Exploring Umbria through its 10 most beautiful medieval towns
The region of Umbria is one of a handful of uncrowded places still to be found in Italy. Nestled in the centre of the country, an easy 2-hour drive from both Rome and Florence; it is a miracle Umbria has managed to remain under the tourist radar. Exploring Umbria means venturing off the well-trodden tourist path and strolling into the heart of Italy. So slow down, grab your Italian phrasebook and enjoy the ride!
Best towns in Umbria to explore
Umbria is affectionately called the green heart of Italy, a term which becomes self-explanatory when driving in from the main tourist hubs Rome & Florence. Trading in crowded streets for small winding roads, lines of tourists for rows of vineyards and slabs of stone – be it very beautiful and historically relevant stones, one cannot simply denounce THE Colloseum or the Duomo as ‘stones’ without adding a side note – for rolling hills with the occasional smallholding surrounded by olive groves. We are no longer in Kansas toto!
Paradoxically the best plan for exploring Umbria is to have no plan. Aside from Perugia and Terni there are no other large cities in the region – the term large being relative as both cities have just over 100K inhabitants. The region is instead dotted with little medieval towns, usually clinging for dear life to the side of hill. Many of these villages have a couple of thousand inhabitants and are not mentioned in any guidebook. They merit stumbling upon while you leisurely explore the Umbrian countryside.
Yet as time is often finite on holiday (alas!), these are the best towns in Umbria to get a true feeling of the region: architecture, gothic churches and ankle biting ascents await! On a – not so little – side note: Make sure to include enough time to try some of the traditional Umbrian dishes.
Exploring Northern Umbria
Perugia is the capital of Umbria and one of the largest cities of the region. The city houses both the regional & provincial government as well as the Public University of Perugia. The highlight of Perugia is without a doubt the medieval centro storico (historic centre). Walk around the Piazza IV Novembre and visit the San Lorenzo Church, take in the best panorama of the city at the Porta Sole or the Giardini Carducci, watch the sunset from the Sciri Tower and make sure to try strangozzi (a type of pasta) with truffle at the popular Osteria Cardinale. Perugia is one of the best towns in Umbria to use as base for exploring the rest of the region.
Set on the slopes of Mt. Subasio, Assisi is the home and final resting place of Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order. To this day Assisi is a very important pilgrimage site both nationally and internationally and recognised as such by UNESCO. Pilgrims flock to revere by the remains of Saint Francis, who was laid to rest in the Basilica di San Francesco.
While the façade of the Basilica might exude self-effacing piety, the inside tells a different story. The large complex is decorated with exquisite frescoes, painted across the walls and ceilings of the many chapels, the detail of which could rival those of the Sistene Chapel. It goes without saying that when out exploring Umbria, a visit to the Basilica is an absolute must. If you have some spare time make sure to pop into the other UNESCO recognised basilica in the vicinity of Assisi: Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli
A short 10 kilometres away from Assisi lies the picturesque town of Spello, heralded as “the most beautiful village in Italy”. Although small in size – a mere 9000 people call it home – Spello has a lot to offer. To start off with it is one of the best towns in Umbria to get a real medieval vibe. This can be best experienced by walking through the centro storico (historic centre).
Enter the historic centre through the ancient Roman gate and following the pink signs reading Percorso Consigliato (recommended routes) to explore the towns wonders. Meander through ancient honey-colored houses decorated with flowers in every color of the rainbow, gaze at the vineyards sprawled out in front of the Belvedere Cappuccini and treat yourself to the local speciality: Gelato made from various flowers, the lavender flavour is worth its weight in gold!
Continue exploring Umbria by driving North to the medieval town of Gubbio, home to the remains of the second largest Roman theatre in the world – located just outside of town. Make your way from the Roman theatre up to the Piazza Grande, fuel up with a torta al testo before visiting the Medieval Palazzo dei Consoli. Find reprieve from the searing summer heat in the little alleyways of the centro storico (historic centre), neatly lined with cookie- cutter 14th century stone houses topped with terracotta-tiled rooves. Walk up to the Gubbio Cathedral and marvel at the small but ornate baroque temple. The best views of the town are seen from the Saint’ Ubaldo Basilica, perched atop Mount Igino, easily accessible via the Funivia Colle Eletto (return tickets cost €6).
