Balanced on a commanding hill high over the Tiber valley, Perugia adroitly juggles several roles: that of an ancient hill town, a magnificent città d’arte, a university centre and a slick cosmopolitan city. It is a fascinating place and a fitting capital for Umbria. Splendid monuments from the Etruscan era to the Late Renaissance stand cheek to jowl; its gallery contains the region’s finest art; but in the alleyways cats sleep undisturbed. Thanks to Lake Trasimeno, just a hop and a skip to the west, Perugia has a ‘riviera’ of its very own, dotted with bijou islands and mighty castles; Perugino was born just to the south of the city in Città della Pieve and made these bluish-green landscapes his own.

Basilica di San Domenico Perugia Umbria by Henryk Sadura Shutterstock
The Basilica di San Domenico towers over the city © Henryk Sadura, Shutterstock

Yet its sun-filled present is haunted by sinister shadows from the past. Four medieval popes died in Perugia. One did himself in – stuffing his gut with Lake Trasimeno eels – but for the other three the verdict was poison. And then there were the Baglioni, the family who ruled the city for a time and who were so dangerous that they nearly exterminated themselves. Blissful Assisi, perfumed with the odour of sanctity, may only be over the next hill, but Perugia in the old days was full of trouble. But in Italy creativity and feistiness often went hand in hand, and the city has contributed more than its share to culture and art. Just as remarkable as the people is the stage they act on: the oldest, most romantically medieval streets and squares in Italy.

A strange thing happened to Perugia in the middle of its rough-house career in the 1500s, when the popes took firm control. Art, scholarship, trade and civic life quickly withered, and the town’s penchant for violence was rocked to sleep under a warm blanket of Hail Marys. Look at Perugia now, its people famed for their politeness, urbanity and good taste. They make their living from chocolates and teaching Italian language and culture to foreigners. Maybe a few centuries under the pope was just what they needed.

What to see and do in Perugia

Discover the city on foot

Walking in Perugia is a delight, although you may find yourself out of breath. In the oldest parts, densely packed and half-covered with arches and passageways, Perugia often seems like one big building. Its difficult topography has been mastered with some cleverness with elevators or escalators to carry you from one part to another. These tend to be on the edges of town, where parks have been strung along the cliffs to take advantage of unusable land.

Via Appia Street Perugia Umbria by ArtMediaFactory Shutterstock
Perugia lends itself to exploration on foot © ArtMediaFactory, Shutterstock

Enjoy the street names: Via Curiosa (Curious St), Via Perduta (Lost St), Via Piacevole (Pleasant St), Via Pericolosa (Dangerous St), among many others. And look for details – carved symbols and coats of arms. One local peculiarity is the narrow Porta del Morte, ‘Death’s Door’, used only to carry out the dead, and bricked up the rest of the time – where death has once passed, the superstition went, he might pass again. In some houses these doors were the only access to the upper floors, with ladders inside that could be pulled up in emergencies.

Piazza IV Novembre

Magnificent, time-worn Piazza IV Novembre, once the setting for countless riots and street battles, remains the heart and soul of Perugia. As in many Umbrian cities, the old town hall, symbol of the comune, entirely upstages the cathedral, but here, the two stare at each other over Italy’s most beautiful medieval fountain, the 25-sided polygonal pink and white Fontana Maggiore, designed in the 1270s by Fra Bevignate.

Piazza IV Novembre Perugia Umbria by Marco Rubino Shutterstock
Piazza IV Novembre is the heart of Perugia, Umbria’s fascinating hilltop capital © Marco Rubino, Shutterstock

The occasion was the construction of Perugia’s first aqueduct since Roman times, and the Priors commissioned the top chisel-masters of the day, Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni to sculpt the 48 double relief-panels around the lower basin. The more you look, the more you realise the subtlety and dynamism of Fra Bevignate’s design, particularly the way in which the panels of the lower basin are never congruent, but pull the eye along.

Festivals

Perugia hosts several major events, starting with Italy’s most important Jazz Festival in July, with such alumni as the late Stan Getz and Wynton Marsalis. In mid-June, Perugia 1416 celebrates the Battle of Sant’Egidio with processions, competitions between the rioni and other events. Late June is time for the Trasimeno Music Festival, founded by Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, followed in July and August by the Trasimeno Blues Festival.

The summer Music Fest Perugia features classical music in the churches, and the Destate La Notte ‘Wake Up the Night’ runs from July through September, with late-night events of all kinds. Perugia Musica Classica sponsors September’s wonderful Sagra Musicale Umbra in historic locations around the region and concerts all winter long. Thousands join in October’s Marcia della Pace (second Sunday in October), the peace march to Assisi held every year since 1963. Eurochocolate, the massive chocolate festival, follows, and then in the first week of November it’s the Fiera dei Morti in Pian di Massiano – the oldest-surviving fair in Central Italy.

Getting to Perugia

By air

Perugia’s Aeroporto San Francesco is 12km east of the centre and has connections to London, Brussels, Rotterdam, Milan Linate, Catania and Malta.

By train

Perugia’s train stations are both some distance from the centre. The main Trenitalia station at Fontivegge is linked by buses R or TS from Piazza Italia, or the MiniMetrò. Trains go direct to Assisi (26km; 25mins), Spoleto (47km; 70mins), Foligno and Terni on the way to Rome (3hrs), while the route to Ancona (3hrs) is via Foligno; for Florence, change at Terontola; from Rome or Orvieto, change at Chiusi.

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