A self guided tour to Umbria’s most famous medieval hill-town and Unesco heritage site
Assisi is a small town in central Umbria about 20 minutes east of Perugia and approximately half-way between Rome and Florence. The town is a Unesco heritage site known for the magnificent medieval architecture and for being the birthplace of Saint Francis.
While you can cover the highlights in one day, make sure to stay longer to appreciate the magical atmosphere of the medieval alleys at night and the views of the surrounding countryside blanketed by woods and olive groves.
The first sight of Assisi, perched halfway up the slopes of Mount Subasio is extraordinary. Virtually untouched by modern architecture, with the soft pink of its medieval buildings shimmering against the greenery of the mountain, Assisi is an experience for the eye and the soul.
The ruined castle looming over the city is the Rocca Maggiore, an imposing fortress rebuilt in the 14th century over an earlier fortification dating back to the time of Charlemagne.
The spectacular complex of the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of Saint Francis), recognizable by the massive arched buttresses of the convent, is located at the extreme western flank of the town. Saint Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, and the construction of his basilica began two years after his death in 1228. Between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, the basilica’s walls were frescoed by the best known artists of that time; Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti. The Basilica encompasses two churches built one above the other; the lower dating from 1228 – 1230 and the upper from 1230 – 1253. Saint Francis’ body was buried secretly in an underground crypt while the basilica was under construction and over the next 600 years, the exact location was forgotten. The tomb was rediscovered in 1818 and is now open to the public.
Of the many words written about this outstanding monument, my favorite are those by Ian Campbell Ross in his book about the history of Umbria (Penguin, 1996):
“The Basilica of Saint Francis is unique. Nowhere in Italy there is so rich and complete representation of the art of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. One of the supremely important events in the history not only of Italian but of European art.”
A day visit to the town should also include the Basilica di Santa Chiara (Basilica of Saint Clare) devoted to Francis’ first “sister”, the Romanesque San Pietro (Saint Peter), Santo Stefano (Saint Stephen), and Assisi’s town cathedral, San Rufino.
Itinerary – A Stroll Through Assisi
A leisurely stroll through the town first is a good way to start. Take the opportunity to absorb the town’s atmosphere, colors and lights first, so that you arrive at the Basilica di San Francesco late, when most of the crowds have left but the church is still open. But do not limit your visit to the evening, as all monuments are closed at sunset and you will miss the most important collection of medieval art in Italy!
From the Porta Nuova parking lot ride the escalator up to the city gate. Via Borgo Aretino and Piazza Santa Chiara offer sweeping views over olive groves and the Umbra Valley. Even though there are tourists, this square is always animated by local life. Mothers come with their children who run after the pigeons. Pensioners sit on the stone benches to enjoy the spring sun. The Basilica di Santa Chiara dominates the square with the geometric simplicity of its facade. It’s built with intensely pink stones.
Walk up Corso Mazzini to Piazza del Comune to enjoy the medieval palazzi and the beautifully preserved Temple of Minerva. It is an ideal spot to sit on the stone steps and do some people watching while eating a gelato. Roman foundations are a common feature of many buildings here. Below the piazza is the excavated Roman Forum, which can be visited from Via Portica. It is not much of a site if one comes from the splendors of Rome or Pompei, but it makes a good stop in a rainy or hot day and it has the added charm to be completely underground. The Middle Ages are above your head but your feet are on the pavement of a once bustling Roman square.
Continue towards the Saint Francis Basilica by Via San Paolo, to the right of the Tourist Office. Make a detour to the signposted Romanesque church of San Stefano. This small church is wonderfully quiet and simple, in sharp contrast with the extravagance of colors, flamboyant architecture and ample spaces, often filled with people, that awaits you at the Basilica down the hill.
Now you are finally arriving at the “Basilica di San Francesco”. From the height of Via Cardinal Merry del Val, the sight of the Piazza Superiore is sudden and surprising. Most Italian monuments stand within the architecture of the city. Saint Francis stands alone and serene at the end of a green meadow. Even though I have seen it hundreds of times, I still find its beauty overwhelming.
I will not go into the details for touring the Saint Francis Basilica because this is well covered in most guidebooks . Remember though, there is both an upper church and a lower church.
After touring the Basilica most tourists head back to Piazza del Comune through Via San Francesco. Don’t be discouraged by the cheap nick knack stores filled with miniature monks and plastic rosaries, there will be some interesting artisan shops further uphill (see list below). Step into the Oratorio dei Pellegrini at number 13. The small, square chapel was finely frescoed by Matteo da Gualdo and other artists in the 15th century. I just love the scene of Saint Antony talking to the camels who have brought him food for the poor.
