Umbria is where to go next.
Most first-time visitors to Italy rightfully visit what I call the “big five” – that is, Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan – or a combination of some of them. Italy’s five “main” cities, they hold the vast majority of the country’s historical, political, artistic and religious wealth and are absolutely must-sees. But of course, they don’t have it all. They’re not all Italy has to offer. You can see all the museums in Florence and Rome that you want, ride every canal in Venice, but Italy’s heart is found in each of its small towns, in every region. Only by getting a composite look can you really start to see it clearly.
So you’ve seen the major sights, and completely fallen in love with Italy. You want to come back, you want to discover more of Italy’s heart, but where to go? Umbria is the place! Here’s why:
It’s close to major travel hubs like Rome and Florence
If you fly in to Rome you can easily get out to Umbria. Orvieto is a little more than 76 miles away, about an hour and a half drive from Rome. Follow the highway north from there and you’re already in Tuscany, near towns like Montepulciano, Arezzo and further north even Florence. In an hour and a half from Florence you can pass Lake Trasimeno and be in Perugia in Umbria. If you don’t come to Italy purely for Umbria, you can easily add it on to an extended trip along with Tuscany or Lazio (the region of Rome), to get the most of your time!
BUT there are some transportation downsides
It is easy to take a train from Rome to major cities in Umbria such as Perugia or Orvieto, but these tend to be one-stop day trips. Unfortunately moving from town to town in Umbria by public transport is a bit more difficult. Though there are trains, they only connect between major cities and sometimes you’ll have to change multiple trains. It’s still doable, but I highly suggest renting a car to move around in Umbria.
I know it might seem daunting, but Umbria is not the same as navigating Rome by car. The roads are less trafficked and the city centers less congested. Drive free of hassle until you get to your destination. Once there, your search for parking will be infinitely easier than parking in huge cities. Most towns have pay parking that won’t break the bank for a day.
With a car it’s easier to take part in the beauty of Umbria: the winding roads, country scenery and improbable Umbrian towns.
It has all the things you love about Tuscany, at a lower price
In a lot of ways, Umbria is very similar to Tuscany. It has the rolling green hills of Tuscany, the small towns, the great food, and the excellent wine – all at a much cheaper price! With a similar geography, its agriculture and thus cuisine tends toward similar tastes: fresh olive oil, wine, wild boar and game and woodsy flavors. This tends to affect the price as well. Though towns like Perugia and Assisi can certainly rise in prices during the high season (generally June through mid-September), it’s much easier to find deals in Umbria overall. First of all, the cost of living tends to be lower, so even the fanciest of restaurants will usually offer completely reasonable prices. Also, with a wealth of hotels, B&Bs and apartments for rent in and near the major towns, you can shop around for an affordable stay.
The food is freaking great
Speaking of deals and steals, Umbria is a long-overlooked foodie paradise. Umbria has some of my favorite Italian dishes, at cheaper prices! That, and even more truffles to offer! You can find the regions precious truffles in appetizers such as crostini al tartufo, shaved over pasta, risotto or omelettes, infused in fresh and seasoned cheeses or in a thick gravy, likely ladled over prime Umbrian steak. Obviously I love Umbrian food, I even wrote an ode to a sandwich I once ate in Assisi, but I’m sure that after a visit to the region, you’ll completely agree!
Besides the rich truffle, Umbrian cuisine is your typical cucina povera, or peasant cooking. Dishes made simply with just a few fresh ingredients. Here the cuisine is seasonal. Ingredients are plucked directly from what the land has to offer: rich soil, freshwater lakes, small-scale local farms and verdant forests, meaning the dishes tend to be meat based with pig or hunted game a major contributor, along with simple vegetables and zero kilometer grains. It’s simple, fresh, local and downright delicious. Get more in-depth information about Umbria’s local recipes at Food Holidays in Umbria: What to Eat and Drink.
It’s an easy introduction to Italy’s countryside
Because of its relative ease to reach, Umbria is a great way to branch out into Italy’s countryside. Everyone loves the rolling hills of Tuscany, but after many visits to both regions, I find that the colors of Tuscany tend toward amber and gold, while Umbria glows green. Known as Italy’s green heart, here you can get off-the-beaten path while still feeling connected. Locals are used to visitors, but aren’t routinely swamped with throngs of tourists each high season. Though you’re not in a major tourist hotspot you’ll still find quite a bit of English, especially near Perugia with its international university and in major towns like Assisi, which routinely gets international visitors and pilgrims.
It’s (mostly) a perfect place to escape the crowds
Go to Assisi during the feast day of St Francis or Perugia during the chocolate festival and you’ll have joined the crowd rather than escaped it. That said, Umbria tends to be less crowded than say Lazio or Tuscany. In Umbria the cities are jam-packed with incredible art and history, yet still have the congeniality of tiny towns. The medieval hilltop towns still have room to breathe, leaving you time and space to truly enjoy the Umbrian countryside. You aren’t likely to have to elbow your way through throngs of people. Instead, you can simply enjoy the freedom of a car, the ease of an airbnb and the laid back atmosphere of the region, all on your own time.
It has incredible culture and UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Italy has the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other nation in the world. Some of these you can find in Umbria. The entire city center of Assisi is protected by UNESCO for its Basilica di San Francesco and other Franciscan heritage sites as well as the Church of San Salvatore in Spoleto as a point of Longobard power in Italy. More than other regions of Italy, in Umbria you feel the pervasive nature of the area’s religious culture and history. Less in-your-face than Rome’s Catholicism, Umbria nevertheless has deep ties with the Catholic Church, even if the relationship between the two hasn’t always been smooth sailing throughout history. In Assisi you find it seeped into every cobblestone, radiating from every angle. In Gubbio you feel it in the stories of St. Francis’ legacy, in the medieval race of the ceri, and there’s nothing like Orvieto’s Duomo.
Umbria’s frescoes, cathedrals, mountain trails and in-depth food are a testament to its strong culture. It offers a simpler Italy, yes, but no less filled with wonder.
Where to Visit:
Everywhere! Take your car and drive from town to town. Some of the most famous towns in the region are: Assisi, Gubbio, Spello, Perugia, Narni, Norcia, Todi, Trevi, Orvieto and Spoleto, but even ones not on this list merit a visit. After all, the true Italy, the heart of Italy, is found in all of its corners – big and small!
Every Umbria post in one place:
Why Umbria in Autumn is great!
Going Underground in Orvieto
The award-winning balconies of Spello
The Most Beautiful Village in Italy
Snapshots of Gubbio
Why Gubbio is called a “City of Crazies”