Assisi is the region’s biggest draw, though the capital city, Perugia, is the birthplace of the Umbrian style of Renaissance painting, showcased by the work of Perugino and his students Pinturicchio and Raphael. As a bonus, Perugia also hosts one of Europe’s greatest jazz festivals (Umbria Jazz, in July) and is the home of Baci chocolates.
Planning Your Trip
One week should give you a decent taste of Umbria’s charms – any less and it’s best to solely focus on the north (Perugia, Gubbio, Assisi) or the south (Orvieto, Todi, Spoleto). If you have one week in Umbria, start by spending a couple of days soaking up the art, architecture and chocolate in Perugia. From there head north to Gubbio for a day, before making an obligatory pilgrimage to Assisi.
If you crave more art and history, spend the last three days zipping between Spoleto, Todi and the mind-blowing cathedral at Orvieto. Another approach would be to spend those three days in the rural south, hiking or rafting in the Valnerina and perhaps taking in some of the vineyards around Orvieto. For more tips on visiting the country, check out How Many Days Should You Spend in Italy?
When to Go
Umbria gets busy throughout the spring and summer, though it’s not as crowded as Tuscany. Still, you’ll need to make reservations far in advance traveling at this time of year – July and August are the busiest months. The best times to visit are April and May, and October, when it’s quieter but the weather is still warm and sunny. Fall is fairly mild, though it can rain a lot. Winter, though mild in the valleys, can be cold in January and February, especially at higher elevations, with plenty of drizzle. For more, see the Best Time of Year to Visit Italy.
Getting there and around
Perugia airport is served primarily by budget carrier Ryanair, with frequent flights to London-Stansted. Perugia, Assisi, Spoleto and Orvieto are all relatively short train rides from Rome and Florence. You can rent cars easily in Perugia – otherwise the smaller towns in Umbria are connected by a web of bus services, though these tend to be less frequent than trains.
Driving from Rome to Orvieto is straightforward (via A1/E35) and fast (1hr 30min), with Perugia another 1hr 30min north. Umbrian cities are generally small enough to explore on foot (and a nightmare to drive around); look for parking outside the historic centers and walk in from there.
The Perugia City Museum Card (Card Perugia Città Museo) offers free entry to five museums and sights (from a list of ten), plus discounts on other services throughout the city, for Euros 14 (valid 48hr). Buy it online, at the museums or at the information office on Piazza Matteotti.
In Orvieto, the Carta Unica provides free entry to 11 museums and monuments for Euros 20 (Euros 17 for students and visitors over 65). If you intend to see a lot, this is a good deal, as it also includes a round-trip ticket on the Funicular, plus rides on two city minibus routes and a host of discounts at shops and restaurants – and it never expires.
Highlights & Activities
The capital of Umbria is also the region’s only big city, offering a dose of urban culture – boutique shopping, nightlife, great restaurants – in addition to a host of artistic attractions and Gothic palaces.
The elegant main drag, Corso Vannucci runs between 19th-century Piazza Italia and Perugia’s magnificent main square, Piazza IV Novembre. The piazza is anchored by the Fontana Maggiore, a fountain with panels and figures carved by Gothic master sculptors Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni in the 13th century. Perugia’s National Gallery houses the largest and finest collection of Umbrian art in the world, including plenty of Perugino paintings and altarpieces, plus a masterpiece from Piero della Francesca, the Polyptych of Perugia.
Nearby, the Nobile Collegio del Cambio, the old meeting rooms of Perugia’s Moneychanger’s Guild, are adorned with more frescoes by Perugino. Perugino’s protégé Raphael painted the Cappella di San Severo in 1505. Though damaged, the upper half of his work survives, with Perugino adding the six saints along the bottom.
Perugina makes Italy’s beloved Baci chocolates – sweet lovers will be pleased to learn you can tour the “Casa del Cioccolato Perugina” factory just outside the city, with piles of free chocolate on offer. Perugina also operates a shop selling all the major choc goodies at Corso Vannucci 101 in the center of town.
