The only landlocked part of Italy, the region of Umbria is the country’s beating heart.
For three months we stayed on a farm with a wonderful family who kept us fed and watered (and by water we mean wine) while we looked after the kids and farm. (Disclaimer: there was no mixing of childcare duties along with the wine!)
While we were there, we managed to work our way around the region on weekends all the while having a unique insight through the lives of the locals.
Umbria is in a sweet spot between Tuscany and Rome which is exactly why you should consider exploring its lush countryside and picturesque hilltop towns. Starting from our nearest city, let’s take a trip around Umbria!
Citta di Castello
The Hidden Gem
Our nearest hub of civilisation was what is sometimes referred to as ‘the museum city’ or otherwise known as Citta di Castello.
The city’s medieval past is evidenced through its architecture and double city walls. Like the Tuscan city of Arezzo, it has a wall that surrounds the old town with a maze of old streets and exquisite piazza’s (squares not a special kind of pizza).
An 11th century cathedral with a Roman age bell tower gives a 360-degree view of the city and the surrounding valley. Another church to visit for its frescoes is the Church of St Francis who you will come to see is a very special guy around these parts.
Alongside its churches and palaces such as the yellow Serena stoned Palace of the Mayor and the Town Hall, stands the impressive symbol of the city the Civic Tower which represents a free town.
For any art aficionados the Town Art Gallery is located inside Palazzo Vitelli at the Cannoniera where you can visit works by renaissance artists such as Raffaello. Not to be missed is the contemporary work of Alberto Burri located in the Palazzo Albizzini and a place called Ex Tobacco Dryers.
Aside from a wealth of history and art, this is a city of festivals with something always going on. There is an antiques and vintage market every third Sunday of the month and there is an abundance of theatre, music and food festivals including the White Truffle Fair at the beginning of November.
Soak in real Italian culture at the various eateries and cafes that spill out onto the streets. Our favourite restaurant is Fez – which doesn’t sound convincingly Italian, but the locals know it as the best place to go. A steak dinner with a side dish, 1/4 litre of wine each and bottled water for 15 euros per person. We highly recommend indulging in their little desserts too – homemade tiramisu and pannacotta.
One last tip is if it’s nice weather when you go, to have an Aperitivo in the swan park which is just outside the city walls and filled with… you guessed it…. lots of swans! A cycle along the Tiber River is always fun too as there’s lots of designated paths away from the road to enjoy.
See here for local information on Citta di Castello.
Monte Santa Maria Tiberina
Along the Tiber River there are hiking trails that lead into the hills. An hour by foot from our farm was the village of Monte Santa Maria Tiberina.
This is a place untouched by tourism, aside from Italians who use the campsites here in the summer.
From Citta di Castello the hike will more than likely take around 3 hours dependent on your fitness – our fitness levels are way underground so let’s not go there! There are handy markers in the hills around Umbria that will point you to where you need to go and if in doubt follow the road.
Once at the top treat yourself to a beer at the restaurant and walk up to the monastery for some startling views over the region and into Tuscany as it’s not far from the border.
For the best pizza in miles got to Il Poggio on the edge of the campsite. Our favourite pizzas were white (pizza bianca) with Stracchino cheese, and every hike should end in pizza!
For more information on Monte Santa Maria Tiberina click here.
The stuff of poems. A hilltop town that has had a steady flow of pilgrims come here since the 13th century to honour St. Francis (famed for his love of all creatures) who was born and buried here.
It’s postcard perfection, framed by the forests of Monte Subasio and rolling hills. In the right time of year there are swathes of lavender to frolic in and Assisi is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the world!
Having wanted to visit the Giotto frescoes in the cathedral for several years, this was a dream. Like most cathedrals in Italy in the Basilica of St Francis you must cover your shoulders as a sign of respect and there’s no photos allowed so you’ll have to rely upon your memory.
The rest of the town is geared towards visitors and is mostly made up of churches, hotels, shops, cafes and restaurants.
Everybody else lives in the town below where the train station is in Santa Maria degli Angeli also not a place to be missed is the church here before making your way to the medieval town of Assisi.
