Italy’s Umbria region is just as beautiful, and even more delicious, than its touristy neighbor —Tuscany. So says Traveling Foodie Mom Connie Walsh, who shares some vignettes from her recent mother-daughter road trip. She bets you will love Umbria as much as they did. TravelingMom tips included!
Connie & Brigitte enjoy cappuccinos and pastries at Sandri’s in Perugia. Photo Credit: Connie Walsh
Umbria Italy–Getting There is Half the Fun
“Next stop, Umbria Italy,” we said, thinking, “How lucky are we?”
It was a sunny October morning in Italy’s elegant sepia-toned city of Parma. My daughter Brigitte, and I picked up our rental car.
I had been attending a conference and doing some advance work for an upcoming tour to Umbria. I was delighted Brigitte could join me. We travel well together—overall. Well, there were a few minor squabbles, eye rolls, and cries of “Look out!” but loads of laughs and lots of “Taste this!” and “Look at that!”
TravelingMom tip #1: I highly recommend using Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com) a U.S. based consolidator, who works with all the major brands and offers competitive pricing and great customer service.
TravelingMom tip #2: Preorder a GPS. We set ours for the Umbrian town of Assisi, tuned in an Italian Opera, and hit the A1.
Ahh, the Food
Umbria, like other Italian regions, has its own unique cuisine and pastas. Sample the strozzapreti (“priest strangler”). Umbrians love their boar ragù and revere truffles. And oh, the wine! Think about savoring Sagrantino di Montefalco, a magnificent red or a chilled glass of crisp Orvieto in situ.
The joy of driving in Italy is the ability is to veer off the A1 and experience something special. Enroute to Assisi—and hungry— we wound our way into a small town and happened on the Ristorante Maga Magò. Charming. We were delighted to be greeted by Efram, the chef-owner. Born in Italy, he was raised in Philadelphia and took his passion and amazing skills “back home” to raise his family and open a restaurant.
“What can I cook for you?” he asked. “Cacio e Pepe and Spaghetti Carbonara?”
Loved Efram, and we lingered chatting and eating gelato. Here’s the address for your GPS Via Montecarelli, 2, 50031 Barberino di Mugello FI. Tell Efram Connie and Brigitte sent you.
Assisi – We’ve Arrived
We arrived in Assisi at dusk and were treated to the sight of this beautifully preserved medieval hill town completely illuminated. Its colossal edifices —the 14th-century castle Rocca Maggiore that sits tip-top and of course, the massive Basilica of St. Francis – are awe-inspiring. It is one of Italy’s key UNESCO sites.
We checked into the Hotel Giotto, which we chose for its proximity to the Basilica of St. Francis (just a 5-minute walk) and its parking privileges. A nice-enough 4-star property, it offers good service, complimentary breakfast, and sweeping views. We had booked the entry-level Classic Room, which turned out to be a tad sparse in the manner of a nun’s cell. But no complaints.
Speaking of nuns, I’d love to return to Assisi and spend a few nights at the Nun Assisi Relais & Spa Museum Hotel. Housed in a former 13th-century convent, it’s luxed-up in a contemporary fashion and boasts enchanting courtyards, gourmet dining, and an epic spa carved out of an ancient Roman amphitheater. Something to think about it–and that’s TravelingMom Tip #3.
A Special Visit—Basilica of San Francesco
The raison d’être you visit this atmospheric, spiritual town of Assisi is to visit the Basilica of St. Francis. It honors one of Catholicism’s most beloved figures—St. Francis—the patron saint of Italy (as well as of animals and ecology). He was born here into a wealthy family, but eschewed material goods, embraced poverty, and founded the order of Franciscan Monks. (I felt a bit guilty lusting in my heart for a night at that luxurious Relais & Spa.)
Construction on the vast Basilica began upon St. Francis’ death in 1228. It’s divided into an upper and a lower church (where St. Francis is buried) and graced with gorgeous frescoes by the famed Florence painter Giotto depicting the saint’s life—and spirit. Stunning.
