Nestled in the middle of Italy within easy driving distance of Rome, Florence and both the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas, Umbria is perfect for an Italian getaway.
You know what they say about Iceland right? It’s beautiful, except for the two million tourists.
Well, the same could be true for Tuscany. The breathtaking Italian region – home to all of Florence’s beautiful architecture, to Michelangelo’s statue of David and to all of that delicious wine – played host to 100 million tourists in 2017. That’s a lot of foot traffic making its way through those poky, cobbled Florentine streets. That’s a lot of people lining up to get into the Uffizi or making their way to a Tuscan vineyard’s cellar door.
All of this doesn’t mean that you should avoid Tuscany all together – if you have your heart set on a getaway under the Tuscan sun then don’t let us stop you. But if what you’re looking for on a weekend away in Italy is great food, delicious wine, beautiful art and the soft, soothing vista of rolling green hills we might have found the perfect alternative: Umbria.
Nestled right in the centre of Italy – and within easy driving distance of Florence, Rome and both coasts, if you want to combine your trip with more sightseeing – Umbria is one of Italy’s best kept secrets. The region, famous for its drinkable red wines and its hearty cuisine (Umbria is a carnivore’s dream), is also one of Italy’s most beautiful. But it is often overlooked in favour of other, more famous destinations. Only around 500,000 tourists visited Perugia, Umbria’s biggest city with a fascinating renaissance history, in 2016.
You know what that means, right? A calmer holiday, without the hassle of jostling for space with everyone else on their longed-for vacations. And this is what you should do on your trip.
Getting to Umbria from London
The biggest airport in Umbria is Perugia San Francesco d’Assisi and you can fly direct from London there on Ryanair.
Of course, given the proximity of Umbria to both Rome and Florence you can also fly directly to either of those two cities and connect to Umbria via public transport or by hiring a car and driving approximately two hours. The second options gives you more choice in airlines but the first option will be the fastest and will get your holiday off to the perfect start.
Where to stay
In Umbria as it is in Tuscany, the villa life is the sweet life. Make your way directly to Tenuta di Murlo, a sprawling estate around half an hour outside of Perugia with seven villas, one apartment, three rooms and two cottages scattered throughout.
The estate, which has been in the same family for generations, is an oasis of serenity and privacy. Each villa is decorated in a different style, with its own pool and kitchen for those wishing to self cater, and with enough of that fragrant Umbrian wildnerness surrounding to ensure utter peace and quiet from other guests.
Opened in June 2019, Villa Penna is our favourite of the accommodation options at Tenuta di Murlo. Featuring four gorgeous bedrooms in two separate buildings, a state-of-the-art kitchen, a cosy living room, a jaw-dropping infinity pool and an open-air farmhouse perfect for dinner under the stars, Villa Penna is the perfect blend of modernity and tradition.
Each room has been luxuriously appointed with marble bathrooms and furniture upholstered in pale linen, with the centrepiece of each room being the colourful fabric bedheads. (For what it’s worth, the absolutely enormous bed that stretches out beneath that beautiful bedhead is so big and comfy you’ll have one of the best sleeps of your life in it.)
Every villa at Tenuta di Murlo has a different feel to it: some of them have more of a rustic feel, all Call Me By Your Name-esque metal bedheads and floral curtains. Others, like Villa Penna, have the kind of elegant and sophisticated design elements that wouldn’t look out of place in an Architectural Digest spread.
What they all have in common is a laidback mood that instantly puts you in relaxation mode. How could you not be relaxed, when faced with the squishy sofas in Villa Penna’s light-filled lounge room, or the glimpse of a pizza oven as you exit the kitchen on the way to the pool – the pool! More on that in a second – or the outdoor furniture grouped together for sundowners looking out over the hills.
OK, let’s talk about the pool. Each of Tenuta di Murlo’s villas have their own one, and each of them are more beautiful than the last. Have you ever wanted to swim in an infinity pool that looks directly out onto the lush Italian countryside? Now is your chance. Dive in, splash around and then dry off under the Umbrian sun.
Villa Penna also has a brand new kitchen, perfect for those who love nothing more than visiting local markets and preparing meals for themselves using the finest Italian ingredients. An outdoor pizza oven and a barbecue in the open-air farmhouse will make cooking during your holiday a treat.
