Perugia is small, so you can easily tour it like any small town: Start in the main piazza, see the duomo, take a walk and eat some food. But this time, you’d be missing out.
It seems like all roads lead to Piazza IV Novembre and from there you can see most of Perugia by walking down its main street, Corso Vannucci, from end to end. Since all traffic and transportation comes in from below the hill, you’ll likely follow Corso Vannucci from one end all the way to Piazza IV Novembre, only to follow it back when it’s time to go. Start in Rocca Paolina, a medieval fortress that still exists underground, then take the escalators up to Corso Vannucci. When you’re finished, you’ll end back at Rocca Paolina. Take a second to enjoy the panorama before descending into the 16th-century fortress and going on your way.
On first glance, you can see all of Perugia’s historic city center in a two-hour stroll or less, but give yourself some time to scratch under the surface because there’s so much more to this charming town.
Piazza IV Novembre
In Perugia’s principal piazza you’ll find most of Perugia’s tourist sites: the beautiful 13-century Fontana Maggiore, the unfinished San Lorenzo Cathedral, Palazzo dei Priori and the adjacent Sala dei Notari.
Palazzo dei Priori
The unique medieval architecture of the Palazzo dei Priori dominates the square. Like a fortress in the center of the city, the building stands proud with pointed arched doors and windows and classic castle battlements. Two bronze statues guarded the main door for centuries– a Perugian griffin and a Guelf lion. Symbols of Perugia, today they can still be found in the building’s atrium to the left of the entrance. You can still find two smaller statues outside of the Sala dei Notari door as well as the chains taken by Perugians from the gates of Siena during a 14th-century battle. Once the home of civic business, today the Palazzo dei Priori houses the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria with art by Raphael and Perugino, the gorgeous Sala dei Notari and two of the main medieval corporations: the Nobile Collegio del Cambio, the Nobile Collegio della Mercanzia.
Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria
The most renowned art galleria in the region, the National Gallery of Umbria houses around 3,000 works ranging from Byzantine-inspired 13th-century paintings to Gothic panels with the region’s most famous artists including Pinturicchio and Perugino.
Sala dei Notari
You can enter the Sala, or large room, through the massive gothic door facing the piazza. Built from 1293 to 1297 for popular assemblies, it’s used today for events and conferences. Though its original frescoes have since been restored or repainted, they are still wonderfully interesting and detailed and, I assure you, highly entertaining if the conference runs long.
San Lorenzo Cathedral
On the other side of the piazza, opposite the Sala dei Notari, sits the San Lorenzo Cathedral, but you’d be forgiven if you didn’t even realize it was a church on first glance, let alone a cathedral. Its stark, medieval decoration means it remains unadorned, without even a steeple or belltower to tell it apart. A church has sat here since the 900s, but the one that stands today was started in the 14th-century. Inside the church is elaborately decorated with marble columns, frescoes, a small religious museum and religious relics as well. Outside, steps run its length, following the curve of the land. It’s here that most of Perugia can be found in the evenings, sitting, chatting, watching and drinking in the town’s natural open-air theater: the piazza.
Pozzo and Arco Etrusco
Before following Corso Vannucci visit two of the city’s Etruscan heritage sites. Just north of the Piazza you can venture underground in a 37 meter-deep third-century Etruscan well, the main water source in Etruscan times. A six-minute walk further north you can find the Arco Etrusco, or Etruscan Arch. This massive travertine block gate is roughly 36 feet tall, making it one of the most important of ancient Etruria.
Capella di San Severo
Since you’re already north of Piazza IV Novembre, stop by this tiny, unassuming church. Hardly worth a second glance on the outside, inside you’ll find the Trinity with Saints by Raphael. Largely thought to be his first fresco, it was painted during his time in Perugia studying under Perugino. (thought by many to be his first fresco), painted during the artist’s residence in Perugia (1505–08).
Museo Archeologico Nazionale
If there’s not a lot of time, the archeological museum is the first to go. I understand, I haven’t seen the museum either. But the National Archeology Museum of Umbria has an incredible collection of Etruscan and prehistoric artifacts, is inexpensive and is located in a convent adjoining the San Domenico Church. So one visit and you can see multiple things! It’s also a great way to gain further insight into Perugia’s Etruscan heritage.
Whether you end or start your tour with a visit at the Rocca Paolina, it’s definitely a site worth visiting! The Rocca Paolina connects the neighborhoods and more importantly for visitors, the car park, in “lower Perugia” to the city center above. In fact, inside the Rocca you can find escalators that will bring you up to the fortressed hilltop to tour il centro storico.
Don’t just race up the escalators though, take some time to tour the alleyways, piazze and hidden Medieval nooks of the Rocca Paolina. Not only are they the same as when it was built in 1540, but it’s free to visit! Today these same streets hold rotating art exhibits and an antiques market the last weekend of every month.
Basilica di San Pietro
This Basilica is beyond the historic city center, but supposedly worth the visit. Lonely Planet describes the tenth-century church “expletive-inducing on first sight”. It also has a Pietà painted by Perugino. Behind the church is a Medieval botanical garden that you can still stroll, a Galleria d’Arte, and a library and archive with antique books, codexes and manuscripts.
Perugia is not only bella for its atmosphere, kind residents and incredible views, but it also has a lot to offer a traveler. Jumpstart your Umbrian tour with a stop in the region’s capital or come just to see Perugia – there’s plenty to see!