City Focus Perugia
City Focus editor Robin McKelvie takes a stroll around the Umbrian city of Perugia
Stacked up against its world-famous neighbours like Florence and Rome, Perugia’s PR people are always going to have a tougher sell. Yet there is plenty more to Umbria’s largest city than you might imagine. It has a chocolate-box-pretty old town, occupying its own spectacular bluff high above the rolling Umbrian countryside. This fabulous shot was taken near the Hotel Brufani Palace at one of the town’s highest points, with its trademark historic architecture stretching into the distance. And of course, Perugia’s rich past is combined with a massive international student population that helps to fuel one of Italy’s liveliest nightlife scenes, awash with bustling bars and a swathe of decadent outdoor living on one of the most remarkable piazzas in Italy. Perugia, as you’ll find in the following pages, is pretty special indeed.
Walk through Perugia's old town and it’s as if you’re stepping into history, following Etruscan and Roman footsteps at every turn. Staring south down the main thoroughfare of Corso Vanucci – named after one of the city’s most famous sons, a master painter – from Piazza IV Novembre is to take in a view that has remained impressively unchanged for centuries.
If Piazza IV Novembre is the architectural and social heart of Perugia then the Duomo is its ecclesiastical hub. This colossal church may lack the gilded grandeur of St Peter’s in Rome, but the design of Fra’ Bevignate dates from the 1300s with additions over the centuries conjuring up what you see today. His taste for the epic shines through.
Tumbling out the southern exit you are on Le Scalette, the ancient steps where everyone comes to see and be seen, so take a breath and pause a while. Right in front is the Fontana Maggiore. Father and son team Nicola and Giovanni Pisano were the brains behind this stunning fountain going back 700 years. Look out for the carvings that depict such epoch-making events as the founding of Rome.
Eating requires a quick uphill walk to Pizzeria Mediterranea, wholly deserving of its local reputation as the best in town – with great prices like the euro-defying half litre of quaffable wine coming in at €1.60. Also try the Nutella pizza for a devilishly delicious dessert! For a more studenty vibe, enjoy savoury crepes and salads as you talk politics and philosophy down at Tuttotesto.
If time is short, the must-see building in Perugia has to be the spectacular Palazzo dei Priori. This mighty edifice is home to the old Merchants’ Hall and the ornate Notaries’ Hall. But if art is more your thing then the outstanding attraction is the National Gallery of Umbria, featuring a treasure trove of works from the 13th to the 19th centuries.
Perugia really is made for walking, so don’t be lazy. Saunter down Corso Vanucci to Piazza Italia, – one of the city’s great public spaces – and then on to the relaxed park by the Hotel Brufani Palace, where you may have to fight off amorous couples on benches to enjoy a sweeping panorama of the Umbrian countryside. Reward yourself for the effort with coffee and cake at Caffè Sandri, a lovely little oasis that has been sorting caffeine fixes since 1860, a relatively short time in a city that has been around for so long.
A day trip out of Perugia is more than worthwhile, as the region of Umbria is famous for its cute hill towns and sweeping natural beauty. Try the Italian hill town escape of Todi, rated by locals as one of the country’s best places to live. It boasts a lovely main square, a trio of impressive restaurants and lively bars and cafés. If you want to stay the night you can recline in your very own castle and wake to views of a land that, like nearby Perugia itself, is awash with Roman and Etruscan ghosts.
Night falls in Perugia and the party begins. Piazza IV Novembre comes into its own as the sun melts over the city and the town’s youth and the massive student community descend on this ancient meeting place. Watch jugglers and fire eaters, or just chill on the Duomo steps supping Peroni out of a plastic cup in a piazza where the entertainment is laid on for free.
Dempsey’s is a lively bar where you can take away your beer in a plastic container (glass bottles are strictly prohibited on the piazza) and you can also drink inside in the colder months. A handful of fast-food places swirl around the square, but for something more substantial (and we are talking seriously substantial) you can order a metre of pizza at Pizzeria Etruschetto. They even throw in a free bottle of wine.
Classier options include Locanda Do’ Pazzi, with its inventive fusion menu, and al Mangiar Bene, which showcases Umbria’s rich culinary larder. Organic and local are the buzzwords in this well-run trattoria just off Corso Vanucci, which conjures up excellent pasta dishes as well as deliciously thin Neapolitan-style pizzas.
Time now to hit the old town’s party haunts. Caffè Morlacchi is a lively café/bar in the university district where you can pick up flyers for the ever-changing array of bar and club nights. Elfo’s Pub claims to be the oldest in town and does a mean pint of Guinness in cosy surrounds, while Merlin, a subterranean drinking den, lays on DJs and live music. DJs also grace too-cool-for-school Lunabar – just beware those lethal strawberry daiquiris. In summer, buses leave from Palazzo Galenga for bigger clubs elsewhere in Umbria, while in Perugia bijou club options include Domus (open till 5am) with happy house and disco, and Velvet, a smoother retreat that attracts an older clientele.
The Perugia Gig
Summer sees the biggest musical event of the year, the world-famous Umbria Jazz (10–19 July, www.umbriajazz.com). Another musical highlight on 23 April is the performance of mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli in the Sala dei Notari. Antonio Ballista provides the backing piano as her remarkable voice explores the works of Wolf and Debussy. The concert is part of the annual Amici della Musica concert series, which runs until the end of May.
