Italy. A country of stylish dogs, mathematically gorgeous architecture, tiny coffees and cheeses most of us can’t hope to pronounce.
A country where you can wander into the most unassuming-looking church on the corner of the most unassuming-looking street and find a 17th Century fresco of a lute-playing baby that’ll make you weep into your Gelato receipt.
A country that has said a firm no grazie to the rules of singular noun use and appointed not one but two cities as the Italian Capital of Culture for 2023.
Those two cities are Bergamo and Brescia, neighbours in Northern Lombardy with a (mostly) playful rivalry. To use the visual metaphor of long-ago Geography lessons, Lombardy is located at the very top of the boot, high on the calf shaft, up around the knee.
It takes around 90 minutes to fly from London to Milan airport, and then less than 40-50 minutes by train to either city, with about 45 minutes travel from one to the other. Two of the worst affected areas during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bergamo and Brescia’s joint appointment as Italy’s cultural hubs - a first in the award’s 8-year history, is one effort to return Italy to full life and vitality in a world no longer in lockdown.
Though perhaps lesser known than hotspots like Rome, Venice, or the place they filmed the last series of White Lotus, a quick Instagram search returns the kind of beautiful panoramas, marble statues, pretty domed cathedrals, sunny piazzas, Roman ruins and artfully tilted goblets of glowing Aperol Spritz that’ll send you scrambling to the EasyJet website.
Bergamo is a small and walkable city staged across two levels. There’s the Città Bassa, its lower town, and the Città Alta, its upper town. The upper town is enclosed by an impressive Venetian Wall, which is one of Lombardy’s ten UNESCO World Heritage sites. Upper and lower Bergamo are connected by funicular railway. With three-minute journeys and single tickets costing €1.30 (€4 for day tickets), it’s both a novel and efficient way to travel. The upper town is also accessible by foot, bus, cab or (only slightly terrifyingly) tuk-tuk tour.
For some holy-historical excellence, we recommend stopping in at The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, a working Romanesque church in the Piazza del Duomo. From there it’s a moment’s walk to Campanone, a 52.76-metre bell tower offering spectacular panoramic views for only €5. Though the tower is wheelchair accessible by a ground-floor lift, there is a narrow staircase from there to the very top level. For more information and accessibility information you can visit the website.
The climate in Lombardy is typically milder than in southern regions like Sicily or Calabria, with dry and bright winters and lovely warm springs and summers. This weather lends itself perfectly to agricultural and cheesemaking excellence, with Bergamo widely considered Europe’s cheese capital. The area boasts an impressive nine out of Italy’s total 50 D.O.P status cheeses (a legal designation meaning they’re made in a geographically specific way and cannot be reproduced elsewhere). For visitors looking to learn more and sample the very best of local cheese and wines, Bù Cheese Bar in Bergamo’s lower town is a must. For an authentic sit-down meal, there’s Taverna Colleoni in the upper town. Opened in 1744, this beautifully preserved historical restaurant is a great place to start (or end) an evening.
The GAMeC (Gallery of Modern and contemporary art) offers a diverse and versatile collection of work by Italian and international artists. For more information about current and upcoming exhibitions, you can visit their website.
The San Vigilio funicular takes you right to the top of the hill, delivering the most breathtaking views for the cost of a return ticket. Think Cypress trees, rust-coloured hillside villas, the footie stadium and rolling Italian countryside that stretches all the way to a horizon of misty mountains. There are several restaurants to choose from at the top, too, if you fancy enjoying that view with a bottle and a bite to eat.
With the largest archaeological area of Northern Italy, Brescia too is best explored on foot. From the Piazza del Foro, the city’s oldest square, it’s a short walk to the Capitolium Temple, the Roman Theatre and the Santa Giulia Museum. Visitors to the temple are required to wait for five minutes in a climate-controlled room underground before heading inside to view stretches of beautifully preserved mosaic floors and wall frescoes and the carefully reconstructed fragments of The Winged Victory, a 1st-century statue of a female figure, her arms ever open for a shield that remains lost in time.
You can easily chase a day of ancient history with an evening of Italian culture by booking tickets to Brescia’s Teatro Grande, a richly decorated 19th-century theatre boasting a full programme of opera, ballet and dance, perfectly located for a post-show dinner in the Piazza Paulo VI, with uninterrupted views of the Old and New Cathedrals.
For a culinary excursion just outside of the city we highly recommend Il Colmetto, a thirty-hectare family-run farm restaurant in Franciacorta. On-site there’s the gorgeous dining room and kitchen, plus vegetable gardens and greenhouses, a closed cycle goat farm where 150+ Saanen goats drink temperature-controlled water and listen to Spotify, an artisan cheese factory, a generous pasture for the free-grazing donkeys and a swimming pool for the semi-wild pigs. Run on principles of sustainability, environmental balance and culinary innovation is made from the 150+ goats reared on-site. For menus and more information on tours, you can visit their website. Another stand out is the Osteria del Savio, a meat-speciality tavern with a focus on Brescian cuisine and local produce that’s located in Brescia’s historical centre.
The Relaisfranciacorta is a peaceful four-star hotel not far from the city. The 17th Century farmhouse is in the heart of the countryside, with long stretches of vineyards and both lake and mountain views.
Though technically in the province of Bergamo, Lovere is a lovely lakeside town not far from Brescia on the North shore of lake Iseo. The drive from either Bergamo or Brescia reveals stunning mountain views. The town, listed officially as one of the most beautiful in Italy, boasts great restaurants, several medieval churches, charming cobbled streets and water sports and boat trips in the warmer months.
Brescia is a fantastic base for anyone looking to explore nearby nature spots. Lake Garda, Lake Iseo, the peninsula town of Sirmione and the Tonale Pass are all within the province.