From finding luck where one least expects it to trying stracciatella ice cream in its birthplace, Bergamo offers a range of unique and curious experiences. What’s more, the city is rich in history and culture, and its medieval charm is every bit as good as that of more hyped Italian destinations.
Following the thickening traffic of low-cost airlines in and out of the nearby airport of Orio al Serio, Bergamo has recently opened its doors to an increasing tourist demand, disclosing precious art, fine architecture and culinary finds behind its UNESCO-listed city walls. The characteristic skyline of the old town overlooks the Po Valley and stares down at its modern counterpart, stretched at the foot of the hill. The two are linked by a quaint funicular railway, and the change of scenery allows visitors to discover the city’s varied identity and strong cultural heritage.
Seek fortune at Cappella Colleoni
Bartolomeo Colleoni was a local condottiero remembered for a brilliant military career that unfolded between Milan and Venice during the 15th century. It is rumoured he didn’t exactly use diplomacy to convince the canons that a family chapel was to be built next to Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, but the alleged villainy originated one of Bergamo’s architectural masterpieces. Among Baroque features, Renaissance design, coloured marble and stunning works of art, the most curious detail to seek out is the Colleoni coat of arms. The three testicles it depicts are the visual translation of the family name, and touching them is deemed a good luck gesture by the locals.
Walk alongside 16th-century Venetian walls
UNESCO-listed since 2017, the imposing walls that ring the Upper Town are a remarkably well-preserved example of 16th-century fortification. They were built under the Venetian rule and never endured attacks or sieges, despite being heavily equipped with bastions, embrasures, secret passages and armouries – most of which are open to visits. Today, the walls mark a circular walk backdropped by the external facades of the old town, while the hills and plains surrounding Bergamo offer priceless sunsets and vast landscapes. The modern skyline of Milan also appears somewhere in the distance.
Try the original stracciatella ice cream
When Enrico Panattoni came up with a new gelato flavour in 1961, he named it after an egg soup popular in Rome: stracciatella. Only, his creation had milk-based ice cream instead of broth, and chocolate shavings instead of eggs. Then stracciatella, the sweet version, became as popular across the world as ice cream itself, but the secrets to its simple recipe are still kept in Bergamo. More precisely at La Marianna restaurant and pastry-shop, where the iconic flavour was invented. Getting a scoop here is an excellent excuse to take a break during a tour of the Upper Town.
La Marianna – Largo Colle Aperto 4, 24129
Listen to the bell’s tolling in Piazza Vecchia
The Campanone bell may no longer signal the curfew as it did in the past, but it still tolls in Piazza Vecchia every night at ten o’clock. Curiously, opinions on how many strikes can be heard range from 100 to 180, so everyone is welcome to sit at the foot of Torre Civica and count. It’s easy to lose track halfway through though, as surrounding landmarks such as Palazzo del Podestà, Fontana Contarini and Caffè del Tasso provide plenty of reasons for distraction. In fact, Bergamo’s most representative square is well worth a daytime visit too.
Take home an edible bit of the city walls
Some years ago, 11 pastry chefs joined forces to create a dessert that would promote the local gastronomy at Milan Expo 2015. They came up with a brick-shaped delicacy called M’Oro, a homage to the Venetian walls made all the more precious by a distinguishing gold wrapping. Its recipe includes gianduja chocolate, almond paste, hazelnuts and aged rum, shuffling up the ingredients of another local dessert, polenta e osei (see below). Among other pastry shops, the M’Oro Cake can be found at Pasticceria Brembati and Pasticceria Morlacchi.
Pasticceria Brembati – Passaggio Parco del Borgo 1/B 24018 Villa d’Almè
Pasticceria Morlacchi – Via Serio 1/1 corner Via Padergnone, 24050 Zanica
Walk to the top of one of Bergamo’s towers
Torre del Gombito is one of the few towers still standing, of the many that used to line up the skyline of Bergamo. It dates back to the 12th-century, and throughout history it underwent only minor restoration works maintaining its original structure. Today it houses the tourist office, and its 263 steps are free to access. Rising over 50 meters, they lead to a panoramic terrace offering stunning 360-degree views over Bergamo and the surrounding hills, plains and valleys.
Visit the house of a great composer
Born in Bergamo, Gaetano Donizetti was among the leading Italian composers of the early 19th-century, known for famed operas such as ‘L’Elisir d’Amore’, ‘Don Pasquale’ and ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. Casa Natale, where he was born on 29 November 1797, opens to visitors every weekend and no ticket is required. The composer dwelled in the most ancient rooms of the building, which still show some of the original features dating back to the 14th century. The heritage of Donizetti in Bergamo is also kept at Teatro Donizetti, Museo Donizettiano and Accademia Carrara, while the Donizetti Opera festival is held every year in November.
Museum: Casa Natale – Via Borgo Canale, 14, 24129
Choose between sweet and savoury polenta
Polenta is a must in most areas of Northern Italy, and Bergamo is no exception. What is only found here, however, is a sweet version of polenta e osei (polenta and birds), invented by Alessio Amedei in early 1900. This curious cake – sweet corn flour, apricot jam, gianduja cream, almond paste and dark chocolate – is still in fashion in the Upper Town, available both in a large and single-serving size. As for traditional polenta, every osteria in Bergamo serves its own recipe paired with cheese, sausage, cod, mushrooms and more. An innovative takeaway concept is offered by PolentOne, while restaurants such as Tre Gobbi and Lalimentari provide a more traditional take on polenta.
PolentOne – Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe 1, 24129
Osteria Tre Gobbi – Via Broseta 20, 24122
Lalimentari – Piazza Vecchia 8/11, 24129
Go up and down the city on the funicular railways
Bergamo’s first funicular railway launched in 1887 as an attempt to reduce the isolation of the medieval town, perched on the hill, which had been increasingly losing importance in favour of the modern Lower Town. Today, its carriages still cover the 85-meter drop dividing the two parts of the city in just a few minutes, and there is no better introduction to Bergamo than the views offered during the ride. From the Upper Town, another line rises to San Vigilio hill, home to the ruins of an ancient castle and starting point for a walk through the Parco dei Colli (Hills’ Park).
Try Bergamo’s signature pasta
The first historical record of casoncelli dates as far back as 1386, when they filled up hundreds of trays during local celebrations. This mezzaluna dumplings dressed with melted butter and pancetta are still the core of Bergamo’s cuisine, easily identified by their typical squeezed shape. The filling is made of meat, eggs, herbs and cheese, although every cook has their own secrets to enrich the original recipe. The countless variations of casoncelli can be tasted in local trattorie such as La Colombina, Trattoria Del Teatro and Trattoria Parietti.
La Colombina – Via Borgo Canale 12, 24128
Trattoria Del Teatro – Piazza Lorenzo Mascheroni 3, 24129
Trattoria Parietti – Via Costantino Beltrami 52, 24129
Explore the city through its stairways
A maze of stairs snakes around the Upper Town of Bergamo, offering an excellent opportunity to explore the city in a different way. Even without following any specific itinerary, a stroll up and down these stairs is bound to lead to terraced meadows, charming thickets and quaint panoramic corners. Every year in September, since 2011, the stairways of Bergamo are home to the ‘Millegradini’, an event promoting sport and culture through competitive races and recreational walks (assisted step-free routes are also available).