Back in the Piazza del Comune, take the Via di San Rufino, a steep uphill walk leading to the lovely San Rufino cathedral. If you still have the time and energy, continue to the Rocca Maggiore. While the outside is quite drab, the towers and a long walkway have been recently restored. The views from the octagonal tower are stunning, particularly at sunset.
Return to the parking lot and drive further up town to the Piazza Matteotti parking lot, then turn right following signs for Eremo delle Carceri (4 km/2.5 mi). The road exits the city walls at Porta Cappuccini and climbs to Mount Subasio, a natural reserve area with dramatic views. Park at the attended lot across from the entrance of the monastery. You will be asked to pay 1.50 euro in advance. The Eremo delle Carceri, literally the Hermitage of Prisoners, was an early retreat of Saint Francis and his followers. The name derives from the fact that the friars “imprisoned” themselves here, away from worldly temptations, in order to pray. Surrounded by thick ilex woods, the Hermitage is an oasis of peace where one can savor the true Franciscan atmosphere.
Another stop before you arrive at Assisi, or when you leave, is the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, located on the plain below Assisi. This was an early center for the Franciscans. Visit the basilica (baroque from 1684) built to shelter the Porziuncola (the oratory that Saint Francis used).
Recommended family style restaurants and other eateries
In Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Assisi
Umami Beer. This is our favorite local and very friendly restaurant. Here you will find no pasta but a delicious menu of eclectic hamburgers which are either vegetarian or made with high quality meats, cooked to perfection. You will also find a top shelf selection of at least 60 craft beers from Italy as well as from around the world. Via Los Angeles, 145, open from 7:00 p.m. Mon. to Sun. Tel. +39 392 204 3500
Ristorante da Elide, Via Patrono d’Italia, tel. 0758040221, closed Mondays.
This is an institution run by the same family since 1960; it is always busy both with locals and tourists. They serve a huge “antipasto misto” that is a meal in itself. All food is good, but I advise to choose traditional recipes rather than the modern ones.
At Terra Umbra you can find and taste the complete array of Umbrian gourmet foods like charcuterie, aged pecorino, every form of truffle preserves, aged balsamic vinegar and good chocolate.
The shop is open every day which is excellent on Sundays when almost every other food shop is closed. Terra Umbra Via Patrono d’Italia 10/a, tel: 075 8043696
Macelleria Il Castello. If you stay at our vacation rental il Moraiolo don’t miss to visit our favorite butchers shop in Santa Maria degli Angeli. Alessandro and Francesco offer a huge selection of top quality meats – mostly from their own farm – and take away delicacies prepared by mamma Tania. Closed at lunch time, Thursday afternoon and Sunday. Via S. Bernardino Da Siena
Pasticceria Vinti, Via Raffaello, 22, 06081 PG. You will find very few tourists in this beautiful cafè, even though it is located at 5 min drive from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. However, all locals know that this is the best place to get a variety of fabulous pastry. The “pesche”, soft baked brioches filled with a light as a cloud custard are legendary. Go mid morning for best selection and a lively atmosphere. Closed at lunch time and Sundays.
Osteria del Mulino and Osteria San Vittorino, both at the foothill of Assisi are handy places if you need easy parking and friendly service.
Trattoria degli Umbri Piazza del Comune 40, tel: 075 812455
Located Just on the same side of the stunning Roman Temple of Minerva but closer to the fountain, presently it’s the best choice for simple eating in the town centre. The owners Roberta and Andrea are warm-hearted and honest. Closed Thursdays
Pizzeria Il Duomo, Via Porta Perlici 11, tel: 075 816326, closed Wednesdays
Basic pizzeria not far from the Matteotti parking lot.
Trattoria Pallotta (tel: 075 812 649) off Piazza del Comune is mentioned by several guidebooks and offer Umbrian specialties of reliable quality. Price is slightly higher than the other places listed, but they represent a good solution if one does not have the time to drive out of town. Charming ambiance, lovely service.
Libreria Zubboli. A small bookshop with a good selection of beautifully decorated stationery at better prices than il Papiro further on. Walking maps of the Subasio Park and a few guidebooks in English are also stocked here. Ask to visit their great historic workshop tucked in a side alley. Piazza del Comune 19
Tessitura Pardi. Beautiful artisan fabrics made, using only natural fibers (cotton and hemp or flax). Various household items with fruits, birds and geometrical patterns belonging to the Umbrian Renaissance tradition. Via Fortini 2.
Il Forziere. Tiziano and Fulvio make stylish modern jewels with colorful stones. If you stay long enough, you can order something based on your own design. Via San Gabriele dell’addolorata 12 A
Assisi Jewels. A colorful little jewel shop with a delicious display of designer jewellery at “reasonable” prices. If I walk by I can hardly tear myself away from their window. Via San Francesco 14.
