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Top Ten Things To Do

Perugia is both the capital of Umbria and the perfect gateway to exploring the region. From visiting art galleries and people-watching on medieval squares to munching chocolate “kisses,” Perugia offers great variety. The regional capital also makes a superb springboard to exploring several of Umbria’s loveliest cities. For day trips, our top picks are spiritual Assisi, Lake Trasimeno and Gubbio, a medieval city in miniature – with full highlights covered in our Top Ten guide.

Top Ten Things To Do

Piazza IV Novembre - for city life

Henry James called Perugia the “little city of infinite views” and this feels true of Piazza 1V Novembre, Perugia’s theatrical main square. This was where Roman and Etruscan civilisations once came together. Today, it’s a meeting-place made for café life and cocktails, catch ups over ice-creams and street entertainment. Overlooking the square, Caffe del Banco (officially on 5 Corso Vannucci) works at any time of day. Come for coffee, cocktails on for coffee or a local draft beer, Birra Perugia.

The square spouts the splendid Fontana Maggiore, a Romanesque masterpiece created by the Pisan father-and-son team, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, between 1275 and 1278. This pink-and-white marble fountain displays bold decorative flourishes, from the signs of the zodiac to a griffin, the city symbol. On the far side of the fountain rise the steps to the austere Gothic cathedral, where people and pigeons gather to preen and flirt. Inside, the mystic Deposition, painted by Barocci while under the influence of poison proffered by a rival, inspired the Rubens masterpiece known as The Antwerp Descent. Sweeping down from the piazza is the bustling Corso Vannucci. On the right bristle the Gothic crenellations of the Palazzo dei Priori (Town Hall), one of the grandest public palaces in Italy. Fan-shaped steps lead to the Sala dei Notari, the lawyers’ meeting hall, painted at the end of the 13th century.

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Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria – top art gallery

As Umbria’s foremost art gallery, the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria celebrates its centenary in 2018. Flanking Corso Vannucci, the museum occupies a Gothic mansion dating back to the 13th century. Formerly the seat of the local magistracy, the palazzo boasts an ornate portal, mullioned windows
and fortress-like crenellations. Inside is a treasure-house of Umbrian and Central Italian art, displaying Byzantine-inspired 13th-century paintings, Gothic works by Gentile da Fabbriano, as well as Tuscan masterpieces by Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico. Also on show are masterpieces by hometown heroes, Perugino and Pinturicchio.

Next door is the palace’s 15th-century Collegio del Cambio This medieval money exchange is graced by Perugino’s frescoes, which fuse Classical and Christian themes. Pietro Vannucci (c1450-1523), better known as Perugino, was born near Perugia but found fame in Florence and Rome, where he decorated part of Rome’s Sistine Chapel before returning to his homeland. Raphael, the last true artist of the Renaissance, was born in Umbria in 1483 and was trained in Perugino’s workshop, work¬ing on frescoes in Perugia. He later left for glory in Florence and Rome.

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Corso Vannucci – a people-watching parade

If Perugia is the sun around which the other towns of Umbria orbit, then Corso Vannucci is the proof of its vitality. The Corso is the main thoroughfare and demonstrates how Perugia is a likeable, cultured, walking city. Corso Vannucci, and its early evening passeggiata, can best be appreciated from a café terrace, and includes a parade of relaxed locals and animated foreign students. Bars and cafes abound, including in the side streets just off the Corso. At festival time, especially during Umbria Jazz, the area becomes a cultural hub. Even outside festival time, Corso Vannucci shows that Perugia is a party-loving university city and a pleasure-seeking foodie city.

Strolls along the Corso often end in the Giardini Carducci, set on the site of a demolished fortress. From these gardens are some of the finest views in Perugia, with the hills twinkling under the stars. By day, the views are of the cypress-cloaked hills.

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Rocca Paolina – secret Perugia

A mysterious series of tunnels provides an early sense of Perugia’s nooks and crannies. This helter-skelter of cobbled alleys and arched stairways is essentially all that remains of a once imposing fortress. Known as the Rocca Paolina, the stronghold was commissioned by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s. Its creation led to the destruction of a prosperous neighbourhood. Churches, monasteries and around a hundred houses were razed and recycled to create the fortress. The citizens of Perugia had to wait until 1848 for the first, partial demolition of the hated symbol of Papal power, with its final destruction only achieved in 1860 with the Unification of Italy.

