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Bergamo: A Great Day-Trip from Milan

bergamowalThe small city of Bergamo is an easy day-trip from Milan, especially because the part of Bergamo that you’ll want to visit is even smaller. The city is divided into two parts – the old high city, or “alta città,” and the newer low city, or “bassa città.” The newer parts of the city aren’t horrible by any stretch, but the historic and more pretty areas are in the alta città. Thankfully, the city makes it very easy to head straight up to the alta città from the second you leave the Bergamo train station.

From Milan to Bergamo is roughly one hour one way, and trains leave relatively frequently. There is a break in the morning schedule, however, so that if I hadn’t left Milan when I did just before 9am the next trains would have been at 09:48 and then not until 11:22. It’s a slower regional train that runs between the two cities, so no reservations are required. If you’ve got a Eurail or Italy Rail Pass, all you need to do is hop on board. Also, most of the trains for Bergamo seem to leave not from the main station in Milan, Milano Centrale, but from one of two smaller stations in the city – Milano Lambrate or Milano Greco Pirelli. No matter where you’re staying in Milan, you can get to either station easily by bus or tram.

Want to stay a bit longer in Bergamo?

The Bergamo train station spits you out at one end of a very long and mostly straight street that more or less heads directly up to the alta città. If it’s a nice day and you’re trying to work off all that gelato and pasta you’ve been eating, you can certainly hoof it up the hill. But for those of you who are (like me) more inclined to let something with a motor help you out, there are two options. The #1A bus stops right in front of the train station and then deposits you just at the start of the alta città on the other end, or there’s a funicular which runs up the side of the hill. Both cost €1 to ride (the ticket is good for 75 minutes of public transportation, in case you’re planning to make a very quick stop), and you can buy tickets from a machine that’s on the outside wall of the train station (instructions in English and Italian). Remember to validate your ticket once you board the bus in one of the machines either near the driver or near the back of the bus.

Oh, and don’t forget to check the return train schedule before leaving the train station, so you can time your trip back down from the alta città. Should you forget to do this and have a little time to kill, however, there’s a great gelato shop called Grom (it’s a chain, with stores in several Italian cities) a few blocks from the train station up that long, straight road that runs between the station and the alta città. Even on a cold day, it’s a good place to visit – the “cioccolata calda” (hot chocolate) is a decadent treat.

I visited Bergamo on a Saturday, and the tourist information office located across the parking lot from the train station is oddly only open during weekdays. I figured I was stuck without a map or guide, but Bergamo’s alta città isn’t too big, so it didn’t seem like a huge loss. Once I got up to the alta città, however, I found there’s a second TI up there that’s open on weekends. They have great little free maps of the high city as well as a free pocket guide to the attractions (available in several languages).

The main thing to do in the Bergamo alta città is just wander, so do yourself a favor and try to get lost. It’s virtually impossible to do, because the old city is encircled by the old city walls – so if you stray too far in any one direction you’ll just bump into a wall at some point and have to turn back. The streets themselves aren’t often flat, but if you’re letting the bus or funicular get you up and down the hill then a few little climbs on the streets of the alta città shouldn’t be too much trouble.

A few of the things to see in Bergamo are:

  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore & Colleoni Chapel – Just off the main square, the basilica is quite large but it’s beautiful facade of the small attached chapel that gets all the attention. Free to enter both, no photos allowed inside.
  • Piazza Vecchia – This pretty open square could be considered the center of Bergamo’s high city (whether or not it’s geographically central), and although it was relatively quiet during my visit on a Saturday afternoon in March, I can imagine it being quite the meeting place in warmer weather.
  • Campanone – Also called the Torre Civica, or Civic Tower, you can climb this 12th-century tower (which sits next to the Piazza Vecchia) for a small fee.
  • Donizetti Museum – Dedicated to the composer Gaetano Donizetti, who was born and died in Bergamo, and who is buried in the Basilica. (His birth house is also in the high city if you’re a big Donizetti fan.)
  • La Rocca – This fortified building includes a tower you can climb for a nice view, and the building complex has a museum as well.
  • Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio – When I visited both were encased in scaffolding, with work being done inside and out, so I didn’t get to go in. The Palazzo Vecchio is also called the Palazzo della Ragione.

If you’re spending a day in Bergamo, chances are good you’ll have a meal during your visit. There are a few Bergamesco specialties you may want to consider ordering, if for no other reason than to sample a unique cuisine. Here are some of the items you’ll see on Bergamo menus, and possibly nowhere else.

  • Casoncelli – These are like ravioli, only a different shape. But they’re pockets of pasta filled with ground meats, and usually served in a butter sauce with a sharp grated cheese over the top and sometimes even crispy bits of pancetta. You may also see it written “Casonsei.”
  • Polenta alla Taragna – Polenta itself is a northern Italian staple, but in Bergamo they serve it a special way. You’ll get a big pile of steaming, golden polenta and you’ll think that’s a very plain meal, indeed… Until you push your fork into it. The polenta has been poured over a ball of taleggio cheese, which has the consistency of cream cheese and a bit of a tangy flavor. The whole thing is usually covered with a butter sauce, and you can usually order something on the side – from mushrooms to meat.
  • bergamocakePolenta e Ösei – This is Bergamo’s signature dessert, and you’ll see them in pastry shop windows. They look like piles of polenta with odd-shaped chocolate things on top. They’re really little cakes (usually with a hazelnut cream filling) that have been covered with a polenta-looking layer, and those little chocolate things are made of marzipan and are supposed to be birds (I never saw any that actually looked very bird-like, however). They come in different sizes, so you can either get a small one to munch on as you walk through the city, or you can get a big one to take home. The husband called them “Bergamo’s version of the Twinkie.” Coming from him, that’s a huge compliment.
  • Föiade – This is a butterfly-shaped pasta, which is usually served with a meat sauce or a mushroom sauce.

For some more Bergamo food pictures, see this Ms. Adventures in Italy post about Bergamo – she has a fondness for the pastries, and who wouldn’t when they’re so pretty? It looks like she took pictures of the same shop window selling Polenta e Ösei that I did, only the window was more populated when she was there. Maybe during my visit all the birds had flown south for the winter.

You can check out more of my Bergamo photos, too.

And for a sneak-peek at the inside of one of those little polenta cakes with the birds on top…

Now go get your own!