I discovered Umbria quite by accident. Like many visitors, I spent years traveling between Florence and Rome, unaware that I was traversing Umbria each time. As far as I knew, Tuscany simply merged into Lazio. I didn’t set foot in Umbria until I was in my 30s, when I accepted an invitation to stay in a friend’s villa in the Umbrian countryside.
“Umbria?” I said. “Where’s that?”
“An hour or so north of Rome,” came the response. “Come visit, and bring friends!”
I brought my mother and quickly fell in love with the people and stunning scenery of central Italy. It was winter, so we spent afternoons by the fire, long meals at the dinner table and days soaking in the crisp air of the countryside. Like my family’s ancestral towns in Piemonte and Lazio, Umbria seemed to fulfill the mystical promise of the real, unspoiled Italy. My mother and I loved our stay so much, we ended up purchasing a house in Umbria. And now as I am about to marry into an ancient Umbrian family, my roots to this land are growing even deeper.
Umbria: The Green Heart of Italy
Rich in biodiversity, with excellent regional cuisine, beautiful walled cities and hilltop towns largely forgotten in time, there is plenty to see and do in Umbria. Umbria is known as the Green Heart of Italy due to its large expanses of forests and fields. It is the only region in Italy which touches neither the sea nor another country. Landlocked and protected on all sides by Tuscany, Lazio, and Le Marche, it was under the dominion of the Pope and his Papal States for centuries.
I may be biased, but Umbria is just as beautiful as Tuscany – in many ways it is an extension of the same terrain, the same land. But the Umbrians are not nearly as skilled in marketing as their business savvy cousins to the north, so the region is spared the heavy foot traffic of Tuscany and offers great value for sophisticated travelers who want to experience a more nuanced side of Italy.
Here are our favorite experiences in Etruscan Umbria, the western part of the region which includes the beautiful hilltop town of Orvieto, the last Etruscan city to succumb to Roman rule in the 3rd century BC.
Immerse yourself in a UNESCO Biosphere
The towns and environs of San Venanzo, Orvieto, Parrano and Ficulle make up the heart of the UNESCO-designated Biosphere of Monte Peglia. UNESCO Biospheres are awarded to zones rich in biodiversity and also sustainability. With its scenic roads, trails, fields and forests, western part of Umbria is perfect to explore on foot or on bike. You’ll also surely see wildlife of some kind, from deer and fox to wild boar and falcons. We have wolves, too – a sign of a very healthy environment – though you’re unlikely to see one and they are not a danger to humans.
Dine at Angelino e Peppa, a rustic restaurant set in the woodlands near San Venanzo, to sample some of Umbria’s hearty cuisine. You’ll find dishes like lasagna with four cheeses and tagliatelle in a white ragù, along with rabbit wrapped in roasted pork and beans served alongside traditional sausage.
See More: 36 Hours In Orvieto
Stay in the heart of a medieval walled town
When I launched my travel company Umbria Above, I knew I wanted to host my guests in a comfortable, beautiful home as well. So I opened the doors to our 3-bedroom luxury townhouse set in the historic center of Ficulle, a medieval fortress town about 30 minutes from Orvieto. With stunning views from every window and sumptuous decor, the townhouse is a comfortable base for exploring the region, and a dedicated office space, living rooms and kitchen make this a perfect place for a longer stay as well. As you watch the sun dip below the mountains from the rooftop, illuminating the scenery around you, you’ll feel as if you have pierced the secret heart of a village where life continues like it did centuries ago.
Ficulle once protected the “Via Cassia”, an important Roman road, and has a few highlights that are worth exploring. The “Rocca”, or castle tower, dates from the medieval period and is a fun climb to stunning 360 degree panoramic views around two separate valleys. The town is also well-known for its terracotta production, so stop by the shop of Fabio Fattorini to check out his shop of dishes, kitchenware, and ornaments. If you’re lucky, he might even give you a demonstration on his potter’s wheel.
