Bergamo what? You are probably thinking. Fair enough, Bergamo is not Rome, nor Milan, or Venice. Yet, it is a destination you should consider. Even better, a city you should visit. Why? Bergamo is so stereotipically Italian. You know how when someone talks to you about Italy your mind immediately and unconsciously travels to somewhere serene, with people strolling in the street eating gelato, surrounding are medieval walls and somewhere far away bells chime? That is Bergamo.
That is also where I live, and it has the whole deal: medieval defensive walls (UNESCO Heritage), two historical town squares surrounded by centuries-old buildings, including a gems like the one you see in the picture above, AND it does have a bell tower ding-donging chiming exactly 100 times at 10pm every night since 1656. (the why for this is a story best left for another blog post).
Bergamo is a good place to both live and visit. It's walkable, compact, but it never runs out of things to do. Here you can have great apertivi with view, dishes of the traditions like polenta (typical of Bergamo) valcalepio (local wine) and casoncelli (my favorite). It's the great compromise for size, things happening, culture and fun.
Even then you might think that you can't pick Bergamo over Milan or a similarly sized city, and you are right. I would never tell you to visit Bergamo instead of Milan, but why choosing between the two? Bergamo is located less than one hour away by car or train from Milan, and you should pay a visit next time you are in northern Italy. Bergamo has the advantage of being concentrated on a limited area, making it extremely easy to get around and see and experience most of it. It also has its own airport (BGY Bergamo Milan) making it the perfect first destination in Italy.
So why visit Bergamo? Here are four reasons why you should spend at least one day here:
Food in Italy goes well beyond pasta and pizza. Culinary traditions here are very connected to the territoriy and as a result they change in every region, province and city. Food in Bergamo not only tastes great but it is unique to the city. Something you will notice right away is the amount of cured meats and local cheeses. Anywhere you will go you will see tagliere (a rustic chopping board) overflowing with these local delights. Brave in and try coppa, pancetta, salame, lardo and so many others. They are usually offered with local cheeses such as stracchino, taleggio and other difficult-to-pronounce chesses. Let your host or waiter help you and go with it, you will be surprised.
As far as traditional dishes go Bergamo is mainly famous for two things: Casoncelli e Polenta. Casoncelli is type of local ravioli stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs, herbs and meat. The ravioli are always served with a sauce consisting of simple ingredients: butter, pancetta (smoked pork belly), sage and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The dish can vary depending on where you eat it, traditions here are passed down from generation in generation in each family, so the pasta shape could change as well as the stuffing. Regardless, this is a must try dish made with the freshesh of ingredients.
Next comes polenta: a dish as old as Italy. Polenta is an extremely poor dish who fed the poor for centuries. At the most basic level the dish consists of cornmeal cooked and served firm, however many reinterpretations involving meat, cheese and other cereals have spread over the centuries. The most iconic ones are two: Polenta taragna and polenta e Osei. Polenta taragna is different from the basic one for it consists of a complete meal. It is a heavier feast and it’s made with water, corn flower, buckwheat, butter and cheese. It is very nutritious and ideal for colder days when a full stomach and a worm dish are more welcomed. Polenta e osei, also a one-dish meal, consists of the classic polenta accompanied by, well, a bird. Osei is the word in bergamasco (the local dialect) for uccello, that is, bird.
Historically when polenta was served as a one dish meal it was served with a small roasted bird or cuts of it. It is less common today and not as easy to find on menus but still strives in more remote areas as you leave the city and go up towards the mountains. A more modern reinterpretation of the dish started appearing in Bergamo’s bakeries and pastry shops about fifty years ago is the sweet version of polenta e osei. It‘s a sponge cake topped with chocolate decorations that resemble the savory, original alternative. This desert has a wider appeal and makes the perfect treat for kids and tourists. If you come to Bergamo though, my suggestion is that you try the original and embrace the local experience.
If you are like the majority of tourists visiting Bergamo, you are not coming just to visit Bergamo. Most visitors make Bergamo a one-or-two-day stop before or after visiting near by cities such as Milan and Venice. So you will be happy to know that Bergamo is perfectly located in the north of Italy and conveniently connected to the main destinations around the area. Planning to go to Milan or Venice? Worry not because Bergamo has its own airport (BGY), train stations, buses and shuttles taking you straight to all destinations. In less than an hour you can visit Lake Iseo, a lake with beautiful small towns and panoramic views, Lake Garda, the biggest lake in Italy where we strongly recommend you visit Sirmione and its castle, Verona where you will find the second most important Roman arena and where you can walk the steps of Romeo and Juliet, and finally Milan, for all the reasons we know. You can also quickly reach the Alps, perfect for skiing and hiking, found literally around the corner and if you drive a little over two hours or take the direct train you can reach Genova, Venice and a range of other great destinations.
Bergamo origins trace back to the Celtic tribes who preceded Romans who then used the city as a strategic avantfort in northern Italy. Both periods of times are still observable (especially the Roman period) altough the most evident period is the medieval. Most of its architectural beauty reflects the pick in culture and wealth during the ruling of Venice over the city between the 15th and 18th century when Bergamo was again a very strategic defensive point. In only one day you will admire a monumental number of buildings and signs of medieval prosperity. You get the feeling you are traveling through time as soon as you arrive in Bergamo and look up; what you will see is a massive defensive system, an outstanding proof of excellent construction engineering. What you will be looking at will be the all-imposing Venetian walls dating back to the XVI century and still beautiful today.
Bergamo is divided in two very separate parts: on the hill is Città Alta, the historic part with most of the city visible heritage, and Città Bassa, which spreads on the plain and is the more industrialized part. Now the best part of this is that, no matter where you will find yourself, you will almost always be able to see Città Alta from the Città Bassa and viceversa. When in the lower part you will be able to see this astounding city growing in the sky with this monumental entrance leading to the historic part of town. In the same way when you find yourself in the upper part of town you will enjoy one of the best views you will experience in your stay in Italy. If the day is particularly good and you are lucky with a clear sky you will able to see as far as the tips of Duomo in Milan. Now if that isn’t a good enough reason to visit Bergamo I don’t what will be.