Rome is the center of everything, but sometimes even the Eternal City needs a day off. My answer is usually to hop on an intercity or regional train in the direction of Umbria. The cuore verde d’Italia, Italy’s green heart is a siren with its beautiful countryside, art and cuisine. And it’s hill towns capture my heart.
Hop on the train for a scenic two-and-a-half hour trip to the center of the country. A former Etruscan settlement, medieval stronghold and Renaissance city, Perugia is one of those examples of architectural and cultural palimpsest — a site literally built upon layers of history. Imposing fortress walls surround a historic center, which in itself is a magnificent maze of medieval streets and beautiful palazzos. Buried below its charming surface is an incredible subterranean time capsule of Roman and Etruscan structures.
Explore underground Perugia, starting with a guided tour of the excavated portion of the city’s San Lorenzo Cathedral in the Museo di San Lorenzo. Follow the trail of Pietro Vannucci (aka Perugino), Perugia’s most famous artist and former mentor to Raphael. The San Severo Chapel, in the Church of San Severo, features a fresco painted by both master and pupil while the city’s National Gallery of Umbria has several paintings by the duo.
Perugia is also known as Chocolate City, home to Italy’s largest sweets manufacturer, Perugina. Plan to visit the Casa del Chocolate, a small museum dedicated to Perugina’s confectionary history and then live out an I Love Lucy fantasy with a chocolate-making class at the Baci Perugina School of Chocolate. And in the fall, you can check out Eurochocolate, Europe’s largest chocolate festival.
Between excursions, be sure to stop for a bite at Trattoria del Borgo, a farm-to-table restaurant that celebrates the best of the region’s local ingredients. Don’t miss the handmade strangozzi with pesto made with Umbrian wild herbs. Try to snag a table in the backyard — you won’t be sorry.
Situated just one-and-a-half hours outside of Rome (by train), Spoleto is quite possibly the most picture-perfect of all Umbrian hill towns. With the snowy peaks of the Apennine Mountains as a backdrop, the magnificent medieval fortress town cuts an imposing figure in the lush green hills. The beautiful city is an architectural composite of its millennia-spanning history of Roman ruins, medieval walls, romanesque churches and more.
Bring your walking shoes — this is one town you’ll want to explore from top to bottom. Spoletium was a Roman colony as early as 241 B.C., and the town still has traces of its ancient history. Magnificent stone structures dating from the 1st century B.C. stand miraculously intact, including an amphitheater and arches — in particular the formidable Arch of Drusus and Germanicus, anachronistically spanning a narrow medieval street. You can examine more delicate pieces of the city’s Roman history at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Spoleto.
Strolling around the walled town inevitably leads to the Piazza Del Duomo, a magnificent open space anchored by a beautiful, light pink stone cathedral. During the summer months, the piazza becomes the scene for Festival di Spoleto, a popular outdoor celebration of Italian music, dance and opera.
Nature lovers will want to traverse the Bridge of Towers, a 775-foot-long and nearly 300-foot-high stone structure on the outskirts of the city connecting to Monteluco. Then follow the Giro dei Condotti on a short panoramic walk around the hill.
Often described as Umbria’s most beautiful city, Todi is spectacular from the moment you see it on the road during the under-two-hour drive in through the Tiber valley. Like other hill towns, Todi sits on a peak overlooking the countryside, but for some reason the light seems to cast a more heavenly glow on the mountainside here. Perhaps that’s why the Romans took over this Etruscan stronghold.
Walking around Todi and eating delicious Umbrian delicacies is enough for most of us. The town itself is a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets leading to the Piazza del Popolo, a caffe-lined square whose main building, Palazzo del Popolo, is one of Italy’s oldest public structures.
If you crave a taste of history and culture, plan a visit to the Museo Civico di Todi. This local museum bursts with paintings and antiquities that trace the town’s story from its Etruscan origins through the Renaissance. For the archeo-minded, delve into the city’s history with Underground Todi, a fascinating subterranean tour of tunnels and wells from the Etruscan, Roman and Medieval eras.
But no matter your interests, you won’t want to miss the Tempio di Santa Maria Consolazione (the Consolation Temple), designed in 1508 by superstar architect Donato Bramante. His church is built in a symmetric cross, surmounted by a dome and unique to the era.
A version of this article appeared in Forbes Travel, November 2017.