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Bergamo, located in the Lombardy region (North of Italy), is an ancient medieval town. It is one of those magical cities that when you visit them, leaves you with a lasting impression, that you have traveled back in time.
Actually, Bergamo is composed of 2 centres: a Lower Town, called “Città Bassa”, modern and commercial city, and an Upper Town, perched on a hill, the medieval “Città Alta”. If the Lower Town contains some interesting buildings and a few colorful houses, it is the Upper Town that attracts all the attentions. Indeed, to visit Bergamo, is an opportunity to discover a medieval architecture and admire exceptional works of art. It also means diving into the Middle Ages, and enjoying the vibes of this historic town by strolling through the narrow streets and on the castle walls.

Here is the description of our one day visit of the Upper town of Bergamo, essential stopover of our road trip in Lombardy, Italy, during which we visited Lake Como, Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta.

From the road, we can identify the skyline of  the historic district, surrounded by its defensive walls …

Our guided tour of the Upper Town of Bergamo

1. Map of Bergamo
2. Città Alta, at the times of Venice’s glory
3. Piazza Vecchia, heart of the political power
4. Piazza Duomo, heart of the religious power
5. An impregnable fortress
6. A medieval city with culinary traditions
Information to visit Città Alta

1. Map of Bergamo, its Upper Town and places of interest

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Modified original map. Source map : © openstreetmap

Access directly to the interactive map of Bergamo.

2. Città Alta, at the times of Venice’s glory

We set off to discover the medieval city of Bergamo on foot. The Via Alessandro, beautiful narrow and shady street with a Roman pavement rises gradually to reach the splendid gate of San Giacomo.

: From the Lower Town, it is also possible to get to the Upper Town by the old and so romantic funicular, on Viale Vittorio Emanuele II.

The Venetian Gate of San Giacomo

What a beautiful building! We are impressed by its bright white marble facade. It forms an impressive contrast with the gray stones of the old viaduct and of the defensive walls.
Built in 1592, it is the most beautiful of the Città Alta’s 4 gates. On its pediment, the emblem of the Republic of Venice, the winged lion of St. Mark was carved. Indeed, Bergamo was annexed to the Venetian territory for 350 years, from 1428 until 1797, date of its capture by Napoleon. Before this period, the city was ruled by the Viscontis, Lords of Milan.

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Venetian Gate of San Giacomo

Before entering Upper Town, we enjoy the beautiful view of the Venetian fortifications (on which we intend to stroll later in the day) and of the Lower Town.
Then we enter the famous medieval city and take Via San Giacomo that reveals an ancient architecture (stone walls with carved gargoyles, colorful houses, bas-reliefs). No doubt, crossing this gate takes us to another time far back.

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Wall in Via San Giacomo, with gargoyles

The street leads to Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe, a small lively square with terraces under arcades. (also the arrival point of the funicular).

The Gombito Tower

Then Via Gombito, a busy shopping street is dominated by a beautiful square tower rising in the sky. Built in the 13th century, the Gombito tower is one of the turrets that was part of the defensive power of Bergamo and in particular of Piazza Vecchia. Getting at the top of the tower is an opportunity to admire from above the medieval districts and observe its ancient buildings.

We continue to Piazza Vecchia.

: Book a visit at the Tourist Office which is located on the ground floor of the tower.

3. Piazza Vecchia, heart of the political power of Bergamo

As we go into the heart of Città Alta, we travel back in time, to the 12th century, in the Middle Ages.
At first glance, Piazza Vecchia has a certain charm. The Contarini fountain occupies the central space and is surrounded by prestigious buildings: the Palazzo della Ragione, the Palazzo Nuovo, the Palazzo de Podesta and finally the Civic Tower (or Campanone, which signifies “Great Bell”). The buildings around the piazza were built at different times, nonetheless the whole picture is harmonious.
But the building that is the center of attraction is Palazzo della Ragione.

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Palazzo della Ragione on Plazza Vecchia and the Contarini fountain on the forefront

Palazzo della Ragione

This palace, built on large porticoes, at the bottom of Piazza Vecchia, dates from the 12th century, long before the domination of Bergamo by the Serenissima Venice. It is also the oldest building in the city. Nevertheless, over time, transformations have been made. For example, on its facade, the bas-relief of the lion of Saint Mark has been added. It reminds the period of Venetian rule. The white balcony and the openwork windows give a feeling of elegance and lightness.
Palazzo della Ragione held the role of Town Hall and housed the public assemblies of the city. Today, it is a cultural and history center.
Under its arcades, we observe on the ground the big sundial dating from 1857.

Palazzo Nuovo

To the right of Piazza Vecchia, Palazzo Nuovo in white marble facade has a Renaissance architecture (built in 1611). It contrasts sharply with the gray stones of Palazzo delle Regione.

Today the palace houses the Angelo Mai Library, which possesses invaluable archives.

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View on Plazza Vecchia from the Campanone. Palazzo Nuovo faced in white marble. On the right, the Gombito Tower

The Campanone

To the right of Palazzo della Ragione, a great staircase leads to the Campanone (Civic Tower), also built in the 12th century and typical of the medieval architecture of Bergamo. For centuries, its bell has rung 100 times every evening at 22h. Under the reign of Venice, the sound of the bell marked the closing of the gates of the Upper Town.

At the top of its 52 meters high, this massive tower offers a spectacular view of Piazza Vecchia, the roofs of Bergamo, the religious buildings,  the palaces, the town’s surrounding plains and finally on the horizon, the Alps.

