Tuscany, with its rolling hills, Chianti vineyards, amazing views, and cameos in many Italian films, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. It deserves that place on your itineraries and more, but I'm offering an alternative to this famous region, in the form of Umbria.
Three words that describe this incredible area of Italy are natural, authentic, and traditional. Located between Tuscany and Lazio (Rome's region), it gives the best of both worlds. You can find incredible mountainside towns, working farm-to-table restaurants, the freshest produce, wine and olive oil, and some really great people to boot.
If you're someone who enjoys traditional Italian food, the outdoors, wine-making, or side-street wandering, keep reading for a quick weekend guide to visiting Umbria.
Orvieto is a gorgeous city with lots of history and natural scenery to enjoy. Its location in south of Umbria gives it a lot of importance in terms of its wine cultivation, and its slow food culture. There are many restaurants and shops to enjoy throughout the city, as well as a multitude of churches.
Perugia is the regional capital of Umbria and is a breathtaking city high in the mountains of the Perugia region of Umbria. In Perugia there are many things to do and see, including a variety of museums, historical homes, and the annual Eurochocolate festival that’s going on right now, where you can try chocolate from all over Europe in all of its delicious forms.
Assisi is most famous as the home of St. Francis of Assisi and his beautiful cathedral. There are two parts to the city, lower down includes the bulk of restaurants, shops, and the large basilica, and if you climb up the mountain (by foot or car) it takes you to La Rocca, a fortress with stunning views of the countryside.
Spello is frequently named one of the most photogenic towns in Umbria because of its cute streets, uniform cottage-like buildings, and mountaintop views. While it is smaller than the other three cities mentioned, this is a great stop for lunch, dinner, wine tasting, or to pick up some Umbrian meats.
Wander through tiny towns: There are so many gorgeous and hidden gems of towns in the Umbria region. While the ones I’ve mentioned are certainly worth a visit, if you have time and a car, I recommend driving around the region and stopping when you see a town that looks promising, or a great agriturismo.
Wine tasting at family-run vineyards: Vineyards and agriturismi are very popular in this wine-producing region and visiting them is a great way to see a behind-the-scenes look at Italian food production and to interact with locals.
Truffle hunting: Through these family-run operations, you have the option to take cooking classes, help in the winemaking process, and even hunt for Umbria's famous truffles in the woods. Experiencing these activities first hand is a fabulous way to really interact with the region and get a better sense for what Italy is.
Hike up mountain paths: There are so many opportunities to engage in outdoor activities and sports. Walking, hiking, and water sports on one of the regions’s two large lakes are fun activities when visiting Umbria.
Pasta con porcini: Pasta with mushrooms, specifically porcini, is very popular in the region. Try it with a white sauce, gently sautéed mushrooms and fresh pasta.
Ragu al cinghiale: Ragu is by far my pasta of choice while in Umbria and when made with local chingiale (wild boar) it just can’t get any better. Try it, fall in love, and die a little inside when you realize wild boar isn't readily accessible in North America.
Bruschetta di tartufo: Truffle with everything is the name of the game in this region. Oil, butter, lard, pasta, cheese, meats, and bruschetta all get infinitely more delicious when they include black truffle from Umbria.
Specifically when visiting such a rural and outdoorsy region in Italy, I recommend staying in bed and breakfasts or an agriturismo. They provide you with a good look at what life for the locals is like, for a lower cost than many hotels. At an agriturismo, you can choose to have all of your meals included with the price (amazing homecooked food from a farm is always a win), explore the premises which usually include a farm or vineyard, and volunteer to help out around the place. The owners are also very helpful when you’re looking for the perfect place to eat, shop or visit and can’t find anything online (a true danger because the travel/tourism industry here isn’t well developed).
Wine: Orvieto and sagranino are some local specialties, but all the wines from this region are fantastic
Oil: freshly pressed from a farm
Truffles: either self-collected or picked up from food markets
Have you heard about Umbria or visited yet? This place is just magical for me, especially in the fall, and I can't wait to explore Umbria and Tuscany more.