergamo was called “the painted city”, in reference to all the frescoes that had been made on the walls of the houses.
One of these even has a circular shape that resembles a kind of arena.
The St. Giacomo's Gate
This is the door that led to Milan and is the only non-driveway.
From here you can admire the city walls very well.
The Funicular Cafe
The funicular railways building not only houses the train, but inside there is an elegant bar with a wonderful view of Bergamo.
The facade of the building dates back to its construction, while inside you can admire the beautiful Art Nouveau style.
At the end of the tour and last stage of your day trip, especially if it's near sunset, you can stop and have a drink on the terrace.
Bergamo, from whatever side you look at it, you can see the streets that form an optical illusion, all overlooking the Upper Town.
The view is so beautiful because the town actually has an ordinance that the houses should not exceed a certain height, to avoid ruining the view.
The Bergamo cuisine is based on ingredients that were available to the peasants through the ages and thus is called the “poor man’s cuisine”. Don’t be fooled by the name though, it’s divine!
The main dish is yellow polenta with rabbit, mushrooms, or lake fish.
In the past, the typical dish was polenta and osei, small birds that were cooked with lard.
Today there is even a dessert that bears this name, which is embodied in a sponge cake, filled with hazelnut and maraschino cream and covered with sugar paste and little birds of chocolate. A real delicacy!
Ravioli are also typical with meat or cheese.
Bergamo also holds a record for PDO cheeses, it has 9!