Destination: Umbria, Italy
“Where is Umbria?”, a friend asked.
“What do you mean, ‘where is Umbria?’, Italy of course.”, I abruptly replied.
“I mean… where is it exactly?”
This friend of mine has vacationed in Italy previous to the question; and yet, like many, has never been to the Region of Umbria. Some, unfortunately too many, don’t even know where it is in relation to the more visited regions.
To some degree, it’s understandable, as this region doesn’t boast a “Top Destination Town”. Tuscany has Florence, Lazio has Rome, Lombardy has Milan, you get the idea. Due to its landlocked positioning on the map, Umbria is often overlooked, especially in the warmer months when most flock to the shorelines of the Marche, Liguria, and Campania Regions. If the Amazon Rainforest is credited to provide the world with over 20% of its oxygen, then the same can be said of the Region of Umbria as it relates to Italy. This region is affectionately called, “The Green Heart of Italy”. What it lacks in beaches is equaled by the abundance of trees and greenery. There are also romantic medieval hilltop towns, slopes replete with some of the finest vineyards in the world, and verdant valleys. To me, Umbria’s beauty should no longer be ignored.
Umbria’s cuisine & pilgrimage sites
Beauty aside, this region has plenty of other facets to offer any visitor. For culture-seekers, history can be found in towns (such as Assisi) and their structures (Orvieto’s Underground City). As a food destination, with its truffle-centric dishes, it equals, if not surpasses, more famous regions. Those interested in an agriculture experience, there are offerings that bring you closer to the land, such as truffle hunting and visiting vineyards. For those inclined to be active, some of the best hiking and bike trails found in the nation are in this region. Not to be forgotten are the pilgrimage sites for those seeking something higher.
Following, are some highlights and insights on things to do in Umbria and how we feel best to experience this beautiful region.
Don’t Miss these Umbrian towns:
Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli
Situated on the plains, this lovely and quaint town is a pilgrimage terminus, but often skipped by the average traveler on their way to the much more renowned, Assisi. It’s worth your time to stay a few hours before moving on, especially if you have taken the train, as the stop for Assisi is here in Santa Maria degli Angeli and not in the actual hill town of Assisi.
Dinner at Trattoria Santucci in Santa Maria degli Angeli
There is the very impressive, and almost ironically ornate, Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This is the site where the famous Saint Francis of Assisi first understood his vocation to champion the poor and where it is known to have been the place in which he drew his last breath. However, if you are like us, and your mission is to satisfy your taste buds as much as your spiritual being, then a must is to have dinner at Trattoria Santucci. Here, they serve a Tagliatelle Ragu Bianco that can lift any spirit.
Tagliatelle Ragu Bianco at Trattoria Santucci
Saint Francis is known to have renounced all earthly pleasures. It’s hard to imagine, however, that if this wonderfully rich plate were put in front of him, he’d be a saint today. The tagliatelle firm, the sauce buttery as opposed to creamy, and the minced veal seasoned with finesse. It’s Michelin-Star food in a casual surrounding. We found this place to be favored by families and larger crowds. The establishment promotes conviviality, which I think would have gotten the good old saint’s approval.
Sharing Stories, a few glasses of wine and stories of pilgrimage
The evening we dined, we sat near a family of 13 from Philadelphia. One of the family members had just come out of her cancer treatment and made the excursion to visit the holy sites. We exchanged stories, had a few glasses of wine, some laughs, and shed a tear or two. This was our first night in the region and this interchange made me realize that this area of the world is special to so many, especially the faithful. Their reasons for visiting are far greater than to fill their stomachs. However, it’s not a bad place for that either.
Things to do in Assisi, Umbria
Bosco di San Francesco
If you are a fan of the outdoors, one of the best things to do in Umbria is to take hikes. FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano, AKA Italian National Trust) is a non-profit organization that conserves the nation’s natural heritage. It not only heads development of natural surroundings to become important sites to be visited but also creates unique employment opportunities in a country that is much beleaguered by the lack.
Saint Francis’ love of nature
In art, one of the most depicted characteristics of Saint Francis was his love of nature. It’s befitting that one of RAI’s projects was to integrate the domain that leads to the town of Assisi, known as the Bosco di San Francesco, to be part of the Town of Assisi experience.
The Woods of Saint Francis
The Bosco di San Francesco (The Woods of Saint Francis) is a trek that starts at the foothills ascending to the Basilica di San Francesco di Assisi. During our hike, it was easy to imagine Francis himself having taken the same serene path as he contemplated his vocation and his devotion to God. This is certainly a place in which one can find a sense of peace.
