Perugia – city of universities, artisans and chocolate

Umbria is one of the underrated regions in Italy. It’s not the typical holiday place you would think about when planning a visit to “Bel Paese”. Nevertheless, it is a real gem, and we love exploring that part of Italy. We thought it could be great to share our discoveries and unveil the treasures of the region’s capital city Perugia.

Perugia is mainly known for the 14th-century University, one of the oldest universities in Italy. In fact, there are two universities in Perugia, and that gives the city that youth vibe. The second university is the Universita per Stranieri (for foreigners) and is renowned for the Italian language studies.  Most of the year, Perugia remains not touristy and peaceful. Still, two significant events bring the city to live: the annual chocolate festival – Eurochocolate – organised during last week of October and Umbria Jazz – a ten-day festival that embraces the best of the Italian and International Jazz with lots of outdoor concerts and parades. Additionally, Perugia can pride itself on having gorgeous churches, historical structures, museums and also fantastic attractions such as the Perugina Chocolate Factory. Furthermore, the surrounding countryside with its stunning scenery and many national parks can cater to nature lovers.

If you arrive in Perugia by train after getting off the station, take a ride on the MiniMetro Monorail. It is a cable car/monorail that runs from the bottom of the hill up into the heart of the old town. Even if you don’t come by train, it may be worth parking nearby and taking the monorail up to avoid navigating the narrow streets of the old town.

Once you reach the old town, we encourage you to stop by Museo Archeologico – in the convent of San Domenico, especially if you’re interested in seeing an extensive collection of Etruscan and Roman artefacts found around Umbria. Then follow our steps to Rocca Paolina (Paolina Fortress) – a medieval fortress built by Pope Paul III Farnese (1540 -1543) who was victorious in the Salt War. The underground of Rocca Paolina is open to the public, and some spaces are used as an exhibition centre and Rocca Paolina Museum. It became a part of modern Perugia hosting a farmers market, and various cultural events including a Christmas market. The fortress is located in Giardini Carducci, that are overlooking the city and became a great spot to marvel the panorama or set up a picnic. On some Sundays, an antique market takes place here, and during Umbria Jazz, they set up a stage on park’s grounds.

Our next stop was Piazza IV Novembre- a stunning spot full of medieval architecture. Let’s take a look at the surrounding monuments:  

– Fontanna Maggiore – (central fountain) built between 1278 and 1280 by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano to celebrate the completion of the new aqueduct. 

– Palazzo dei Priori – an architectural gem, that served as a seat of the highest political authority. Built-in 1200s to house the governing body of priors. Today the Palazzo houses the National Gallery of Umbria on its upper floors, and a series of historic rooms and suites: the Nobile Collegio del Cambio, the Nobile Collegio della Mercanzia and the Sala dei Notari.

– Cathedral of San Lorenzo – originally designed in 1300 by Fra Bevignate, although the real works began in 1345 and finished in 1490. The Cathedral, with its southern façade, serves as a background to Piazza IV Novembre. The architectural complex includes the Church, the Braccio Loggia and the Old Seminary.

Right around the corner from the piazza, we walked into Etruscan Well, that represents exceptional work of hydraulic engineering and dates back to the second half of the 3rd century B.C. You can visit interiors by walking down the path to reach the well-head and cross it through a modern  walkway. Nearby we came across Via dell’ Acquedotto – an unexpected spot tucked away from the centre of Perugia. It is a long path stretching away onto the aqueduct. The aqueduct is one of Perugia’s most significant monuments, it runs about 5 km from Mount Pacciano to the Maggiore fountain in the historic centre.

We continued our walk until we arrived at Porta Sole to take a look over the city – it is one of the ancient gates of the Etruscan city walls, from which an entire neighbourhood takes its name.  If you would like to carry on with the visit of city’s heritage we have 2 more places to highlight:

Oratorio di San Bernardino – the complex dates back to the mid-fifteenth century and represents the most remarkable example of Renaissance art in Perugia.

Church of San Pietro – centre of culture and spirituality, the complex of Basilica with the Sacristy and the Crypt, the Bell Tower, it is the symbol of Perugia.

Usually, during our adventures, we like to find local artisans who still cultivate traditions and handcrafts. And Perugia did not disappoint us, as we stumbled upon many cool workshops in the historic centre. We spent the whole day browsing, shopping and learning new things. These are the most incredible spots we found where you can get a lovely souvenir and chat with locals:

Giuditta Brozzetti workshop – this textile workshop is situated in the 1st Franciscan church. All textiles are inspired by the glorious Umbrian tradition and created exclusively by hand. You can find here tapestries, tablecloths, bedspreads, doilies, table runners, cushions, lampshades and home decorating fabrics: all customised and personalised. 

Ozona eyewear – little shop for those who love glasses and are looking for perfect frames. Sandro Gonnella began to design eyeglasses at the Marcolin with whom he worked for famous brands such as Costume National, Mont Blanc, Dolce & Gabbana etc. In 2005 he felt the need to create something different, so he opened an atelier-boutique with tailor-made eyewear in the historic centre of Perugia. Currently, he is a renowned designer named by “Vogue Talents” as one of the 140 Italian emerging designers. The brand uses traditional Italian craftsmanship, combined with technology and passion. Each frame is distinctive and cannot be reproduced.

Laboratorio Materia Ceramica is the artisan workshop of Maria Antonietta Taticchi for ceramic’s processing and decoration. A perfect spot to buy everyday and decorative objects, jewellery and accessories designed and created entirely in the laboratory: hand-painted and completely customisable. Step into the world of ceramics, which allows you to discover not only the phases of clay processing but also innovative and original methods of the ancient craft.

