Perugia: a Hidden Gem in Umbria
If you want to visit an Italian town that has a good mix of a vibrant city and small village feel all rolled into one, head to Perugia. Perugia is a hidden gem in the heart of the Italian region of Umbria. Many travelers miss Umbria and head for Tuscany in search of idyllic images of rolling hills with Italian cedar trees lining the horizon, quaint towns with charming trattorias, and vineyards that produce some of the best wines in the world. I just described Umbria to you! If you want a Tuscan feel without the crowds, head to Umbria. Perugia is the capital of the region and the perfect base for exploring the area.
To learn more about combining an “off-the-beaten-path” experience with a trip to the major cities of Rome/Florence/Venice, click to read my article on “Finding the Heart of Italy“
Getting to Know Perugia
Perugia has a real “locals” feel to it. While there are tourists, this is very much an Italian town where people live, work and play, right in the center of town. While you are snapping photos and buying postcards, the locals are passing by you going to work, taking a lunch break, or running errands. It’s a great mix of both, leaving you with the feeling you’ve seen some great sights but weren’t in the middle of some “Italian Disneyworld” experience.
There are so many reasons to visit Perugia! The University of Perugia is located in the center of the city and is one of the oldest in Italy. Being a college town, Perugia offers a variety of accommodations, including hotels and apartments. Dining options run the range from inexpensive cafes to higher-end restaurants. As the capital of Umbria, it is centrally located allowing for easy exploration of the region. The towns of Assisi, Gubbio, and Orvieto, among others, are all within reach and worth a visit. If you prefer staying in one location, Perugia is a great place to base yourself and take day trips.
Seeing the Unique Side of Perugia
Like many Italian towns, Perugia has beautiful churches and ornate city buildings. You should definitely visit them. However, don’t miss Perugia’s most unique experiences...
People Watching and the Virgin’s Ring
One of my favorite things to do in Perugia is to do a little people watching from the steps of the cathedral. The cathedral is located on Piazza IV Novembre, considered one of the most beautiful in all of Italy. It is easy to see why. Centered around lovely Fontana Maggiore, the piazza is a great place to soak up the sun and watch the world go by. When you visit the cathedral, see if you can spot a wedding ring, rumored to be that of the Virgin Mary.
After some people watching, head down the street for the underground fortress of Rocca Paolina. This 16th-century fortress was built to defend the city during Papal rule. The citizens saw it more as a symbol of Papal Domination and always hated it. Therefore, most of it was torn down in the 1800s, but large parts remain.
If you are exploring the center of the city, head down the escalators at Piazza Italia, to explore some well-preserved parts of the fortress. Today, Rocca Paolina is the home of a video introduction to Perugia and vendors selling souvenirs and other items. The fun part of Rocca Paolina is exploring the fortress in the evening when the vendors start to head home, the tourists head to find dinner and it gets quieter. It is open until 1:45am and can be creepy fun to wander around. Just how brave are you?
Yes, you read that right. There is a EuroChocolate Festival and Perugia hosts it every year. If you are planning to visit, why not come when you can watch artists sculpt creations out of blocks of chocolate? Perugia is well-equipped to host a chocolate festival as it is the home of the Perugina chocolate factory. The factory has been making delicious chocolate treats for over a hundred years. They are most famous for their original “Bacio” or kiss, which is a dark chocolate shell filled with a creamy hazelnut center. To make that even better they include a love note in each chocolate. While you can find them all over the world, you can’t beat trying these “baci” in their birthplace! Amore!
The Italians have many wonderful traditions. One of my absolute favorites is La Passeggiata, which means “the walk”. After the day’s work is done, Italians head into the streets to see what is going on. They talk to their neighbors, they look in the shop windows, maybe they have an aperitivo. It is the social hour before dinner. After they check in on things in the town, they head back home to eat the evening meal with their families before heading to bed.
La Passeggiata happens all over Italy but one of the best places I’ve ever experienced it is in Perugia. Corso Pietro Vannucci, the wide pedestrian-only street that runs from Piazza IV Novembre to Piazza Italia, is lined with shops and restaurants, making it the perfect location for La Passeggiata. As the workday comes to a close, many locals walk this wide street, enjoying the evening tradition. Find a seat at a cafe and watch the show! Better yet? Join in!
Enjoying the Nightlife in Perugia
Perugia is a college town and that brings to mind drunken co-eds living their best college life. If you are one of them, put on your party shoes and dive in! If you aren’t, don’t be afraid to explore the nightlife in Perugia. There are plenty of nice spots to enjoy your aperitivo in the evening.
After checking out several spots, I found a favorite place for aperitivo. I highly recommend Caffè Dal Perugino. Going to that cafe in the evenings taught me to skip dinner. When you order a glass of wine, it comes with some “light” appetizers. The proprietor in this tiny little wine bar goes above and beyond by giving you a generous plate of local food. He continuously hands out snacks to the locals, and thankfully to this tourist/wannabe local, who pack the place every night. You may, if you choose, share some of your snacks with the Rusty, the local dog. At the time of this writing, Rusty is also a bar regular.
If you want old-world charm and modern luxuries combined, choose 5-star hotel Sina Brufani. Located in the city center, the hotel is in the best location and offers sweeping views from some rooms. It has a great restaurant on site but the crown jewel is the exquisite spa that features a pool built under medieval vaults. The pool has a charmingly lit and transparent bottom, where you can see the Etruscan ruins, over 3000 years old.
Another option is Hotel Fortuna, a charming little inn located on a peaceful, idyllic side street in the heart of the city. The hotel has a nice rooftop terrace where you can sit at one of the tables with a coffee or glass of wine and enjoy panoramic views of the Umbrian valley. While not a five-star hotel, the staff here are incredibly friendly, they serve a nice breakfast and the rooms are comfortable, some with terraces. Come and see for yourself!
If you just arrived and are in need of a bite, a great little spot just down the street from Hotel Fortuna and a short walk from Sina Brufani, is Caffè Bonazzi. A friendly proprietor serves up amazing local specialties. I had a multi-layer lasagna with local cinghiale beef that I will never forget.
Make reservations for dinner one evening at La Taverna. Dine on Chef Claudio’s specialties under brick vaults and candlelit ceilings. Chef Claudio prepares fresh, homemade pastas and heartier fare including grilled steak and pork shank, all paired with exceptional wines. Consistently rated one of the best restaurants in the city it is a must for any trip to Perugia.
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