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Piazza Vecchia and Campanone

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Basilica S.M.Santa Maria Maggiore, Capella Colleoni. View from the Campanone.

: An elevator gives access to the top or take the stairs (230 steps)

4. Piazza Duomo, heart of the religious power

Behind the Palazzo della Ragione, the small Piazza Duomo, concentrates on a few square meters all the religious history of Città Alta. Indeed, it is surrounded by admirable religious buildings, built at different times: the Capella Colleoni, the Cathedral of Bergamo, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Baptistery.

Capella Colleoni

Capella Colleoni nested to the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is quite majestic. This Renaissance-style building is not the oldest in the square, but it is breathtakingly delicate, with its pink and white marble, its sculptures and bas-reliefs carved on the facade. A visit inside is worth it. It houses the marble tomb of Condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni, one of the most famous warlords of Lombardy during the XVth century.
To the right of the chapel stands a small octagonal baptistery built in 1340.

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Capella Colleoni

Cathedral of Bergamo

Also called “il Duomo”, the Cathedral faced with white marble, seems to be stuck between the Basilica S.M.Maggiore and the back of the Palazzo della Ragione. Inside, you can see works by the famous painter Tiepolo.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Finally, the imposing Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, built in 1137 is the religious heart of Bergamo.

But this Basilica, with its stern appearance reserves a all lot of surprises when you get inside. The interior is breathtakingly beautiful. The light diffused by the windows reveals a number of ornamental treasures made by great masters (sculptures, frescoes, stone work, marquetry, …). Unlike the usual baroque buildings “crumbling” under the golden ornaments, the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is elegance and refinement. We admire the volumes, the perspective effect being rendered by the magnificent white marble pillars. The somptuous decorations are the object of our wonder.

The basilica is in itself worth a visit to Bergamo.

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Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore – Wouahhh!

5. Città Alta: an impregnable fortress

Because of its strategic position on top of the hill, at the foot of the Lombardy Prealps, and dominating the plain, Bergamo played a role of defensive outpost during the Venetian wars. From this period, it has preserved all the characteristics of a military architecture, with the construction of the Rocca (defensive walls) and San Vigilio Castle. In addition, the Upper Town of Bergamo is surrounded by 5 kilometers of fortifications dating from the XVIth century and remarkably preserved. They are part of UNESCO World Heritage.

After strolling through the alleys and narrow passages around Piazza Vecchia, we decide to observe the medieval district from the heights, to better appreciate its charms.

Thus, from the Rocca’s terrace, we enjoy an stunning view of the city, admiring the elegant profile of the towers, steeples and domes emerging from the medieval heart of Bergamo.

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View on Bergamo skyline from the Rocca.

After a deserved “photos break” we walk on the Mura (defensive walls). It offers a 360 ° panorama of the valley and the villages.
Finally, we stroll up to the hill of San Vigilio on which stands the castle of the same name. From there, we have a spectacular view of Bergamo, the surrounding villages and in the background, the jagged Alps.

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View of Bergamo from San Vigilio hill.

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View on Bergamo and its outstanding monuments

From Bergamo, you can reach the hill:
– by funicular, from the station located west of Città Alta (Funicolare S.Vigilio Stazione Inferiore)
– or on foot via Via San Vigilio. Then, a walk on the hillside, in the meadows is the perfect romantic stroll (see the routes on the map).

6. Bergamo: a city with culinary traditions

Strolling along the winding streets of the historic district, we did not miss to taste the traditional specialties, accompanied by a good local wine. Indeed, the top notch specialty of the Bergamasque cuisine is the “polenta”, boiled corn flour. And we tasted for you the dessert of the city, the polenta e osèi. 😉

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Don’t leave bergamo without tasting the Polenta è Osei!

In conclusion, the visit of Bergamo Upper Town plunges the visitor into a medieval atmosphere: a history, a culture, exceptional palaces that overlook the famous Piazza Vechia, religious buildings of remarkable beauty. From its Venetian walls, the visitor also enjoys magnificent landscapes. There are all the witnesses of glory and power of ancient times.

Information to visit the Upper Town of Bergamo

How to get there ?

Bergamo is 60 kilometers away by road from Milan, located in the north of Italy.
Plane: Orio al Serio International Airport (5 km from the city). Every 20 minutes, a shuttle drives you to the city center.
Train: From Milan or Brescia (Trenitalia.com)
Car: Take the Bergamo exit from the A4 Torino-Venezia autoroute.
In the Upper Town, road traffic is limited or forbidden (Sundays and holidays). In any case, it is almost impossible to park.

where to sleep ?

We stayed at B & B Sant ‘Alessandro in Citta Bassa.
Ideally located in the city center, in a shopping area, a quarter of an hour from the funicular that leads to Città Alta. The room is comfortable, the breakfast is generous and the host very helpful.

Where to eat ?

We tasted local specialties in:
– Antica Hosteria (Via Gaetano Donizetti): a popular tavern located next to the funicular. The local cuisine is excellent, the atmosphere friendly.
– Cantina (Via Antonio Ghislanzoni): another good place to taste local specialties.

What to do or see around Bergamo?

– Visit the spa town of San Pelegrino (see its impressive Art Nouveau style Grand Hotel).
– Hike in the Orobie Prealps (Brembana  valley is a paradise for all nature’s lovers).

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