Annette Jolie. Adorable, colorful, trendy, crocheted jewelery and accessories made piece by piece by the smiling Annamaria. Via San Paolo 8/A
I Colori del Tempo and Spadini in Via Portica offer colorful silk scarves, pashminas, hats and bags.
Cuoio d’autore, just a couple of doors further down, provides a nice selection of naturally-dyed leather bags, Via Portica 8A.
Arte Legno. A heaven for olive-wood enthusiasts. There’s everything from bowls, to cutting boards, sugar pots and the usual religious items. Via Fortini 20
Santa Maria degli Angeli, the town just below Assisi, offers easier and often cheaper access than Assisi to various services.
Self Service Laundry: Lemon, in the second row of buildings across McDonalds. Open every day 8:00am to 10:00pm. 43, Viale Patrono D’Italia
Gas Station: ERG on Via Los Angeles opposite the gardens of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
1) Superconti Supermarket, Via D’Annunzio 25/A, coming from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, turn right after the railway and drive straight on (approximately 1 km) until you see it on your left. Basic.
2) Coop has the best quality produce and environmentally friendly policy in Umbria. Our local shop is in Santa Maria degli Angeli, Via Los Angeles 183. Open weekdays 8 to 7:30 or 8: p.m. (winter-summer).
Todis Supermarket/ Lo spuntino. Inexpensive option for a quick lunch or take away. Via S. Bernardino Da Siena. Open 8:30 a.m to 8:30 pm. Sundays open 8:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m
Pharmacy: Farmacia Comunale, Via Los Angeles 17, just a couple of hundred meters after the ERG station. Open weekdays 9:00 to 1:00pm and 4:00pm to 7:30-8:00pm.
ATM/Bancomat: Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Via Becchetti 8/A
Tourist Traps and Annoyances
No matter how careful you are, as in most touristy places in the world, there is a good chance that you will be overcharged for one thing or another. Do not let this spoil your visit, but use your common sense to avoid disappointment.
- Only enter places that advertise their prices. Those who do not, will ask higher prices of tourists.
- Make sure that what you are charged corresponds to the advertised price. Bar and cafes charge twice as much or more if you sit at the table rather than if you drink at the counter, so make sure that you are charged for table service only if you have actually used it. Restaurants and bars are obliged to advertise their prices (you will see the price list beside the bar).
- Restaurants offering internationally known Italian dishes such as “ragu’ alla bolognese” or “Salsa Alfredo” clearly cater only to tourists and the food is most likely going to be disappointing. Try to choose a restaurant offering regional dishes.
- If taking a taxi, ask an estimation of the cost of your trip.
- Try to negotiate prices of crafts and souvenirs; small shops might be willing to give you a discount in quiet times.
When to visit
Unlike some other attractions in Italy, Assisi is not overcrowded with tourists every day of the season. However, if one wants to enjoy its mystical atmosphere, it is advisable to avoid peak hours of the day, major events (e.g. Pope’s visits) and national holidays. From Easter to October, bus tour groups tend to arrive mid-morning or early afternoon, after 3:00pm. Many groups only walk the short distance between the San Pietro parking lot and the Basilica di San Francesco, then leave for the restaurants or for the next destination.
Expect crowds during some festivals (see below) and long week ends including the following dates: April 25, May 1, June 2, August 15, November 1.
The walled town is closed to outside traffic except for residents, so cars must be left in the parking lots at Porta San Pietro, near Porta Nuova, or beneath Piazza Matteotti.
During most of the year, it is usually possible to find a parking place in one of the reasonably priced, attended parking lots outside the city walls. Park at the well signed Porta Nuova and ride the escalator up to the city gate.
Make sure to read the parking signs carefully and park in the attended parking lots or in the few marked free areas. Parking violations are checked constantly and fines are a minimum of 35 euro.
If you have mobility problems, do not forget to bring your handicap parking permit from your own country. You’ll be allowed to enter the town and park in the assigned places close to monuments.
Assisi is small but most streets are relatively steep. Walking uphill from the Basilica di San Francesco to the Piazza Matteotti or Porta Nuova parking lots can easily take 45 minutes. Frequent city minibuses run between the parking lots and the center of town, so you can save the long walk uphill back to the car.
The train station is 4 km (2.5 mi) from town, with a bus service every half hour.
Main Tourist Office, IAT of Assisi: http://www.assisi.umbria2000.it
Located in Piazza del Comune in Assisi.
tel: 075812534/075812923/075812450, fax: 075813727, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Recommended Tour Guides
Prices start from 110 euro for a half a day tour in English for a group of 1 to 6 people. More info and prices at http://www.assoguide.it
Daniela Moretti, tel: +39 075 5729790/+39 3358299984, email: email@example.com
Claudia Sanvico, email: firstname.lastname@example.org