Exploring Southern Umbria
Todi is renowned for its unrivalled bucolic charm. Like many of its fellow towns – that you might have encountered when exploring Umbria – it is perched on a natural pedestal above the river Tiber, surrounded by the occasional patch of sunflowers, vineyards and iconic olive groves. Start your visit at the Church of Saint Mary of Consolation and walk (or take the mini-bus) up to the medieval Piazza del Popolo, set aside a little time to wander around in Todi’s Gothic Cathedral.
The best views over the town can be found from the top of the Campanile di San Fortunato, they do require a steep climb up. An alternative viewpoint can be found at Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi – the perfect spot the watch the sunset & enjoy a glass of wine at one of the bars right on the square. Book a romantic dinner at the Ristorante Pizzeria Cavour, where you can go straight for the €4 pizza or try the antipasti plate filled with local specialities.
Spoleto is one of the best towns in Umbria to witness the importance of the region throughout history: Roman arches & a virtually intact Roman theatre; Romanesque cathedral and churches protected by a medieval fortress and city walls. Various eras of history reside side by side making Spoleto a historical treasure trove to walk through. And walk you shall! Up and down the little streets, covered by medieval arches. Grab lunch on top off the hill at one of the restaurants just under the medieval fortress to enjoy the best views over Spoleto. Make sure to leave enough room after lunch/dinner to try the local desert Crescionda.
Venturing 30 minutes out of Spoleto will bring to a lesser known, but highly impressive site: The Marmore falls, a 2000 year old man-man waterfall with its very own working hours (be sure to check in advance to avoid the disappointment of turning up to a non-functioning waterfall).
The little town of Amelia is not usually on tourist’s routes when exploring Umbria, yet it is one of the oldest towns in the region dating back to the 11th century BC. The centro storico (old town) can be accessed by walking through the main gate: the medieval Porta Romana. Make your way up to the Piazza Marconi and visit the beautifully preserved Cathedral of Amelia. Upon completing your visit, take some time to take in the views at the Belvedere in front of the Cathedral.
Aside from Assisi, Orvieto is one of the best towns in Umbria for travellers with a fondness of architecture. The centro storico (historic centre) is a postcard medieval town which holds one of Italy’s most underrated wonders: A medieval Duomo encasing the show-stopping Cappella di San Brizio decorated with 15th century – slightly disconcerting – frescoes depicting The Last Judgement. From the Duomo walk over the Pozo della Cava and explore one of the 1200 caves that form the underground of Orvieto. Get that typical Umbrian hilltop town feel while climbing the Torre del Moro, the undisputed best viewpoint over all of Orvieto and its valley.
The little town of Norcia was badly destroyed by the 2016 earthquake that struck Central Italy. At the time of visiting (2021) the town was still very much in disrepair with shops taking up temporary residence just outside the medieval walls. What it lacks in solid infrastructure is made up for in utter charm and genuinely friendly locals.
This part of Umbria is known for its delicatessen: Black truffle, Castelluccio Lentils and Prosciutto di Norcia (meat) – which can be bought in one of the many delicatessen stores in town. Non- vegetarian can try the typical Pasta a la Norcina (penne, Norcia sausage, onions, white wine, cream, pecorino cheese) in one of the local restaurants. If you happen to be exploring Umbria during early spring, drive 35 minutes east from Norcia towards the plains of Castelluccio di Norcia to catch the fiorita (the flowering of the lentil fields).
Surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see, with an exquisite view over the plains of topino sits the hilltop town of Montefalco. One of the few medieval towns in Umbria where wine was produced both in and outside of the 12th city protective walls for centuries. If you are looking for a wine tasting, Montefalco might just be one of the best towns in Umbria to do so: Sagrantino di Montefalco or Rosso di Montefalco are both cultivated in the region.
An integral part of exploring Umbria is without a doubt savouring the local cuisine. Stop by the restaurant of TV-chef Giorgio Barchiesi for taste true of Umbrian hospitality. The menu is fixed (call upfront if you are a vegetarian/vegan) and potion sizes are extremely large so best to come hungry.
Where to stay in Umbria
There are plenty if places to stay in Umbria: From castles, to boutique hotels and family run guesthouses.
- Casale dei Frontini: A family run guesthouse, conveniently located 8 km away from Todi. Expect unbridled hospitality, delicious home cooking, a pool with the best view over Todi along with vineyards, sunflower fields all rolled up to provide you with a true Umbrian experience.
- Reschio Castle: Looking for a once in a lifetime experience, on the higher end of your budget then be sure to check out this 1000 year old restored castle.
- Relais Cassaliccio: A 10th century medieval village that was completely restored to house a comfortable luxury hotel with not one, but two pools at their disposal!
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