I am not the sort of person who generally orders people around, even when it comes to Italy. I prefer to lay out the options and let people decide for themselves. (Perhaps this comes from my childhood affection for Choose Your Own Adventure books. But I digress.) On the topic of this article, however, I may be a bit more forceful than normal, mainly to prevent you from making the same mistake I made.
(Go to Umbria. Don’t delay.)
Whenever I travel in Italy, I like to visit at least one new-to-me spot. There are still an uncountable number of those, but I am chagrined to say that it wasn’t until my most recent trip in March of 2016 that I finally visited Umbria. It took me 15 years of visits to Italy to get into its green heart, and now that I’ve seen an admittedly tiny portion of it I’m even more embarrassed it took me so long.
(I’m serious. Book your Umbria trip ASAP.)
You’ll see a lot of hubbub made online around the “Tuscany vs. Umbria” question. This is not supposed to be that. Along with not being someone who dictates orders, I am also not an “us vs. them” person. (Plus, I’m not going to tell people not to go to Tuscany. That would be silly.) There are similarities between the two regions, to be sure – it’s only sensible, given that they are right next to each other – but they’re not carbon copies. Some of the things that differentiate Umbria from any other Italian region will be appealing to you, while others may make visiting Umbria a challenge.
No, this is more of a late-bloomer’s love letter to a place that felt wonderfully, utterly home-like the second I got off the train. This is a missive to my 15-years-ago self, embarking on her first trip to Italy, urging her to adjust her itinerary. This is about Umbria, and it’s about me.
So, back to my premise: While I won’t order you around, I will tell you that…
Yeah, you should really just go to Umbria as soon as you can. Here’s why.
That is not a Tuscany put-down at all. There are still under-appreciated corners of Tuscany (AKA not completely overrun with travelers) that will make you feel like you’ve walked into a book by E.M. Forster or Frances Mayes. And, partly because of such popularizing of the region (not to mention some world-famous art and seven UNESCO sites), there are far fewer of those corners left in Tuscany these days than there once were.
Umbria, by contrast, receives a fraction of the tourist influx that Tuscany sees. The two regions share many characteristics, including the way the landscape and hill towns look. So nevermind that you don’t always recognize the names of the hill towns on an Umbria map. Pick one, go there, and then walk around the charming cobblestone streets sighing smugly like you just discovered the place. It’ll feel like that, thanks to its noteworthy lack of tour buses and flag-wielding guides.
In other words, you won’t have Spello all to yourself, but it’ll be far less crowded than Siena.
I’ve read that Umbria is what Tuscany was like 20 years ago for, oh, probably 15 years, so I take that declaration with a grain of salt. The fact remains, however, that the region feels remarkably like what you probably wanted Tuscany to feel like, only Tuscany was just too… Busy, crowded, polished – you name it. Even if Umbria is completely unique and in no way resembles the Tuscany of decades past, it can make short-term visitors feel – just for a moment – like they got to go back in time to a bygone era of Italian travel. And that alone is special.
(This is sort of an extension of the point above, but it deserves its own section.)
Tuscany is a major tourism draw, for some very valid reasons. There is only one place where you can see Michelangelo’s “David,” for instance. Because of its popularity, Tuscany can feel more than a little overwhelming at times. You need breathing room, which is when you cross the border into Umbria.
Umbria has the sixth-lowest population density in all of Italy, which is saying something for a region that’s smack in the middle of the country, right next to one of its most popular regions, and not very large. There are population centers in Umbria with plenty of people, shops, and tourist attractions, of course – and in between those there are large, barely-interrupted stretches of hills, fields, forests, and not a whole lot of people. The region nicknamed “The Green Heart of Italy” is ideal for nature lovers, with many opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, swimming, and more. It’s home to one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in Europe, renowned for its peaceful and spiritual qualities.
It is, in a way, a place to exhale. And isn’t that what so many of us are looking for on vacation?
Now, one of the reasons that Umbria sees smaller tourist numbers is the relative difficulty of getting around as compared to a region like Tuscany. In order to get out of the main towns, it’s almost imperative to have a car – and that is not a method of travel with which everyone is comfortable (or to which everyone has access).
But don’t let a fear of driving in Italy (or an inability to drive) keep you from Umbria. The good news is that there are a number of places in Umbria which can be reached easily by train. The bad news is that those will be more crowded than the less-reachable towns in the region (though still less busy than Tuscany’s main towns).
Remember, too, that you can decide to rent a car for a day once you get there, should you find you’re itching to explore those tempting scenic routes. Just, y’know, get there, okay?
Just because you haven’t heard of a particular town doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring. You can expect every town to have a church (or two, or seven) worth visiting, many of which contain museum-quality artwork. There are shops and cafes that seem like the textbook definition of “charming,” world-class wines, and some uniquely Umbrian dishes to try.
And that’s before we even get to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Assisi is one of the region’s top draws, and even if it’s sometimes a little crowded with pilgrims it’s absolutely worth your time. (Not only that, if you spend the night, you can enjoy the town before and after the day-tripper invasion.) Nowhere else in Italy can you explore the hilltop hermitage where St. Francis first saw the visions that led to the foundation of a religious order, or visit the exquisitely-frescoed basilica in which the saint’s remains lie.
Orvieto has a spectacular 13th-century cathedral and a network of ancient underground caverns you can visit. Perugia, the regional capital, has an annual chocolate festival that makes the city overflow with people (but also makes it smell like chocolate, which is delightful) and it’s where the popular chocolatier Perugina is based. Spello, Todi, Gubbio, Montefalco – these may not be famous destinations like Florence or Pisa, but that’s precisely why you might like them.
In many of Umbria’s towns, the pace of sightseeing matches the pace of life – easy. Without a laundry list of must-see attractions, it’s a delight to take your days slowly, genuinely meandering from one place of interest to the next. Umbria not only gives you permission to exhale while you’re sightseeing, the region practically requires it.
I am unabashedly biased when I say that you should stay in one of my friend Rebecca’s apartments in Assisi when you go to Umbria. The apartments are darling and the location (overlooking the main square!) could not be more central. The entire town can be visited on foot from the building’s front door, and Rebecca is the best person any traveler could hope to have on hand for Umbria travel advice. She’s got a few apartments in the countryside outside the city, too, if you really want to get away. Rebecca graciously put me up in one of her city apartments during my trip, but I’d be saying the exact same thing if I had paid for the pleasure of staying there. It’s a perfect Umbria home base.