Today, these vaulted foundations form part of a popular route that funnels visitors into town from Piazza Partigiani. Riding the series of escalators (scale mobili) through the walls is a typical urban experience. It feels like gaining entry to a lost world, with secret doorways revealing the odd shop or venue for art exhibitions.

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Etruscan Perugia

It can be difficult to decipher Etruscan Perugia in such a dense, hilly, multi-layered city. The point is not to track down every Etruscan site but to be aware of everyday Etruscan treasures as you pass them. Stretches of Etruscan walls survive, as do several gateways - and even a well, off bustling Piazza IV Novembre. Best of all is the so-called Etruscan Arch. This northern gateway, the Arco Etrusco, is built into the original city walls and is the most memorable and monumental of Etruscan sites. As the most ancient gateway in town, it dates from the 3rd century BC. It lies at the end of via Ulisse Rocchi, facing Piazza Fortebraccio, and bears a Roman inscription on the upper part: 'Augusta Perusia', stressing the city’s ultimate submission to Rome. If the odd Etruscan sighting has whetted your appetite, then visit Perugia’s Archaeological Museum, set just outside the Etruscan city walls. San Domenico’s cloisters are home to the Museo Archeologico, which displays Etruscan pottery, funerary slabs and metalwork, including a bronze chariot.

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Magical, mystical Assisi

Assisi remains a spiritual place apart, despite the crowds. By car, Assisi is only 30 minutes east of Perugia but lives in its own rarefied world. The approach to Assisi reveals St Francis’ Basilica rise about the perpetual Umbrian haze, with the towering peak Mount Subasio looming beyond. The blissful sense of peace makes our humdrum world feel forgotten. The austere Basilica di San Francesco is perfectly situated for sunsets. Inside, the Upper Basilica is adorned with Giotto’s famous fresco cycle on the Life of St Francis, restored following the 1997 earthquake. Instead, the Lower Basilica reveals a jigsaw puzzle of frescoes, including scenes of uplifting sweetness by Simone Martini, where even the horses seem to smile. As if in reproach, the sternly didactic vault frescoes remind pilgrims of the monastic virtues of Chastity, Poverty and Obedience. The crypt where St Francis is buried is a significant pilgrimage site, attracting sandalled, prostrate pilgrims.

Beyond this spiritual hub, Assisi is almost too picture-perfect. Flower-bedecked balconies give way to secret gardens, with the scent of roses and wood-smoke permeating the air. The forbidding Rocca Maggiore, looming above the town, formed part of a string of towers guarding Assisi. No churches can live upto San Francesco. Even so, the striking Romanesque Duomo reveals a three-tiered façade and sculpted central portal, decorated with lions and griffons. Below the Duomo stands Santa Chiara, dedicated to the founder of the Order of the Poor Clares, the female wing of the Franciscans. The pink-and-white façade boasts buttresses that are decidedly feminine in their generous curves.

For a sense of the solitude and spirituality that suffused the lives of St Francis and St Clare, head to a spiritual retreat on the outskirts of Assisi. Il Bosco di San Francesco, St Francis’ Forest, represents a rural landscape quietly shaped by over 800 years of history. From woodland to olive groves and enchanted glades, this still feels like St Francis’ domain, inviting us to explore our relationship with nature and God. The trails meander around the slopes of Mount Subasio behind the Basilica of Saint Francis. The 64-hectare area of woodland trails is beautifully kept by the FAI, the Italian heritage body, the equivalent of the UK’s National Trust. The visitor centre is housed in a Benedictine monastery, the Convento di Santa Croce. Traditional Umbrian fare, such as truffled pasta, is served on the terrace of the neighbouring Osteria al Mulino, a converted mill.

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Gubbio – medieval Umbria in miniature

From Perugia, the road winds northwards to Gubbio, one of the most intact medieval towns in Italy. It’s under an hour’s drive to the so-called `city of silence,’ named for its desolate position in the Umbrian backwoods. Today, Gubbio is easily accessible yet still retains its air of inviolability. The setting is dramatic and often windswept, with the town clinging to the side of Monte Ingino, and its ancient palazzi stacked on steep terraces.

For a lofty view, take the funicular railway to the top of Monte Ingino from the station in via San Geraloma. At the top, St Ubaldo, the city’s protective saint, is worshipped in Basilica di Sant’Ubaldo, with his mummified body set above the altar. The basilica also displays the three huge candles which sturdy citizens carry in a frenzied race up the hill every May 15, in celebration of the saint.