Hiking through Bosco di Francesco
During the ascent, It was easy to be in a state of reflection. I also felt the extra weight I had gained from the pasta I had been eating. This led to my contemplating over mortality and some decisions I’ve made in life. Just when my Catholic guilt was about to kick in, our friends Gigi and Beatrice, who were nice enough to guide us through the paths, pointed out the most picturesque olive groves and wine vineyards. The scenery can leave anyone with a sentimental side breathless (figuratively). I instantly felt happiness. A brisk hike toward a holy site and the thought of taking a sip of the region’s famous Montefalco wines while eating food made with superior olive oil can mend any broken dream and satisfy any soul.
Basilica di San Francesco di Assisi
Erected in honor of Francis of Assisi, the son of a silk merchant, who renounced his riches to serve the poor, is the awesome Basilica San Francesco di Assisi. Bestowed upon Francis, are the titles of the patron saint of animals, ecology, and above all – the Patron Saint of Italy. Let’s just say he’s a big deal in this neck of the woods.
The upper church and lower church of Basilica Di San Francesco in Assisi
Gothic in design, the Basilica has two sections – the upper church and the lower church. The upper is the larger of the two and has for viewing Giotto’s famous frescoes depicting the life and times of the saint, along with political satires that were somewhat scandalous and are fit to become a Netflix miniseries. This part of the basilica is colorful, merry and upbeat. Tourists buzz around in awe and there wasn’t much in the way of stewards bringing people to a hush. By contrast, the lower church is tranquil, if not sobering. Grotto in structure, space lends itself exclusively to prayer and meditation. The allegory in faith that is often used for the two structures that make up the whole, is that perfect joy (upper church) can only be achieved through sacrifice ( the lower church which is the foundation that supports the upper structure). Pretty heavy stuff, but definitely a component worthy of making this a pilgrimage site.
Where to Eat and Drink in Assisi:
Being amongst the pious can lead someone like me, a person who has a boatload of sins, to drink. Luckily, there is …
Unlike Francis, I didn’t take the vow of abstaining from worldly pleasures, because here at L’Osteria, they are easily found in the form of gastronomy. Entering, one finds himself in a wine cellar setting with structural wooden beams from which hang some of the most sought after glistening fatty dry sausages. The Hotel dei Priori is the top hotel in the city and definitely has a posh and almost buttoned up ambiance, but this little tavern in the corner of the hotel has a homey atmosphere. One in which you will find wanting to spend the rest of the evening eating and watching the foot traffic pass.
Black Truffles in Umbria
Truffle Hunting in Umbria is an integral part of their heritage. Umbria produces the highest number of black truffles in Italy, and its quality is known to be the best in the world. Truffles play a major role in Umbrian cuisine, and the Osteria showcases their use of truffles through some simple and exquisite pasta dishes. We were presented a few to try. I tried to order a White Grechetto as a pairing, but the lovely hostess wouldn’t have any of it. Instead, she proudly poured us glasses of excellent Montefalco Sagrantino to stand up to the truffle dishes and the sliced meats they prepared for us. These simple dishes and wine choices are a testament to the superiority of the region’s agricultural products.
Umbrian Olive Oil
Our personal favorite was a rustic tagliatelle dish prepared with Umbrian Olive Oil (heartier and more intense than its Tuscan counterpart) and a heavy shaving of black truffle. The approach that was taken to make the dish made it easy to picture the beautiful truffle culture; which is a simple way of life – the hunter with a small pick, a dog, the forest, and a leather bag in which to put the unearthed treasures.
Perugia in Umbria:
The University of Perugia, established in 1308, is one of Italy’s oldest higher learning institutions and since has given this city a vibrancy all its own. However, the age of the University is but a farthing in the towns histology, with its origins dating as far back as 300 BC and its Etruscan inhabiters. Sieged multiple times by a litany of conquerors which include the Goths, the Byzantines, the Romans, and later the Papacy; the backbone narrative of Perugia is filled with much horror and pain through a chronology of bloody battles and takeovers. Like all great towns, its character is founded on what the inhabitants have weathered through history.
Bread Made without Salt
One of the town’s claims to fame is their famous insurrection against the Papal States under Pope Paul III, in which they did not want to pay the tax on salt. It is this uprising that led the people of Perugia to abandon salt in their cooking, which is still true in the way they make their bread today. Appropriately, it is the lack of salt that gives the bread offered in most of Umbria a distinct taste and texture, and is much sought after all over the country.
