I have been to this town twice – 15 years apart – and all I can say is that a day trip to Bergamo Città Alta is something you should have while in Lombardia. It is only an hour away by train from Milano city… or faster by car if you drive like a racer (like most Italians do!).
Bergamo consists of two parts, Città Bassa (Lower Town) – a more modern part of the city – and Città Alta (Upper Town) – the old town with medieval structures and the UNESCO World Heritage-recognized Venetian walls perched on the hill overlooking the Lower Town and further. While there are plenty to see and do in Città Bassa, the main attraction of the city is Città Alta.
Last year, I was on my own and had no plan at all for the day. So I decided to get away from the city of Milano. I took a train (Trenitalia) to Bergamo from Milano Centrale. Bergamo train station is located in Città Bassa, so I had to take a bus right outside the station that went up to Città Alta. The alternative is to take a bus + a funicular, but at that time it the bus seemed like an easier option. The bus stopped at Colle Aperto right outside Porta Sant’Alessandro while the Funicular stopped at a station on the other side of the old town. You can check the routes, schedules and tickets on Bergamo transportation company (ATB) website.
I later returned to Città Bassa by taking a funicular at Palazzo Suardi (“Funicolare Città Bassa”), got off at Stazione Inferiore outside the Venetian Wall (“Funicolare Città’ Alta”) and then continued by a bus going to the train station.
The amazing thing is, even after 15 years, Bergamo Città Alta still looked the same. Well, maybe there were a few changes here and there, new shops and whatnot, but for me the old town looked exactly the way I remembered it with all its charm. I was still captivated by its medieval buildings, the narrow alleys with the cobblestone streets, restaurants and shops selling Polenta e Osei cakes, pasta, jars of truffle butter, breads and other mouthwatering delicacies.
I kept walking further to the east and found myself at Piazza Vecchia. This square began to be built on an ancient Roman Forum at the end of year 1100 and then underwent some changes throughout the centuries. The pretty Contarini Fountain in the middle of the piazza was added later in 1780. I was told that the water flowing from the sphinxes’ mouths is potable – just like other public drinking fountains in Italy (this is something I still couldn’t do when I was there! 😂).
There are more to see around Piazza Vecchia. The 52-meter-tall La Torre Civica (Civic Tower) or Campanone, built in the 12th century and Palazzo della Ragione, between Piazza Vecchia and Piazza del Duomo, built almost a millenium ago. The palazzo was initially a place for public meetings and later as a courthouse – when Bergamo was under La Serennissima a.k.a Republic of Venice. Under the palazzo is a loggia where you can find a sundial on the floor made over 200 years ago.
Facing Palazzo della Ragione and Piazza del Duomo are Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and Cappella Colleoni standing side by side. The construction of the Basilica began in the 12th century as the realization of a vow made by the people at that time to the Virgin Mary when they asked for her protection during the plague breakout. The Colleoni Chapel, on the other hand, was built in the 15th century and named after Bergamo’s famous condotierro, Bartolomeo Colleoni. The chapel was built on a former sacristy of the basilica that was destroyed by Colleoni’s soldiers (!!) and also served as a mausoleum for Colleoni and his daughter, Medea. I found it a bit strange that the facade of the chapel looks bigger and more grandiose than the Basilica’s entrance.
To the left of the Basilica is Cattedrale Sant’Alessandro (St. Alexander), named after the patron saint of the city. Actually, on this site once stood a cathedral by a different name that dated back to the 8th – 9th century and was dedicated to St. Vincent from Zaragoza. At that time, the original St. Alexander Cathedral was located in the other part of the town and later demolished by the Venetians when they were building the walls in the 16th century. In the 17th century, Pope Innocentius XI approved the change of the cathedral’s dedication from St. Vincent to St. Alexander.
To the right of Colleoni Chapel is Battistero (baptistery) in an octagonal shape, built in 1340. It is currently not in its original location, though. It was initially put inside Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and then moved around several times.
Also have a look at the Basilica’s southern entrance on the other side – Porta della Fontana – with white marble lions guarding the door. On its right, almost hidden between two houses and behind the wrought iron gate is Tempietto di Santa Croce, a small octagonal chapel in Romanesque style that functioned as the meeting hall of Bishop of Bergamo in the past. The chapel is thought to be built some time in the 11th century, although the first mention of it was in a document dated 1133.
The other things not to be missed are the Rocca Fortress (built in the 14th century) and the 6-km Mura Venete (Venetian Wall). The wall was built by the order of the Republic of Venezia in the 16-17th centuries who at that time was ruling Bergamo.
After I had finished strolling around Città Alta, I went back to Colle Aperto and headed to San Vigilio hill by a furnicular. The funicular station going to San Vigilio is not far from Sant’Alessandro gate and only a few minutes walk from there. There was a newspapers stand nearby and I bought the ticket there for the ride (you can actually save a bit more if you buy a day ticket that can be used on the entire ATB network). The 1-car funicular turned out to be quite a ride (only 5 minutes), definitely much less boring than the bus ride despite the crowd 😁.
Anyway, San Vigilio would be the right place to go to escape from the tourists pack in Città Alta. It is a quiet area with gated villas and their beautiful gardens and an absolutely picturesque view. I did not see so many people there. You could also sit in one of the restaurants overlooking the old town, sipping a glass of wine while enjoying the sunset.
The most important thing to check out there is Castello di San Vigilio, dating back to the 6th century AD. As in many other medieval towns, like Tallinn, the highest part of the city was used as the seat of power for centuries. The castle underwent some changes and further reinforcements in the 14th – 16th centuries. I think the castle ruins were quite well-preserved after all these years (or centuries!). People were hanging out in the park, eating their sandwiches. The towers still stood there and we could climb up the ruins and get the stunning view of the villages down there and the mountain in the distance.