Thirty years ago Umbria was practically unknown. Not anymore, of course.
And no surprise, because the “green heart of Italy” has always had what it takes to be popular. Beautiful pastoral landscapes; a mountainous suburb; sleepy villages; a crown of art-filled hill towns; scenic byways; and the cuisine and cultural events of the best Italian regions.
Its main cities are deservedly known: Assisi, bustling with pilgrims in the footsteps of St. Francis; Spoleto, a temptation all year round; Perugia, large, busy and served by low cost airlines; Orvieto, home to an incomparable cathedral; and Todi, a destination for those on holiday in a villa on the surrounding hills.
As always, however, the real charm of Umbria are its small towns and hidden corners
– the tiny Montefalco, let’s say, or the Piano Grande surrounded by mountains – places where the happy convergence of art, charm and beauty makes this one of the most inviting Italian regions.
The big five
If quiet hill towns are your idea of Umbria, perhaps avoid large and atypical Perugia, the regional capital. There’s a lot to see, with the Galleria Nazionale art gallery the obvious attraction, but the built-up surroundings, lack of parking, and a long drive to the historic center can make for tough work.
Assisi is also busy, thanks to the many pilgrims drawn to the birthplace of St. Francis and the saint’s extraordinary art-filled basilica, but it is a much more interesting city to visit, especially if you spend the night and enjoy its medieval corners when the walkers are gone.
Spoleto is many people’s favorite Umbria region, not so much for its world-class summer arts festival – when things get hectic – as for its lovely wooded surroundings, charming medieval streets and a cathedral that’s as beautiful as any. in Italy. The Rocca and the Ponte delle Torri, an immense bridge-aqueduct, are also exceptional.
Todi, a glorious and imposing hill town from a distance, has devotees, but while the tiny medieval core is endearing, this former agricultural center has perhaps become too chic for its own good. Out of season, however, it remains a gem.
Orvieto is also busy, an obvious stop on the road or rail between Rome and Florence, but the Duomo, with its polychrome facade and frescoes by Luca Signorelli, is one of central Italy’s must-sees. Also be sure to book an underground tour to explore some of the city’s Etruscan heritage.
Smaller towns and villages
The smaller towns of Umbria are the pride of the region. Favorites include Montefalco, prized for its rare red wines, especially Sagrantino (visit consorziomontefalco.it for cellar tour details), and the Museo Civico, which houses a splendid cycle of Renaissance frescoes on the life of St. Francis of Benozzo Gozzoli. Stay at the four-star Bontadosi and eat at the historic Coccorone.
Trevi, across the valley, lacks the artistic appeal of Montefalco, but is renowned for its olive oil, medieval heart and stunning views. It is also one of many places in Umbria (including Montefalco and Todi) which is classified as a ‘Slow City’ – where residents (and visitors) are encouraged to improve the quality of their lives by eating well, being convivial and generally taking their time.
Four miles northwest of Montefalco, sleepy Bevagna is an ancient Roman settlement, centered on a perfect main square, Piazza Silvestri, and two fine churches, San Michele and San Silvestro. Visit to the museum of Roman remains and the Roman mosaic (same ticket).
The town has interesting accommodation options, notably Palazzo Brunamonti and more sumptuous L’Orto degli Angeli, which also has a memorable restaurant, Redibis, set in the ruins of the former Roman amphitheater.
If you like smaller towns, look to Bettona, Amelia, Lugnano in Teverina, Città della Pieve and the peripheral (and larger) Gubbio. Narni is also worth a visit, thanks to a fine medieval quarter, although it sits above the busy approaches to Terni.
Spello is also often recommended, but be aware that its narrow streets become congested with visitors arriving from nearby Assisi. Stay the night, though; when it empties, it is more fascinating. Request rooms with valley views at Il Cacciatore (doubles from £88) and be sure to dine al fresco on its lovely rooftop terrace.
Hills and lakes
The hill towns are Umbria’s most obvious attraction, but it is also a region of varied and glorious scenery. West of Spoleto it’s all rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves; to the east, however, the wild Valnerina plateau winds towards the high mountains of the Monti Sibillini National Park.
It begins in the west with Lake Trasimeno, bordering Tuscany, Italy’s fourth largest lake and a place of subtle and ever-changing vistas, reed-fringed shores, and two key towns: bustling, bustling Passignano and quieter Castiglione del Lago, the latter with an enchanting waterfront, a bathing lake with small beaches and a compact medieval heart.
Almost all the routes touch the beautiful countryside, except around Perugia and industrial Terni. For quieter sights, head to the Monti Martani hills, between Perugia and Spoleto, an area known for its maze of quiet rural backroads and the Romanesque churches of Viepri, Loreto, Abbazia di San Fidenzio, Sant’Arnaldo, San Pietro in Monte and more. Overnight at the four-star San Pietro (doubles from £92).
Or head north to the hills east and west of Città di Castello, sparsely populated – and a bit far from the main hill towns – but an area teeming with villas and other holiday rentals. Elsewhere, take the scenic backroads through the bucolic landscapes between Amelia and Todi, especially the road from Montecchio to Montecastrilli, and the pretty roads SS317 and SS79 between Orvieto, Todi and Marsciano.
Do not miss the Valnerina, a fertile valley flanked by cliffs, waterfalls and grassy limestone plateaus, dotted with a succession of pretty fortified villages, of which Vallo di Nero and Castel di San Felice are the most evocative.
It can be accessed from Sant’Anatolia, connected to Spoleto via a tunnel in the mountains, or – to explore it in all its length – from Terni via the SS209.
The latter approach allows for a visit to San Pietro in Valle, a sublime 8th-century abbey with Lombard and Roman remains, and used in part as lodgings, which is highly recommended (doubles from £123).
Stop also at the small Scheggino for river trout with truffles at Del Ponte; nearby Urbani is one of Italy’s largest truffle exporters. Torre del Nera (doubles from £124) offers another excellent overnight option in rooms dotted around the village.
At Sant’Anatolia, take the magnificent road to Monteleone di Spoleto, stopping in tiny Gavelli for the stunning San Michele fresco cycle – you may have to ask around for the key. Return downstream to Borgo Cerreto via Poggiodomo and head towards Norcia (see below) via the SS396 or the more tortuous route via Preci e Campi for a more glorious and almost unknown hinterland.
Norcia and the Sibillini
The Sibillini are one of the most majestic massifs of all the massifs that make up Italy’s long Apennine range, and Norcia – despite being badly damaged by the 2016 earthquake – is still a wonderful base for exploration.
Stay at the five-star Palazzo Seneca (doubles from £191) and sample some of the foods – hams, lentils, cheeses, truffles – that have made the city one of central Italy’s gastronomic hubs at Granaro del Monte.
The obvious hike is to Piano Grande, a magnificent plateau in the heart of a national park, best known for its stands of spring wildflowers – many rare – in May and June.
The hiking on and around the plain is superb, from a breathtaking ascent of Monte Vettore (8,123ft/2,476m), the highest point in the massif (from Forca di Presta), to more leisurely walks from Castelluccio west to Monte Lieto and on the main ridge to the north. The 666 Kompass map for the area is a plus if you’re serious about walking.
Ryanair flies direct to Perugia once a day from Stansted. The airport is six miles from Perugia and Assisi and is connected to both cities by the Perugia Airlink shuttle (€5/£4.40).