One could easily spend a whole day in Assisi. There’s that much to see, including the Duomo di San Rufino, the pink and white Basilica of St. Clare honoring the founder of the Order of the Poor Clares, and the tiny church of San Damiano that sits in a field among olive trees.
TravelingMom Tip # 4: Hire a guide but build in some free time to wander and enjoy some primo people-watching. When to go? Avoid the summer months with its heat and teeming crowds of pilgrims. Spring and fall are lovely and Christmas here, with its Nativity scenes and markets, would make for a special family vacation.
On the Road Again – to Perugia
The handsome and historic city of Perugia is the capital of the Umbria Italy region and home to the prestigious Perugia University. Its international student body generates a lot of youthful energy and provides a fascinating contrast to all the remnants of the Etruscan and Roman civilizations and the wealth of medieval art and architecture. For us, it was love at first sight.
Perugia is the ideal base to explore Umbria.
TravelingMom Tip # 5: Stay in the “Old Town” in, or near the historic center. A broad pedestrian-only main street called the Corso Vannucci begins with a little park and ends at the landmark Piazza IV Novembre with its Instagram-worthy Fountain Maggiore. Locals have gathered here for centuries. The boulevard is lined with restaurants, sidewalk cafes and trendy shops. Street musicians provide a soundtrack. Arched stairways beckon and lead to narrow cobbled streets that beg to be explored. Perugia is synonymous with chocolate and each October it celebrates its signature candy with a major festival called Eurochocolate. In July, the town hosts a 10-day international jazz festival that attracts music lovers from all over the world. On the 4th Sunday of every month, there’s a terrific flea market.
The Sina Brufani Hotel
We loved our stay at Perugia’s old-world elegant Sina Brufani Hotel. It sits at the head of the Corso Vannucci and wows its guests with a panoramic view of the verdant Umbrian valley. Green Heart indeed. The Brufani’s décor—a la brocade and tassels—pays homage to the days when its guests included the likes of the Queen Mother and Charlie Chaplin. The rooms are oversized, and everyone loves the subterranean swimming pool as. Its glass bottom reveals an unearthed Etruscan wall.
Head to the Hills
Umbria boasts a coronet of hill towns to visit, each with its own personality. If you choose not to drive, many are accessible by bus or train from Perugia and private individual excursions can be easily arranged.
TravelingMom Tip #6: Expat and Umbrian tour guide extraordinaire Anne Robichaud is inspiringly passionate about the region. Her friends include those who have farmed the land for generations and the highlight of many of her tours include authentic farm-to-table meals – among the best we’ve ever experienced. If you’re traveling with kids, they’ll love the farms and seeing the animals.
Deruta—Famed for its ceramics, particularly the brightly colored maiolica. Watch artisans create these beautiful pieces using methods established in the 14th century. And shop!
Spello—Arguably Umbria’s prettiest hill town. In summer, honey-colored houses are bedecked with hanging baskets and pots of flowers. Lunch alfresco at Enoteca Properzio and Roberto Angelini
Orvieto—Home to one of the most architecturally important cathedrals in Europe and celebrated for its white wines (DOC) Orvieto and Orvieto Classico. Vineyards and olive groves galore.
Norcia —This lovely town is a gastronomic “go-to.” Come for the food and stay for the hiking.
But wait, there’s more! Bevagna, Gubbio, Spoleto, Todi. Narni, Marmore
About the Kids
Touring Umbria Italy is not a toddler-friendly vacation, but there is much that tweens and teens would love. Roman ruins, fortresses, and underground cities like Perugia’s Rocca Paolinait’s provide a pain-free history lesson. A chocolate factory tour at Fabbrica di Perugina (Baci Perugina) is sure to be a hit. Hiking and, if visiting in season, truffle hunting would be a kid-pleaser. If your gang needs to go “jump in a lake,” there’s Lake Trasimeno, rimmed with olive groves and fields of sunflowers. Consider a few days in the village of Castiglione del Lago.
Perugia is about equal distance from Rome and Florence’s airports – and about a 2 ½ drive. It is easily accessible by train.
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