Travel Quick Guide: Bergamo’s Città Alta (Upper Town)
Bergamo, a city in northern Italy, in recent years has increased in popularity as a top tourist destination as visitors come to enjoy its perfect blend of ancient history with modern amenities. With a population of roughly 120,000, this city is vibrant without the crazy pace of fashion center Milan, which is the nearest major city 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the southwest.
One of the unique draws of Bergamo are the centuries-old Venetian walls that act as the boundary around the old part of town, known as Città Alta. The area within these walls is a blast from the past, preserving buildings, squares and more as they looked from the exterior many years ago. You’ll find plenty of religious and historic landmarks to explore, but also a thriving tourism base including hotels, shops and restaurants all housed within the walls.
With nearby airports and other transportation links, it’s easy to get to Bergamo and explore Città Alta. And thanks to Italy’s great climate it’s a perfect place to visit year-round.
Quick History Of Città Alta
Bergamo dates back to ancient times, and became a Roman municipality in 49BC which marked the start of the area’s growth that has continued ever since. When the Lombards ruled most of Italy from the 6th century to the 8th century, the city was seen as one of its most vital territories. In the following centuries there were are a series of wars for control of the city and other parts of Italy. It’s during Venetian times, from 1561 to 1588, that the fortifications including the walls and other defenses that define the perimeter of the upper old part of town (Città Alta) were constructed. Bergamo, including the old town, eventually became part of Italy permanently and saw a rapid boom in industrial growth during the 20th century. In a sign of just how modern the city has become, it hosted the 43rd summit of the G7 in 2017. And the walls of the Città Alta remain to this day, marking the scope of the old town — a historic area recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Getting To Città Alta
The journey to Bergamo itself is fairly simple, with options from other countries including rail, air and road connections. Flights arrive and depart at Il Caravaggio International Airport, which is located roughly 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Bergamo. Alternatively, you can fly into Milan Linate Airport if that connection is more affordable, but note that this airport is much further away from Bergamo at a distance of about 50 kilometers (31 miles). Visitors from nearby countries in Europe might want to drive to Bergamo, and if so they will take the A4 motorway to get into the city. This busy road also connects to other major Italian cities including Milan, Venice, and Turin. And yet another option is to take the railway, as Bergamo’s train station has regular and reliable connections to other parts of Italy including Milan and elsewhere. The Italian train operator Trenitalia also runs direct services from Bergamo to Rome twice a day.
Once you’re in Bergamo the best way to get Città Alta is to take the Funicular that connects the old part of the city with the more modern lower part of the city below. These rail cars that climb up and down the hill between the two areas operate every day and are instantly recognizable by their orange exteriors with white stripes. They have windows, so as you ride up and down you can great views of the approaching part of city you’re traveling to and the rest of Bergamo and beyond. They’re popular with both tourists and residents, but they operate roughly every 30 minutes in both direction so you’ll never have too long to wait to catch your ride. Whether you’re going up or down the journey only takes between 5 and 10 minutes and will cost €1.30 one way. You can buy tickets at the stations in either Città Alta or the modern part of the city. The station located in Città Alta also has an observation deck and a café serving light refreshments.
Things To Do And See In Città Alta
Many of the best things to see and do in Città Alta have history attached to them, whether it’s centuries-old religious buildings or significant historic landmarks. Some are free whereas others have small entrance fees, but whatever you pick you’ll have fun exploring this area. Here’s a quick list of some of the top attractions on offer in the old part of the city.
• Walk the Venetian walls: The walls surrounding the city stretch for more than 6 kilometers (3.5 miles) and one free activity is to simply walk the length of them. It offers great views of the city below and beyond, and if you want to pay for a guided tour they are available too. It’ll give you a sense for why UNESCO decided to designate this a World Heritage Site.
• Explore the Rocca fortress: If you’re taking a walk along the Venetian walls then you should also consider take a wander around the Rocca fortress located nearby. It was built in the 1300s and originally served as the main fortification to help defend the old city from invaders. In the present day it now serves as a historic landmark, one that includes some of the best views of the city from the top of the fortress walls. There’s also a museum located within the fortress that explains more about the history of Città Alta. It’s open at varying hours every day of the year. Regular entry will cost you €5, with a reduced entry at €3 and free entry for students 18 and under and the disabled.
• Hang out in the Piazza Vecchia: This public square is the central focal point of Città Alta, with the exquisitely decorated Contarini Fountain in the middle. The buildings here all date back centuries, transporting visitors and locals alike to the past. There are several restaurants and other places nearby where you can sit and enjoy some food and drink while you watch the day unfold.
