Amid poplar trees, wide lawns, forests, myths, legends, one glance at the key things to do in Umbria reveals the truth: it's all about the food, the flavours, the character of the place. Make way Tuscany. Umbria's time is here.
The Best Things to do in Umbria
What a difference a C makes...Cumbria is a wild, wet and wellie-wearing region in the north of England, whose damp hedgerows and fields of daffodils fired the literary imagination of Wordsworth several times over.
Umbria, on the other hand, is a fragrant, olive-soaked region in central Italy, whose soft pink stone apparently fired the literary imagination of C.S.Lewis and introduced the rest of the world to Narnia (via the real world town of Narni.)
As a Brit, I knew Cumbria far better than Umbria (in my mind a smaller, wetter, wellier version of the Cumbria with perhaps a slightly different ratio of poets to daffodils.)
How wrong I was.
Let me clear up any misunderstandings here and now by introducing you to the region of Umbria, Tuscany’s neighbour and overshadowed little sister. Umbria is the Mary to Anne Boleyn, the Dannii to Kylie Minogue, the Robert F. to JFK. Whatever you may believe about those names, Umbria certainly doesn’t deserve its place in the shadows.
Here, you'll find the best of the best when it comes to looking for things to do in Umbria, Italy.
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Things to do in Umbria: Umbria Highlights
SOAK IN SAINTLY CULTURE IN ASSISI
Yes, it's that Assisi. Home to Saint Francis and the animals (or San Francesco, if you prefer.)
Assisi is a popular destination for pilgrims in Italy, making it one of the most visited cities in Umbria.
But Francis isn't the only patron saint in town. Assisi also calls Santa Chiara (Saint Clare) her own.
Traditional highlights include Saint Clare's Church, St. Francis' Basilica and the Palace "Capitano del Popolo."
But as beautiful as the religious grandeur is, for me the highlight involved escaping to nearby Mount Subiaso and learning all about Italy's Slow Food Movement.
- Top Umbria Attraction: don't miss the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli.
Recommended reading: How to Spend 10 Days in Italy and Other Handcrafted Itineraries
EMBRACE NATURE AT LAKE TRASIMENO
Lake Trasimeno, Italy's fourth largest lake, snuggles right in to the green hills of Umbria.
Its banks sprout picturesque villages, from Castel Rigone to Tuoro sul Trasimeno, San Feliciano to Passignano sul Trasimeno and even Castiglione del Lago.
Cultural sites you can visit in this region include the ruins of the Tower of the Roman era and Guglielmi Castle.
If you love seafood, you need to try out the carpa in porchetta, a delicious meal consisting of bacon, fennel and carp baked in aromatic spices. Otherwise, near Trasimeno, seek out roasted goose and fried perch fillets.
PERUGIA: FEEL CULTURED ABOUT CHOCOLATE
Perugia swims with artistic and historical treasures on steep stony steps, spilling its secrets slowly.
Yet for all the pretty postcard streets, this is a town with a pulse and panache and that's largely thanks to its university.
Founded by Pope Clement V in 1308, today it is the biggest university for foreigners in the whole of Italy.
Key monuments include Corso Vannucci, the Oratory of San Bernardino, the Etruscan Well (Pozzo Etrusco), and the National Gallery.
And, well, the Perugina chocolate factory on the outskirts of town. You can even learn to make your own...
ORVIETO: SUBTERRANEAN ETRUSCAN CHARM ON A RUST RED ROCKY CLIFFTOP
Orvieto is one of the most ancient cities in Italy, with strong Etruscan roots, a sacking by Rome and a touch of renaissance following the Middle Ages.
Perched dramatically on a rust red volcanic clifftop, its Duomo di Orvieto isn't shy, with zebra-like columns and mosaics and frescoes aplenty. Other key landmarks include the Chiesa di Sant'Andrea, Museo Claudio Faina e Civico and Torre del Moro.
It's also a good spot for wine and a stroll around the medieval town centre.
NARNI: THE HAMLET THAT INSPIRED NARNIA
The lovely hamlet of Narni oozes with cobbled stone mystique. Located in the province of Terni, its subterranean world includes a 13th century Benedictine church, Roman aqueduct, the Holy Inquisition and a prison cell. Above land, check out the Duomo of San Giovenale and Ponte Cardona.
Once in the city, make sure you try the local pasta manfrigoli served with guanciale, fava beans and pecorino cheese.
You'll find the footprints of the Romans fresh and fearsome in Spoleto as well. Important churches, a cathedral, an imposing fortress and a roman theatre add to the sense of importance and history.
When it comes to food, Spoleto's dishes bring meat and land products to the fore. Look for strozzapreti (umbricelli), Torta al testo, Palomba alla ghiotta and Castelluccio di Norcia lentil soup.
And, of course, olive oil.
The Marmore Waterfalls
The Marmore Waterfalls or Cascata delle Marmore splash down the rocks for 165 metres in a manmade cascade. What makes them even more remarkable is that it was the Romans who made them, rather than the high-tech tools of recent engineering.
It's a great place for a day out and one of the most intriguing things to do in Umbria, a really special attraction.
You can hike alongside the splashing water or get ready to get wet by joining in the water on a kayak or white water raft. Over to you...
Visit Mount Sibillini National Park
For more trekking and outdoor activities, drive to Monti Sibillini National Park and roam around the highest mountains in Umbria. Monte Vettore reaches 8132 feet above the sea, yet the area exudes a mellow atmosphere more suited to gently rolling hills.
Trekking, rock-climbing, canyoning and mount biking keep visitors busy, with marked paths and trails for different levels of fitness.
Take a Cooking Class
The hype is real: food in Italy is amazing! And it's even more incredible to learn how to make it yourself.
Taking a cooking class is one of the best things to do in Umbria because you get to meet local people, chat to other travellers and, of course, you end up with something tasty to eat.
I loved my cooking class in the foothills of Mount Subiaso, but you can find many different cooking classes here.
Travel Tips for Umbria
To make the most of the green heart of Italy and to explore these top Umbria attractions, you have two main options.
1) Stay in Perugia and join day trips and organised tours.
2) Stay in a villa and hire a car. This way, you can roam around the stunning Umbrian countryside at your own pace
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