assisi italy landscape

There is one thing I always have envied about long-term travelers. Without fail, everyone I stalk online who is off gallivanting around the world mention that they stop researching where they’re going. They stop booking in advance, figuring out what they want to do, and begin flying by the seat of their pants, so to speak. It’s baffling. And appealing. And I’ve never traveled long enough for that ‘research fatigue’ to set in.

Until this autumn.

Assisi, Italy: a view of the Umbrian countryside below

Assisi, Italy: more churches
Assisi, Italy: some of the steep, stone steps throughout the town

At the end of a long sojourn around Europe, we had a final stretch in Italy before wrapping up our European travels. Throughout our trip, we had been fairly regimented, planning roughly ten days in advance, and doing some preliminary research on a place before showing up.

But we were tired. And we were sick of deciding where to go next. We’ve traveled in Italy a few times, had very few places left on our short list of must-visit destinations, and frankly, we were stumped. We didn’t want to drive too far out of our way across the vast swath of central Italy, but other than that, we just could not decide.

And then my early childhood spent in Catholic Sunday School kicked in.

And Assisi, home of St. Francis, hero to Catholics everywhere, jumped off the map. Well, why not? He’s supposed to be a cool guy, right? Every image I’ve ever seen of St. Francis is of a humble monk surrounded by animals. What’s not to like?

And with not much else in the way of planning, we drove over.

Assisi, Italy

Assisi, Italy: one of the many Catholic shops

Assisi, Italy: lots of religious scultpures

Assisi, Italy

If you are someone who really can’t stand the idea of yet another visit to yet another church, you may have a lackluster visit to Assisi.  There are more than a handful of notable churches to visit, and a surprising number of nuns, monks and priests who call Assisi home. We saw more religious tour groups in Assisi than I have ever seen anywhere, and we were also surprised by the number of Americans who make a point to visit this otherwise small town in the vastness of Umbria.

All that said, we were very impressed with Assisi, and it now ranks high on our list of Italian favorites. Here’s why.

Assisi, Italy: A small Umbrian hillside town

Assisi, Italy

Assisi, Italy: one of the quaint side streets through the town

1. She’s a Beaut

Italy doesn’t lack in charm. Nearly 50 million tourists descend on Italy annually, and all but a few will later claim it as one of the best places they’ve ever been. Assisi doesn’t crack the top ten as far as visitors go, but it is the most picture perfect Italian town you’ve ever seen, the one that graces your imagination when you think ‘Italy.’ It has that precise color of dusty yellow and burnt orange that glow at sunset. Its cobblestone streets and ancient town squares are just so perfectly Italian that you can’t help yourself comparing every other place in Italy back to Assisi.

For two seasoned Italian-o-philes, we walked around, jaws dropped, wondering why we hadn’t heard more about Assisi from family or friends. I think it’s because Assisi is a little out of the way for the average tourist, halfway between Rome and Florence but not especially convenient to either. But I digress. The photos don’t lie.

Assisi, Italy: the facade of one of the many churches in Assisi

Assisi, Italy

Assisi, italy: The Basilica of St. Francis

2. Catholic Tourism with Class

Here’s something I hate: paying to go into a church. I used to suck it up, frequently coughing up several euros for the opportunity to gaze around at amazing architecture. But after one too many not-so-stunning cathedrals and mosques that looked much better from the outside, I’ve had enough. There are plenty of things to spend money on in a new city and for me, churches just fall way down the priority list.

You’ll imagine my surprise, then, that every single church in Assisi is completely free.

Even the Basilica of St. Francis, the granddaddy church of them all, is free of charge. Given my proclivity to think that every attraction just wants to make a cheap buck, I was shocked and quite pleased by this practice. Endless kitschy souvenir shops have sprung up all over town to supply visitors with tons of tacky Catholic memorabilia, but the churches have made their position clear. Anyone, and I do mean anyone, is free to enter. (Donation boxes are readily available for those who wish to give.)

Assisi, Italy: the exterior of one of the many Assisi churches

Assisi, Italy

Assisi, Italy: one of the main churches in the heart of Assisi

3. More Than St. Francis

St. Francis is a rockstar among Catholics. The Franciscan order is named for him, and he is well-known for his dedication to living a life of poverty. The current pope, Pope Francis, took his papal name from the saint. He’s kind of a big deal.

But in Assisi, St. Francis is just one of a few key religious figures. I really enjoyed visiting St. Clare’s Basilica, and also touring the chapel of San Damiano, where St. Clare and the rest of the founding members of the order of the Poor Clares, lived and worked. The Cathedral of San Rufino is less well known, but it has been around longer than the others, since the 1100s. Both Clare and Francis are said to have been baptized here.

There are also churches dedicated to St. Peter, a few different St. Marys, and let’s not forget the two medieval castles that preside over the town which you can visit when you inevitably get church fatigue. All this in a town with a population of less than 25,000. Impressive.