Dine in a modern cafe with traditional cuisine
Seven Cafe, a wonderful bistro-cafe in Monteleone, is one of my go-to restaurants in the region for its divine lunches and dinners. Just under 20 minutes from Ficulle, it is worth a visit even if just for the lovely drive up to the walled town of Monteleone. As you curve through olive groves you’ll see the little town hanging above you. Seven Cafe’s menu features dishes with white truffle, carpaccio, an array of local pastas, and various types of tagliata or strip steak.
Another dining option just five minutes from the historic center Ficulle is Vitalonga, a winery restaurant that serves multi course lunches and dinners paired with their own wines. Boasting a specially cultivated rose wine, a chardonnay, and four bold reds, Vitalonga also excels in its traditional Umbrian plates of tagliatelle with white ragù and black truffle savory flan.
Retrace the Steps of Pilgrims to Rome
The Via Romea Germanica, which meanders from Germany down to Italy, is the road that Catholic pilgrims and emissaries of Germanic kings took to reach Rome in the 13th century. A piece of this historic trail passes between the Umbrian towns of Città della Pieve, Ficulle, and Orvieto, so why not take a stroll or hike along this historic path? If you start in Città della Pieve, you can visit the countless brick churches which house paintings by Renaissance artist Perugino, famous for his religious depictions including landscapes that surround you today.
When you return to your home in Ficulle, you can attempt to paint them yourself, guided by a professional artist on your terrace with a view – a delightful experience for adults and children alike. Before leaving Città della Pieva, stop at the upscale trattoria Bruno Coppetta for one of their divine pasta dishes like cacio e pepe.
Visit La Scarzuola where Saint Francis lived
Legend has it that Saint Francis planted rose and laurel bushes here in 1218 and a miraculous fountain sprang up. To commemorate this event, a monastery was built on the site. In 1956, a Milanese architect named Tomaso Buzzi purchased the monastery and created La Scarzuola, an architectural complex designed to be “the ideal city”.
Today you can visit the 13th century church, which holds the the only portrait of Saint Francis made during his lifetime, and tour the park. The large complex of buildings are spread across the property and laden with interpretations of the various aspects of human life. La Scarzuola is a fascinating place and Gucci even recently filmed a perfume campaign here!
Sample local wines in ancient sites
While Umbria may be best known for its hearty red Sagrantino di Montefalco wines, the western part of the region produces excellent whites, including the Orvieto DOC made with a blend of Grechetto and Trebbiano. Located just outside Orvieto, Cantine Neri is a family-owned winery set within a 12th century castle of the Knights Templar which produces some of the region’s best labels. Neri offers very nice tastings of red, white, and orange wines, paired with local specialties like smoked duck, cheeses, and prosciuttos. The views over the extensive hillside vineyards are impressive.
I also highly recommend a visit to the winery of Decugnano dei Barbi. Decugnano makes sparkling wine in the style of Dom Perignon in their thousand year old Etruscan caves. The tour of the caves alone is worth the visit, and I am also very fond of both their still and sparkling whites. The Metodo Classico (traditional method) and Dosaggio Zero (with no added sugar) are my favorite of their sparkling whites
Collect fossils from a million year old seabed
The western part of Umbria was once covered by the sea during the Pliocene era. This means that you can still find seashells that are millions of years old in the clay fields and ravines below the hilltop towns. In the museum of Allerona, you can even see the skeletons of three whales, a striking sight in landlocked Umbria.
The walled town of Allerona is one of the Borghi Più Belli d’Italia, one of the most beautiful small towns in Italy. Originally a medieval castle, this walled town has commanding views of the surrounding valleys and countryside. Enter through the main gate at La Porta del Sole and stroll the winding streets that are full of flowers in the summer. Have lunch on the terrace of Ristorante La Panatella where the skillful hands of Chef Margherita Cannas prepare delightful twists on the local specialties.
Go hunting for white truffles
Most people think of Alba in Piemonte when they think of white truffle, but when the Albans run out of their truffles, they come to us in Umbria! You’ll find truffles on menus across the region but there’s nothing like hunting for truffles yourself. At Umbria Above we have our own white truffle forest preserve where you can can join a professional truffle hunter and his expert dogs to look for this prized tuber. After the hunt, we’ll prepare your truffles tossed with fresh tagliatelle pasta. Buon appetito!