Do as I Say, not as I Do: Visit Umbria now

Castelluccio di Norcia || creative commons photo by Eric Huybrechts

Even when it comes down to Italy, I don’t like to be the type of person who orders others around. I prefer to give people the option and let them decide. This may be due to my childhood love for Choose Your Own Adventure books. But I digress.) However, I will be more assertive than usual on the subject of this article to try and prevent you from making the same mistakes I did.

(Go to Umbria. Don’t delay.)

It is a goal of mine to visit at most one new place every time I travel to Italy. Although there are many more, I’m disappointed to report that Umbria was not available until my March 2016 trip. It took me 15 years to see Italy’s green heart. Now that I have seen a small portion, I am even more ashamed.

(I’m serious. Book your Umbria vacation ASAP.

There will be a lot of online chatter about the “Tuscany Vs. Umbria” question. This is not intended to be like that. I’m not someone who gives orders. (Plus, I won’t tell anyone not to go to Tuscany. This would be absurd. While there are some similarities between them, it is only natural that they are so close. But they are not identical. While some of the differences between Umbria and other Italian regions will appeal to you, others might make it difficult for you to visit Umbria.

This is not a love letter from a late bloomer to Italy. It’s more of a tribute to a place I felt at home the moment I got off the train. This is my 15-year-old self. She was embarking on her first trip in Italy and I am urging her to change her itinerary. This is Umbria and it’s all about me.

Let’s get back to my premise. While I won’t force you to do something, I will tell your that…

Yes, Umbria is a must-see. Here’s why.

Umbria is a sort of Tuscany, but it’s not quite.

This isn’t a Tuscany shaming. You will feel as if you stepped into a book written by Frances Mayes or E.M. Forster, even though they aren’t over-crowded with tourists, there are still many under-appreciated parts of Tuscany. Because of this popularization of Tuscany (not to mention the seven UNESCO-listed artifacts and world-famous art), there are fewer of these corners in Tuscany today than ever before.

Umbria receives only a fraction of the tourist flow that Tuscany does. Both regions have many similarities, including how the hill towns and landscape look. It doesn’t matter if you don’t recognize the names on the Umbria maps of hill towns. You can pick one and walk along the cobblestone streets, feeling smug as if you have just discovered it. You’ll feel that way because there are no tour buses or flag-wielding guide.

Spello will not be yours, but it will be much more crowded than Siena.

I have read that Umbria was 20 years ago like Tuscany. I don’t know if that is true, but I do take that statement with a grain. It is true that Umbria feels very much like Tuscany. But Tuscany is just too… Busy and crowded, polished, you name it. Although Umbria is not the same as Tuscany in decades past, it can give visitors a sense of nostalgia for an era when they travel to Italy. That alone makes Umbria unique.

Umbria offers an Elbow Room

(This is a sort of extension of the previous point, but it deserves its own section.

For many reasons, Tuscany is a popular tourist destination. is the only place in which you can see Michelangelo’s “David”,. Tuscany can sometimes feel overwhelming due to its popularity. It is important to have some breathing space, and that is why you will cross into Umbria.

Umbria is home to the sixth-lowest number of inhabitants in Italy. This is a remarkable feat for a region located in the middle of Italy, just next to one its most popular regions and not very big. Umbria has many population centers with lots of people, shops and tourist attractions. But between them there are vast, unbroken stretches of hills and fields and forests. The “Green Heart of Italy”, also known as Umbria, is a paradise for nature lovers. There are many opportunities to swim, hike, ride horses, and do a lot more. It is home to one the most recognizable pilgrimage sites in Europe. This site is renowned for its spiritual and peaceful qualities.

It’s a place where you can exhale. Isn’t this what many people are seeking on vacation?

Umbria has a lower tourist number than Tuscany due to its difficulty in getting around. It is almost mandatory to have a car in order to travel outside of the main towns. This is not a mode of travel that everyone can use or is familiar with.

Don’t let fear of driving on Italy (or inability to drive), keep you away from Umbria. There are many places in Umbria that can be easily reached by train. Unfortunately, these places will be busier than those in the area that are more accessible (but still less crowded than Tuscany’s main cities).

You can also rent a vehicle for one day after you arrive if you feel the urge to explore those beautiful scenic routes. You just need to get there.

There are many things to do and see in Umbria

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of a town. Every town will have at least one church worth visiting. Many of these churches contain high-quality artwork. There are cafes and shops that look like the classic definition of “charming”, world-class wines, as well as some Umbrian cuisines to enjoy.

This is before we get to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Assisii is a top attraction in the region. Even though it can get a bit crowded with pilgrims, it’s well worth your time. You can also enjoy the town both before and after the day-tripper invasion if you stay the night. You won’t find anywhere else in Italy where you can visit the hilltop monastery from which St. Francis saw the visions that led him to the foundations of a religious order or the basilica with its exquisitely-frescoed remains.

Orvieto boasts a stunning 13-century cathedral as well as an underground network of caverns that you can explore. Perugia is the regional capital. It hosts an annual chocolate festival which fills the city with people. Spello, Todi and Gubbio are not as well-known destinations as Pisa or Florence but they might be worth a look.

The pace of sightseeing in many towns of Umbria is similar to the pace of everyday life. It’s easy to spend your time slowly, wandering from one attraction to the next, and not have to list a few must-see sights. Umbria allows you to breathe while you’re sightseeing. In fact, it practically demands it.

Shameless Friend Promotion

Unabashedly biased, I believe you should stay at one of Rebecca’s apartments located in Assisi if you visit Umbria. They are beautiful and have a great location overlooking the main square. It couldn’t be more central. You can walk to the entire town from the front door. Rebecca is the best Umbria travel advisor anyone could wish for. If you’re looking for a more rural escape, she has a few apartments available in the countryside. Rebecca was kind enough to let me stay in her apartment while I was on my trip. However, I would have said the exact same thing if it had been for a fee. It is a wonderful home base in Umbria.

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