Umbria is not as well known as its neighbor, Tuscany, yet it is just as picturesque. Ancient medieval hill towns with Roman ruins dot the landscape and historic churches such as the one in Assisi welcome visitors. The region is well known to other Italians for its excellent food who flock to Umbria on weekends to shop, dine and explore. If offers some of the best hiking in Europe, along with excellent cycling and driving tours found anywhere in Italy. Join me on this page as we explore the best of Umbria together.
Looking up from the Piazza Garibaldi you see the Albornoz Fortress towering over the entire town. Then you walk inside inside the town walls of Spoleto you start climbing the narrow winding main street lined with interesting shops and cafes. Like a lot of main streets in Italy this one is pedestrian only as well. This is a great town for walking so expect to do a lot of it.
Things flatten out a bit when you reach the Piazza Della Liberta where the tourist office is located in an historic building. Even more historic across the street is the Teatro Romano Museum with the ancient ruins that you can explore in addition to the exhibits.
Continue your walk which brings you to the 12th century Duomo (cathedral) with an interesting facade and then it is more climbing up some quiet streets or stairways to the Albornoz Fortress, built in 1359. Here you can visit the many rooms open to the public which surround a courtyard. From here you also have outstanding views of the valley that Spoleto sits in.
Take a walk down the fortress lane and follow it around the back for the highlight of your walk, the Ponte delle Terri or Bridge of Towers. This 14th century aqueduct is 262 feet (80 m) high above the valley floor and it is possible to walk across it to the other side. Once there you can return the same way of take the hiking trail to the Church of San Pietro which is well known for the 12th century carvings on its facade.
Many visitors to Umbria miss this interesting town as they rush off to more popular towns but that would be a mistake as it is definitely worth stopping.
There is a lot more to the town of Assisi than the Basilica named after St. Francis. True you will want to visit the basilica which is built on several levels. To get the most from your visit do take one of the guided tours, available in English. We had walked around prior to the tour but our tour guide, an American, cherry picked some of the key attractions of this massive church bringing the story of St. Francis to life for us. This is such a inspired story that the new pope, Francis 1, took his name from St. Francis of Assisi.
But this medieval town offers much more than the Basilica. Go walk the long pedestrian only crowded with restaurants and shops. Be sure to stop by the Cathedral di San Rufino (Duomo) built on the 12th century where there is a crypt with some archaeological items. There is also Basilica di Santa Chiara and some of the other churches of interest.
Remember the towns in Umbria are hilly so it is a bit of a climb up to the Rocca Maggiore, the castle which dominates the town. However the walk is well worth it as from the top you have superb views of the valley where Assisi is located as well as the surrounding hills.
If you are a hiker there is a trail across Mount Subasio to Spello, well known for its churches and Roman ruins. Yes Assisi is a bit touristy but well worth the visit as this walled town is more than just the impressive Basilica.
When you enter the walls of this 14th century medieval town just follow any street as they all head for the Piazzo San Benedetto, the civic square. Along the way you are going to pass many shops selling the truffles, sausages, salami and hams this town is famous for. The shops have very elaborate displays as can be seen in the picture. On weekends day trippers from Rome come by as well on shopping expeditions.
This is the birthplace of St. Benedict, and as you would expect there are a number of churches you can visit including the Church of San Benedetto and the Duomo dating from 1560. There is also a museum and the tourist office where you can pick up information for a walking tour of the town.
Getting to Norcia is easy with frequent bus service from Spoleto. The scenic drive takes about one hour and the drive through the mountains including a number of tunnels. Norica is located a one end of the Santa Scholastica Valley so you have nice views down the valley towards the mountains.
This town makes a place to base yourself in for hiking in nearby Mount Sibillini National Park. We stayed in the Hotel Grotta Azzura, located just off the main square which was originally a granary dating from the 16th century and is run by the Bianconi Family. It is best known for its restaurant which you must dine at even if you do not stay in the hotel.
During our visit in late September there was a religious festival with the streets all decorated in colorful lights, a solemn procession by the citizens of the town and religious leaders, fireworks and a street dance just off the main square open to everyone. Although a little out of the way, Norcia is well worth the detour while visiting Umbria.
Mount Sibillini National Park
There are two ways to tackle hiking in this National Park; day trips from Norcia or taking the long distance Sentiero Italiano hiking trail.
We took a series of guided hikes with HF Holidays who bused us up the mountain each day to our hiking location. If you are on your own your hotel can provide transportation. If taking the week long Sentiero Italiano long distance hiking trail expect to take a week and you can stay at the Refugio placed at handy distances along the route. Although basic accommodation they are actually quite nice.
While hiking in the park expect to see small groups horses wandering the mountains. Although there are no fences and they will keep their distance. Also you will see evidence of wild pigs and flocks of sheep guided by their sheep dogs.
You are walking in mountains for the most part above the tree line so you will get superb views and may even see the Adriatic Sea on a clear day. These mountains are windswept so you will need a jacket no matter what the season. In winter there is skiing at a resort in the park and one of the paths goes by the chairlift and chalet.
In the middle of the park is The Piano Grande (the Great Plain) which is a valley with the village of Castellucio pops up towards the sky on a hilltop. You may also see hang gliders as they take flight from a nearby mountain. This is a rugged and beautiful park for hiking.
Route of Saint Benedict
Saint Benedict was born in Norcia and often walked through the nearby Castoriana Valley. You can follow a signed route, which is more of a hiking trail, to the town of Preci.
We took a short drive to Forca d’ Ancarano to start our 8 1/2 mile (13 1/2 km) hike which featured 1,430 feet of ascent along the way. The route takes you along country dirt roads and footpaths as you pass through the villages of the Castoriana Valley including Pie la Rocca, Capo del Colle and Campi Vecchio. As these village hang to the side of the Castoriana Valley you get some wonderful views as you walk along.
While you will pass several churches the highlight is the Abbey of St. Eutizio which you can explore and makes a good spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. Also you are in Umbria so do expect a few climbs along the way like when leaving the abbey.
We continued our walk for an additional 2 1/2 hilly miles until arriving at Preci where we again climbed a long set of stairs to get into the town proper. This town features several hotels and restaurants by is best known for a school of surgery founded in the 15th century by the Benedictine monks. If you are looking for a moderate and scenic walk while in Umbria the Route of Saint Benedict is worthy of your consideration.
Click on hiking holidays for more great destinations to consider besides Umbria.