Italy’s green heart, Umbria is a land unto itself, the only Italian region that borders neither the sea nor another country. This isolation has kept outside influences at bay and ensured that many of Italy's old-world traditions survive today. Travel here and you’ll still see grandmothers in aprons making pasta by hand and front doors that haven't been locked in centuries.
The region is best known for its medieval hilltop towns, many beautifully preserved and dramatically set. The Etruscans, Romans, feuding medieval families and Renaissance artists have all left an imprint, from Orvieto’s great Gothic cathedral to Assisi’s fresco-clad basilica. But nature has played its part too, contrasting the wild beauty of the Monti Sibillini with the gentle fall and rise of green hills and wildflower-flecked meadows.
Foodies are in their element here, with tartufi neri (black truffles), fine cured meats and full-bodied local wines finding their way onto regional menus.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Umbria.
Visible for miles around, the Basilica di San Francesco is the crowning glory of Assisi's Unesco-listed historic centre. The 13th-century complex is comprised of two churches: the Gothic Basilica Superiore, with its celebrated cycle of Giotto frescoes, and beneath, the older Basilica Inferiore where you'll find works by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. Also here, in the Cripta di San Francesco, is St Francis' much-venerated tomb.
Nothing can prepare you for the visual feast that is Orvieto's soul-stirring Gothic cathedral. Dating from 1290, it sports a black-and-white banded exterior fronted by what is perhaps the most astonishing facade to grace any Italian church: a mesmerising display of rainbow frescoes, jewel-like mosaics, bas-reliefs and delicate braids of flowers and vines. Head inside and the show continues, most spectacularly in the form of Luca Signorelli's mesmerising Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment) fresco in the Cappella di San Brizio.
The upper church of the Basilica di San Francesco was built after the Basilica Inferiore and consecrated in 1253, and the change in style and grandiosity is readily apparent. Its bright, airy interior is home to one of the world's most famous works of art, a 28-part fresco depicting the life of St Francis. For centuries, this extraordinary work has been attributed to Giotto and his pupils, but the question of its authorship is currently under debate in the art-history community.
The lower and earlier of the two churches comprising the Basilica di San Francesco, this basilica was commissioned by Pope Gregory IX in 1228, just two years after St Francis' death, and completed in 1230. Its dark interior features a stunning series of frescoes and several stained-glass windows, the work of master craftsmen brought in from Germany, England and Flanders during the 13th century.
Although the Basilica di Sant'Ubaldo, perched high on Monte Ingino, is a perfectly lovely church, the real adventure is getting there on the funivia. The word funivia suggests an enclosed cable car, but this is more like a glorified ski lift that whisks you up the steep hillside in a hanging metal basket.
Umbria's foremost art gallery is housed in Palazzo dei Priori on Perugia's main strip. Its collection, chronologically displayed over 40 rooms, is one of central Italy's finest, numbering more than 3000 works, ranging from Byzantine-inspired 13th-century paintings to Gothic works by Gentile da Fabriano and Renaissance masterpieces by home-town heroes Pinturicchio and Perugino.
Flanking Corso Vannucci, this Gothic palace, constructed between the 13th and 14th centuries, is architecturally striking with its tripartite windows, ornamental portal and fortress-like crenellations. It was formerly the headquarters of the local magistracy, but now houses the city's main art gallery, the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, and a series of historic rooms and suites: the Nobile Collegio del Cambio, the Nobile Collegio della Mercanzia and the Sala dei Notari.
Just try to walk through Piazza del Popolo without trying to photograph it from every angle. The rectangular piazza is one of Umbria's finest medieval squares and is flanked by a series of notable buildings: the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata at the northern end; the 13th-century Palazzo del Capitano and Palazzo del Popolo, together home to the Museo Pinacoteca Comunale, in the southeastern corner; and, on the southern flank, the 14th-century Palazzo dei Priori.
South of the town centre, past the Porta di San Pietro, is this atmospheric 10th-century basilica complex. The basilica, overlooked by a landmark bell tower, is stunning inside, with opulent displays of gilt and marble and some wonderful works of art, including a Pietà (a painting of the dead Christ supported by the Madonna) by Perugino.