Medieval hilltop towns rise up from the lush landscapes of Umbria, known as the ‘Green Heart of Italy’. Within them, majestic cathedrals guard the piazzas, charming streets lead to local authentic restaurants, and panoramic views stretch out below.
One of Italy’s most underrated regions, there’s so much to see and do here, but it’s really the towns of Umbria that are the highlights.
While neighbouring Tuscany gets much more attention (with destinations like Florence, Siena, and Pisa), there are plenty of things to do in Umbria – and it offers it in a more authentic way and without the crowds.
At first glance, it may seem like the best Umbrian towns are quite similar. Yet, look closer, and you’ll realise they are unique, each offering something special for travellers who take the time to visit and explore.
Whether you’re basing yourself in one of them and doing day trips, or travelling through the region to see a collection of towns in Umbria, I think it’s worth heading to a few of them while you’re here.
In Assisi, I’m dazzled by the enormous basilica and the story of St Francis.
In Orvieto, I think the decorated cathedral will be the highlight until I find the local treasures in the warren of side streets.
In Spello, it’s the colourful flowers that capture my imagination, while the views from Todi are breathtaking.
And I start to feel like I belong in Perugia after spending a few days and experiencing its warm hospitality.
You can reach Umbria with just an hour’s drive from Rome, and exploring the region is relatively easy by public transport (although, as is often the case in Italy, hiring a car is an easier way to get between destinations).
As you can see from the map below, though, most of the Umbrian towns are quite close to each other, so you don’t need to travel long distances to get between them.
With dozens of towns in Umbria (big and small), it might be hard to know where to start, which is why I wanted to put together this guide.
Hopefully it helps you choose the best places to visit in Umbria on your trip.
Let’s start with the biggest towns in Umbria – although not necessarily just the biggest in population, but also the most iconic.
If you’re short of time or just want to prioritise your visit to Umbria, then these are the three towns I would suggest prioritising.
OK, technically a city and not a town, Perugia is the capital of Umbria. It can sometimes be ignored by visitors who are put off by the sprawl of modern suburban and industrial areas, but the historic centre is one of Italy’s finest.
Starting at the Palazzo dei Priori, which houses the town hall and the region’s main gallery, the cobbled streets spread out from there, up and down staircases (and even escalators through the foundations of ancient buildings).
Behind the Gothic facades of Perugia’s main sights, there are priceless artworks on the walls, while walking along an old aqueduct takes you to quieter neighbourhoods with their own charm.
To explore Perugia with a guide, I would recommend this excellent walking tour.
As a university city, Perugia is livelier and more cosmopolitan than other nearby towns, making it a great base if you’re looking for somewhere to stay with a bit more nightlife (and good public transport connections to other towns in Umbria).
Visiting Assisi is one of the best things to do in Umbria and this is one of my favourite destinations in the region, the local white limestone giving it the appearance of radiating in the sun.
The highlight is undoubtedly the enormous Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, dedicated to the famous saint who was born and died here. The interior of the vast church is decorated with vibrant frescoes from medieval masters, and it’s become an important pilgrimage destination along the Way of St Francis.
Beyond the basilica, there are lots of things to see in Assisi, including churches, a Roman temple, historic fountains, and an imposing tower. Even just walking along the main street through town will take you past dozens of interesting sights.
If you can time your visit with one of the town’s festivals, such as Easter, there’ll be even more going on in Assisi.
For a tour of Assisi, that includes the basilica, I would recommend this small-group tour that takes about three hours. Or there are some day trip options here:
The historic centre of Gubbio is set so far up the hill that many people reach it using the elevators that go up through the middle of the town. Once there, it’s rarely flat walking as the streets constantly rise and fall.
The most important site is the grand 14th century Palazzo dei Consoli, now an interesting museum, which stands on one side of a terrace that offers sweeping views across the countryside, but there are also lots of other things to see in Gubbio.
Nearby, there are a few interesting churches, including the small Church of St Francis of the Peace on the site where the wolf the saint is said to have tamed is buried.
Take the cable car up to the top of the mountain for incredible views and the chance to visit an old citadel-like basilica, or head to the town’s foothills to see an Ancient Roman theatre.
Through it all, you’re likely to see locals riding their bikes or drinking aperitifs – unlike Assisi, for example, most of the town is still inhabited by residents not working in tourism. You can even arrange to have dinner in a local home, along with a cooking demonstration.
The most beautiful
All of Umbria’s towns have their own charm, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with any of them. But, still, there are some that really stand out for their beauty.
On first glance, the medieval town of Orvieto seems to have a lot – a glorious cathedral, a striking clock tower, and an ornately decorated theatre are some of the main sights.
As you explore further, you realise it has even more, because its side streets are filled with local gems like the ceramics on display (for both sale and decoration), and the traditional restaurants where you can try the local ‘gallina ubriaca’ specialty – chicken drenched in Orvieto wine.
The hillside setting offers beautiful vistas from the fortifications, while there are also quite a few Etruscan ruins for the history buffs. If you’re looking for just one town in Umbria to see a mixture of sights and local life, this is a great one to pick.
If you would like to arrange a day trip to Orvieto from Rome, there are some good tours here:
From the eastern approach, one of the most dramatic images of Spoleto is the Ponte delle Torri bridge, 230 metres of limestone that spans between a hill and a fortress. But within the town, there are plenty of other things to see.
More than some other Umbrian towns, there are quite a few Roman remains here, including arches, a theatre, and a basilica. Within the medieval centre, there are impressive churches, palazzos, and an interesting archaeological museum.
Quite a few artworks have been well preserved from the Middle Ages, including frescoes in the churches, bronze busts, and a 12th-century painting of a crucifix.
As an important city from the Roman era, to when the Lombards made it their capital in the 6th century, through to the Renaissance period, there’s a wealth of fascinating heritage here.
