Although I spend most of my time dreaming to be somewhere else, far away from here, there’s a place that I will always call “home”. Bergamo is a small town in the North of Italy, surrounded by hills and not far from the mountains. The view is amazing, especially at sunset when the sky turns pink, purple and golden and you can spot Milan skyline in the distance. I grew up in a village a few miles southwest of the city, in the quiet countryside. Since there was nothing to do and nowhere to show in the village, we went shopping in Bergamo, usually on Saturday. So I’ve spent hundreds of weekends walking in the streets of Bergamo Bassa, eating ice cream or climbing up the hill to the Upper Town. According to my American storyteller teacher, it is one of Italy’s best kept secrets. Since Orio al Serio has become a busy airport, connecting Bergamo to all European capital cities, tourists crowd the upper town and its restaurants. Which is a good thing.
The Upper Town
In the last few years, Bergamo has gained a pleasant international atmosphere. It is nice to hear different languages spoken while buying bread or crossing the park. The narrow lanes and stone houses have always reminded me of a Tuscan borgo (village), with towers, cobble-stoned streets and artisans’ shops. In Piazza del Duomo, Santa Maria Maggiore Cathedral maintained the original Romanesque Greek cross plan. It has a beautifully decorated porch on the left transept, with two lions supporting the columns. Go inside and look at the fine choir stalls, the 16th century tapestries and the Gothic canopies. Admire the rich decorations of the ceiling. Don’t leave before paying a visit to the adjoining Cappella Colleoni, designed to host the tombs of Bartolomeo Colleoni and his daughter Medea, with Tiepolo’s paintings and the Renaissance façade.
In the main street that cuts the old town in two, there are restaurants and food shops for all tastes. However, I have my favourites, where I keep going year after year, and I hope sharing them with you will help discover new places and be satisfied. Here’s my personal food guide.
This is a restaurant adored by both locals and tourists. It’s aways crowded in the weekends, but believe me, it’s worth the wait. Especially if you like real, tasty, healthy pizza with fresh tomato and mozzarella di bufala, slow food products and Sicilian extravirgin olive oil. Try their coffee selection with homemade sweets.
Kamut, spelt, multi-cereal bread loafs; home-made yogurt cake; traditional biscuits. Here you’ll find everything you need for a simple, healthy merenda. Via Bartolomeo Colleoni, 13a.
This little café has quickly become one of my favourite. The very nice owner prepares delicious vegan piadine (flat bread), and there are always a couple of main dishes (usually vegetarian) designed by renowned chefs. Good quality at a reasonable price.
PASTICCERIA LA MARIANNA
Locals know this restaurant/café very well, as it is has been here for decades. A big, very old tree provides shadow in the summer, and beautiful rose bushes grow in the garden. Locals come here for a cup of or an ice cream cone, or to buy a small tray of pasticcini or one of their refined china teapots. On Sunday you may have brunch in their lovely terrace.
Teapots as lamps (see pictures), shabby-chic style interiors and summer picnic baskets are the strength points of this small restaurant with seasonal menu, especially popular among tourists.
This old style pastry shop is always filled with a delicious smell of croissant and strong coffee. This is where locals like to have breakfast on Sunday. Their cakes and chocolates are delicious, but very expensive.
I like walking along the Venetian walls protecting the old town, but when I’m in the mood for a real walk, I head for San Vigilio. Some of my best memories are linked to this hill, which can also be reached by a funicular. Elegant houses, little chapels, and secret gardens have been built along the steep road that leads to the top of the hill, where a couple of restaurants offer a great view of the valley. From here, just take one of the many roads that go around the hill and enjoy the peaceful landscape and the golden sunsets. You’ll forget that you are a few kilometers from busy Milan. This is a different, more fascinating and old-style world.
The Lower Town
My food guide continues in Bergamo Bassa, the lower town. Here the straight streets are lined with Neoclassical and modern buildings. And the Accademia Carrara, an art gallery which has recently been renovated, is always worth a visit. It’s easy to get around in Bergamo, as public transport is well organized (yes!) and the large, elegant streets invite to take a pleasant walk. When I was a child, my aunt used to treat me to a cappuccino and a piece of cake in one of the oldest cafés in town, Balzer. This historic pastry shop was opened in 1762 and it’s a “must” for locals. On a rainy afternoon, you can sit inside and have tea&brioche. Try La Veneziana, a sweet brioche bun topped with custard and sugar. If you love ice cream, I suggest paying a visit to La Romana. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.
This little shabby-chic style shop is always crowded, and for a good reason. Their ice cream is creamy and tasty and made with fresh ingredients. Almond pesto, granny’s cookie, honey & walnut yogurt, Piemonte hazelnut, almond and chocolate cookie crumble (vegan), stracciatella, ricotta&figs. You feel compelled to come back again and again and try them all. In winter, their hot chocolate with home-made whipped cream is also super.
The nicest thing in Bergamo is that you can actually walk in circle and find many little treasures along the way. Start from via XX Settembre, packed with shops and bookstores, and find a small tea shop – You and Tea – hidden in a peaceful corner, where teas from all over the world are sold. Once arrived in Piazza Pontida, turn right and take via Sant’Orsola. On the right you’ll bump into Sweet Irene.
I love this cozy, little place that offers vegetarian and vegan dishes and sweets. Organic coffee, delicious teas, surprising cakes and sugar-free cookies, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Spelt brioche, Finnish apple cake and muffins are probably my favourites, along with a matcha cake that I was lucky enough to try once.
Here I had the best white matcha chocolate ever. Yes, I love matcha tea, I think you all got it by now. Hot chocolate here means real, fine chocolate melted and served with homemade biscuits and whipped cream. Aperitivo is good, too, with a large choice of freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices. Or you can try their special ice cream. Oh, and they also sell tea. I’ll keep looking for new places, as there’s nothing better than going back to a city you know so well and find that there’s something new to see and try. It’s fascinating to watch a place change, and still remain the same.