Back in town, enjoy a restorative coffee in the magnificent Piazza Grande before admiring the medieval mansions and churches. The cathedral boasts Gothic rib-vaulting and medieval stained glass. Nearby awaits the Palazzo Ducale, begun in 1476 by Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Gubbio’s skyline is dominated by the bell-tower of the well-restored 14th-century Palazzo dei Consoli. Inside this civic museum is a Great Hall and a bizarre collection of medieval paraphernalia, including examples of medieval plumbing. Umbrians mostly come to see the Tavole Eugubine, seven bronze tablets which include ancient inscriptions written in the long-dead Umbrian language.

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Lake Trasimeno – Umbria’s water playground

Lake Trasimeno is where Umbria spills over into Tuscany. Lago di Trasimeno happens to be Italy's fourth-largest lake (128-sq-km in size) but remains off the well-beaten tourist trail. The restful scenery and the languid pace of life are the main draws for adventurous visitors. The sense of eternal peace is deceptive. At Tuoro sul Trasimeno Hannibal’s Carthaginian troops destroyed a 16,000-strong Roman army in 217 BC. Even in these small fishing villages, the lake's fortifications attest to its strategic location and turbulent past.

Expect sunflower fields, shimmering vineyards, silvery olive groves, oak woods and billowing cypresses. Views are framed by castellated medieval towns, such as Castiglione del Lago and Passignano, which are draped along its shores. Castiglione del Lago, strung out along a charming promontory, is the lake’s engagingly touristy capital, offering splendid views from the ramparts of the 14th-century castle. Founded by the Etruscans, this fortified village is also a foodie hotspot. Come for the lake fish, including tench, perch, whitebait and eels, or drink in the Colli di Trasimeno wines.

This Umbria’s summer playground, with countless opportunities for tennis, riding, swimming, sailing, boat trips and wine-tasting. Apart from lakeside pursuits, you can visit a trio of islands on the lake. You might well be tempted into the saddle. The cycle route around the lake is a classic ride, with the chance to explore Castiglione del Lago, Passignano and Sant’Arcangelo. This foodie-minded lake also provides ample opportunities for wine and olive oil tasting en route. The Passignano stretch offers views of meadows and woodland from the crest of a hill. The shortest, most appealing stretch of the cycle route hugs the shore between Castiglione and Tuoro.

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Wine-tasting and wine touring

A wine-tasting or visit to a vineyard can be slipped into to virtually any cultural tour of Umbria. One charming stretch of the Lake Trasimeno wine route lies between Passignano and Castiglione. Curiously, the fruity local red wine, Gamay del Trasimeno, is often drunk with the catch of the day.

Not far from Perugia, the family-run Cantine Lungarotti estate have created a small wine empire, embracing wine estates, an inn, wine bar, olive oil and wine museums, and even a wine spa. Doubling as an inn, the family’s delightful L’U WineBar is the place for matching the right wine with artisanal cheeses, pumpkin tortelli or suckling pig (porchetta). The estate’s award-winning Rubesco, a red wine with violet notes, is made with Sangiovese and Colorino varietals. It goes down well with T-bone steaks or aged cheeses.

Closer to Orvieto, you can visit the Decugnano dei Barbi boutique winery for a tasting. This was the estate that introduced sparkling wines to Umbria, back in 1978. These wines need to lie for at least four years and are kept in grottoes. As the owners will tell you, until the mid 19th-century all Orvieto wine was produced and stored in caves. If short of time, call into the Enoteca in Orvieto for local wines, including Barberani’s Orvieto Doc Classico, which has notes of honey, acacia and saffron.

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Orvieto – for an Umbrian marvel and one of Italy’s greatest cathedrals

Orvieto, to the south of Perugia, is the other great Umbrian gem and makes for a rewarding day trip. Allow for a ninety-minute car-ride (on the E45) or a two-hour bus journey. Orvieto, looming on a sheer ledge of lava-stone, is a brooding Etruscan presence hewn out of dark volcanic rock. The city’s precarious position and risk of crumbling puts it in the news from time to time – but its survival seems assured for now. The city is quintessential Umbria – moody, mystical, dramatic and stuffed with tempting inns. The fertile volcanic slopes are swathed in the vineyards that produce Orvieto’s famously crisp white wines. The story goes that Orvieto Cathedral was inspiration to Michelangelo in his creation of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Even without that glory, the cathedral ranks as one of Italy’s greatest. If the treasures about ground were not temptation enough to visit, then consider the quirky Underground Orvieto tour. The city’s honeycomb of caves and tunnels represent a secret, second city that has been in use since Etruscan times. 

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