by Tim Jepson, The Telegraph, April 11, 2017
An essential guide to Umbria covering the region's top attractions and hotels, plus recommendations on eating out, from Tim Jepson, our destination expert.
A few years ago, Umbria was known, if at all, as Tuscany’s less alluring sister. Not any more: these days Italy’s “green heart” is every bit as celebrated as its more famous neighbour. The reasons are simple: the region has all Tuscany’s attributes – and a few more.
True, it doesn’t have the big set pieces of Florence and Siena, but it does has a coronet of far more intimate and easily visited hill-towns – Perugia, Assisi, Orvieto, Gubbio, Todi, Spoleto and Norcia. Each has enough to keep you busy for a day or more, and none is more than a few miles from the next, making Umbria manageable and straightforward to explore.
When you’ve exhausted these towns there’s a second tier of charming and even more intimate smaller centres, such as Montefalco, Bevagna, Spello, Trevi, Narni, Bettona, Città di Castello, Città della Pieve and more.
There’s also the same glorious pastoral scenery as Tuscany – the olive groves, vineyards and cypress-topped hills – as well as high mountain landscapes such as the Monti Sibillini that are the superior of its neighbour’s own Monte Amiata or Alpi Apuane.
Umbria is also a region where the food, wine, art, culture and architecture are the equal of any in Italy. Norcia, with its truffles, hams and cheeses, for example, is a gastronomic centre par excellence; Orvieto’s duomo is one of the country’s finest cathedrals; Spoleto’s summer festival is one of Europe’s major cultural events; and Assisi’s majestic Basilica di San Francesco contains frescoes by Giotto and others that mark a turning point in the history of Western art.
Finally, there are qualities to Umbria beyond towns, truffles or cypresses. Umbria mistica – mystical Umbria – some have called it, or “la terra dei santi”, the land of saints, after the hundreds of saints born here, including St Valentine and the two fathers of Western monasticism, St Francis and St Benedict.
It’s hard to put your finger on what sets Umbria apart – some quality to the light, a haze to the hills, a certain gentleness to landscape – but once you’ve visited you’ll understand, and wonder how this varied and beautiful region ever languished in its neighbour's shadow.
When to go
Umbria’s countryside is at its best in May, garlanded with flowers and spring green, and blessed with weather that is already balmy. This is less true in the mountains in the east, where the weather is not as reliable and the Monti Sibillini above Norcia are often still streaked with snow: wait until early June if you want to hike or see the Sibillini’s famous wild flowers, and those of the Piano Grande in particular.
Upland Norcia escapes the heat – and most of the crowds – that can make most of the region’s other towns hard work in July and August. Watch out for festivals and holy days, especially in Assisi (Easter is particularly busy), but don’t disdain the hill towns off season: January and February are cold, but often dry, and with so many indoor cultural attractions – galleries, churches, museums – and only locals in the restaurants, the region can be a joy to explore at this time of year.
September and October are good months in town or country, and are often drier than the spring months, though summer sun will have left Umbria’s green heart looking brown and parched.
Where to go
None of Umbria’s hilltowns should disappoint, but Todi and Spoleto are two favourites, closely followed by Montefalco and Bevagna. Assisi is pretty but busy, though the Basilica di San Francesco is unmissable. Orvieto can be crowded, but here, too, there is a standout sight in the shape of the Duomo. For the best landscapes head east, and in particular to the Valnerina region between Spoleto and Norcia, and to the Piano Grande and Sibillini mountains near the border with Le Marche.
Know before you go
British embassy in Rome: 0039 06 4220 0001; gov.uk/rome
Tourist offices and information: The official Umbrian regional tourism website is regioneumbria.eu. It contains links to local tourist office, though few towns or tourist offices have their own dedicated tourism websites.
Tourist offices are found in all the major towns, and cover smaller towns and villages in their immediate vicinity: the main ones are Perugia (Piazza Matteotti, 18, Loggia dei Lanari, 06100 Perugia; 075 5736458 or 0755773210; Assisi (Piazza del Comune, 06081 Assisi; 075 8138680 or 0758138681); Gubbio (Via della Repubblica 15, 06024 Gubbio; 075 9220693); Orvieto (Piazza Duomo 24, 05018, Orvieto; 0763 341772); Spoleto (Piazza della Libertà 7, 06049, Spoleto; 0743 218620); and Todi (Piazza del Popolo 38–39, 06059 Todi; 075 895 6227).
Sestinet produces several Umbria-related apps, including a general, official UmbriaApp for the Regione Umbria.
Emergency services: Dial 112 for emergency services or 113 for the Polizia di Stato (State Police).
Telephone codes: From the UK, dial 0039 plus the area code with the zero
Time difference: +1 hour
Flight time: From London to Florence, Pisa or Perugia airports is around two hours.