This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Dream of Italy and won a Racconmati l’Umbria journalism award in 2016. Updated 2018.
Orvieto is the ultimate city on a hill with a deep history to explore. Although the ups and downs don’t only include the Umbrian town’s rise to power during the Middle Ages from its ancient Etruscan roots, and occasional declines during political infighting among its noble families.
It’s also a story of life above and below ground, even today. A city of about 21,000 people, Orvieto is less than 90 minutes north of Rome by train. The city—with its magnificent Duomo glinting in the sun—rises majestically above the surrounding countryside from its perch on a plateau of volcanic tufa rock.
Inhabited by the Etruscans as early as the 9th century BC, the porous tufa contains a complex underground world of caves, cisterns and quarries where many worked while living above in the town. By the 13th century, Orvieto became a thriving city-state and a popular Papal retreat.
Pope Urban IV really put the city on the map when he took up residence in 1262 while escaping civil unrest in Rome. In 1263, a doubting priest stopped in nearby Bolsena on his way to Rome and saw blood dripping from the Host, or communion wafer, while delivering his sermon. The blood covered the altar cloth, which was taken to show Urban.
The pope was so impressed by the “Miracle of Bolsena,” he established the Feast of Corpus Christi, a celebration of the Eucharist still marked by Catholics today and in particular in Orvieto (usually in June) with a midnight pilgrimage from Bolsena to Orvieto followed by a grand procession of townspeople in jewel-toned costumes. Urban also dictated that a new church be built to house the bloody cloth. That church, the first cornerstone of which was laid by Pope Nicholas IV in 1290, would become the magnificent Orvieto cathedral.
Today, Orvieto offers a wonderful walk through history and there’s plenty to keep visitors busy for several days, but if you only have one or two, here are a few suggestions of what not to miss
The best (and most fun) way to arrive is via the Bracci Funicular, which takes people from Piazza Matteotti opposite the Orvieto train station up to Piazza Cahen. The funicular, completed in 1888, runs every 10 minutes and makes for a dramatic entrance as it rides past local vineyards and olive groves. It closes around 8:30 p.m., though, so ask at the station when the last run will be if you plan to leave early.
The funicular is open daily between 7:20 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.; tickets cost 1.30€. If you’re arriving by car, Orvieto is off the A1 highway between Florence and Rome; parking lots connect to the town by elevator.
Once in Piazza Cahen, for a gorgeous view over the Umbrian hills, make a left out of the station to reach the ruins of the Albornoz Fortress, built in 1364 by Spanish Cardinal Egidio Albornoz to celebrate his military victories and provide defense (although with its position on the cliff, Orvieto was nearly impregnable). The grounds of the fort are now a public park ideal for a picnic.
From the funicular, buses go up to the center, but for a better introduction to the town take the 10 to 15 minute walk up the main street, Corso Cavour, which runs to Piazza Repubblica on the far side of town. (You can pick up a map at the tourist office in Piazza Cahen.)
Strolling along the cobblestone street introduces visitors to the gold-toned architecture of Orvieto. Nearly all the buildings are made from the tufa, lending the town a homogeneous color palette that’s warm and inviting. Along the way you’ll get glimpses of the red brick Torre del Moro ahead. The massive clock tower stands out for its color and its height: about 155 feet.
If you’re feeling the need for a pick-me-up, several coffee bars are along Cavour, including Barrique and Caffé Cavour. With tables outside, they’re excellent spots for people watching, and for having a glass of Orvieto wine later in the day.
The Golden Duomo
At the Torre, make a left on Via del Duomo and you’ll pass several artisans’ shops, like Orogami, a high-end jewelry store owned by friendly husband and wife master jewelers Massimo and Tiziana Aloisio. You’ll also pass ceramic shops like Ceramicarte and Mastropaolo, which offer authentic, handmade Orvietán ceramics.