The center of Perugia
The street plan of Perugia was shaped in the medieval period and until this day the layout is much the same. The center of Perugia with its medieval streets and piazzas offer travelers many specialty food shops, clothing boutiques, and restaurants in which to visit. Highlights include the Perugina Boutique located on the cobbled stone streets of Corso Pietro Vannucci, where one can pick up a bag of the famous Baci chocolates. Just across the street is another stop worth making – the beautiful belle-epoque Caffe Sandri, a much beloved local coffee stop that remains untouched since its established date of 1860. There is, of course, the main cathedral (San Lorenzo) which needs to be visited if only to appreciate the elements of exquisite Gothic and Baroque architecture and to view Federico Barocci’s oil painting, “Deposition from the Cross” (recognized as one of the greatest 16th-century works of art). There are also the impressive Etruscan Walls (7 in total) and the preserved underground city, which gives true insight as to how old and strong the foundation on which the city is built.
THE GOOD LIFE OF A VINTNER at Cantina Goretti
There is a Minimetro via Perugia that took us to the Pian di Massiano Terminal. This is the last stop on the line, but the entry to the bulk of the region’s finest vineyards. There are many that are looked upon highly in the industry, among them, Adanti in Bastia Umbra. Here we were treated to a master class and an overview of their much-heralded operation. It is certainly a stop worth making. However, if you are looking to spend the day experiencing what it’s truly like to live a life of a vintner, or at least be romanced by thought, there is no better place than that of Cantina Goretti.
Medieval Chic and James Bond at Cantina Goretti
The estate is sprawling, and the aesthetic a hybrid of medieval chic and James Bond, complete with brick tower structure and helicopter launch pad. There are private rooms for tastings and parties in the tower. Near the fields, there is a wonderful glass structure in which cooking classes and functions are held. There is the actual factory, and of course, the beautiful vineyards themselves.
Cooking class with Nonna Marcella at Cantina Goretti
Sara and Giulia Goretti are two young women who are as smart and enthusiastic as they are beautiful. They are the fourth generation overlooking this family operation and doing an amazing job. The two of them made us feel at home, showing us around, giving us plenty to drink, and introducing us to the elder statesmen of the company. The highlight of our visit was a cooking class their grandmother presented. I always thought of myself a bit of a cook, but second guessed myself when I received some scrutiny from “Nonna” in the way I was kneading my dough. My wife and daughter had a good laugh and Sara and Giulia preserved my confidence with a few more glasses of their amazing selection of wines.
If a trip to a vineyard is on the top of your list, a visit to Cantina Goretti by our estimation is the one worth booking. Oh, and don’t forget to buy a few bottles to bring home, as their wines are rarely found outside of Italy.
SPOLETO- WHERE NATURE IS INDUSTRY
My friend Sam DiPalo, runs a wonderful Italian wine shop in New York City’s Little Italy. His family roots stem from the town of Spoleto in Umbria. Whenever we have a chance, we close the doors, have a private tasting and talk about Italy. He always spoke fondly of his ancestral town. So when our itinerary was being drawn up, I was pleased to see that I was finally going to experience the town my friend had spoken all these years.
Spoleto-Norcia Railway for nature hikes in Umbria
Spoleto, not unlike the other towns in Umbria, is vibrant with locals sitting outside the squares enjoying their coffee and wine. Upon arriving, it was tempting to join the crowd, but that had to wait. We were first going to experience a visit to one of the unique hiking trails in all of Italy, the old Spoleto-Norcia railway. This abandoned railroad path has recently been turned into some of the most beautiful and challenging hiking and biking trails found. There are dramatic drops of scenery and lovely abandoned stations and towns along the way. If you’ve been to New York and have visited the Highline, this trumps it. There is also a lovely little museum (Ferrovia Spoleto-Norcia) which has a miniature electric train set and a replica of the trail, along with photographs of the old railway. Worth a visit, especially for a family.
Lunch at Il Pentagramma in Spoleto
After yet another wonderful outdoor experience, it was finally time to join the locals. There are plenty of places within the town center in which to do this. One of the top choices is a cavern looking restaurant located on a small street away from direct sun, named Il Pentagramma. It was lovely on the hot day we visited. The decor is quirky with an ode to classical music (hence the name of the eatery) and the staff quite funny. The offerings are far from quirky and definitely more classic(al) with no fuss. Just simple pasta made with excellent ingredients. Of course, there is the quintessential meat plate to start and some wonderful cold wines for the warmer days.
