There are lots of little hilltop towns to explore in Italy, but none of them are as easy to access as Bergamo in the foothills of the Alps.
Bergamo has a population of around 120,000 people and is the second most visited city in Lombardy after Milan. It’s known for the UNESCO World Heritage listed Venetian walls that surround the old city and for polenta, a dish that originates from these mountain areas.
A 50 minute train ride from Milan’s Central station had us walking the beautiful boulevards of the Città Bassa – the lower town. It took 10 minutes to walk to the funicular railway and 2 minutes to head up the mountain to Bergamo's perfectly preserved old town, the Città Alta.
DO AND SEE
Culture is all around you in Bergamo. The Accademia Carrara Museo houses one of Italy’s most renowned collections of Renaissance paintings as well as a small collection of Baroque sculptures and other works. Across the road is GAMeC – the gallery of contemporary and modern art, which features contemporary works by Italian and international artists. You save money if you combine the tickets. Just ask at the first gallery you enter.
The old town is made for walking but there are plenty of cafes, gelato shops and pasticceria's to tempt you when you need to refuel. You’ll find the little Roman cobblestone streets full of tourists enjoying the shopping on offer.
Piazza Vecchia is the centre of town and is full of historical places of importance and locals milling about catching up with friends over aperitivi. Here you'll see the Palazzo della Ragione, the Contarini Fountain, Palazzo Nuovo and the Torre Civica – the bell tower.
The Torre Civica dates back to the 12th century and the bells toll at different times during the day. For centuries they’ve been tolling 100 times at 10pm, warning the locals to get back inside the walls before the gates shut. The gates are gone, but the tradition continues and it’s really loud and fun if you’re in the piazza when they start.
Next to the piazza are the Cathedral and the Colleoni Chapel, a stunning white and red marble Renaissance masterpiece which took our breath away. Inside it houses many stunning frescoes and artworks.
Being fans of classical music, we headed down a little laneway to discover the birthplace of opera composer Gaetano Donizetti who was born in 1797. You can visit the two basement rooms his family called home and check out the little museum upstairs. It’s free and the view from the balcony is lovely.
The Museum Of Natural Science is next to the Archeological Museum and is housed in a wonderful medieval building in Piazza della Cittadella. The Citadel was built to defend the city and the piazza contains a roman road, a medieval gate, XIVth century gate and Roman portico. Through the portico there is a garden that looks over the new town below.
We joined the locals by taking a passeggiata (leisurely stroll) around the Venetian walls which were built to protect the town and found beautiful views and plenty of places to rest our weary feet.
If you want to enjoy peace and stunning views then climb the 141 steps up to the botanical gardens above the old town. You'll find yourself looking over the rooftops of the Città Alta and the foothills of the Alps.
We walked around town in the 34 degree heat, so we fell in love with the Sicilian granita and cannoli at Il Sole In Bocca - Sicilian Street Food. They fill the cannoli shells in front of you so the shells stay hard. You can order several granita flavors in your cup and we fell for the pistachio and lemon varieties. It's absolutely the best granita we’ve eaten so far this summer (and we’ve tasted a lot).
If you come to Bergamo then you need to sample the local polenta. It’s on every menu around the old town and also available take away. The local variation is called Polenta Taragna and is made from a mix of buckwheat and corn which is cooked with butter and loaded with local cheeses before serving.
Caffè del Tasso in Piazza Vecchia has been a local institution since 1476 and is always packed with locals. There are cafes all around town serving aperitivi but this is the place to mingle with the locals when they come out to play late in the afternoon.
If you’ve heading back down the mountain for the evening then there are a few very lively gay bars to try. Mamo’s American Bar is a busy gay spot that's popular with men and women and you can catch a drag show at Divina Grassobio Bergamo.
If you want to soak up the atmosphere in the old town then the four star Hotel Piazza Vecchia is perfectly situated right next to Piazza Vecchia. Housed in a 14th century palace, the rooms have wooden beamed ceilings and the staff are extremely accommodating and gay friendly.
Carry cash as the Funicular doesn't have Eftpos. It costs around 2 euros 30 for two people one way and the ticket is valid for 90 minutes. You will want to use the toilets at Bergamo train station, which cost 1 euro, rather than braving the facilities on the train.
Bergamo has an international airport - the Orio al Serio International Airport which is also known as Il Caravaggio International Airport and is called Milan BGY by airlines like Ryan Air, which flies to and from here regularly.
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