Green hills form the backdrop to Todi, another medieval hilltop town where the collage of houses and churches create a beautiful maze to explore the layers of history.
What makes Todi particularly special is how relaxed and quiet it is, despite its obvious beauty and heritage – particularly the main square, enclosed by two palazzos and its 11th century cathedral. The church of Santa Maria della Consolazione is another of the most important landmarks here.
Three sets of walls surround Todi, delineating the different eras of development, starting originally with the Etruscans. But it’s also worth going beyond the final walls to see some of the lush green countryside, where wild boar stew is a delicious specialty.
Città di Castello
The town of Città di Castello has clearly been influenced by its proximity to Tuscany (just 10 kilometres to the border), with some of the best Renaissance architects and artists contributing to what you find today.
The artistic feel of the city continues in the renowned Municipal Art Gallery, housed in the Palazzo Vitelli alla Cannoniera, with works from masters like Raphael. There are also two locations showing the 20th century art of Alberto Burri.
With a civic tower, bell tower, and church spires, don’t forget to look up as you explore Città di Castello, even though you’ll find plenty of architectural treasures on street level as well.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, there are a lot of medieval hilltop towns in Umbria – and that’s certainly part of the appeal. But once you’ve seen a few of them, you might be looking for something a bit different, which is why I wanted to introduce you to these alternatives.
The first thing that makes Foligno different is that it’s big. With a population of about 60,000, it’s the third-largest town in the region so it doesn’t have the charming laidback feel of some of the other places to visit in Umbria.
The other big difference is that it’s not elevated, but set on either side of a river between foothills and agricultural plains.
There’s still a very important historical centre here, though, which was expanded by the Romans and then rebuilt and enlarged further by the Trinci family during the Middle Ages. This is where many of the impressive buildings you’ll see come from.
The cathedral is the highlight, along with the town hall and some of the other palazzos and churches. What’s interesting is that it feels much more Tuscan than places like Orvieto or Gubbio because there was more space to build more imposing building facades.
Castiglione del Lago
It’s also the setting of Castiglione del Lago that makes it feel very different from other places in Umbria, this time because it’s one the edge of a lake.
Lake Trasimeno is the fourth-largest in Italy (about the same size as Lake Como) and offers a beautiful waterside setting that you don’t find often in the region.
The town fills an island that has since been connected to the shore, and is surrounded by 13th century walls that enclose plenty of heritage that’s easy to discover by walking along the flat streets (again, a nice change!).
But it’s the lake where you’ll find many of the attractions, including beaches that you can swim at in warmer months. I would also recommend taking a boat out to the lake’s islands to see local fishing villages.
Much of Norcia will look like other parts of Umbria, with a fortress and basilica, churches and grand mansions. Although the town is flat and its medieval historic centre is set amongst a verdant plain, so that makes it a little different.
But what I think makes Norcia so special is its focus on food. In the ‘Green Heart of Italy’, there’s great fresh cuisine throughout Umbria, but Norcia has a particular reputation for being among the best in Italy for something – charcuterie (one of my favourite foods!)
The pork products here are said to taste particularly good because, in part, the pigs are free range in the oak forests and feed on acorns and herbs. But I’m sure a long history of making charcuterie is also a big factor. (It also helps that Umbria is Italy’s largest producer of black truffles, and they end up in a lot of the salami.)
While you can certainly come here and focus on the sights, don’t leave without trying some of the delicacies that you’ll find on offer in most of the local shops and restaurants.
You might also enjoy this fun day of hiking that includes meat and cheese tastings!
Just like most of Italy, there’s plenty of history in Umbria (as you’ve probably already gathered). But Amelia stands out in particular because it’s thought by some to be the oldest town in the region, founded in the 12th century BC.
There are remains from a range of historical eras, including a Roman cistern, Renaissance palaces, and the Baroque cathedral (founded in 872 but rebuilt after a 17th-century fire).
The main attraction, though, something that makes Amelia stand out from other towns, are its ancient defensive walls that are built with stones of different shapes, rather than traditional rectangles, giving them the description ‘polygonal walls’.
Finally, I also want to make special mention of a few of the smaller towns in Umbria that are particularly lovely. The big cities may have heaps of sights, but these ones each give you an insight into village life in the region.
It may be small, but Spello holds its own and is considered one of Italy’s most beautiful towns.
One of the reasons for this are the flowers that adorn many of the buildings in the historic centre, vibrant splashes against the old stonework. As you wander the alleyways, it’s more about the colourful cohesion than any particular sight.
Having said that, there are lots of things to see in Spello, like the large Roman gate, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore with impressive artworks, and the art shops around the town hall.
If you can time your visit for June, you may be able to catch the annual festival sees the town decorated with large carpets of flowers on the main street.
Or anytime of the year, this guided tour with a local is a fantastic way to learn about all the town’s sights.
With a population of about 3,000 people, Valfabbrica is often overlooked by visitors, but that means you’re likely to encounter few other tourists while you explore the small historical centre, surrounded by the remains of medieval walls.
As well as the imposing tower of the 13th century castle, there’s the Church of San Sebastiano which has five Baroque altars, and two other churches with interior designs from different eras.
Valfabbrica may not be as picturesque as some of the other options, but it’s an authentic village where you can stop for a coffee and be amongst local life.
Bevagna is still laid out on the original urban design of the Romans, although the buildings you’ll see today are from later periods – Romanesque churches, medieval piazzas and palazzos, and a baroque monastery.
For such a small town, there’s a remarkable number of things to see today, and the location on the bend of the river creates a feeling that you are almost amongst nature.
The streets in the historic centre, without cars, are peaceful and it’s common to see residents sitting outside on chairs chatting, and doors of the traditional craft stores flung open.