How Umbria Changed My Mind About Italy

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Italy is my country.  I’ve spent a long time there, I studied abroad there, and I get a huge smile on my face each time I return, excited for the food and the wine and the beautiful people.

As a result, my readers are always asking me for Italy advice.  Most of the time, people want help with their itinerary, and I give them a variation of the Rome-Florence-Venice route with a day or two in the countryside.

I was wrong.

The best thing to do in Italy is get out to the countryside.

I know — most people visiting Italy for the first time want to see the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel and the statue of David and the canals of Venice.  These are the Italian symbols that have been etched in our brains since childhood.

If that’s your travel dream, by all means go for it!

But if you’re open to seeing a different Italy, I suggest you consider exploring rural Italy, the Italy of hill towns and endless green fields.

I began thinking about this on my trip to Emilia-Romagna last year, but it was solidified after a few days in Umbria.  Umbria is far from an urban mecca — the largest city is Perugia, which isn’t even that big — and we spent our days going from hill town to hill town and vineyard to vineyard, exploring close to the ground.

As much as I love the cities of Italy, visiting the country is a very, very different experience.

So, why Umbria?  It has all the charms of Tuscany, but far fewer tourists.

A lot of people travel to Tuscany thinking that they’ll be the only foreigners, only to find themselves elbow to elbow with dozens of shuffling tour groups in San Gimignano or Cortona.  Tuscany is magical, but parts of it feel like Italian Disneyland these days.

Travel to Umbria and you’ll experience all of the beauty, all of the charm, and all of the deliciousness of Tuscany — with fewer crowds and less price-gouging.  (There is, however, one exception: Assisi.  Assisi is very crowded and very tourism-driven, but it’s definitely worth a half-day visit.)

So, where to go in Umbria?  We visited the towns of Bevagna, Torgiano, Montefalco, and Spello.  All four were lovely.  Bevagna was my absolute favorite, but Spello was the most photogenic.

These towns, along with Orvieto, which I visited a few years ago, are convenient to visit for first-time Italy visitors, with tourist attractions and plenty of English speakers.  And LOTS of delicious food, of course!

That’s only a fraction of what there is to see.  Some of my blogger friends visited Gubbio, Narni, Perugia, Spoleto, and so many other towns…

While the museums are some of the big draws in Florence and Rome, there are great, quirky museums out in the Umbrian countryside as well.  I really enjoyed the Museo del Vino (Museum of Wine) in Torgiano.

I love small museums with a very tight and focused theme.  Plus, when something has been around for thousands of years in cultures all over the world, you can guarantee that it has an interesting history.  I loved seeing all the wine cups and bowls from different ages!

We happened to be in Umbria for the Feast of St. George, which takes place in April.  Among the festivities?  A bonfire and LOTS of porchetta (whole roasted pig stuffed with fennel).  It was the small-town aspect of the festival that really charmed me — before the meal, the mayor made a speech and the priest led everyone in prayer.  I loved that.

People poured wine into plastic cups and ate the sandwiches right on the table, without plates.  We sat at a long table jammed with locals, everyone enjoying that delicious porchetta.

Another advantage of traveling in the countryside?  It’s SO much cheaper.  Our guide, Fabio, took us to a gelateria in his hometown where the gelato cost ONE EURO.  I have never paid one euro for gelato in Italy, anywhere!

With my twice-a-day gelato habit during my semester in Florence, I would have saved hundreds of euros by heading to Umbria instead!

And then, of course, there’s agriturismo.  Agriturismo, or agritourism, is a very popular option for vacationing Italians, and it’s just starting to catch on with international visitors.  In Umbria, we visited Agriturismo I Mondarli, run by three sisters.

How does it work?  You go stay at a farm or vineyard that doubles as a B&B.  They range from very basic to nearly luxurious, though most agriturismos are quite simple.  During the day, you can help out with the work if you’d like — picking grapes, working in the gardens, pressing olive oil — or you can do whatever else you’d like.

But it’s mealtime that makes agriturismo special.  Imagine plate after plate of fresh food from the farm appearing in front of you — several kinds of cured meats, a giant mound of fresh ricotta, tons of vegetables picked from the dirt that day.  The sisters described their food as “simply country food” but believe me, even the simplest of Italian country food is better than food almost anywhere else!

