If Umbria is the green-heart of Italy, Perugia is the bullseye at the heart of Umbria. An ancient Etruscan settlement, the fortified city center sits atop a hill with a spiderweb of streets, an inviting central piazza and sweeping views across the valley.
The city’s university – one of the oldest in the region – brings Perugia out of the Middle Ages and squarely into the 21st-century with lively happy hours, festivals and a down-to-earth-atmosphere that is hugely refreshing (especially after time spent in more stuck up cities in nearby regions).
Most people have only heard of Perugia from the highly controversial and highly-public trial of Amanda Knox, who studied at its Università degli Stranieri. But just like LA is so much more than the OJ Simpson case, Perugia is well-worth knowing beyond the headlines. Because the truth is, Perugia is a sleepy hill town in a bucolic region. It has a more than 2,000 year old history and excellent chocolate.
Umbria is an absolute favorite destination of mine and Perugia is the perfect introduction!
Here’s Why You Should Visit Perugia:
It’s easy to reach
Umbria is best visited by car, but Perugia can be reached by train, bus, car or even airplane! The airport is called Perugia Sant’Egidio and hundreds of airlines run flights there including Alitalia, Lufthansa and Ryanair.
By car, Perugia is right off of the major highway. The city-center is closed to traffic so you’ll have to park below and either walk or take the new eco-friendly light rail, the MiniMetrò, into the city center.
Beyond that, regional trains from Rome and Florence take you straight into the town. Trains stop first in the outlying Ponte San Giovanni Station, then chug 10 minutes up to the Sant’Anna Station.
Equidistant from Florence and Rome, it’s an easy addition to most itineraries.
It has its very own chocolate factory
Perugia is home to the infamous Perugini chocolates, most known for their silver-wrapped chocolate and hazelnut baci or kisses. The Perugina factory on the outskirts of town is now owned by Nestlé but runs regular tours in English and Italian. Even if you’re not interested in touring the factory, you’ll find the towns celebrated dessert sold throughout town in chocolate bars, chocolate shoes and even chocolate pasta!
It has incredible hidden history…
If you spring for a room in the town’s most famous hotel, the five-star Hotel Brufani you can swim atop ancient Etruscan ruins in their glass-bottomed basement pool.
Even if you don’t splurge on accommodations (I stayed in a hostel when I went) go underground to see the Pozzo Etrusco, or Etruscan Well, from the third-century or to tour the remains of Rocca Paolina Fortress. Tour the Medieval streets preserved underneath modern-day Perugia.
…and excellent art history as well
Perugia has a long and strong art history for such a small town. The city’s most famous painter is Pietro Vannucci, known to most as Perugino. Work by him and his even more famous pupil, the Renaissance painter Raphael, can be found in the Cappella di San Severo as well as in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria.
Even more local art can be found in the Galleria Nazionale, located in the 13th-century Palazzo dei Priori.
It’s home to multiple international festivals
Though mostly quiet, Perugia periodically fills to the brim with visitors for one of its various festivals. Depending on the time of year Perugia plays host to the International Journalism Festival, the Eurochocolate festival as well the Umbria Jazz Fest, not to mention more local festivals such as one celebrating the town’s Etruscan past.
I worked at the first one my first year in Italy, visited the second (full-disclosure, I didn’t love it) and am still plotting a way to visit during the Jazz fest. One of my favorite places with my favorite music? They can’t keep me away.
It has delicious Umbrian food
Ok so all of Umbria has delicious Umbrian food, but I don’t see why that should exclude it from this list. I found Umbrian restaurants and eating establishments to be small, friendly and simple affairs with hearty, home-cooked meals. Those looking for more five-star treatment can certainly find it and will still enjoy the same top-quality ingredients the country is known for. (It’s some of my favorite food in Italy!)
Finally, it’s the perfect springboard to the rest of Umbria
You should visit Perugia because you want to visit all of Umbria. This small compact capital city is the perfect place to start. From here you can visit Lake Trasimeno and beyond to Cortona in Tuscany. Or head south and visit Gubbio, Assisi or any other town that inspires you in this charming region, right in the heart of Italy!