Moretti Caselli’s studio – was founded in 1858 when Francesco Moretti began his research on glass-painting techniques, commissioned by Todi Cathedral. His creations were decorating important Umbrian churches, and his family inherited his special skills. In 1862 in the former convent of San Domenico in Perugia a fully-equipped workshop was set up. In 1895 was relocated to Via Fatebenefratelli, where it remains to this day.

Antica Legatoria Biccini was founded in 1966 in Perugia as Biccini Bindery. Franco Biccini became the owner of the company after a 6-year apprenticeship at the Novelli bookbindery and specialisation in antique book restoration done in Genoa. His profound theoretic and practical knowledge allowed him to do highly skilled work for prestigious public and private clients. In 1997 the business passed on to his son Michele. The restoration of books is still performed today and various types of antique and modern bookbinding methods are employed in creating hand-dyed bazzana leather bindings, parchment bindings, as well as calf hide or Moroccan leather bindings.

Along Corso Cavour, at Anna Barola’s boutique, you will find exquisite needlework embroidery and lace decorating linens, lampshades, and home accessories.

After shopping it’s time to visit chocolate heaven – a chocolate factory called Casa del Cioccolato Perugina. Their most famous chocolate is called Bacio and was created by Luisa Spagnoli. It’s simply dark chocolate filled with a hazelnut paste and a whole hazelnut. The factory/museum is located right outside Perugia in a town called San Sisto. To arrive there you just need to take one bus from the centre of Perugia. We recommended to make a reservation in advance to avoid any disappointments. The history of Perugina started in 1907 with a small “confetto” company. ‘’Confetti’’ are little almond sweets with a sugar coating, used a lot in Italy at weddings. In 1919 the first dark chocolate Luisa (Spagnoli) was launched, followed by the Bacio chocolate in 1922. Perugina didn’t have any competition; yet they kept focussing on the production of fine and niche chocolates. Then in 1987 Nestlé bought Perugina and new type of products have been produced. Despite the innovations, the original recipes of the dark chocolate never changed. Visiting the museum helps to understand the history and the development of the factory. At some point you enter the hallway, where you can smell all the chocolate being produced. It feels  like paradise! The guide will explain the difference between the chocolates originally produced by Perugina and the ones they are producing by Nestlé. Then you are welcomed to taste all the chocolate you want!

The chocolate theme continued as we visited another wonderful place – Cioccolateria Augusta Perusia. A chocolate shop located in centro storico Via Pinturicchio, one of the most picturesque corners of Perugia. The story of the Cioccolateria Augusta Perusia begins when a father and son bonded over the passion for making chocolate according to the old recipes of the chocolatier tradition. In 2000 Giacomo Mangano and his wife Rita decided to fulfil their dream by opening an artisanal chocolate atelier and giving Perugia the kind of chocolate that used to be made in the past. Make sure to stop in this charming place to get the chocolate treats.  We bought some pasta al cacao, liquore cioccolato, and gorgeous pralines.

The following day we continued our trip outside of Perugia as we arrived to Lago Trasimeno, one of Italy’s underrated treasures, perfect for the nature lovers. The stunning scenery strikes you immediately with its little islets and beautiful waterside towns like  Tuoro sul Trasimeno, Castiglione del Lago, and Passignano sul Trasimeno. This place is truly exceptional and has attracted many celebrities like George Lucas and Colin Firth who have houses here. 

There is an endless way to discover this area. For example, you can take a boat trip around the lake from Passignano. Except boating the lake is excellent for fishing, swimming, there are many walking and cycling paths throughout the area. Some other activities can  include the visit to the wineries for wine tasting or bird watching.

We opted for visiting the lake’s island by ferry. The islands located on the lake are Isola Maggiore, Isola Minore and Isola Polvese. We caught an early morning ferry to Isola Polvese, the largest among the islands. It belongs to the Lake Trasimeno Regional Park and offers three main attractions: the fortress, the ruins of the Church Olivetana di San Secondo and the Church of San Giuliano. After visiting Isola Polvese we took the ferry to Tuoro and then another ferry to Isola Maggiore (the  inhabited island). This islet offers many things to see including the docking area, many churches, the Rock and the source of St. Francis and Guglielmi Castle and the windmill. The third island, Isola Minore is private and not open to visitors.

Another great place for a walk in nature is Parco Naturale di Monte Tezio, providing many itineraries. Head to Colle Umberto from where you follow the signs for the Monte Tezio Park. Take simple walks or more demanding routes, go in search of asparagus and mushrooms, have a picnic – that is just some options to spend active time in here.

As for accommodation, we recommend Sina Brufani, a 5 star hotel located in the heart of Perugia, just a few steps away from all the monuments. It offers an exceptional view of the valley. If you prefer the countryside vibe, about 25 minutes from Perugia, you can stop at the Borgo dei Conti, situated among acres of olive trees.

Concluding our trip let’s talk about Umbrian cuisine. Food is a big deal in Italy, so we have to mention the local delicacies. For Perugia that would be: truffles (tartufi), olive oil, wild boar (cinghiale), lentils and spelt (farro). If you are heading for lunch, choose stringozzi, a long and thick pasta, and then a main course of meat. Don’t miss a taste of local focaccia called testo, made from water, flour, baking soda and salt, pure simplicity. If you feel for something sweet (dolce), indulge in the best gelato Mastro Cianuri or head to Pasticceria Sandri, a classic pastry shop. 

Food can be also a great souvenir,  so make a stop at the local shop to get some Umbrian treats. We brought home some Pecorino & Caciotta Cheeses, Prosciutto di Norcia and Salsiccia Secca (Dried Sausage).

Finally on our way back home, we stopped for some wine tasting. We recommend trying the best red wines, most of them made with Sangiovese like bold and powerful Sagrantino di Montefalco.