Rolling green hills, expansive vineyards, olive groves, and wildflowers—the Italian countryside is a beautiful place, and spending some quality time exploring it is a very worthwhile pursuit. And while Tuscany can have too many foreign visitors for some purists’ liking, there are some excellent alternatives where you can still experience more of the authentic lifestyle. Umbria in particular is a great destination, as it retains much of the traditional, rural feel of the old days. The “green heart of Italy” is a charming region that has many small, pretty hill-towns, each with their own attractions.
Perugia is a good starting place. It is one of the country’s best-preserved towns, full of old museums, churches, city walls, and winding side streets, but also has a hip side. With two universities, it has a sizeable student population that frequent its creative arts scene—expect frequent open-air concerts, cute galleries, and a vibrant theatre community. These factors give it the perfect blend of old and new, and most visitors choose to spend a considerable amount of time there.
Traveling southwest, Orvieto is another excellent destination. Its immense Gothic cathedral, located on a steep limestone cliff, is a major attraction (it can be crowded during the summer months). Other important locations include the Piazza del Popolo, with its two excellent palaces, and St. Patrick’s well. This is also a great town for eating (local restaurants here are rumored to be some of the best in the region), and traditional handicrafts like textiles and metalwork.
Not far away, the large village of Todi has a rich and well-preserved history that goes back millennia. The pace of life is slower here, and it has a very traditional feel. While there is an expat community here, it’s more common to see local families that have lived within the concentric Etruscan, Roman, and medieval city walls for many generations. Todi’s history is best remembered by a walking tour of some of its oldest and most important sites, including the Palazzo del Popolo, Palazzo del Capitano, and Palazzo dei Priori.
Small Spoleto is perhaps most famous for its Festival of Two Worlds, founded in 1958 by an opera composer, and growing annually into a huge, international spectacle. Music, dance, theatre, poetry, film, and more are showcased at the highest level in a grand and regal setting. If you’re visiting at the wrong time of year and can’t catch the Spoleto Festival, you can still see plenty of Roman architecture, including the massive fortress, two chapels with beautiful frescoes and statues, and a grand basilica dating to pre-Christian times.
If getting to know the real Italian countryside is your goal, these cities and the small villages that surround them is a great choice. For more information on Umbria, look into great value villa rentals. This is by far the best way to get to know the area and get the most out of your Italian holiday.