The landlocked region of Umbria sits in Italy’s centre, bordered by Tuscany to the west, Lazio to the south and Marche to the east. Looks-wise, it’s very similar to Tuscany – all rolling hills, vineyards, olive groves and hilltop towns. But there’s much more to this part of Italy than just scenery. Here are my top picks for what to do in Umbria…
Visit an underground church in Narni
Back in the 1970s, a group of young men interested in caving abseiled down the hillside below Narni and landed in an elderly local’s vegetable garden. Once the old man’s anger at the destruction of his cabbages had subsided, he suggested the men venture down a small opening at the end of his garden. What they found down there was pretty remarkable – a tiny 12th-century church decorated with ancient frescoes led through to a room housing an old Roman water well, which in turn led to a trial room and prison cell used during the Italian inquisition. Nowadays, the complex is open to visitors for a €6 entrance fee (and you won’t have to trespass through the vegetable garden to get there). The prison cell is particularly fascinating, as the walls are covered with graffiti scratched on by inmates in the 18th century. The whole complex sits beneath a Dominican monastery – if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to hear the monks singing above you.
While you’re in Narni… Pop into the Church of Santa Maria Impensole, where you’ll find some restored 15th-century frescoes.
Watch sunset in Todi
Getting from the main car park to the historical centre of Todi involves a calf-busting uphill walk, or a quick trip on a funicular lift. If you take the lift, you’ll emerge in a tree-lined piazza studded with wooden benches. Walk over to the railings and you’ll see miles of Umbrian countryside spread out beneath you, as well as a postcard-worthy view of the town’s honey-coloured buildings to your right. It’s a top spot for sunset-watching – the sun sinks into the rolling hills and casts a warm Instagram-ready glow over the houses and palazzi.
While you’re in Todi… Head to the main square, Piazza del Popolo. It’s edged by a grand cathedral and a couple of palazzi-turned-museums, and the streets radiating out from it are lined with shops, cafés and restaurants.
Go for an early-morning stroll through Assisi
The narrow streets of Assisi’s historic centre are picture-perfect. They’re lined with traditional stone houses and accessorised with colourful flowers, and often come with glimpses of the countryside far below. They can get pretty busy, though, especially in the summer months. So set your alarm a little earlier and arrive between 8-9am. The lanes will be much more peaceful, the pace will be less hurried, and you may get to see the hazy morning mists over the fields before the sun burns them off.
While you’re in Assisi… No visit to Assisi would be complete without a look inside the basilica of its patron saint, St. Francis. It’s free to enter, and is made up of three parts. The upper part is a grand cathedral, with walls and ceilings coated in frescoes by Giotto. The chapel down below has a more atmospheric feel, with low, frescoed ceilings and vaulted side chapels. Steps from the chapel lead down to the crypt, where you’ll find the tomb of St. Francis. Although you can’t light candles down here, there are candles you can buy for a small donation, which people will take to be ‘blessed’ at the tomb, before taking them home to light.
Watch a show in Panicale’s tiny theatre
Shows and concerts at the Teatro Comunale Cesare Caporali might be in Italian, but in a setting like this, it hardly matters! The horseshoe-shaped theatre was originally built back in 1786, and was then renovated in 1858. It’s the second-smallest theatre in Umbria, seating just 144 people on red velvet chairs, in tiny, painted booths and up on a balustraded balcony. Take a look at the painted backdrop curtain up on the stage – it was created by famous artist Mariano Piervittori. If you don’t fancy seeing a show, or are only visiting the village during the day, stop by the tourist office (open 10am-1pm and 4-7pm) – they arrange hourly tours in the summer.
While you’re in Panicale… A few minutes’ walk from the historical centre of the village is the Chiesa di San Sabastiano, a little church on the edge of the hill overlooking Lake Trasimeno. Inside, behind the altar, is The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian’, a 16th-century fresco painted by Pietro Perugino, one of Umbria’s greatest Renaissance painters.
Step inside Città di Castello’s Cathedral
Città di Castello’s cathedral is dedicated to its two patron saints, St. Florido and St. Amanzio. Although the façade is grand, it’s fairly plain – completely at odds with what you’ll find inside. Step through the door and you’re greeted by baroque paintings, centuries-old frescoes, a huge, painted dome, and an ornate blue-and-gold ceiling created in the 18th century. Walk back out and around to the back of the cathedral and you’ll see the unusual round bell tower, which dates back to the 11th century. The lavish interiors certainly rival those of churches in more popular destinations, and the fact that Città di Castello is slightly off the tourist trail means you won’t have to share them with hordes of visitors.
While you’re in Città di Castello… Contemporary artist Alberto Burri was one of the city’s most famous former residents. You can find his unusual works displayed in two locations – Palazzo Albizzini, in the town centre, houses his earlier work, while Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco (a huge former tobacco curing warehouse on the outskirts) displays his later creations.
Experience the Candle Race in Gubbio
St. Ubaldo, Gubbio’s patron saint, is celebrated each year on 15th May, the eve of his death. To mark the occasion, the locals take part in the Corsa dei Ceri, or Candle Race. The race has taken place every year since the late 12th century, and is the town’s most important festival. Three teams of candlemen represent St. Ubaldo, St. George and St. Anthony the Abbot, and race each other around the town carrying ‘candles’ – huge wooden pillars topped with statues that weigh in at around 400 kilograms. They each wear a different colour (yellow for St. Ubaldo, blue for St. George and black for St. Anthony) and the crowd wear matching colours depending on who they’re supporting. The teams then start the 300-metre climb up to St. Ubaldo’s Basilica, which sits on the mountaintop. Here’s where the competition ends, though – St. Ubaldo’s team are always the first through the basilica’s doors. If you don’t fancy the run up the mountain, you can reach the top via the hair-raising cable car – you’ll be winched up to the top of the mountain in a small, stand-up cage.
While you’re in Gubbio… Visit the Museo Civico, housed in a huge Gothic palazzo. It’s home to a series of 3rd century BC bronze tablets, which were discovered 570 years ago and are covered in ancient Umbrian carvings.