Umbria is sometimes overshadowed by its famous next-door neighbour, Tuscany. All the better for tourists keen to experience the Italy of yore: medieval hilltop towns, rustic food and beautifully preserved art in a lush, green landscape.
Once off the radar for many holidaymakers, Umbria is now a popular destination that attracts millions of travellers each year. From beautiful nature parks to delicious cuisine, world-class wine to vibrant cities and charming hilltop villages, here’s our list of some of the best things to do and see in Italy’s Umbria region.
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Beneath the winding streets of Narni – a hill town in southern Umbria – are a tangle of subterranean remains of Roman homes (domus) and preserved ancient frescoes. Take the one-hour tour of Narni Sotterranea for a unique insight into the city’s fascinating history. You’ll visit a jail cell where heretics were once imprisoned, see a cistern that dates back to the Middle Ages and walk through a section of a Roman aqueduct built during the reign of Tiberius.
One of the most revered churches of the Christian world, the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi draws a steady stream of pilgrims and tourists each year. Frescoes by artists of the 13th and 14th centuries, such as Cimabue, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, line the walls and Gothic arches of the upper and lower church. The most celebrated among them is Giotto. His masterpiece, the Life of St Francis, is a must-see depiction of the humble friar’s time on earth, in 28 panels.
Soar above the rooftops of Gubbio in the Funivia Colle Eletto, a standing cableway that whisks you from the heart of the city to the summit of Mount Ingino in just six minutes. Somewhat bizarrely, each cable car resembles a human-size birdcage, so as long as you can keep the vertigo at bay you can enjoy almost-open-air views of the city and surrounding countryside. When you get to the top, pay a visit to the Basilica of St Ubaldo, a 16th-century church that houses the relic of the patron saint of the city.
Sit on one of the benches opposite the Duomo di Orvieto and you might lose yourself in the intricate rose window and delicately mosaiced and carved façade of this majestic cathedral. Enter the basalt and travertine striped interior, and head directly to the Cappella di Madonna di San Brizio, where you’ll find artist Luca Signorelli’s illustrious 16th-century masterpiece, The Last Judgment. Then sit and absorb the building’s peaceful energy.
This adorable little wine shop is located on Orvieto’s main pedestrian jaunt, Via del Duomo. It’s a third-generation business from proprietors Cesare and Sabrina, who serve a wonderful selection of local wines paired with an array of traditional Umbrian nibbles (think olives, cured meats and aged pecorino cheese). Nab a chair under the canvas umbrellas for the best seat in the house for sitting and watching the world go by.
Marked by fanned steps leading to a Gothic portal that’s guarded over by a lion and a griffin, the impressive Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia is the seat of municipal government. Inside, the Sala dei Notari hall is wonderfully frescoed with vibrant scenes of the Bible’s Old Testament, and the upper floors house the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria: one of Italy’s most important art collections, displaying work from the 13th to the 18th centuries.
Climb to the top of the stairs to Perugia’s Kundera Caffè Bistro and quench your thirst with a refreshing aperitivo, flanked by local young’uns doing just the same thing. A cosy and casual haunt that’s frequented by study-weary students (the city is host to two universities), this joint is always hopping thanks to its central position, prolific drinks menu, outdoor seating and tasty stuzzichini (little bites).
Head to the town of Norcia for a meal you won’t forget in a hurry (nor will your wallet). Located inside the 16th-century Palazzo Seneca hotel, Ristorante Vespasia earned a Michelin star in 2014. Dedicated to sustainable and ethical ways of cooking, the restaurant’s innovative tasting menus offer land- and sea-based dishes that are firmly grounded in traditional local cuisine. Opt for the dishes showcasing local specialties, like black truffles and lentils.
Set sail to the peaceful Isola Polvese, one of two accessible islands on Umbria’s Lake Trasimeno. From the pier at San Feliciano, board the ferry for a short, 10-minute cruise. Once you arrive, step off the boat and onto a naturalist’s paradise that offers a series of nature paths, beaches for bathing, museums, a science park and plenty of green spaces for relaxing and unwinding. Ferries depart daily (every 40 minutes), and parking at San Feliciano is free.
The so-called “bridge of towers”, Ponte delle Torri is a former aqueduct that measures 230m (755ft) long and 80m (262ft) high and connects Spoleto’s historic city centre with the town of Monteluco. Enjoy sweeping views of Rocca Albornoziana, the papal fortress, from the walkway on the north side of the bridge. Crafted from local limestone, the bridge is supported by nine pillars tethered to one another by ogival arches. And no one knows exactly how long ago it was built.
Discover where’s best to stay in Umbria or the hotels we recommend in Gubbio, with many places to stay now bookable via Culture Trip. Explore Perugia’s top restaurants, or what there is to see and do in Assisi. For those visiting more of Italy, find out what the must-see attractions are in Florence.
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