Indagare’s Simone Girner spent the last week scouting (and olive harvesting!) in Umbria, a two-hour drive north of Rome. It’s one of Italy’s smallest regions but it packs a punch, especially when it comes to culinary treasures, including black and white truffles, gorgeous wines (Sagrantino anyone?) and the renowned olive oil that was harvested across the region these last two weeks and then immediately turned into the Kermit-green liquid that is so flavorful and fresh that it transforms a simple bruschetta into religious experience.
Here are some of my favorite finds across Umbria, often described as Tuscany’s wild little sister, but a happening up-and-coming destination in its own right. If you love Italy and experiences that are not entirely pre-packaged and polished (read, that feel authentic and yes, a little wild), Umbria should be at the top of your Europe list for 2024.
Favorite Villas to Rent: Tenuta di Murlo
Passionate, connected and down-to-earth, Carlotta Carabba Tettamanti and her husband own the fantastic Tenuta di Murlo, an estate that’s larger than Manhattan and has been in the family for 300+ years. They have been slowly converting the atmospheric farmsteads into a luxury villa-hotel, preserving as many original details as possible but infusing them with a serious sense of what the team calls “Carlotta style.” Of the villas, which can sleep from two to 20 guests, a favorite is the hilltop La Penna with gorgeous alfresco sitting areas and wood-oven for pizza-making; soulful San Savino, meanwhile, has a fabulous wooden hot tub with views so sweeping they look surreal. The family’s roots in this region and love for sharing the best parts with guests are unmatched. Up next: look for additional deluxe guest rooms in a villa with its own pool.
Favorite Newcomer: Vocabolo Moscatelli
Powered by the vision of two inspired hoteliers, the 12-room Vocabolo Moscatelli manages to be both a statement of high design in which every corner has been beautifully (often hand-) crafted, as well as a place that feels effortlessly rooted in the serene agricultural setting of northern Umbria. Don’t be surprised when you make new friends at the fire-pit or leave with the address of Cotto Etrusco (the local brand behind the eye-popping ceramic tiles) in your pocket. In short, this is a newcomer to watch.
Favorite Dinner: Big Night Out
Fortified Norcia in the eastern border with Le Marche still feels a bit wild (think Game of Thrones backdrop) so it comes as a beautiful surprise that one of Umbria’s sole Michelin stars is found here. Run by two talented chefs (one local, one visiting), Vespasia, the gastronomic marvel of Palazzo Seneca, the area’s most elegant hotel, is an absolute feat. Here, the gastronomy crafts and elevates the best products of the region into flavorful marvels, with an eye on serious sustainability: earlier in the month, the restaurant just earned a green Michelin star, thanks in part, to ingredients from its own farm and natural truffle fields.
Favorite Local Chef
One of the best parts of Aethos Saragano, an experiential boutique hotel that occupies a 13th-century hilltop village, is the fact that chef Delfina Vincareti was born in this small place and creates the most exquisitely seasonal, super local dishes with a light touch. If you’re lucky, her mom Bianca will beckon you into her home (across from reception) where she makes a strong espresso in a miniature Bialetti and shares culinary tips and recipes.
Medieval Bevagna has my favorite town square of all the Umbrian villages (which is saying a lot!) The local scene here is strong and visitors are warmly welcomed in, whether over a Campari Spritz at Bar Colonna (a Roman column stands amidst the al fresco tables); a plate of antipasto at Enoteca La Trifola; or local vintages at Le Barbetelle, a wine bar run by a plugged-in expat who can tell you all about the small vintners worth seeking out. Soaking in the Bevagna scene is the best part.
First-Time Must: Assisi
Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, you have to plan your trip wisely (insider tips on how to do that coming in our Umbria Guide). But the two churches that make up the Basilica di San Francesco are a Unesco World Heritage site for a reason. Brush up on your Old and New Testament stories and come prepared to marvel. Perhaps best of all: photography is forbidden inside, so all you can do is be present and maybe, if you’re inspired, bring a sketchbook.
Off-the-Beaten-Path: Museo Atelier Giuditta Brozzetti
This artisan weaving workshop and atelier is a bit outside Perugia’s historic center but is well worth the walk for the vast array of fabrics still produced on handlooms (the designer in charge now is the fourth generation to run the atelier). The backdrop of the 13th-century Franciscan church creates a unique ambience, as does the fact that here women have crafted artisan wares that resemble works of art for decades. Not to be missed if you’re in Perugia.
What to Buy: Gourmet Goodies
Umbria excels in gourmet shops, and each area has its own unique focus (truffles and charcuterie in Norcia; wines around Montefalco). An easy one-stop shop is Enoteca Hispellum in Spello, the so-called flower town at the heart of the Spoleto-Assisi valley. Don’t expect anything atmospheric (Hispellum is as brightly lit as a Trader Joes), but there’s a wide variety of products, including olive oil in easy-to-pack aluminum containers. The owners will also help with shipping. Another good choice is Alimentari Biagetti, in Bevagna, which feels more personal and also has an exciting wine selection.
What to Skip: Montefalco
This is controversial, in part because the hilltop queen of the wine region does have fantastic photo ops and one of the region’s best restaurants (L’Alchimista). But, for the most part, the town is quite touristy and the action is really in the many surrounding wineries (cantine) where appointments can be made for tastings and tours. Some of the most famous are Arnaldo Caprai and bio artisan Paolo Bea, but I love seeking out the addresses that are not readily available in the U.S. (A sommelier’s insider’s list to come in our Umbria Guide)
Favorite Moment: In the Olive Groves
I was invited by my Italian teacher, Marco Bertellini, and his family who hail from Perugia and have three olive groves in the hills above Spello. Helping with the harvest alongside four 70-plus-year-old Italian men who spoke little-to-no English was one of my favorite travel experiences to date (much more on this harvest in my upcoming article about Umbria).
In sum: if you manage to get yourself invited to join an olive harvest, do. The experience is meditative (parts are still done by hand) and wonderfully communal (in the valley between Spoleto and Assisi, most families have olive campos of various sizes). Best of all, the fruits of your labor are often turned into oil within days, and it’s easy to make the decision to check luggage knowing you have these handcrafted treasures in your suitcase.
Addendum for Italian aficionadoes: Marco is an excellent teacher for all levels who does classes as well we privates. Contact Indagare for details if becoming fluent in this beautiful language has been a dream…)
Next Up: Lakeside & Ceramics
I didn’t have time to scout Trasimeno, Italy’s fourth-largest lake (only a bit smaller than Lake Como) and the lovely little town of Panicale, home to Rastrello, a hotel that comes highly recommended. Closer to Perugia, I missed making an appointment to visit Endiadi Ceramics, an atelier run by the woman who makes all the beautiful ceramics at Vocabolo Moscatelli (and also runs pottery workshops there).
An in-depth Umbria Destination Guide, including reviews of the top hotels and experiences, will post to Indagare soon. If you’re dreaming of planning a trip for next Spring or Summer, contact our team.