Bring your walking shoes, this is hilly terrain and leave plenty of time to get around the main Basilica. We also recommend the beautiful Basilica di Santa Chiara which is downhill from St Francis. Also keep in mind religious holidays are very busy here and in the start of May for the medieval festival!
A link to the Assisi tourism site can be found here.
City of Chocolate
Umbria’s capital city is representative of its region. Its historical centre is up high on a hill and made up of an intricate maze of narrow streets punctuated by grand piazzas and surrounded by elegant mansion houses. From the top you can look out at a skyline of medieval churches and fields.
There’s an overwhelming feeling in Umbria of stepping back in time. All roads lead to Piazza IV Novembre where ancient Roman civilizations once met. Just along from the square is Palazzo dei Priori, a gothic palace from the 13th century which now houses the Galleria Nazionale dell ‘Umbria (National Art Gallery) and just inside the main entrance you might just see some magical creatures!
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo should be next on your gothic architecture tour and sit outside and marvel the pink and white marble Fontana Maggiori. Take a walk south to the Porta di San Pietro, a 10th century gilt and marble basilica.
For the ultimate dose of Italian culture pay a visit to the Sala dei Notari which is located on the main Piazza and catch an intimate opera or even a jazz ensemble! On our visit we witnessed a gorgeous wedding here during the day and a performance of Cosi Fan Tutti!
Stand out views over the Umbrian landscape can be found at the highest point of the city in Porta Sole. It’s also a legitimate mode of transport to travel by escalator up and down the city’s twisty streets. While exploring it’s worth doing some shopping within the fortress walls of the city around the Rocca Paolina Fortress where you’ll find craft stalls in random corners.
Ok, we promised it was the city of chocolate. So, where’s the chocolate?! Firstly, there are chocolate shops everywhere and the city is famous for Baci Chocolate which you’ll find in all Italian McFlurry’s! (Not sponsored but it’s the best). In mid-October they have Eurochocolate, a chocolate festival with cookery classes and sculptures – this is of course the best time to visit. Outside of that there’s Perugina Chocolate Factory where you can taste some famous Perugina chocolate!
Finish off your cultural spree with a visit to Kosmo Beer Shop, with over 500 bottles we found Scottish craft beer and some lovely local brews cold in the fridge and ready to drink!
The tourism online guide for Perugia is available here.
Borgo Dei Sapori
You would probably never find this place outside of recommendations by the locals. Near Citta di Castello is a hotel with a vineyard, spa and restaurant that is more than reasonable price wise, in a gorgeous setting that borders Tuscany.
There might be an opportunity to see the vineyard in person, we had a walk around the gardens and fields then headed up for a spa and dinner to try the wine. Also available around the resort is cycling, hillwalking and a golf course.
The spa is an intimate place with a cave like setting and a cascading waterfall pool. With saunas, steam room and hot tub, plus space for treatments and drinks on request you can easily while away your time in here. The outside pool is open in the summer.
You can visit for the day and use the spa and swimming pool facilities while the restaurant is open at night for dinners. We recommend eating from the menu of the day with a bottle of the house wine produced on site.
To look at rooms, find availability for booking here.
Beaches and island escapes
If you remember all the way back to the start it was stated that Umbria is landlocked. Well this is true but that doesn’t mean there’s no beaches!
Near Perugia is a giant lake, so big in fact it has beaches dotted around its shores with beachside bars and water sports. Our suggested route from Citta di Castello or Perugia is to head towards Passignano sul Trasimeno, a commune on the coast for a bite to eat, perhaps a traditional Italian sandwich (piadina).
A great campsite option is La Spiaggia where you can also swing by for a swim in the lake and an Aperitivo, our favourite Italian tradition. Aside from frolics on the beach there are lots of walks around the lake and you can take boats out to one of its three islands. Polvese island is the biggest and the perfect place to explore medieval buildings and walk through ancient olive groves.
Look up things to do around Lake Trasimeno here.
For more Italian adventures check out our two-day guide to Rome here and look out for our Florence hotspots coming soon!