Since the 13th century, pilgrims have traveled to Assisi in Italy to honor St. Francis. But you don’t need to be religious to appreciate the postcard-perfect beauty of the town. Assisi, surrounded by the hills and forests of Monte Subasio and Umbria, is one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Italy.
Assisii is not only home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of its wealth of art and historic buildings like the Basilica di San Francesco, Assisii enjoys this highly coveted status, the entire town is awash in it. Particularly the basilica has a unique collection of frescoes, paintings, and other artifacts that rivals many museums. UN says that the town is of singular importance because of its contribution to the diffusion of Franciscan Order, and its “continuity as a city-sanctuary” since its Umbrian Roman origins until today.
You want to visit Assisi in Italy? This guide will help you learn everything about Assisi, Italy. It includes its religious history and must-see places.
Religion in Assisi
Assisi, the birthplace of one of Catholicism’s most revered saints (one the two patron saints in Italy), is a town that holds religion close to its heart. It shouldn’t surprise visitors to see monks dressed in long brown robes wandering through the streets and bands of pilgrims on the country roads around the town.
Its religious influence can be seen in the sister towns of Assisi: Assisii is twinned, for example, with Bethlehem or Santiago di Compostella. Assisii is a symbol of peace and harmony today. It hosted three meetings of major world religions. They were convened by Pope John Paul 2 in 2002 and 2003, and Pope Benedict XVI (2011). It was also home to St. Clare who was inspired by St. Francis to follow the path of God and created the Order of Poor Clares, which is still in existence today.
Assisii’s strong religious ties have influenced its art and history to the point that they are inextricably connected. The region’s best-known artistic works are kept in Assisi’s churches and Basilicas, where local artisans make religious figurines.
Where to Buy
Assisii, like most Italian cities, has a long tradition of local artisans. Many of these artisans are still in business today. There are many shops that sell local crafts like ceramics, medieval weapons and religious sculptures. You can find regional specialties at delicatessens like Umbrian-cured meats and dried pasta.
Chocolate and cured pork products are two of Umbria’s most prized regional delights. Assisi’s best chocolates are made at the Perugina chocolate factory, which is renowned throughout Italy. When buying cured meats, be sure to look for packages marked “Norcia”, which is a nearby town that is known as the birthplace of Italian pork curing. Particular favorites are coppa and guanciale from Norcia.
A Tau cross necklace in gold or silver Tau is a more wearable option for those looking for something that’s also a symbol of St. Francis. Clothes-wise, it’s all in the leather. Although Florence is the capital of Italkian leather, you can find similar quality handmade belts, shoes and jackets in Assisi (and all over Umbria) for lower prices.
We generally steer clear of kitschy gifts that revolve around pilgrimage themes, but this is the only place in the world you can purchase a St. Francis of Assisii bobblehead doll. I just wanted to mention.
What to see
At the top of Assisi, you will find the massive Rocca Maggiore. This 14th-century castle is the ideal starting point for sightseeing, as everything is downhill from it. The Rocca Maggiore offers a view of Perugia, Assisii to the North and the surrounding valleys beyond. It was built by Cardinal Albornoz to intimidate the townpeople. Over the years, it has been expanded, pillaged and rebuilt again and again. It is also believed that Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor and Barbarossa spent his childhood there.
Basilica of St. Francis
Basilica of St. Francis is Assisi’s most popular and most striking attraction. It is also the largest thing in the area, so you can see it from miles away. It would be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it is the jewel of Assisi’s crown.
The construction of the Basilica began immediately after St. Francis’s death in 1228. It was officially completed in 1253 after the addition to the upper church. You can see incredible frescoes in both the upper and lower churches.
The Basilica Superiore is the upper church and it has 28 frescoes from Giotto, who probably are the most important artistic stars of the church. Each fresco depicts a different scene in St. Francis’ life. The frescoes, though they were completed centuries ago are still stunningly vibrant.
Basilica Inferiore is the lower church. It houses frescoes of Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti. These artists were greatly influenced by Giotto’s work. The Cripta Di San Francesco, which is the massive tomb of St. Francis Of Assissiii, can also be found in the lower sanctuary. The upper church is a celebration in beauty and life. However, the lower church’s dark rooms are a reflection of the Franciscan spirit.
You’ll need plenty of time to see this amazing church.
Did You Know? St. Francis’ remains were kept secret immediately after his death to prevent them being taken by relic hunters. His final resting spot was unknown for 600+ years, until it was rediscovered in 1818. His remains are now a complete saint’s skeleton, which is not missing any parts because of grave robbing.