What to do
Olive oil and wine tasting at Il Cadaro
Located at the foot of the estate, Il Cadaro is Tenuta di Murlo’s restaurant, serving Umbrian specialties to both estate guests, other tourists and locals. Their specialty is the hearty and heartwarming food that Umbria is famous for: moreish woodfired pizza, prime cuts of meat cooked to perfection and, of course, pasta. (Our favourite was the homemade tagliatelle with pigeon ragu or the simple pasta of seasonal vegetables with lashings of burrata cheese.)
The restaurant is open for lunch, dinner and drinks and reservations are recommended. If you’re looking for a special experience, book a wine-tasting at one of the al fresco tables. You’ll get the chance to sample some of the most renowned local Umbrian wines and Tenuta di Murlo’s own olive oil before settling in for dinner.
Set on 18,000 acres, the Tenuta di Murlo estate is perfect for exploring. For the particularly adventurous there’s a path that takes you hiking up along the crest of the estate’s highest point. Remember to look down – the views across Umbria are spectacular.
For something a little less strenuous there’s a walk through the estate to a private lake, complete with little dinghies and a shaded spot for picnics. Bring a packed lunch, a hat and a good book and work up a sweat on the walk before diving straight into the cool water and settling in for the afternoon.
Explore nearby Perugia
When you’re in the mood for some culture head to nearby Perugia, which is only 30 minutes away by car. The city, founded by the Etruscans, has a fascinating history that stretches through several different ages, from the Etruscan to the Roman and then through the renaissance.
As the capital city of Umbria, Perugia houses several beautiful churches and a cathedral, ancient architecture and the region’s national gallery, which are all worth a visit. Because of the city’s location, perched up high at the top of a hill, Perugia also offers incredible views of the countryside. After a day spent wandering through the town seek out one of its many bars – Punto di Vista is our favourite – overlooking the region and pair the Umbrian landscape with an Aperol Spritz.
Not everyone knows that one of Umbria’s biggest exports is chocolate. Even if you weren’t aware of that fact, though, you’ve definitely heard of its most popular brand: Baci. The delicious chocolate-covered hazelnut treat was first retailed in 1922 and has become the signature product of the region ever since.
Chocolate fans will find plenty to love in Umbria. Many will make sure their visit coincides with the annual EuroChocolate festival, which takes place every year in Perugia in October, and just happens to be the biggest chocolate celebration in Europe. Never fear, though. If your holiday doesn’t coincide with the festival you can still enjoy Umbria’s chocolate pedigree at the Perugina Casa del Cioccolato. Rough translation: the Perugina House of Chocolate.
Part factory and part museum, the Casa del Cioccolata offers in-depth tours that school chocolate lovers on the history of Baci – rumoured to have been invented as a Valentine’s Day treat – and on the secret recipe that goes into making each piece.
Pilgrimage to Assisi
One of the smaller towns in the Umbrian region, Assisi nevertheless receives plenty of visitors because of its deeply spiritual history. The town is said to be the birthplace of Saint Francis, who founded the Franciscan order of monks which, today, is one the oldest and Catholic orders. Like Perugia, Assisi is set high on the hills, with the arched cathedral – and its adjoining monastery – spread out over the lowest part of the town.
The primary reason to visit Assisi is to take in the spectacular beauty of the town’s churches. Even if you’re not religious or don’t identify as Catholic, each of these churches is a marvel to behold, standing tall and proud many centuries after they were first built. Make sure to visit the Basilica of Saint Clare who, alongside Saint Francis is Assisi’s most famous resident.
Vegetarians and vegans, look away now – while you’re in Umbria you have to try porchetta. The region prides itself on being one of the birthplaces of the fragrant, salty pork roast, heavy with fennel and herbs, and most frequently served between two wedges of focaccia and eaten on the go. (The other birthplace being Ariccia in the Lazio region just outside Rome.)
There’s great porchetta to be found across Umbria. In Perugia porchetta fans flock to Antica Salumeria Granieri Amato, a little deli in the centre of town where the sandwiches are served quick and hot. In Assisi make a beeline to La Bottega dei Sapori. This tiny little store doesn’t look like much from the outside and, situated in a busy square, seems surrounded by shops selling tourist tat. But go inside and ask for a porchetta sandwich and you’ll be treated to one of the best sandwiches of your life, full of thick, salty pork balanced out with artichokes and a light scraping of truffle.
Truffles are another specialty of the region, alongside olive oil, and as well as making fantastic sandwiches La Bottega dei Sapori sells plenty of local delicacies, from trays of truffle salt to jars of unctuous sauce, to take home as souvenirs. If you don’t eat them before you get back, of course.
Images: Supplied, Unsplash