I fully expect to see agriturismo grow exponentially all over the world in the next few years.  Keep an eye out for it!  For now, it’s one of the experiences that I highly recommend in Umbria and anywhere in Italy.

So here is my new advice for visiting Italy: rent a car and drive into the countryside.  Visit every small town that catches your fancy.  Book a few days at an agriturismo.  Eat everything you set your eyes on.

It’s not Rome, and it’s not Venice, but it’s a very different kind of Italian experience, and one that I enjoyed greatly.  If you’re planning a trip to Italy for the first time, consider taking the Umbrian route instead!

Planning a Trip to Italy:

Cool Places in Southern Italy:

Cool Places in Sicily:

Cool Places in Northern Italy:

Many thanks to the Umbria Region Tourism Board and Travel Bloggers Unite for introducing me to this wonderful part of the world.

How Umbria Changed My Mind About Italy

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63 thoughts on “How Umbria Changed My Mind About Italy”

  1. First thing’s first: well hello, CommentLuv – that’s new!

    Second: I’ve been curious about this aspect of Italy and what you thought of it ever since you posted about Emliia-Romagna a little while back. I came across another blog that was singing the praises of Sardinia today, and your post here has made me want to go back to Italy and explore even more now!

    Although if truth be told, I’m ever so slightly terrified at the thought of 1 Euro gelato…I have a feeling that Italy would NOT be good for my waistline. The food that you describe that is “simply country food” sounds heavenly, too – for me, absolutely nothing can beat fresh, home-style food (and you know I’m loving the fennel-stuffed pork, too).

    Where was the fourth photo taken, by the way? Spello?

    1. Haha, CommentLuv has been gone for awhile, but I revived it! (Nofollow Commentluv, of course.)

      Italy is VERY dangerous for your waistline. I gained so much weight during my semester abroad that my sister started calling me Heavy K! She drew a picture of me with a forgotten pie hidden underneath one of my rolls of fat.

      And the fourth photo was taken in Spello. Lovely town.

  2. Yay for Orvieto! Some other really cool towns to explore in the area are Sovana (really cool Etruscan ruins there) and Pitigliano. Also, very close to Orvieto is Civita di Bagnoregio, which is literally falling apart and something like 10 people live there.

    Umbria was my first international driving experience, and it’s really easy there, too. Great post! 🙂

  3. ohhhhh well you make my heart sing with this post!
    I ADORE Umbria, and not only because I was born and live here, but because I think it’s a magical place. Every time I go on holidays even if I visit the most beautiful countries, I always feel a deep gratitude for having the chance to live among these hills, when I finally see them again I always think “Sooo beautiful…I’m home!”.
    If you come again let me know: I’ll show some charming little towns you probably missed 🙂

    1. Hello! We will be there in Nov would love any and all suggestions especially from someone who has so much love for their home town!

  4. Cool post! Smaller towns and countryside can definitely be a much more satisfying travel experience than the major tourist attractions. This really makes me want to go to Italy.

    I’m an expat in Spain, and it’s the same deal here. The smaller towns are so beautiful and definitely worth visiting. And the food is incredible!

  5. You are so right! Liguria, this is my favorite landscape, the coast as well as the small vilages and the hills in the countryside. So beautiful there. Very nice post! 🙂

  6. Quote! Although cities like Rome, Venice, Florence, and there are many more city destinations in Italy that deserve a closer discovery such as Genova ^_^, the Italian countryside allows to dip very easily into a genuine everyday live made of open hearted people, great nature, traditions and great food. Every region offer a unique identity trough it’s landscape, language, traditions, cuisine… and true: that can’t be found in the big cities. I think that makes Italy so attractive.

  7. This is exactly how I feel about Italy. I’ve traveled to a lot of places yet never been to there. My plan for Italy has always been to rent a car and do a giant road trip of the country, from cities to countryside to the coast, especially for a honemoon 🙂 I’ve never had the strong desire to simply fly in and out of their big well-known cities. I even opted out on a 4-day trip to Rome and went off to Croatia instead. When I think of Italy, all I’ve ever envisioned were beautiful coastlines with stunning beaches and vast stretches of farmland in the countryside. Glad you’re able to share this same sentiment now.

