[BERGAMO, ITALY] — If you’re flying Ryan Air or other discount airline to Milan, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve noticed the name Bergamo only after landing in Bergamo, the airport deceptively named Milan Bergamo Airport.

Most airport arrivals people spend their time just trying to actually get to Milan, but the old city of Bergamo is gorgeous, beautifully-preserved, cultural and manufacturing hub about an hour northeast of Milano. It’s worth spending a day exploring, or even overnight.

(Photo from the Bergamo Wikipedia page.)

Bergamo and Lugano. Just an hour or so from Milano.

Here’s the lay of the land of the two cities I’m suggesting for out-and-back day trips from Milano, or to slip into on your way to or from that amazing city. Bergamo and Lugano. Just an hour or so from Milano. Of course there are more, these are just those I’ve been to.

Bergamo is about an hour northeast of Milano and Lugano, about an hour and 45 minute easy train ride from Milan Central Station.

Have a Nice Lunch in Beautiful Bergamo

About an hour northeast outside of Milano is the ancient town of Bergamo. Founded in the Iron Age and later overrun with Celts, it later became a Roman city the first century BCE. It was always the capital of Lombardy region for years and especially the middle ages and after, when most of the current day walled fortress Città Alta (upper city) was built and added on to. Bergamo is what the NY Times called “The Undiscovered Italian City.

The lower part of Bergamo is a more modern and a wealthy city — there’s a lot of manufacturing scattered around the plains below and it’s not unusual for some people to commute into Milan.

“You can come here in June and the tourists will be mostly Italian.”

The NY Times

You park down low and take the steep paths up to the older Citta Alta, a walled fortress because it was always a capital city. The old city streets are narrow and twisty with some great shops and restaurants and they all end up in the main piazza, Piazza Vecchia, where all the city relaxes, kids play and the church is majestic.

Bergamo church

Check out this quick video to get a sense of this beautiful dome in the cathedral:

The Campanone bell tower is quiet gorgeous on a sunny day. In Olden Times, as it is today, at 10pm the bells ring 100 times to announce the arrival of curfew, so people can make their way out of the Citta Alta before the gates closed. The gates stay open these days, but the bells still go off every night. 100 TIMES! That’s a lot.

Plan on finding a nice lunch around here, there are some cool local shops too, I didn’t see any of the usual luxury chains at all. It’s a gorgeously preserved and spotless city.

Mark the Time on the Meridiana Sundial in Bergamo

This was probably my favorite thing in Bergamo because I freak out about stuff like this. In the 12th century portico of the main Palazzo is a nondescript, but very straight marble line cut into the old stones of the shaded portico, with marble hashtags and etchings marking distances. In the 1790s, some brilliant dude created this Meridiana sundial to mark the time for the town residents. Amazing how much they knew about astronomy.

The meridian line points precisely north and south. If you look up, there’s a small metal disc with a sun face on it. As the sun hits the meridian — Noon — the disc creates a shadow that marks the time and date of the year. There’s even notations for the Winter Equinox and other seasonal adjustments.

I just loved how all the people milling about didn’t even notice this work of magic, except for little boy racing his cars down the runway.

Bergamo sundial

Here’s Bergamo’s official tourism website. Here’s a great NY Times article on a June day in Bergamo. And here’s another great NY Times article on Bergamo, “The Undiscovered Italian City“. Man, the NYT sure loves it some Bergamo. Conde Nast Traveler’s story about Bergamo when it was an EU City of Culture. And from the same pub, an insider’s guide to Bergamo. And this great story about the best restaurants in Bergamo from La Cucina in Italiana. And from the good folks at Culture Trip, the best hotels in Bergamo.

Dip a Toe in Switzerland with Lunch on Lago di Lugano

Lugano is located on the gorgeous Lago di Lugano, which sits right on the border between Italy and Switzerland — if you get in a boat-wreck, I imagine it’d be hard to figure out who to call!

The lake is surrounded by mountains and hills, which are surprisingly undeveloped, with quaint small towns clinging to the shore.

The city of Lugano is on the northern Swiss side and is one of the wealthier Swiss cities, especially for its size.

Lago di Lugano from the Air

You can take an hour and 45 minute train direct from Milan, or other destinations. Or by car. You arrive at the train station at the top of the city, then walk down to the old center sitting on the lake.

lugano train station
You arrive at the train station above town. Lots of modern Swiss-style buildings mixed in with the old.

We had every intention of spending a wonderful day in Lugano, even got up very early to take the train up from Milano. It’s a gorgeous city on the lake and very Swiss Modern city, one of the wealthiest of the wealthy Swiss cities.

harleys in lugano

But to our horror, we happened to be there the same weekend as some Harley Owners Convention, so every asshole Harley owner in Europe was there, 10,000 of them! , all sitting there revving their engines so they can listen to their stupid loud exhausts. Roaring up and down the streets.

The whole town was flooded with riders in their little Harley costumes, everything beautiful was covered in some sort of carnival booths selling paraphernalia; hot dogs, beer and hamburgers, and marred by all sorts of banners with skulls and Dracula fonts and black t-shirts and portapotties everywhere.

We had to get out of there, so we just jumped on a water taxi and asked them to take us to some small, quiet restaurant, anywhere on the lake. Off we went.

Lugano city on lake

Take a Water Taxi to Lunch in Gandria

Finally we got away from all the potato-potato-potato exhaust noise and our blood pressure dropped immediately, replaced with the gentle hum of a boat engine.

The little hamlet of Gandria is on the Swiss side of the lake, in the province of Ticino — the Italian-speaking Swiss province. It’s old, dating back to the Celts and most of the buildings were built in the 1700s or earlier. A wonderfully quiet little place with few people, just the cool breeze and birds chirping.

Gandria Switzerland
(Photo from the Wikipedia page.)

Here’s a great page on Gandria from the Swiss Tourism website. And a nice little story from AFAR magazine. Here’s the TripAdvisor page for Gandria.

building Gandria Switzerland on the Lago di Lugano

Grandia is one of the prettiest villages on the lake and car-free and for the most part accessible only by boat, hence the water taxi. It’s quiet and I bet a wonderful place to retire to. (** Adds Grandia to list.)

That’s Italy right across the Lago di Lugano.

water taxi stop Locanda Gandriese Gandria Switzerland
old building on lugano Gandria Switzerland

The taxi brought us to a nice little unassuming restaurant called Locanda Gandriese, on a terrace overlooking the lake. It was such a relaxing spot, loved it. And the ride there and back, drooling at all the small towns and sweet villas clinging to the sides of mountains.

I think the restaurant has been renovated since we were there in 2019 and has a new Sardinian chef. Check out their website.

view from Gandria Switzerland lago di lugano
sailboat below Gandria Switzerland
Can you imagine how cool it would be to have this amazing house, right on the lake and your sailboat right out front?

— Last Visited July 2017. Post updated June 2024 —

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