While stranded in Houston during Hurricane Harvey, a friend and I had a lot of time to fantasize about all the things we would do when the floodwaters cleared. We dreamed about eating steak and pizza, going shopping, biking the bayou, but most importantly… of visiting Italy. After spending one week locked up in my apartment, nothing sounded better than spending a week in Italy!
I had been to Italy once before but my friend had never visited. She said it was one of her dream destinations, and I said she had to visit. As luck would have it, an unbeatable travel deal to the Umbria region popped up just a few weeks later.
It didn’t matter that we had never heard of Umbria before. Italy, for barely more than $1,000 per person – yes, please! We booked our trip on a whim over a glass of wine (and upgraded to the cute little Fiat 500 Cabrio convertible below) and started the countdown to our trip to Italy.
We visited Umbria with no real expectations or plans. Above all, we wanted to really experience the Italian way of life – la dolce vita – and chose to be spontaneous.
If you’re planning on spending a laid-back week in Umbria, look no further! This guide will help you in planning your trip and get you even more excited about your trip.
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Umbria, known as the Green Heart of Italy, is located just between Rome & Florence. It is the only Italian region with no coastline but it offers so much that you won’t be missing the beach. Comprised of rolling green hills, luscious valleys, historic hilltop towns, and golden plains, Umbria has everything you hope for in an Italian vacation.
Umbria is a region where you really need to rent a car. Public transportation is extremely limited compared to other regions in Italy and you may find yourself feeling trapped if you don’t have your own car. Don’t get overzealous and upgrade to a large vehicle, however: comprised of mostly hilltop towns, Umbria is one place where a Fiat may even feel too large. Don’t let your fear of driving in Italy discourage you from visiting Umbria. I promise, driving in Italy is not that bad.
With a large hill roughly through the middle of the region, you may find yourself spending more time on one side than the other. We ended up spending most of our time on the northern edge (between Todi & Assisi) but drove through the southern region and it was just as beautiful.
I think we were both expecting something like Under the Tuscan Sun, but less romanticized (Hollywood makes everything look better, after all). Let me tell you: Umbria is even more beautiful than the Italy pictured in that movie.
Despite being jet-lagged & exhausted, we marveled at the scenery & the experience. What could be more perfect than a 70-degree day with the top down on a Fiat 500, driving through the Italian countryside singing to Tom Petty?
Where to Stay
Abbazia dei Collemedio in Collepepe
Because we booked a vacation package, we didn’t have any say in the location or the lodging. The hotel included was the Abbazia dei Collemedio in Collepepe, located between Todi and Perugia close to Deruta. Abbazia dei Collemedio is a converted monastery overlooking the tiny town of Collepepe. Words cannot do this beautiful albergo justice:
From our room, we could open up the windows and listen to the breeze gently brush the trees or wake up to birds chirping in the distance. There was no traffic noise except that in the small parking lot, no noisy piazzas or hordes of tourists… it was perfect.
Our first day we just napped, read books in the sun, and drank wine with our decadent Italian dinner. It wasn’t quite warm enough to enjoy the pool, but the pool would be a glorious place to spend a warm day. It, too, overlooks the Umbrian countryside.
Abbazia dei Collemedio organized activities for those staying at the hotel, including a vineyard visit & wine tasting as well as a cooking class!
At the vineyard, we started off at the vines and learned about how the agricultural side of a vineyard. After spending time near the grapes, we went inside to sample the regional wines: Montefalco Rosso and Orvieto Bianco. I’ve never been someone who enjoys red wine, but Montefalco Rosso changed my mind. If you find yourself in the Umbrian region, promise to try Montefalco Rosso. I’m not a wine connoisseur, but for me, it’s smooth, slightly sweeter than most reds, with none of that “dry mouth” feeling I get after drinking other reds. Plus, with no sulfites, you won’t get as bad of a hangover!
The cooking class took place in the main dining area at the hotel, as well as in the kitchen. We prepared fresh pastas and various sauces and delicious tiramisu. We learned how to mix the flour and the eggs, roll the dough, and prepare it into the correct pasta shape. I’m not going to make homemade pasta at home, but learning how to cook with love and meeting other travelers made for a quintessential Italian morning filled with laughter and new friends. Enjoying wine with our newfound companions after the fact was a cherry on top.
To Stay in the City or Someplace Smaller?
Usually, I would advocate for staying close to the action. My advice is different, however, for Umbria.
You don’t visit Umbria to enjoy the city – you visit for the countryside. Each day we took a different day trip and enjoyed being able to drive through the countryside, explore a new city, and return to our cute, quiet hotel. It was so relaxing! Because the entire Umbrian region deserves to be explored, I would recommend you stay somewhere easily accessed and centrally located. Our hotel was perfect – a quick drive to anywhere in Umbria but without any crowds.
We spent our first full day in the hilltop town of Assisi. Despite driving one of the smallest cars I’ve ever been in, we were surprised at how small the roads are. Some roads felt like skinny single-lane roads, but they were, in fact, two-way streets! Luckily we never came head to head with another driver, but it did get a little nerve-wracking at times.