  8. So let me get this straight:

    You’ve spent a ton of time in Italy but your expert travel advice (you are a professional writer right?) was to send people to major tourist destinations every time without considering that hey, there is also a million other places where people could go (including the Tuscan countryside) until you went on a paid trip to Umbria? It never crossed your mind that there are places to visit outside your “itinerary” took you on a paid trip there? Did you not realize the countryside existed until then? How much time could you spend of spent in Italy? After all, I’ve never been there but I still know that if I wanted to escape the crowds maybe going to the “heel” might be a better choice than Rome!

    And your insights – wow! The countryside is cheaper! There are fewer crowds! It’s beautiful out there. Insightful stuff. Next you’ll tell me revolutionary travel advice like “visiting asia is cheaper than Europe.”

    I read your blog here and there and this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back so to speak. It seems every post of yours has a thank you to someone who paid for your trip but “the opinions are always your own.” How is that possible when your travels are only where people send you? Or at places you get for free? At some point, your credibility becomes an issue. I’ve never once seen you say “Hey, I got this freebie but it sucked.” You always glow about everything. Either you are not writing negative reviews or your opinion is that easily both. Both are equally bad.

    Your blog was a lot better when it was “girl explores the world.” I really enjoyed reading about your time in Asia. It was interesting. Now that you take all these paid trips and write the worst travel fluff ever, I don’t even see what the point of this blog is other than to perpetuate your own travels on someone else’s dime. That food post in the Faroe Islands – is that really possible for the adventurous person on the budget? And speaking of which, you never talk about how any of these activities actually cost. But then again since you aren’t paying for them, I bet you don’t even know.

    When it was you and Asia, this site was real and authentic. It was relatable. Now it’s “hey someone gave me something for free and it is AWESOME.”

    You are an authority on travel as much as I am authority on building a mar’s rover.

    1. Richard, clearly this site is not to your taste. Why are you even here in the first place? Life is short.

      Get out there and explore the world. I bet you’d enjoy traveling!

      1. Ahhhh … “clearly this site is not to your taste”.

        If you cannot accept some (justified, I’d say) criticism, why do you enable comments anyway? As you say, life is short! You could have saved the poor guy at least half an hour of his lifetime – if you’re not interested in your readers comments, why do you encourage them?

      2. That’s a very professional response. I’ve been following you since Asia and you tell me that I should basically screw off and then write a condescending comment about how I should go travel more.

        That’s a great way to appreciate your readers and take criticism from them. Hauke has a point it seems.

        But I’ll take your advice on one thing – I won’t read this site again. You sold out and the fact that you’re only response to my comment was a childish, knee jerk “well if you don’t like it, don’t read it” I suspect I touched a nerve.

        1. Richard, you’re not the first person to ask me “How can I trust what you’re saying if you’re getting stuff for free?” I’ve been asked that question a number of times before, and each time, whether it’s by comments or email, I talk about it in depth.

          About how I only accept a small percentage of the sponsored opportunities I’m offered, only taking the ones I am genuinely interested in.

          About how I’m mostly positive about sponsored activities because I’m mostly positive about EVERYTHING, whether it’s sponsored or not. That was the case in my early blogging days, and that’s the case today. I genuinely enjoy traveling and I find something I love about almost every destination and activity.

          About how that when things don’t go well, I write about it. When I got bedbugs at a sponsored stay, I wrote about it in graphic detail. When my boat wrecked in Indonesia, I eviscerated the company that sponsored me. And it has made an impact on people traveling in Indonesia, if the scene at an internet cafe a fellow shipwreck survivor described is at all accurate.

          About how I couldn’t travel nearly as much without sponsorships.

          About how, at the end of the day, the only thing people can do is trust me.

          You weren’t the first to ask me this, Richard. However, you were the rudest. When someone fills a response with insults, quite frankly, they don’t deserve the detailed, measured reply that I give to everyone else. Your mind is clearly made up.

          As always, Richard, nobody is forcing you to be here. This site makes you upset, and I’m sorry for that. You’re in the minority. I suggest you find somewhere that makes you happy.

  9. Ah, and in case you did not notice, you are STILL not answering or commenting on him or me.
    To some degree I share Richards thoughts, and I guess you as a professional blogger need to make sure your readers are trusting you.
    The way you’re reacting is NOT professional.

  10. Great post. We’re heading to Italy in January, and while I’m not sure that those green hills will be quite so green then, I’m really looking forward to our drives through Umbria and Tuscany.