Arrive in Assisi early – before the tour buses pull-in – and it’s much easier to appreciate the beauty of its medieval churches and homes clinging to the slopes of Monte Subasio. The biggest draw here is the enormous 13th-century Basilica di San Francesco, built to honor St Francis and a major Christian pilgrimage site (the saint is buried in the crypt). It’s also as much a temple to pre-Renaissance painter Giotto – the master and his assistants frescoed several chapels here, most famously the Upper Church with his Life of St Francis.
The rest of Assisi is a delight to explore, set around the Piazza del Comune, where the Roman Tempio di Minerva has been recycled into the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The Basilica di Santa Chiara is the resting place of St. Clare and holds the miraculous 12th-century crucifix from which Christ is said to have spoken to St. Francis. It’s also worth hiking up to the Rocca Maggiore, the honey-colored ruins of a 14th-century fortress high above the city.
With its ruined castle and small piazza high above the Vale of Spoleto, the warm-pink towers and homes of Spello are visible for miles. The town makes an essential half day for art-lovers (just 9 miles south of Assisi). The church of Santa Maria Maggiore contains an enigmatic Madonna and Child and a Pietà by Perugino, as well as the spectacular Cappella Baglioni, frescoed by Pinturicchio. Spello is featured in this list of 6 Hidden Hill Towns in Italy.
Wine lovers should make for this enticing hill town, set amidst wine trellises and olive groves. Wander the enchanting streets and sample the delicious local vino, Sagrantino di Montefalco, made with 100 percent local Sagrantino grapes.
Gubbio is the classical Umbrian hill town, a magical, medieval city of sharp-edged fortress-like buildings, stacked at the base of a monumental forest-smothered mountain. Gubbio’s main square is Piazza Grande, open on the south side to a panoramic sweep over the lower part of town and the valley beyond. It’s a city to simply explore, soaking up the atmosphere, though the museum inside the imposing Palazzo dei Consoli contains one major treasure; the seven Eugubine Tables, the only existing record of the Umbri language transposed in Etruscan and Latin letters (ancient Umbria’s Rosetta Stone.) The tablets were inscribed on bronze from 200 to 70 BC.
For a change of pace, make for the sleepy resorts along the shores of Lago Trasimeno, Italy’s fourth largest lake. Castiglione del Lago is a handsome medieval town, perched high above the water, with lots of tipico shops, a small fortress and a hands-on museum documenting the history of the lake. From here (or the lively shore town of Passignano), you can take ferries to some of the tranquil lake islands. Isola Maggiore is known for its lace handicrafts and St Francis connections, while Isola Polvese is an environmental education center and nature reserve.
This wonderfully preserved medieval town stuck high on a volcanic plug some 1,033ft above the plain, is home to perhaps the most magnificent cathedral in all Italy. The façade of the Duomo is a mesmerizing blend of mosaics, pointed arches and intricate Gothic stone carving. Inside, the Cappella di San Brizio contains one of the Renaissance’s greatest fresco cycles (primarily concerning the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment); Fra’ Angelico started the job in 1447, Pinturicchio worked on them briefly, and Luca Signorelli finished the project 1499 to 1502.
One of the city’s newer attractions is the Orvieto Vie museum, which chronicles the history of the region. Catch a bird's-eye view of the city from the medieval Torre del Moro, or explore the vast network honeycombing the tufo subsoil on a tour of the Grotte della Rupe (Etruscan Orvieto Underground). Don’t forget to sample the local wine, a pale straw-colored white known simply as Orvieto Classico.
Few towns are as picturesque as this warren of narrow medieval streets twisting and plunging off at every angle. Piazza del Popolo is one of Italy’s finest medieval squares, with the handsome Duomo at the north end. The massive Franciscan shrine of San Fortunato was begun here in 1291, but finishing touches dragged on to 1459; inside are rare frescoes by Masolino.
This southern Umbrian city is best known for the annual Festival dei Due Mondi (aka Spoleto Festival), one of Europe’s most beloved carnivals of contemporary music, art, dance, and theater. Yet there’s plenty to see in Spoleto’s Upper Town year-round. The dazzling facade of the 12th-century Duomo, with a mosaic by Solsterno surrounded by eight rose windows, is the city’s main showstopper. Inside is an exceptional fresco cycle begun by Filippo Lippi in 1467.