Eventually, we found parking without violating any ZTLs (limited traffic zones). If you ever drive in Italy, be mindful of these. Only permitted individuals can drive in ZTLs, and it’s usually restricted to residents or those staying in local hotels. Honestly, before you drive in Italy, I recommend you read these tips.
We meandered with no direction. I knew nothing of Assisi, nothing of the attractions, nothing of the “must see” sites – we just had a free afternoon to explore and see what we found.
I was immediately struck by how beautiful the town is. It was exactly what I imagined an Italian town would look like.
After wandering through some hills, we popped up by a beautiful church – the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. There appeared to be some sort of school tour, so we sat on a ledge and people watched. Eventually, we wandered down a side street lined with vendors. We walked up and down the street and met some walking travelers who were sharing a baguette and cheese overlooking the valley.
As the sun shone high in the sky, we realized we were hungry for lunch (or pranzo, as the Italians say). We wandered into a shop and asked if they spoke English. A perfect Italian grandmother came out, exuberantly speaking rapid Italian. She had stylish glasses, a smart sweater with slacks, and well-styled hair. Her exclamations were joined with large hand movements. She was exactly what I imagined a loud Italian grandmother would be like, and I loved it. She didn’t speak much English, but I managed to ask about pranzo and was able to hear sinistra and orologio. Coupled with her pointing, we figured a good lunch spot was to the left of the clock up the hill.
At the crest of the hill, we discovered the Piazza del Comune. A quaint but bustling square, the Piazza del Comune was lined with restaurants, shops, locals, and tourists. We meandered down a shadowy staircase to the left of the clock and found a crowded trattoria. Sitting amongst loud Italian conversations, we ordered a delicious lunch coupled with an entire bottle of wine and marveled at the Italian way of life. It was, presumably, a workday, but no one batted an eye at us indulging in a bottle of wine at lunch. Although we lingered over lunch, we were one of the quickest tables to clear out. This seemed to be the quintessential Italian way of life, and I found I was falling more and more in love with Umbria with each passing minute.
After lunch, we returned to the piazza and looked across the fountain to find a leather & ceramics store. Michelangelo is a family-owned shop and, if you’re lucky, you may walk in as they are crafting their wares. The owners were delightfully friendly and discussed their craft at length. When we left the store, each of us had purchased multiple beautifully crafted leather goods and handmade ceramics. We both loved this store (and Assisi) so much, in fact, that we returned another time during our trip to purchase more gifts for family.
Continuing down the hill across the piazza, we walked by more shops and some enticing gelaterias. We made one final stop at Assisi Jewels where I purchased a lovely pendant made to look like the Basilica we first saw. When I travel, I’m not interested in low-quality souvenirs. I wanted high-quality goods that I could have for years. This is why I chose to purchase leathers, ceramics, and a silver necklace. If you find yourself in Assisi, I would recommend the same.
We spent another day in Perugia, the capital of this province. After a splendidly relaxing day in Assisi, we didn’t know what to expect.
Nothing about Perugia (puh-roo-jia, in case you were mentally pronouncing it “puh-roo-gee-uh” as I shamefully did in a cafe) was researched before we got there. We found a parking lot and walked in the direction of noise and activity. I’m fairly confident we did not pick the most optimized parking spot because the walk was TOUGH. It felt like at least a mile across steep, cobblestone pathways. This was our first reminder that this is a region of hilltop towns. Pack the right shoes and, if you’re driving, be mindful of where you’re parking, especially if you have limited mobility.
We came up a hill upon the Piazza de Noviembre. This seemed to be the hub of Perugia so we decided to explore the square a little more. We came upon a cafe and, being hot from our jaunt up the giant hill of Perugia, I ordered an iced coffee. Something was clearly lost in translation because I actually received a Bailey’s coffee martini.
Don’t mind if I do.
Our bistro table was immediately adjacent to the main roadway. We cheerfully sipped and watched as nuns, angry cab drivers, and foreign exchange students made their way around us. We watched as agile motorcyclists and new-to-us tiny Euro cars drove by through the otherwise apathetic crowd.
After finishing our drinks, we wandered around what seemed to be the main drag. Piazza de Noviembre was beautiful and the panorama at the end of the pedestrian zone was wonderfully Italian.
In the Piazza, you can see the San Lorenzo Church & the Fontana Maggiore. This is clearly the main gathering space in Perugia, so lingering and watching the hustle & bustle is a must-do. I recommend you sit on the steps, just as the locals do!
Continue south through the main walkway, the Corso Vannucci. You’ll see restaurants & shops on your way to the Giardini Carducci. When you make it to this park, you’ll be treated to wonderful views of Umbria and, of course, the Basilica di San Domenico!
After enjoying a delicious lunch, we meandered back towards the car and enjoyed some pizza on the way. Perugia wasn’t quite as magical as Assisi, but we didn’t want to miss the Umbrian capital.
Cortona – of Under the Tuscan Sun!
On a whim, we headed away from Collepepe in search of the villa in Under the Tuscan Sun. A quick google search indicated that Bramasole in Cortona was our destination. Top down, Tom Petty playing, we decided to venture that way.