  11. Wow, absolutely loved this post! Not been to this region of Italy but definitely
    On the list now! I visited the Tuscan countryside and fell
    in love with it 🙂

  12. Up until now, I’d only ever considered Italian cities and the coast (still desperate to see Sorrento). I have always wondered whether the countryside would be for me. All this talk of good food and wine though…I am suitably convinced (and ready to pack stretchy clothes)!

    1. you might want to consider even further south (though there is certainly nothing wrong with Sorrento). If your Italian is passable, try the Gargano area (it is the spur of the Italian “boot”). If in the summer, take the ferry to the Tremiti Islands. There is only one beach, very small, but the water is wonderful there. There’s also a monastery-fortress to inspect. Take the tour around the islands. The olive oil here in Puglia is EXCELLENT. Peschici is worth a visit. We found Rodi Garganico to be a bit of a drag. Anyway this area is definitely worth a visit to go off the beaten track. I haven’t been there but I also hear Calabria is very nice for a more authentic experience where tourists don’t go so often.

  13. Hello Kate. I have read a couple of your blogs and responses and then saw your picture and comments abt Umbria. My friend has a place in Umbria and has encouraged me over and over to go. I wanted to have the experience in Italy exactly how you described your Umbria experience. I live in the countryside on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia Canada and i know that experience one can have in a less commercial space. It’s my dream to experience my friends space but to also check out the small towns of Umbria.

    It would be cool to experience Florence and the Cinq w Terry ?? Sp? I’ll loose this spot if I do a spell check. I hear its a 3 hour car drive from Fonte Magia

    Any chance you could share an itinerary with me. I would fly into Roma Leonardo d’Vincini airport. I think that’s the one. Take the train down and then rent a car or not…might be nerve wracking but would love to see the countryside. I look forward to hearing from you. I think I would like to go during harvest season or at least incorporate that into the trip. I love cooking local and fresh foods as ive had my own garden for years and my dream would be to learn and experience that in Umbria.

    Thank you in advance.
    Laura from Cape Breton Island….one of the top islands listed in the world and for sure in North America. And I would be more than happy to give you a personal itinerary to experience this island if you ever wanted to experience it. It’s a very special spot too. You can check me out by going to a website that I am associated with. My bio is on that site.

    Look forward to hearing from you.

  14. Hi Kate,
    Love your blog! We’re heading to Italy next month & we’re taking your advice by skipping Tuscany and hitting Umbria. It looks like we will be in that region during the week of April 21st!
    In which town is the Feast of St. George, and I have to ask, where can we get gelato for one euro?

  15. Thanks for all the great info Kate. Have a great trip Sarah and hopefully you might write Kate to let her and the rest of us know how it all turned out.

  16. Italy is one of my favourite countries ever! You should definitely visit the island of Sardinia-in the north! The food is amazing(as is All over Italy=) It’s really well priced around Alghero and Cagliari! There are incredible beaches all around each different to the other! It’s like a mini carribean but in Europe=)) xx

    1. Sardinia is WONDERFUL. September is the best month to go. Low season rates + mostly great weather. The later in September, the riskier the weather though. Sardinia can get some really torrential downpours every so often. At the end of August there is a great jazz music festival in Santa Teresa Gallura (“Musica Sulle Bocche”). Everywhere you go, Caribbean-quality beaches and water. Great food (not a lot of seafood, Sardinians were never really a fishing culture but it can be found), make sure to try porceddu. If you can read Italian (not much English spoken here), get some books on Sardinia’s history of banditry as well as about the Bronze Age Nuragic civilization.

  17. First of all Richard is a dick (ha ha, get it?). OK, I’m even less mature than usual today! I’m just jealous that we never get comped! Anyway my sister and I have been to Italy quite a few times but our next trip we want to go to Umbria and the 1 euro gelato was all that we need to commit to a trip. We never stayed at an Agriturisimo so that will be an experience – it’s all material whether it goes well or not!

  18. Hello!
    I just found this blog, i was especially looking for the solo female travel blog thing 🙂

    The architecture firm i work for is sending me to Modena in October and I want to see Italy. Umbria sounds just like my kind of thing, I only have a question.

    You suggest renting a car to move to the country, but… are there any other ways to get around? Because, yeah i can drive (I live in Monterrey, Mexico), but how about getting lost in Italy? Is it easy? I’ve never done that before… it makes me a bit nervous.

    Do you have any advice for that? I really want to see the countryside, what options do i have?


