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Perugia is an important town in central Italy and is also capital of the Umbria region. The old part of the town is on a hill dominating the plain of Umbria and the Upper Tiber Valley to the north of Rome.
Historically Perugia has been a lively and important city because of its agricultural, manufacturing and handicraft industries and is still lively today - in part due to the University and in part due to the tourists who visit to enjoy the richest artistic heritage to be found in Umbria.
The street plan of Perugia was shaped in the medieval period in much the same layout as the earlier Roman city on the same site and these medieval streets are now a key characteristic of the Old Town. The centre of Perugia contains a great deal to explore, with medieval streets and attractive squares, and lots of interesting churches and palaces.
The 'artistic' centre of Perugia is based around the Piazza IV Novembre, where you can see part of the walls that once belonged to the Etruscan city and were accessed using the ancient gates such as the Porta della Mandorla, Porta Marzia and Porta Trasimena. Pause for a moment to remember that this square has been the bustling centre of Umbria for at least 2500 years!
Piazza IV Novembre is the most northern of the three squares that are along the Corso Vannucci - the main thoroughfare and tourist route which runs north to south through the historic part of Perugia and is now the pedestrianised centre of the town. The others are Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza Italia (a common arrival point in the city).
The first thing you will notice in this square is the fountain called the Fontana Maggiore, created in the 13th century under the direction of Fra’ Bevignate and decorated by father and son Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. The fountain is a remarkable example of the gothic style in Italy and symbolizes the political and religious power of the city at that time, with the carvings representing various biblical and historical events.
Also in this square you can see the Palazzo dei Priori, built between 1298 and 1353 and with a façade of travertine and the red and white stone of Bettona. For art lovers this palazzo is an important destination in Perugia because it contains the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria [National Gallery of Umbria] and an impressive series of works: see Umbria National Gallery
In another part of the same square you can see the 14th-16th century Cathedral of San Lorenzo. The church is in the gothic style, with a simple façade and a Baroque portal.The statue at the entrance of Pope Julius II dates from 1555.
The interior of the cathedral has three aisles with vaults supported by octagonal pillars and the cathedral walls are decorated with many works of art - note in particular the 'Madonna della Grazie' by Gian Nicola di Paolo which is said to have miraculous powers and the 'Deposition from the Cross' by Federico Barocci* (1569) in the Chapel of San Bernardino, the statues by Duccio and the altarpiece by Signorelli.
Federico Barocci, 1535-1612, has been recognized in recent decades as one of the greatest artists of the 16th century. His most dramatic work is no doubt 'The Deposition' in Perugia.
Behind the cathedral you can find the cloister and the Museum of the Cathedral, founded in 1923.
Other important religious monuments in Perugia include the 15th century Basilica of San Domenico , the biggest church in Umbria and which holds the tomb of Pope Benedict XI, and the monastery and Church of San Pietro with its belltower and frescoes. This church also holds a very extensive collection of notable artworks including a decorative wooden choir area and colourful frescoes. Take a stroll around the medieval gardens behind the church while you are here.
Time permitting you should also head west along Via dei Priori from the southern end of Piazza IV Novembre. After a few hundred metres you reach the Piazza San Francesco with a basilica and the Oratorio di San Bernardino, a small building with a painted facade and Renaissance reliefs by Agostino di Duccio. Inside the oratorio be sure to look at the altar, a carved stone slab that is actually made from a 4th century sarcophagus.
Also in Perugia you can visit the remains of the Fortress of the Rocca Paolina, a formidable fortress built by Pope Paul III (1468-1549) in 1540 on the basis of a design by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546). The fort was the symbol of the Pontifical Government for three centuries until it was largely destroyed in 1860. There are nice views across Perugia from the garden at the top of the fort.
While in Perugia you will also want to visit the National Archaeological Museum, in the Convent of San Domenico, which holds precious collections ranging from prehistory to the Etruscan and Roman times. Among highlights in the museum you can see the famous Cippus of Perugia, which has one of the longest Etruscan inscriptions in Italy and which describes a contract between two Roman “gentes” (noblemen).
In Piazza Danti, near the Cathedral, there is an Etruscan Well, thought to have been built in the third century BC at the same time as the last part of the walls.
Although the above are the key places to visit in Perugia, as you explore this historic centre you will come across numerous other interesting houses and architectural details, parks and gardens. There is also a very wide selection of cafes and restaurants, in particular along the Corso Vannucci which seems busy at all times of day and also for the evening promenade.
Attractions close to Perugia
After enjoying the art of Perugia we suggest you travel to the Chiana valley to Lake Trasimene. This lake was made famous in history because it was here that Hannibal (247-182 BC) defeated the Romans. Lake Trasimene was historically called "the lake of Perugia", a tribute to its importance to the city.
Your visit to the lake is also a good time to sample the traditional cuisine of Perugia, which is strongly linked to the Etruscan and Roman civilizations. Among the typical dishes we suggest you sample the "torta al testo" (a cake of flour, water and olive oil) and various recipes based on local truffles.
See also history of Perugia.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Umbria guide.