We drove around Lago Trasimeno and turned north towards Cortona. Although Cortona is technically in Tuscany, it’s right on the Tuscan/Umbrian border. We followed my European GPS app somewhat blindly and stumbled upon Bramasole.
It looked nothing like the movie and was honestly somewhat disappointing. The drive home, however, was an adventure.
We ended up going down streets so narrow that we wondered if they were secretly bike paths. We hoped we were at least going in the right direction in what clearly had to be a one way, only to see someone drive by in the opposite direction indicating it’s a two-way street. I had to get out of our little Fiat to make sure we could squeeze through one tight passageway.
And, at one point, we had to do a four point turn (in front of some judgmental looking diners!) to round a severely tight hairpin turn. It was one of those travel experiences that felt terrible in the moment but ended up being a fantastic story after the fact.
Luckily I wasn’t driving, so I promised my friend she could drink a bottle of wine at dinner and I would drive us back to the hotel … once we made it out of this hilltop town.
The moral of the story: you want a small car when visiting Umbria!
Magione & Lago Trasimeno
I had read that there was a wonderful restaurant just off the lake that, if timed correctly, was the perfect spot to watch the sunset. We set our GPS to the Osteria Rosso di Sera in Magione and headed back towards Umbria.
We parked just as the sun kissed the lakeview edge. The internet was right: this was the perfect spot to watch the sunset.
Despite Magione being a small, sleepy town, we discovered we were lucky to be sat without a reservation. A crowd very quickly filled up around us. A friendly waiter came over and spoke to us in good but broken English with his recommendations. I remember the entrees were delicious, but the appetizer was what stole the show. We ordered a black truffle poached egg over some sort of crispy bread. I regrettably didn’t snag a picture (it was too delicious to pause for!) but I still dream about this appetizer.
This wasn’t a touristy dinner. There was no menu in English, no tourists snagging locals. Dining where the locals eat is the right way to enjoy Italy!
Other Places to Visit in Umbria
I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t fully explored Umbria. If you’re looking to go beyond what I’ve recommended, these may be great options!
Todi is near Perugia and the hotel we stayed at in Collepepe. I only visited for dinner but the dinner was absolutely wonderful. I recommend you visit Todi & Orvieto for a day trip – they’re very close to each other so it would make for an easy day! While you’re there, try Orvieto Bianco wine. Delish!
The restaurant we visited was Ristorante Umbria. Although the food was delicious, the views were even better.
Deruta is another small town worth a visit. Deruta is famous for their hand-crafted ceramics so it makes for a great, less touristy stop for shopping!
Gubbio is another excellent option for a day trip. There’s even a fountain where you can be licensed as a madman of Gubbio if you run around it three times!
And, although not a comprehensive list by any means, you can always take one (or many!) wine tours. Montefalco Rosso is one of my favorite reds ever, so there’s no shame in indulging again… and again… and again. 🙂
Another thing I wanted to try in Umbria was a truffle hunt. After truffle hunting (with adorable truffle dogs!), you’ll return and enjoy a meal cooked with the very truffles you just gathered.
There are a lot of options in Umbria. When I visited, we intentionally took it easy. We wanted to sit and savor, not rush and check off some arbitrary list of attractions. If you’re looking for more ways to fill a week in Umbria, check out Katy in Umbria‘s blog!
What to Eat & Buy in Umbria
If you’re anything like me, you want to savor the local flavors and bring home souvenirs & gifts unique to a region.
Umbria is famous for black truffles so you’ll be able to find the most deliciously decadent black truffle dishes in the region. I had black truffle pasta almost every day. Many shops in the region will sell truffle sauces, oils, salts, and preserves, so stock up!
Of course, you can also purchase Montefalco Rosso or Orvieto Bianco wine to bring home (or, if purchasing enough bottles, get it shipped). If you’re planning on packing it home in your suitcase, be sure to allow both enough space and enough weight allowance to fit a few bottles! I recommend you transport your wine in a carrier like this – it’ll help ensure it has a safe journey home.
I also recommend you purchase some high-quality leather goods and some world-famous Deruta ceramics. Michelangelo, mention in the Assisi section, is a great stop for both items. Both high-quality and reasonably priced, you’ll walk away feeling great about your purchase.
Of course, Perugia is famous for chocolate! Baci Perugina chocolate makes for a great treat OR a great gift!
Leaving la dolce vita
The final day we adventured back to Rome. Our little Fiat 500 was stuffed to the gills. As we loaded it up, I felt emotional, which completely took me by surprise. I’ve never been truly sad to leave a destination. If I felt sad, it was because I didn’t want my time off of work to end yet. Umbria, however, changed that. It sounds cheesy, but this region touched my soul. I loved the food, the people, the pace of life, and the views. If given the opportunity I would absolutely live here.
My week in Umbria was life-changing. If you visit, I recommend you slow down, focus on food, friends, and family, and enjoy the Italian way of life. A cute little convertible and Tom Petty helps, too. 🙂