Inside Assisi, Italy – Umbria’s Jaw-Dropping World Heritage Town
September 12, 2016
Pilgrims have been coming to Assisi, Italy since the 13th century to venerate St. Francis, who was born and buried here, but you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the beauty of this postcard-perfect town. Framed by the long, undulating hills of Umbria and the forests of Monte Subasio, Assisi is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the world and one of Italy’s most spell-binding gems.
You see, Assisi isn’t just home to UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The entire town basks in this coveted status because of its plethora of art and historically significant buildings, like the Basilica di San Francesco. The basilica, in particular, has such a collection of frescoes and paintings that it rivals many art museums. According to the UN, The town has a singular importance for its role in the diffusion of the Franciscan Order and for its “continuity of a city-sanctuary” from its Umbrian-Roman origins to today.
Want to visit Assisi, Italy? Here’s a guide to everything you need to know, from the town’s religious history to its must-see sites.
Religion in Assisi
As the birth place of one of Catholicism’s most venerated saints (one of the two patron saints of Italy), Assisi is a town with religion very close to its heart. Visitors shouldn’t be surprised to see monks in long brown robes roaming the streets or bands of pilgrims walking the country roads surrounding the town.
Its religious influence is reflected even in its sister towns: Assisi is twinned with Bethlehem and Santiago di Compostella, among others. Today Assisi is considered a global symbol of peace. It has hosted three meetings of the major world religions, convened by Pope John Paul II in 1986 and 2002 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. It was also the home of St. Clare, who was personally inspired to follow the path of God by St. Francis and helped form the Order of Poor Clares which still exists today.
Assisi’s strong religious ties have influenced its history and art to the point where the three are inextricably linked. Local artisans craft religious figurines and the most valuable artistic works in the region are housed in Assisi’s many churches and Basilicas.
What to Buy
Like most of Italy, Assisi has a long history of local artisans. The difference is that many here are still going strong today. You can take your pick among the many shops dotting the main streets selling local crafts such as ceramics, medieval weapons, and religious sculptures. Delicatessens sell regional specialties like Umbrian cured meats, dried pasta, and Umbrian chocolates.
Cured pork products and chocolate are among the most coveted of Umbria’s regional delights. The best Chocolates in Assisi are made in the nearby Perugina chocolate factory and are renowned across Italy. If buying cured meats, look for packages labeled “Norcia” – a town about an hour away that is considered the birthplace of pork curing in Italy. Guanciale and coppa from Norcia are particular favorites.
Those looking for something more wearable should consider a gold or silver Tau cross necklace – a symbol of St. Francis and his order. Clothes-wise it’s all about the leather. Though Florence is the king of Italkian leather, handmade belts, shoes, jackets and purses of similar quality can be found in Assisi (and throughout Umbria) at better prices.
Although we generally avoid the more kitschy gifts that have sprung up around the themes of pilgrimage, this is one of the few places in the world where you can buy a St. Francis of Assisi bobblehead doll. Just saying.
What to See
The massive Rocca Maggiore sits at the tip top of Assisi. It’s a 14th-century castle that is the perfect starting place for sightseeing because everything is, quite literally, downhill from there. From the Rocca Maggiore visitors can see Perugia to the North, Assisi below and the surrounding valleys beyond. Built by Cardinal Albornoz specifically to intimidate the townspeople, it’s been expanded, pillaged, and restored again and again across the centuries. It’s also said that the fearsome Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I, aka Barbarossa, spent his childhood here.
Basilica of St. Francis
The most famous and probably most impressive attraction in Assisi is the Basilica of St. Francis. It’s also literally the biggest thing in the area – so massive you can see it for miles around. Anywhere else in the world, it would be its own UNESCO World Heritage site, but as it is, it’s the jewel in Assisi’s crown.
Construction on the Basilica was started immediately after St. Francis’ death in 1228 and it was officially completed after the addition of the upper church in 1253. It is divided into the upper church and the lower church, and regardless of which one you’re in, you’re looking at incredible frescoes.
The upper church, or Basilica Superiore, is covered with 28 frescoes by Giotto (with extensive help from members of his school) which are probably the main artistic stars of the church. Each fresco is a scene from St. Francis’ life. Though completed centuries ago, the frescoes are still fabulously vibrant.
The lower church, or Basilica Inferiore, houses frescoes by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini, who were heavily influenced by Giotto’s work. Also in the lower sanctuary is the Cripta di San Francesco – that is, the monumental tomb of St. Francis of Assisi. While the upper church seems to be a celebration of beauty and life, the lower church’s dark rooms and sparse decoration reflects the spirit of St. Francis and his Franciscan order.
Give yourself plenty of time to explore this incredible church – you’ll need it!
Did you know: St. Francis’ remains were hidden immediately after he died to keep them from being plundered by relic hunters. His final resting place was unknown for 600 years until being rediscovered in 1818. Today his remains have the somewhat dubious distinction of being an entire saint’s skeleton that isn’t missing any parts due to grave robbing.
