Insider’s Guide to Umbria

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Most visitors stick to Assisi, Orvieto, and Perugia—the triumvirate of Umbrian tourism—when visiting Italy’s green heart. But beyond the regular diet of Franciscan monuments and medieval churches, Umbria is filled with unexpected natural wonders, ancient ruins, and spectacular hilltop towns. This is the secret, off-the-beaten-path Umbria you shouldn’t miss.

By Krisanne Fordham

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Castelluccio di Norcia

Of the many hilltop villages in Umbria, Castelluccio di Norcia is the highest and easily the most picturesque. Located 1,400 meters above sea level, it's nestled atop a hill in a sweeping valley in the scenic Sibillini mountain range. Behind the town soars majestic Monte Vettore, and before it lies the vast green-and-gold patchwork that is Piano Grande, the “Great Plain.” Despite its staggering beauty, Castelluccio remains largely under-the-radar as a tourism destination for international visitors, though it is known among Italians and other Europeans. 

Insider Tip: The best time to visit is between late May and early June during La Fiorita, the annual “Flowering.” Piano Grande transforms, seemingly overnight, into a kaleidoscopic carpet of red poppies, yellow rapeseed, purple gentianella, and white narcissus. Every year, on the last Sunday in June, villagers and visitors alike celebrate the official Feast of the Flowering with Mass, food, and entertainment.

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Cascata delle Marmore

Hidden deep in the lush forests of Southern Umbria, Cascata delle Marmore is one of the region’s best-kept secrets. The staggering 541-foot waterfall, comprised of three sections, was created by the ancient Romans to keep the stagnant waters of the Velino River flowing into the valley below, and it continues to be manually turned on and off to this day. Though Cascata delle Marmore isn’t entirely a “natural wonder,” its powerful, misty veil remains a spectacular sight—particularly when the gates are first opened (usually at noon every day, depending on the season).

Insider Tip: The falls can be explored via five different hiking routes of varying lengths and levels of difficulty. For the best view of the falls, take the 20-minute hike to Lover’s Balcony, a rock terrace that takes you right to the edge of the falls (so close, in fact, that you’ll need a raincoat).

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Lago Trasimeno

The glistening, crystalline waters of Lago Trasimeno are often bypassed in favor of the nearby Tuscan and Le Marche coasts—largely because travelers don’t even know it exists. Italy’s fourth-largest lake is perfect for swimming, canoeing, kayaking, and windsurfing, and is flanked on all sides by sunflower fields, olive groves, and verdant forest. It also boasts three stunning islands: Maggiore, Minore and Polvese, which can all be accessed by ferry.

Insider Tip: The town of Castiglione del Lago sits on the southwestern shore of Lago Trasimeno and is well worth visiting. You’ll find some of the most beautiful views over the lake from the watchtower of Castello del Leone, a medieval fortress built by Emperor Frederick II in 1247.

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Todi

Because of its spectacular location—perched on a tall hill overlooking the east bank of the Tiber River—the town of Todi offers Umbria’s most beautiful country vistas. Todi itself is charming, flanked by Etruscan, medieval, and Roman walls (in that order) and filled with quiet piazzas, medieval palaces, and Renaissance churches. But the real draw here is the view: you’ll find gasp-inducing panoramas of the surrounding valleys, mountains, and hilltop castles from the Campanile di San Fortunato.

Insider Tip: The best time to visit is in mid-July, during the Gran Premio Internazionale Mongolfieristico, an international hot air ballooning competition held annually in Todi. Over a two-week period, 50 brightly colored hot air balloons from all over the world take off from Ponte Naia every day at 6 a.m., either racing north towards Perugia, or south towards Amelia. It’s a sight not to be missed.

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Carsulae

Rome, Pompeii, and Herculaneum aren’t the only places you can walk amongst the extraordinary ruins of ancient Roman civilization. In the Umbrian countryside, you’ll find the archaeological site of Carsulae, a Roman municipium along the Via Flaminia built in the third century. Here, you’ll see the beautifully-preserved ruins of an amphitheater, a forum, thermal baths, a basilica, and temples, among other structures. Don’t expect Ephesus-like grandeur—it’s small and intimate—but it’s peaceful and free of crowds, even in the summer.

Insider Tip: There’s a small, newly constructed visitor’s center and museum close to the entrance, where you can learn about the history of Carsulae and the Roman Empire prior to exploring. Don’t bypass it—it offers free guide maps, historical resources, and a fascinating permanent exhibition of excavated artifacts.

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Lago di Piediluco

The green heart of Italy has its fair share of blue: Aside from Lago Trasimeno, Umbria is also home to the stunning Lago di Piediluco. Thanks to its irregular shape—it curves around the feet of several woody mountains—Lago di Piediluco could easily be mistaken for an alpine lake. Visitors can swim or fish in its glassy, limpid waters, set up camp at nearby designated camping areas, or simply hike along the lake’s scenic, eight-mile shoreline.

Insider Tip: Every year in early July, the locals of Lago di Piediluco celebrate the ancient Festa delle Acque with an evening parade featuring brilliantly colorful, illuminated boats, and fireworks. During this time, the town of Piediluco itself comes alive with concerts, events, and theatrical performances.

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Spoleto

The beautiful ancient city of Spoleto, located at the foothills of the Appenine Mountains, is often overlooked in favor of nearby Assisi—which just makes it all the more charming. It’s home to a stunning 12th-century duomo, an ancient Roman amphitheater, and a 14th-century hilltop castle, Rocca Albornoziana. But the pearl of Spoleto is a 13th century aqueduct called Ponte delle Torri (“The Bridge of Towers”)—a medieval feat of engineering you can still walk across today.

Insider Tip: The best time to visit is in the summer, during the annual Festival dei Due Mondi. The festival, founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti in 1958, is a celebration of music, dance, opera, visual arts, and theater.

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