• Or spend some time in the Piazza Duomo: An alternative to the Piazza Vecchia is the Piazza Duomo, which translates as Cathedral Square. Because this square is not as big as Piazza Vecchia, it is a little more laidback and relaxing. So if you want to enjoy relaxing in an old town square with less hustle and bustle, choose this one.
• Visit the Cappella Colleoni: A top religious landmark in Città Alta, construction work on the Colleoni Chapel began in 1472. These days it operates as both a free museum and a chapel, offering much to see on the exterior and the interior. Outside you’ll see find white and red marble decorations. Inside there are priceless religious artworks including a statute of the mercenary captain Bartolomeo Colleoni that the chapel is named after. It’s open throughout the year, but opening hours vary depending on the season.
• Learn about natural history at the at the Museo Civico Scienze Naturali E. Caffi: Given Città Alta’s historic status, it is home to several museums. One of the most popular is this museum, also known as the Museum of Natural Science. Here you’ll see exhibits charting the history of the natural environment and animals. Among the many attractions are an Allosaurus dinosaur’s skeleton and a huge mammoth statute at the entrance. It’s closed on Mondays but open every other day throughout the year, though the closing times change between the April to September and October to March seasons. Regular entry costs €3 but the museum is free for anyone aged 17 or younger.
• Marvel at the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica: Translating as the Basilica of St. Mary Major, this religious building has very ornate decorations that are a huge draw for both locals and tourists. You can find it near the Città Alta’s Piazza Vecchia, and on the interior you will see frescos on the ceilings with highly detailed scenes from the Bible, as well as religious arts and decorations throughout the building including carvings and statues. It’s open every day although hours vary depending on which day you’re visiting. And it’s an affordable thing to do with regular entry costing just €3.
• Ride to top of the Campanone: A fun thing to do is to take a glass elevator to ride to the top of the Campanone, which is the bell tower in Città Alta that stands roughly 53 meters tall. Built in the 1200s, the tower houses a large, working bell that still rings a total of 180 chimes each evening. Centuries ago the chimes were used to warn the residents of Bergamo to keep to their 10pm curfew, but these days the bell is rung out of tradition. Taking the elevator to the top of the tower is yet another way to get a view of the entirety of Bergamo and beyond, great for pictures of the city’s landscape.
• Learn about musical history at the Donizetti Museum: Born in Bergamo in 1979, Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti went on to become an accomplished composer of operas, writing at least 70 during his lifetime and being credited as a major influence on other composers from Italy such as Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini. Città Alta is home to the Donizetti Museum, which has exhibits that tell the story of the composer’s life, including some of his original scores, paintings, and more. This is a great experience for anyone who is a music lover.
• Get a glimpse of the past at the Palazzo Vecchio: This is a building that in the 1500s served as a palace but now operates primarily as a municipal office building but also includes a floor that has been developed into a destination that’s popular with tourists. On this floor you will find rooms restored to how they would have looked when the building was functioning as a palace. A central focus of this attraction is the Thone Room with its antique statues, some created back in the 1600s. There’s also a sweeping staircase decorated with paintings about Hercules, the Greek god and hero. It’s open to visitors on the first Sunday each month by request only.
• See another palace by visiting the Palazzo Nuovo: There’s more than one former palace in the Città Alta, and the Palazzo Nuovo is more modern than the Palazzo Vecchio but still very historic. It was designed and built in the 1600s by Vincenzo Scamozzi and you can find it just off the north corner of the Piazza Vecchia. The palace currently serves as the home of the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, the city’s Civil Library of Angelo Mai.
• Admire the books at the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai: Translating as the Civil Library of Angelo Mai, this is a must-see spot for bookworms because it is home to valuable manuscripts, books, scrolls and other documents dating back centuries. To access the library, visit the Palazzo Nuovo and you will find the library inside.
• Tour the ruins of the Castello di San Vigilio: This is a castle built in the 1500s that was designed to help defend Bergamo. Over the years the former castle has largely disappeared but visitors can still see its side walls and circular base, giving a small glimpse into what this once-imposing building used to look like.
Where To Stay In Città Alta
Even though Città Alta is a historic district, there are several business operating within the Venetian walls including hotels where you can stay for your entire visit. There’s even a hotel located in Piazza Vecchia, so if you get a room there you can wake up every morning looking out on Città Alta. Many hotels have their own websites, so an internet search can provide you with more details, or you can inquire about Città Alta hotels through travel agents.