PEDALING THROUGH TOWNS OF UMBRIA
One cannot visit Umbria without doing a bit of activity. Now, I’m not one of those guys who was once a moderate athlete looking to do the Tours des France all of a sudden. However, I do like to break a sweat every so often. It’s also best to integrate exercise with a little fun, like touring. The absolute best biking tour company in Umbria is Ecobike. Staying true to the Green Heart of Italy status, Frank Consalvi’s bike company honors this by providing excellent tours with their electric pedal bikes as opposed to gas powered motors that pollute.
Biking from Spoleto to Bevagna in Umbria
Our route took us from Spoleto to another town in the region named, Bevagna. Along the way, we had some laughs and viewed the fertile landscape that gives Umbria its green thumb title. We made some great stops as well, such as a small olive press plant where we had a tasting of olive oils and a little farm that is known to harvest some of the best snails in the region. The best part is the company of the guides themselves, who from our experience are energetic and full of information.
FRIENDS IN TOWN FROM UMBRIA GREEN CARD
During travel, there is nothing like having a friend in town. Often, this is not possible, but in Umbria, friendship seems to always be built-in with everything you do. Taking guided tours is no exception. The absolute best tour we took during our stay was with Cristiano Cinti, and his wife, Francesca Dominici. In cooperation with Umbria Green Card, which provides electric car rentals, the husband-wife combination drove us through and to some of the region’s overlooked gems, one of which was the town of Todi. Cristiano and Francesca provide a tour only friends would give other friends. You’ll feel like you’re in the best hands immediately.
Orvieto and Todi with Umbria Green Card and Francesca Dominici
Along with smaller towns like Todi, they took us to larger but less frequented towns like Orvieto, with its spectacular Duomo and underground city. It also happens to be the home of the much desired and renowned white (grechetto) wine. Cristiano and Francesca did the intangibles such as taking us to their favorite places to have gelato and porchetta sandwiches. Insider stuff like this is priceless.
Bartolomei Olive Oils in Montecchio
Through them, we also had the pleasure of being introduced to an exclusive olive oil mill called, Bartolomei in Montecchio, where Rita Bartolomei and her family welcomed us open arms and served us the best lunch we had during our stay in Umbria before giving us a tour of their property. Prepared was a simple soup made from famous Umbrian lentils, delicious vegetables soaked in their olive oil and wonderful cured meats and cheeses paired with some refreshing wine. Hospitality at its best. It’s as if we knew each other 40 years versus 4 hours.
Some Futbol in Todi
We ended our trip with a stay in Todi, and during our stay, there was a small futbol (soccer) tournament being played in the town square between the neighborhoods (more like streets). The tournament was not taken lightly and was the town’s highlight. Just like it would be in a stadium in a professional match, there were local stars being lauded and others being jeered. Everyone in town was out to see the matches. We grabbed porchetta sandwiches from one of the local eateries (that offered a cup of gratuitous wine with purchase) and joined the crowd for a night of rooting. Few dreams can equal a real experience such as this.
Next time I’m asked where Umbria is, I’ll tell them to just follow the ventricles of Italy, and soon they’ll find its heart.
We were guests of Tourism Umbria, as always, all words and thoughts are ours. Some links are affiliate links, all prices remain the same for you.
More travel tips & things to do in Umbria, Italy:
Getting to Umbria:
We traveled to Assisi by train on Trenitalia. At the time we took the train, the fare from Rome to Santa Maria degli Angeli was 30 Euros, round trip. Click here> for more details and the latest fare .
Renting a car:
You definitely should have a car during your visit. We highly recommend renting a car from Umbria Green Card for a few reasons: #1 it’s a green car and does not harm the environment. #2 They have an app that tells you where the station chargers are located. #3 THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT reason, you are automatically authorized to DRIVE and PARK in the city centers to charge the batteries. If you’ve traveled and driven in Italy, you know that it’s not only inconvenient to drive in the city centers, but also you can be ticketed just for not having a resident license to park or drive within. Click here > for more details and prices for Umbria Green Card
Where to stay in Umbria:
Our choice of accommodation in Umbria is in our favorite small town, Todi. Hotel Fonte Cesia is located in the center of Todi and you can walk to many places to eat, including our favorite porchetta place and ice cream shop. It is a great location in which to take evening walks, and who knows? Maybe there will be a futbol match during your visit s well. Click here > for the latest prices and more details.
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