Duomo di San Rufino
The San Rufino Cathedral or simply Assisi Cathedral is a favorite spot among pilgrims due to its connection to St. Francis’ life. It has a beautiful, Romanesque façade featuring three rose windows. Built atop an old Roman cistern in the 13th-century, the remodeled interior is primarily from the 16th century. Here you’ll find the fountain where both St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized. The Cathedral was dedicated to San Rufino, or St. Rufinus, after he converted Assisi to Christianity in AD 238 and was later martyred. It’s said that his remains still rest in a Roman sarcophagus in the cathedral.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Not to be confused with the church of the same name in Rome, this church is built inside a converted 1st century BC temple once dedicated to the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva. Amid all the medieval and Renaissance buildings, its towering corinthian columns are a stark reminder of the power and beauty of Roman imperial architecture. When early Christians converted the temple they bestowed on it the name of the powerful Virgin Mary – a saint who could neutralize any lingering pagan power and influence. This building was one of Goethe’s first stops during his celebrated journey through Italy and remained a particular favorite. The temple of Minerva may look Roman from the outside but the interior was completely remodeled in the 16th century and is a stark contrast to the Cathedral’s ancient past.
Santa Maria degli Angeli
St. Mary of the Angels is a 16th-century, domed church located about 2.5 miles down the hill from Assisi, near the train station. This Basilica is famous for housing the Porziuncola, a tiny stone structure considered the home of St. Francis and his followers. Today the Porziuncola is a small church on the inside of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This is supposedly the house where St. Francis founded the Franciscan order and also the one he died in or near on October 3, 1226. It’s a great stop for pilgrims and also a must visit for anyone interested in the history and culture of relics within the catholic church.
Fun fact: the Porzuincola isn’t the only building within a building owned by the Catholic Church. The Holy House of Loreto is a structure that was brought to Italy, with some difficulty, all the way from Jerusalem because it was thought to be the house of the Virgin Mary. Like the Porziuncola, it’s a major pilgrimage site.
San Damiano Church
San Damiano is a tiny church located outside of the walls of Assisi. According to legend, it was here that St. Francis first heard the voice of God telling him to “rebuild the church.” It’s also where he wrote his famous Canticle of the Creatures, a religious song originally in an Umbrian dialect that praises the earth and animals. The church is just about one mile southeast from the city center and makes for a pleasant walk among the fields and olive trees. It also commands lovely views of the Valley of Spoleto
Near to the Piazza del Comune, Assisi’s central piazza, Chiesa Nuova supposedly sits atop the childhood home of St. Francis. Built by King Philip III of Spain in the 1600s, a bronze statue of St. Francis’ parents sits outside to honor their home.
Basilica di Santa Chiara
Finally, there’s the Basilica of St. Clare. One of the more prominent women in the history of the Catholic church, St. Clare was St. Francis’ contemporary and founder of the Order of the Poor Clares. She is buried in the 13th-century Church’s crypt. Go to see the beautiful pink and white facade as well as the Crucifix of San Damiano. This is the symbol that St. Francis prayed toward when he had his religious awakening.
Know Before You Go
Though you can tour the city center in just an afternoon, give yourself an overnight stay or at least a full day to truly soak in the atmosphere. The historic city center of Assisi, Italy is small and welcoming, easily managed on foot. That said, keep in mind that you’re in hilly Umbria, in the foothills of Monte Subasio. Bring your walking shoes and take it slow on the sometimes-steep, cobblestone streets!
Visitors can enjoy the city year round but we prefer fall, winter, and spring – it can feel like an oven during the summer and that’s also the season when you get peak pilgrimage crowds. Because of its central location in Italy, the “shoulder” seasons in Assisi are often warm and pleasant, even when areas in Northern Italy are still cold.
Since a huge part of visiting Assisi is stepping inside its many gorgeous churches, be sure to dress appropriately. Shorts that cover your knees and shirts that cover your shoulders are a must for both men and women.
When to Go
On religious holidays, such as Easter’s Holy Week and feast days, you’re sure to find a surge in the crowds, meaning that you will need to book hotels in Assisi far in advance. That said, it can be a great time to soak in the town’s naturally religious atmosphere. Each year the feast day of St. Francis, celebrated in Assisi on October 3 and 4, brings many public events and small folk festivals, along with pilgrims. The annual March for Peace from Perugia to Assisi is a fantastic example of Catholic activism and runs at the end of September / beginning of October depending on the year.
Another popular event is the Calendimaggio, a medieval festival that celebrates the return of spring and reenacts the historic duel between residents in the lower part of the city and the upper part of the city. Festivities include medieval tableaus, costumed parades, and concerts lasting for three days – from Thursday to Saturday of the first week of May.
Our favorite time to visit Assisi is during the Christmas season. Francis is often credited with being the first person to create a live nativity scene and the tradition still holds strong today. Each year you’ll see nativity scenes set up in every nook and cranny of the town. At Santa Maria degli Angeli you’ll find the annual Nativity Scenes of the World exhibit, in which people from all over the world donate their nativity scene to the monks in Assisi and the best are then displayed. Also, look out for the monumental nativity scene on the lawn in front of the Basilica of St. Francis. It includes human-sized figures, a massive Christmas tree and various other stands and works of art. Those who’d like to finish their Christmas shopping can stroll through theChristmas Markets, filled with artisanal crafts and delicious market food. In Assisi the markets usually go from December 4 to 8 in the main town square and Piazza Santa Chiara.
If you found our insiders’ guide to Assisi helpful, you should check out some of our other great guides: The Amalfi Coast Guide, the Tuscany Archipelago Guide, the Vatican City Guide, the Trieste City Guide.
by Gina MussioView more by Gina ›
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