    1. Hi, Maria — there are buses and trains. Buses will be the only way to reach some smaller towns, so it’s definitely doable — just not as easy or as efficient as having a car. I’ve found the Italian countryside to be fairly straightforward; cities are much more difficult.

    2. buses run even way out in the sticks and every bus stop should have a timetable published, but it is not a terribly convenient way to get around, particularly if one has in mind to make several stops somewhere that is mostly rural like Umbria. But, it can be done.

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  20. Hi All

    Interesting site. I came across it because I’m contemplating my fifth trip to Italy in the last five years. My wife and I have an apartment in Perugia. We bought this after going there on our honeymoon in 2010. Last year was hectic and fun, but this year we’re going for a wrest. She’s leaving for Paris in two weeks with a bunch of kids from her school. I’ll meet her in Rome three weeks later. Looking forward to finding that amazing Merlot we had at dinner in Trastevere last January; spice infusions over strong berry flavours, with a distinct note of coconut. It reminded me of my mothers trifle when I was a kid. I used to think merlot was a simple wine, but wow this was so complex and delicate.

    So this year we thought we’d try smaller rural places within a day trip of Perugia. I love the Giotos in the Basilica at Assissi, but I’m a bit over Churches and am looking for great places to walk, with a good restaurant or café and a bottle of wine at the other end. any suggestions welcome. The idea is catch a bus to somewhere walk, take in scenery and streetscapes, aiming to end up having a nice meal and having time for a leisurely bus trip back home. We’ve become fans of the local buses. More reliable than trains and they go by more scenic routes. We love the trip back from Gubio to Perugia, when it goes the hilly route. Then doing somewhere else every few days, when the weather forecast is good.. We’re there together for six weeks this year.

    We also love music and Amici Musica always has a great program. the highlight last year was the Jeruselum Quartet. We also loved the Orvieto jazz Festival. 18 folk from around the world joined us to play street cricket, Australia vs Italy and I played various songs from my last album in Civico 25 after the match that night, then the wonderful locals played on until dawn, in the art space next door: piano, guitars, saxophone, percussion

    We may have another match this year, but we only have a handful of friends joining us and we want much more relaxation, time to write and compose. it was all a bit hectic last year. So, as I said, any ideas are very welcome.



  21. Really nice and insteresting article! And you’re right, you enjoy a side of Italy that my ‘compatriots’ sometimes do not like so much: the green, the hills, the mountains, the the wild land… Come to visit Cilento and the Amalfi Coast, the best kept secrets of Italy! We wait for you.

    Live Salerno

  22. next time you go… do the Valnerina tour. Start at the Marmore Waterfalls, drive up the Nera river valley to Visso, go to Castelluccio di Norcia, then down to Norcia, ending up at Leonessa from where you can head to Rieti (up and over Terminillo) or over to Terni. Plenty of obvious places to stop along the way. If you really take your time, you might want to overnight at Castelluccio or Visso.

    If it is about dinnertime when you hit Leonessa, head 5km to the east to Albaneto and dine at Tana del Lupo.

    Very pleased that you discovered the joys of Umbria!

    1. oh and if you like black truffles, the Valnerina is well known for this delicacy. Just off the Valnerina is Preci where “Il Castoro” specializes in truffle dishes. In Scheggino you can also get some truffle-inspired meals at the restaurant in the main square adjacent to the road. The Urbani truffle “factory” is just north of here. And, the next town up is Sant’Anatolia di Narco (where there’s a turnoff to the tunnel that leads to the highway that goes by Spoleto) and excellent porchetta can be had here. Buon viaggio!

  23. Hi Kate,

    Nice post.

    Our 14 Day Trip to Italy was an amazing trip, filled with adventure, beauty, history and the best food ever. From the moment we arrived in Milan we were more than happy with our tour guide , her skill in making everyone feel welcomed,highly organized and pleasant. Italy is the most beautiful romantic country in the world. The people were friendly, happy and anxious to please .

    Trafalgar knows their stuff when it comes to choosing your accommodations, restaurants, and historic touring .our hotels were first class, the restaurant s had an atmosphere of ambiance, others were personal and made you feel a true Italian experience , and the food was spectacular , Delicious ,with a great assortment of choices.

    Kelly Stewart

  24. Hey Kate,

    I am traveling to Italy between 17th March and 2nd April. After looking at your blog, I definitely want to do Umbria, but not sure where to start from. Could you please guide me?

    Thanks much!


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