PERUGIA ON THE CHEAP
For a cheap picnic-style lunch check out stalls at the covered market just off Piazza Matteotti. Ditch the local buses and taxis and make use of the system of free public lifts and escalators that ferry you between the hilly old town and the newer districts, though be aware they do close late at night. For the city’s more cerebral attractions you can also get a “Perugia City Museum Circuit” card, which works out much cheaper than buying individual tickets.
Cream of the Crop
Hotel Brufani Palace
The city’s only five-star hotel is a sublime retreat, located on the edge of Corso Vanucci high up in the old city. Many of the rooms have sweeping country views and all are charmingly old world, replete with oil paintings, linen sheets and spa baths. In the basement vaults guests can take a swim amid evocative Etruscan remnants before lazing in the sauna and steam room. The Collins restaurant is also something of a local landmark, especially when its rooftop terrace comes alive during the summer.
DOUBLES FROM €240, INCLUDING BREAKFAST. TEL: +39 075 573 2541, WWW.BRUFANIPALACE.IT
On a Budget
Ostello di Perugia
This is easily the best-located youth hostel in Perugia, tucked right in the heart of the old town. It’s set in a lovely building, the historic Borgia-Mandolini’s Palace, and some of the common areas and bedrooms boast impressive views of the city. Most of the 150 beds are in dormitories, but there are also some individual rooms for families. Handily, no youth hostel card is necessary and all guests have access to the kitchen – useful if you have overdosed on all that pizza and pasta.
ROOMS FROM €15. TEL: +39 075 572 2880, WWW.OSTELLO.PERUGIA.IT
Not Breaking the Bank
Perugia is renowned for its chocolate, and this place claims to be “the first hotel in the world devoted to chocolate”. From the moment you arrive the lovely sugary brown stuff is everywhere, and the 94 rooms are spread across “milk”, “gianduia” and “bittersweet” chocolate floors. There’s also a Chocostore to stock up on products like cocoa-scented shampoo, while the restaurant sports a Chocomenu alongside classic Umbrian dishes. Not ideal if you’re on a diet, but a chocoholic’s paradise!
DOUBLES FROM €70, INCLUDING BREAKFAST. TEL: +39 075 583 7314, WWW.CHOCOHOTEL.IT
Mario Santoro, Todi Castle Owner, on the delights of living in Umbria
“We don't do things at high speed in Perugia or in Umbria in general, and I think you feel that the moment you touch down. I moved here from Rome, drawn by the relaxed pace of life and the unique chance to live and work in my very own castle.
“Perugia is at the forefront of the ‘Slow City’ and the ‘Slow Food’ movements. We take this focus on doing things properly seriously, with an attention to detail and high level of quality that I believe make Umbria such a great place to live in and to visit. It may be a city but Perugia still feels pleasantly rural and laid back.
“We also enjoy a superb array of architecture. It is a natural amphitheatre that makes everything you do feel dramatic. I also love the fact that it is perhaps Italy’s most secular city and a place of learning and knowledge, with two universities and thousands of students. They really help bring life to the old streets and create a real night-time buzz.
“You can never get bored in Perugia. There are countless museums and things to see and do. I recommend just strolling around the old town soaking up the atmosphere. There are also numerous restaurants specialising in fresh, local produce. They are not like the many places in Rome and Venice that only tourists go to. Perugia is not as driven by tourism as those cities and it is more charming for that.
“I moved to Umbria to revamp and run Todi Castle, which has been a real labour of love. We have worked hard to get the castle into the state it is in today and now guests staying here can enjoy a unique experience. We encourage them to try the local food, much of which comes from our grounds and the surrounding villages, and to get involved in local life.
“We must be doing something right as many of our guests say their stay has been the best holiday they have ever had and we are getting more and more people every year, including some famous names such as Goldie Hawn. She enjoyed the relaxed pace of living and the quality of life here – and if those are important things to you I think you will enjoy visiting Perugia and Umbria as much as I enjoy living here.”
TODI CASTLE, VOCABOLO CAPECCHIO, MORRE, BASCHI, TEL: +39 347 570 7148, WWW.TODICASTLE.COM
Hotel Brufani Palace
12 Piazza Italia
Tel: +39 075 573 2541
134 Via Campo di Marte
Tel: +39 075 583 7314
Ostello di Perugia
13 Via Bontempi
Tel: +39 075 572 2880
Vocabolo Capecchio, Morre, Baschi
Tel: +39 347 570 7148 (outside the city)
Cathedral of San Lorenzo
Piazza IV Novembre
Piazza IV Novembre
15 Corso Vanucci
25 Corso Vanucci
National Gallery of Umbria
19 Corso Vanucci
Tel: +39 075 574 1410
11/12 Piazza Piccinino
Tel: +39 075 572 1322
15 Corso Garibaldi
Tel: +39 075 573 6666
32 Corso Vanucci
Tel: +39 075 572 4112
17 Corso Garibaldi
Tel: +39 075 572 9230
Locanda do’ Pazzi
128 Corso Cavour
Tel: +39 075 572 0565
19 Piazza IV Novembre
Al Mangiar Bene
21 Via della Luna
Tel. +39 075 573 1047
6/8 Piazza Morlacchi
Tel: +39 075 572 1760
20 Via Sant’Agata
6 Via Scura
Tel: +39 075 572 2966
Via del Forno
Tel: +39 075 571 6120
3 Via del Naspo
20 Viale Roma
Tel: +39 075 572 1321