Duomo di San Rufino
Because of its connection to St. Francis, the San Rufino Cathedral (or simply Assisi Cathedral) is a popular spot for pilgrims. It boasts a stunning, Romanesque façade with three rose windows. The interior was remodeled in the 16th century and built on top of an old Roman cistern. This is where St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized. After converting Assisii to Christianity in AD 238, the Cathedral was named after San Rufino or St. Rufinus. He was later killed. His remains are believed to still be in the cathedral’s Roman sarcophagus.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
This church is not to be confused with the Rome church of the exact same name, but it was built within a 1st Century BC temple that was once dedicated to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Its towering corinthian columns stand out among all the Renaissance and medieval buildings. They are a reminder of the beauty and power of Roman imperial architecture. Early Christians gave the temple the name of the powerful Virgin Mary, a saint who could eliminate any pagan influence and power. This was Goethe’s first stop on his famous journey through Italy. It remained a favorite. Although the temple of Minerva looks Roman from the outside, the interior was entirely remodeled in 16th century. It is quite a contrast to the Cathedral’s old past.
Santa Maria degli Angeli
St. Mary of the Angels, a domed 16th-century church, is located 2.5 miles from Assisii station, close to the train station. This Basilica is known for its Porziuncola. It was a small stone structure that was believed to be the home of St. Francis. The Porziuncola, a small church located inside Santa Maria degli Angeli, is still in use today. This house is believed to be the place where St. Francis established the Franciscan order. It also happens to be the one he died in on or near October 3, 1226. This is a wonderful stop for pilgrims, and a must-see for anyone who is interested in the history or culture of the catholic church’s relics.
A fun fact is that the Porzuincola doesn’t reside in the only Catholic Church building. The Holy House of Loreto was a structure that was transported from Jerusalem to Italy to find its place as the home of the Virgin Mary. It’s an important pilgrimage site, just like the Porziuncola.
San Damiano Church
San Damiano, a small church outside the walls of Assisii, is located. Legend has it that St. Francis heard God’s voice telling him to rebuild the church. It is also where he wrote the Canticle of the Creatures. This song, originally written in Umbrian dialect, praises the earth as well as animals. It is located about one mile southwest of the city’s center. The church can be found among olive trees and fields. The church also offers beautiful views of the Valley of Spoleto.
Chiesa Nuova is said to be located near the Piazza del Comune. This central piazza houses Assisi’s central square. It is believed that it sits atop St. Francis’ childhood home. To honor the home, a bronze statue depicting St. Francis’ parents is located outside. It was built by King Philip III Spain in 1600.
Basilica di Santa Chiara
The Basilica of St. Clare is the final stop. St. Clare, one of the most prominent women in the history of the Catholic Church, was St. Francis’ contemporaneous and the founder of the Order of the Poor Clares. In the crypt of the 13th-century Church, she is buried. You can see the stunning pink-and-white facade and the Crucifix San Damiano. This is where St. Francis prayed when he received his religious awakening.
What Do You Need Before You Go
You can easily tour the city center within an afternoon. However, you should plan to stay at least an overnight so that you can truly enjoy the atmosphere. It is easy to navigate the historic center of Assisi in Italy by foot. Keep in mind, however, that you are in hilly Umbria at the foothills Monte Subasio. Take your walking shoes with you and walk slowly on cobblestone streets that can be steep.
The city is open all year, but it’s best to visit in the fall, winter and spring. It can be hot during summer, which can make it feel like an oven, and also when there are the highest pilgrimage numbers. Its central location in Italy means that Assisii’s “shoulder” seasons are warm and pleasant even in areas of Northern Italy.
Dress appropriately as Assisii’s many beautiful churches are a big part of your visit. Both men and women should wear shorts that cover their knees and shirts with shoulders that cover their shoulders.
When to go
You can expect a large crowd on religious holidays like Easter’s Holy Week or feast days. This means that you need to book Assisi hotels well in advance. It can still be a wonderful time to take in the natural religious atmosphere of Assisi. Every year, the feast day for St. Francis is celebrated in Assisii on October 3-4. There are many events and small festivals that take place, as well as pilgrims. The Perugia-Assisii annual March for Peace is a great example of Catholic activism. It runs at the beginning of October, depending on the year.
Calendimaggio is another popular event. This medieval festival celebrates spring’s return and recreates the historic duel that took place between the lower and upper parts of the city. The festivities include costumed parades and concerts that last three days, from Thursday through Saturday in the first week of may.
Christmas is our favorite time to visit Assisi. Francis is often credited as being the first to set up a live Nativity scene. This tradition continues today. Every year, you will see nativity scenes in every corner of the town. Santa Maria degli Angeli is home to the Nativity Scenes of the World annual exhibit. This showcase allows people from all around the globe to donate their nativity scenes to the Assisi monks and the best are displayed. You should also be on the lookout for the massive nativity scene that is located in front of the Basilica of St. Francis. The scene features human-sized figures and a huge Christmas tree, as well as various stands and art works. TheChristmas Markets are a great place to shop for Christmas gifts. They have artisanal crafts and tasty market food. The markets are held in Assisi from December 4-8 at the main square and Piazza Santa Chiara.
If you liked our Assisii Insiders Guide helpful, we recommend you check out our other guides: The Amalfi Coast Guide and the Tuscany Archipelago Guide. Also, be sure to check out the Vatican City Guide and the Trieste City Guide.