Discover Orvieto

For centuries Orvieto was the holiday hideaway of successive popes, and there are plenty of reasons to follow in their footsteps.

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Orvieto holiday guide

The small city of Orvieto sits high on a plug of volcanic tufa rock, its silhouette visible for miles in every direction. This was once the Etruscan city of Velzna, an important member of the dodecapoli (twelve leading cities). People have been living here, on land and in its caves, for around 3,000 years. Its street plan is a puzzling, claustrophobic maze of Medieval buildings, strung along cliffs that drop to the rolling Umbrian farmland below. Drive a winding road or ride the funicular to reach it. The vineyards surrounding the city have been cultivated since Etruscan times, too. Orvieto wines sailed down the River Tiber (or Tevere) to the tables of Ancient Rome's emperors.

Written by Donald Strachan, Italy specialist and Travel Writer for The Guardian.

Art & architecture

Inside and out, the 'Golden Lily of Cathedrals' is one of Umbria's unforgettable art treasures. Its designers threw every colour in the palette at its mosaic façade, but the highlight is Lorenzo Maitani's 'Last Judgement' carved right into the plain stone on the lower-right side. Its frescoed Cappella di San Brizio has Luca Signorelli's equally brutal vision of the end of days. Michelangelo studied it on his way to paint Rome's Sistine Chapel.

The best view of Orvieto is from above: climb the Medieval Torre del Moro for views over the canyon-like streets and its winelands.

The cleverest piece of engineering in town isn't above ground, but below it. The Pozzo di San Patrizio ('St. Patrick's Well') was built on the orders of Pope Clement VII when he was holed up here in the late 1520s, escaping a siege of Rome. Its twin 248-step staircases are designed as a double helix, so donkeys could be sent down in succession to bring water to the surface and would never get stuck in a donkey traffic jam. You can walk all the way down, to a depth of sixty two metres.

  • Don't miss

    Luca Signorelli's frescoes depicting the Biblical end of the world, inside the Cappella di San Brizio

    A tour of the eerie passageways below the city, run by Orvieto Underground

    Sampling Orvieto's delicate white wines, at an enoteca in the centre or on a vineyard tour

    Cappella di San Brizio, Inside Cathedral, Piazza Duomo, tel. 0763/343592,

    Torre del Moro, Corso Cavour 87, tel. 0763/344567

    Pozzo di San Patrizio, Viale Sangallo, tel. 0763/343768, www.sistemamuseo.it

Eating and drinking

Restaurant Osteria Numero Uno is fun and informal to the eye, but there's some serious cooking to back it up. The chalkboard menu varies daily, and might include the likes of fillet of pork with peaches and balsamic vinegar. It's affordable, too: the numero uno moniker is well earned.

Close to the Duomo, Tipica Trattoria Etrusca has a traditional Umbrian menu that includes 'Etruscan' recipes alongside the classic flavours such as truffle and wild boar.

Stop in at the Antica Bottega del Duomo if you're packing a picnic or just want a sandwich for lunch—wild-boar prosciutto and formaggio di fossa ('ditch-aged' sheep's-milk cheese) distils the flavours of Umbria into one stacked roll.

Pasqualetti serves the city's best gelato. Il Vincaffè is a stylish bar with a range of wine and craft beers.

  • Don't miss

    Osteria Numero Uno, Via Ripa Corsica 2a, tel. 0763/341845,www.osterianumerouno.eu; closed Mondays (also Tuesdays in winter)

    Tipica Trattoria Etrusca, Via Maitani 10, tel. 0763/344016, www.tipicatrattoriaetrusca.com; closed Mondays in winter

    Antica Bottega del Duomo, Via Pedota, tel. 0763/344216

    Pasqualetti, Corso Cavour 56, tel. 329/837-6959

    Il Vincaffè, Via Filippeschi 39, tel. 0763/340099, www.ilvincaffe.it

Local towns and villages

Narni, 61km south-east of Orvieto, has an underground world of its own. A guided visit with Narni Sotteranea tours passageways below the eerie town that were used as a prison and torture chamber by the Catholic Inquisition.

  • Don't miss

    Narni Sotteranea, Via San Bernardo 12, tel. 0744/722292, www.narnisotteranea.it; usually closed weekdays, except in mid-summer

The ourdoors

Vines cover the hills to the north-west and south-east of Orvieto. Many of the cantinas are open to visitors, and offer wine tours and tastings. For advice on hours and seasonal openings, contact the Strada dei Vini office at Piazza Duomo 24 (tel. 0763/306508) or see www.stradadeivinietruscoromana.com.

Further active exploring is more indoors than out: Orvieto sits on a plug of volcanic rock that over the centuries has been put to ingenious use, as a cold store, a pigeon coop, wine cellars, air-raid shelter and more. To explore this secret, subterranean world, and understand what's been going on there for the past 3,000 years, join a 45-minute tour operated by Orvieto Underground. It runs in English.

  • Don't miss

    Orvieto Underground, Piazza Duomo 23, tel. 0763/344891, www.orvietounderground.it; usually four tours per day

Shopping

Michelangeli's stylized wood-cuts have decorated everything from park benches to the interior of Orvieto's historic Café Montanucci (on the corso). Souvenir-sized pieces in the range include marionettes, animal woodcuts, frames, and more elaborate wood sculptures.

Like much of Umbria, Orvieto is a centre for majolica-style ceramics. Go window-shopping along busy central streets like Corso Cavour and Via del Duomo.

  • Don't miss

    Bottega Michelangeli, Via Michelangeli 3, tel. 0763/342660, www.michelangeli.it

Museums

The Museo Claudio Faina has one of central Italy's best Etruscan collections—relics left by the civilization that ruled central Italy before the Roman period. Inside there is thoughtful, child-focused signage, in English, to help you navigate your way around. The front-facing upstairs windows provide Orvieto's best angle on the extraordinary cathedral façade.

  • Don't miss

    Museo Claudio Faina, Piazza Duomo 29, tel. 0763/341511, www.museofaina.it

Music

Lucca was the birthplace of opera composer Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), and is still a musical city. Puccini's music plays somewhere in the city every week of the year. Puccini e la sua Lucca runs a series of opera recitals and concerts daily all summer (weekends only between November and March), at the church of San Giovanni and elsewhere.

The Teatro del Giglio is Lucca's premier stage, and showcases first-rate touring opera and ballet. The main concert season runs between October and April.

  • Don't miss

    Puccini e la sua Lucca, www.puccinielasualucca.it

    Teatro del Giglio, Piazza del Giglio 13, tel. 0583/467521, www.teatrodelgiglio.it; box office closed Sundays and Mondays

Orvieto map Orvieto Orvieto Orvieto Orvieto Orvieto

Key contacts

Orvieto's tourist office is at Piazza Duomo 24, tel. 0763/341772, www.regioneumbria.eu, e. info@iat.orvieto.tr.it. The free 'Map of the City and Surrounding Area' is an indispensable resource—Orvieto's street plan is a bit of a maze.

Insider tip

The Orvieto Unica Card is one of Italy's best discount admission tickets. If you have time to see everything in town (you will need at least a couple of visits), it saves you around €15 per person. Buy it next door to the tourist office, in Piazza Duomo. It costs €18. See www.cartaunica.it.

Best & Finds

  • For the eyes. Orvieto's Duomo and San Brizio Chapel
  • For the appetite.Il Boccone del Prete, Porano, 'Superb pasta with funghi, out of this world beef.' 2010