Tucked away at the foot of the Alps, bordering Switzerland, Milan and a mere hour drive to Lake Como, you will find the small but beautiful city of Bergamo. Recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017, Bergamo is one of the most interesting, yet underrated cities in all of Italy.
Among the many things to see and do in this historic city, my absolute favorite place to visit is a hidden gem called Citta Alta.
Ironically, the only “hidden” thing about this city is that, for the most part, it is devoid of tourists – especially in comparison to the amount of people that swarm the main cities you think of when visiting Italy.
One of the most interesting things about Bergamo is that it is divided into two completely different parts within the same region.
The lower, more modern part of the city is called Citta Bassa. This is where most of the residential areas of Bergamo are located. The older, more historic part of the city is Citta Alta, whose name translates to “High City” and sits tall overlooking Bergamo below.
Citta Alta is surrounded by a 4-mile circuit of Venetian Walls that were originally built in the 1500s by the Republic of Venice to help defend the city from attacks. They took about 30 years to build. Fortunately, the city never saw any of these attacks which led to the walls remaining intact for our viewing pleasure today.
They are so impressive to see in real life, guys.
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Citta Alta can easily be reached several ways. You can:
Brave the strenuous 20-minute walk up
While I haven’t walked up, I have done the way down and it’s not too bad. There are wide steps you can take that cut through forest-like areas and lead to the main street in the lower city. Be careful when it rains though, the steps get slippery!
Take a breathtaking ride on the funicular that connects Citta Bassa and Citta Alta
It is always beautiful and quite scenic to take this option. Traveler tip: if you can, go for sunset – you won’t regret it.
Drive up with your own car
Be warned – parking sucks!
As soon as you arrive, you are greeted by Citta Alta’s centerpiece – Piazza Vecchia, a beautiful medieval square dating back to the 12th century and surrounded by historic buildings. The square has often been referred to as one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe.
As you make your way through the square, one of the first things you see and can’t miss is the majestic Civic Tower – Bergamo’s tallest tower, measuring roughly 170 feet in height. It houses a large bell that was used to inform the local people of advancing enemies, fires and town meetings during the 13th century.
Today, visitors are able to go all the way to the top of the tower in a glass elevator that provides magnificent views over the entire city.
OLD CITY TRADITIONS
In addition to being used as an alert system for the townspeople, the Civic Tower bells chimed 100 times each night at exactly 10pm. The town had a strict curfew and 350 years ago, this was the only way of letting everyone know the city gates were closing.
Today, they still chime to honor and continue the tradition that has lasted through the centuries.
On my most recent trip to Bergamo, I made it a point to head up to Citta Alta at night to see if the stories I had heard and read about these bells were true. Up until that point, I had only ever gone up during the day, so this was my first time experiencing the beauty of the city by night.
It wasn’t skepticism, it was more that I just wanted to hear them for myself.
That entire day had been rainy, dreary and cold. By the time I reached the center, it was completely deserted.
I walked around snapping some sad pictures of the square that I had previously only ever seen full of people and commotion. It seemed no one wanted to be out in the cold wetness.
At 9:59pm, I stood in the center of the square, waiting in anticipation for the bells to chime. It felt like standing in Times Square right before the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve, only – you know, without the insane mob of people.
And at exactly 10pm … they chimed! The stories were true!
The most interesting part of this entire thing was imagining what it must have been like in 1660, hearing those chimes and knowing you had to rush back home or else you would be locked out for the night.
So now picture this:
Bells chiming loudly, their echo cutting through the silence. The dreariness of a cold, rainy night and streets so empty it almost seemed like no one lived there.
I was officially in an old Sherlock Holmes movie.
OLD CITY VIBES
Strolling down the city’s main street, Via Gombito, you will find all kinds of stores, restaurants and cafes. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to window shop and fully immerse myself in the old Italian feel of the city.
And of course, what trip to Italy doesn’t include drooling over food?
Literally every. single. window. I. passed.
BEST EATS…IN AN OLD PRISON?
One of the best restaurants in Italy is located right here, in the heart of Citta Alta. It’s called Il Circolino and it is my FAVORITE.
Hidden at the end of an alley off Via Colleoni, Il Circolino is known for their delicious pizza, amazing fresh-made pasta, dog-friendly policy and great deals. However, more than just their exquisite food – this restaurant is rich with history.
The building first started life as a monastery and was later converted into a prison from the time of the French Napoleonic invasion. It maintained that role until recently when it was transformed into the Cooperativa di Città Alta.
The Cooperativa was first founded in 1981 by Aldo Ghilardi and fourteen others, to counter a trend which local people could see developing with increased tourism. They took the abandoned and dilapidated prison complex and breathed new life into the buildings, transforming them into the restaurant, bar and dining rooms you see today.
There is no one plate I could recommend to you more than others because everything is just that good. The pasta bolognese is incredible, as are the homemade raviolis and you cannot miss out on trying the tiramisu!
If possible, try and stop by in the summer. The back of the restaurant opens, giving customers a unique al fresco dining experience. The beautiful backdrop, delicious food and fresh Italian air will make it a truly unforgettable meal.
When stopping by, make sure you take a walk through the gardens and look for the frescoes from the time it was a religious building.
It is one of the most peaceful walks you will ever take.
A PLAGUE THAT LED TO A BEAUTIFUL PROMISE
During the early 1100’s a plague broke out in Europe killing many people in its path. The people of Bergamo prayed to the Virgin Mary and vowed to dedicate a church to Her if She protected them from being infected.
Keeping true to their word, the town built the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in 1137.
Some interesting facts about Santa Maria Maggiore:
The Basilica houses the funerary monument dedicated to Gaetano Donizetti, the famous music composer, symbol and representative of Bergamo all over the world.
There are no main entrances to the church, only side entries.
The interior of the building is covered in wooden marquetry designed by the artist Lorenzo Lotto.
One of the best things about Citta Alta is that you can walk around aimlessly and find picturesque views full of rich history at every turn.
I can’t stop myself from taking hundreds of photos each time I visit this amazing city! I also can’t stop myself from coming back here anytime I visit my family in Bergamo.
When in Italy, make sure to add Citta Alta to the very top of your must-see list.
With rich history, panoramic views, delicious restaurants, breathtaking architecture and smaller crowds than many other European cities – it is sure to become your favorite city in Italy.
What do you love about Citta Alta? Tell me in the comments below!