Assisi, Italy: a potato and cheese fondue with truffles

Assisi, Italy: A hearty ragu in a Assisi trattoria

 4. You’re Still in Italy!

When you’re all tuckered out from churches and dodging the tourists on day trips from elsewhere, Assisi is smack dab in the middle of Italy.

That means an endless supply of inexpensive wine and hearty Umbian food. Cheese and potatoes and truffles graced our table day after day, and to counter the caloric intake, we found ourselves on punishing runs to the fortress each morning. High on a hill, we loved gazing over the low hanging morning fog on the valley floor and searching for the perfect spot to watch the famous sunsets each evening.

Assisi, Italy: a perfect Umbrian sunset

Because, at the end of the day, Assisi is in the heart of Italy, and when you’re in Italy, you get all the goodies that go with it. If you are intrigued by St. Francis and his legacy, great. If you’d prefer to eat gelato and veg out, fine. If you want to watch the light change near sunset, and bask in the warm light that is quintessential Italy, fab.

Because Assisi is everything that’s great about Italy, all on one quaint Umbrian hillside.

assisipin-min

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  • December 6, 2016

    wow, these churches are really awesome. I’m wondering how does it really look like from the inside? The view is feeding my soul. Thanks for the glimpse.

    • December 7, 2016
      Julie

      The insides are just as beautiful, especially the Basilica of San Francesco. However, no photos were allowed indoors, so we weren’t able to catch any images to share, unfortunately!

  • December 10, 2016

    I’m not at all Catholic, but I’ve always admired St. Francis of Assisi because he is the patron saint of animals. I prefer to visit the off-tourist areas that no one ever thinks about. I feel like you get a more authentic travel experience and they’re often cheaper, like you mentioned about the churches being free.
    Jen Sotolongo recently posted…Street Tails: Emily and FenwayMy Profile

    • December 11, 2016

      Assisi was certainly not part of our original plan, but sure glad we ended up there!

  • December 10, 2016

    Unreal! I always love your photos so much, and want to go everywhere you do because of it! Great post as usual– now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go plan a trip to Italy 😉

  • December 10, 2016

    I totally understand the concept of planning fatigue- it sets in for me as well. Sometime you just have to go with the flow.

  • December 10, 2016

    Assisi is really lovely, as is Umbria. It’s a shame most people miss this little region of Italy because it has so much to offer and none of the crowds like Tuscany.
    Jennifer recently posted…Italy Off-the-Beaten-Path Road Trip: ViterboMy Profile

    • December 11, 2016

      agree! Assisi is so well positioned between Florence and Rome too, that it is actually not too difficult to make a side trip when on an Italian holiday. And the Umbrian countryside isn’t so bad either!

  • December 11, 2016

    I have to say, most of the time the idea of another church or renaissance museum makes my eyes cross when I’m traveling in Europe. But if every church is free, then why not! Your pictures make me re-think as well, look lovely.
    Annie recently posted…7 Good Reasons to Miss the Holidays and Travel InsteadMy Profile

    • December 11, 2016

      Definitely feel the same why, especially after 3 years living in Europe. But nice when you can just cruise in, not have to pay or stand in line.

  • December 11, 2016

    Beautiful photographs. I have visited Italy several times and your photos have bought back a lot of happy memories. The architecture is stunning! Polly
    Our Seaside Baby recently posted…A Winter’s SunsetMy Profile

    • December 12, 2016

      Thinking of Italy always brings back happy thoughts for us too!

  • December 12, 2016

    I was all set to comment on the incredible architecture and your impressive photography skills but then you threw in pics of food! Italy is one of my favorite places to eat. I would, honestly, go to Assisi to eat those dishes!

  • December 12, 2016

    Grew up with the legends surrounding St. Francis. I love your approach and referring to the inevitable church fatigue! I remember it well but didn’t enough time in Italy. The pictures make me want to visit again more than ever.
    Elaine J Masters recently posted…Charlie’s always home in Chaplin’s World, SwitzerlandMy Profile

  • December 12, 2016

    Love what you stumble onto when you let go and become spontaneous:) Assis looks like a fabulous place to visit. I’m with you 100% about not paying for church visits…and you took some amazing pics. The food and the wine is always the best reward and judging from your pictures, you did really well 🙂
    Rosemary recently posted…Why You Want To Have a Food Tour in Bangkok at NightMy Profile

  • December 13, 2016

    Assisi is one of my favorite places I’ve been. It was so peaceful and yet so much still to see. Thanks for reminding me I want to go back!
    Megan MacNee recently posted…A Unique Way to go Whale Watching on the Monterey BayMy Profile

  • December 16, 2016

    We went to Umbria this October and fell in love with it! We especially liked Assisi, its cobbled (and flowery!) streets, and the view of the rooftops from the top of the town. If you decide to go back to Umbria I wholeheartedly recommend Lake Trasimeno and the town of Todi with its surrounding hills.

    Happy travels,
    Anja

    • December 18, 2016

      Always love Italian tips! Thanks!

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