Spoleto’s 1st-century-AD Roman theater was extensively restored in the 1950s, and now serves as an evocative venue for the Spoleto Festival. The attached Museo Archeologico preserves relics from a 7th-century-BC warrior’s tomb. Spoleto’s fierce-looking castle, the Rocca Albornoziana was built in the 14th century. From here you can stroll along Tessino Gorge to the Ponte delle Torri, a graceful and extremely photogenic 13th-century bridge.
The rugged terrain of the Valnerina is Umbria’s action-holiday capital – with whitewater rafting, quiet campsites and remote hillsides ideal for family outdoor fun. Ferentillo is home to the ghoulish Museo delle Mummie, where perfectly mummified 19th-century cadavers from a local crypt are on display. Carsulae is Umbria’s largest Roman archeological site, once a popular resort for the Imperial wealthy in the 3rd century BC. Narni Sotterranea is another intriguing historical site, this time underground, though what you see today was only discovered in 1979; a 12th-century chapel smothered in frescos, secret tunnels, an Inquisition torture room and a prison cell covered in cryptic 18th-century graffiti.
Where to Stay
When it comes to Umbria, renting a secluded villa or farmhouse makes a lot of sense, assuming you have a car. Shopping for seasonal produce in the local village, enjoying a glass of wine on a rustic patio with a view, chatting to local farmers and wandering country lanes can mean as much to your vacation as seeing the big sights, and rates can be surprisingly reasonable.
Rentals are also available in the cities, though usually smaller and more expensive. Special examples are the apartments in Villa Nuba, an elegant farmhouse on a hill outside Perugia, and the luxurious Torri di Bagnara, an 11th-century castle. In Perugia itself, the Brufani Palace is the city’s premier luxury hotel, while the Primavera Minihotel offers more economical lodgings.
Reservations are crucial in Assisi, where NUN Assisi Relais & Spa Museum is a slick boutique blending medieval Italy and contemporary style. The best hotel in Montefalco is the extremely plush Palazzo Bontadosi, with its own spa, while Gubbio’s Hotel Relais Ducale is set inside the ducal palace. Orvieto has its own luxury digs in the Palazzo Piccolomini, a 16th-century palace, while it’s hard to beat the welcome (and reasonable rates) at the B&B Orvieto Sant'Angelo 42.
Where to Eat
The vast student population in Perugia means you’ll find plenty of cheap pizzerias and sandwich shops in the center. Pizzeria Mediterranea at Piazza Piccinino is a basic but decent option. For coffee and pastries in historic surroundings, seek out Sandri, in business since 1860 at Corso Vannucci 32.
For a more complete meal make for Bottega del Vino (Via del Sole 1), which serves fresh produce from the farms around Perugia – homemade Umbrian pastas, cured ham, and angus steaks, plus a massive selection of local wine (it’s also good for aperitivo). Another top spot is candlelit La Taverna (Via delle Streghe 8) and its tiny courtyard, where Chef Claudio Brugalossi serves up local dishes such as beet ravioli with gorgonzola.
The rest of Umbria
Several of Assisi’s restaurants serve a local flatbread called torta al testa, usually split and stuffed with cheeses, sausages, and vegetables. Try them at atmospheric La Stalla, set in a series of former livestock stalls. Gubbio is especially known for its white and black truffles, served in a variety of ways all over town. Try them at the famous Taverna del Lupo, Via Ansidei 21.
For a more rustic lunch break in Todi, drive down the slopes south of town to La Mulinella at Ponte Naia, an exceptional local restaurant set within a lovely Umbrian house and garden full of blossoms. Orvieto’s signature pasta is umbrichelli, a no-frills spaghetti rolled out unevenly by hand and a little chewy. The best restaurant in town is the Capitano del Popolo, which knocks out Umbrian classics such as spicy wild boar ragù. For cappuccino and cake, try the historic Caffè Montanucci, Corso Cavour 21, open since 1913.