As you approach Piazza del Duomo, the breathtaking, triple-gabled façade of the cathedral slowly comes into view with its glittering mosaics, gold and marble inlay, and stunning rose window by Andrea di Cione. The church took over 100 years to complete and is a triumph of Gothic and Romanesque architecture.
The austere interior initially stands in stark contrast to the façade. Immense columns divide the vast space into three aisles. But walk forward and out of the moody darkness behind the altar you’ll see the walls are crammed with frescoes by Ugolino di Prete Ilario and Pietro di Puccio depicting episodes from the life of Mary. To the left, visitors may feel humbled by the great organ (containing over 5,000 pipes!), one of the largest in Italy, which stands above the Chapel of the Corporal, where the famous altar-cloth of the Miracle of Bolsena is preserved.
On the opposite side is the Chapel of the Madonna of San Brizio, decorated with frescoes by Luca Signorelli showing scenes from the Last Judgment in all its gruesome glory. The lower register has somewhat playful portraits of famous poets, like Homer, Horace, Ovid and Dante.
The cathedral is open daily between 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., though in the off-season it often closes by 2:30 p.m. Entrance costs 3€ or is included when you purchase the Carta Orvieto Unica (20€), which includes entrance to basically everything in Orvieto: the Duomo and its museums, the Opera del Duomo, and almost all museums in town, as well as the Underground tour, and the Cava and St. Patrick’s Wells. You can purchase it at many points around town including kiosks at the train station and in Piazza del Duomo.
Having worked up an appetite, the challenge now will be deciding where to eat. A great spot is Trattoria del Moro, beneath the clock tower. Family owned since 1965, sisters Rolanda and Emiliana Livi, and Rolanda’s son Cristian Manca, run the place and they tell me dishes like Umbrichelli al Tartufo (pasta with truffles) and Cinghiale alla Cacciatora (wild boar in tomato sauce) are the local favorites.
Another option, with outside seating in Piazza del Duomo, is Enoteca al Duomo, also family-owned, by husband and wife Emiliano Micheli and Ilaria Stacchiotti. Their restaurant offers flights of the tasty Orvieto wines (Orvieto Classico or Superiore, a crisp blend of Grechetto, Trebbiano and Verdelho grapes), and specializes in traditional Umbrian pork dishes, pasta and the like.
From the Duomo, I recommend checking out 45-minute guided Orvieto Underground tour, conducted several times a day in English. Here you’ll get a true sense of how deep Orvieto’s history goes. The tour takes you beneath the city into the ancient caves and tunnels that stretch for miles.
Because Orvieto was built on a bluff, the only place to expand was down, and early citizens did just that to find much-needed water, and they also used the space for business. Today visitors can still see an ancient olive oil press that used techniques still employed in modern oil production.
The caves, our guide told us, were an ideal location for storage of oil, cheese and more because they remain a constant 58 degrees Fahrenheit. Noble families owned many of the caves and used them as dovecotes to house pigeons, a local delicacy and big business. Today, some houses still have private caves below that are used as wine cellars or for storage.
The entrance is located at Piazza Duomo 23. For more information, call (39) 0763 340688 or visit www.orvietounderground.it. Group tours leave several times a day and the cost for a ticket is 6€.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try pigeon at Trattoria La Palomba, near Piazza della Repubblica. Or you may want to eat dinner at the Sicilian restaurant Cibus, opened in 2013 by Alessandro Franzella and one of the few places in town where you can order fresh fish, like pistachio-crusted tuna and grilled sea bass.
Thursday and Saturday are market days in Orvieto, so if you are in town then it is fun to pass by the colorful stalls of fresh vegetables, cheese, and cured meats, which are set up in Piazza del Popolo in the shadow of the striking Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo. The market usually wraps up by about 1 p.m.
Returning to Corso Cavour, Caffe Montanucci has been serving coffee and homemade pastries for 100 years, so it’s a tasty place for breakfast. If you want more than the traditional Italian morning snack of coffee and cornetto, they also serve an American-style breakfast.
Time to Climb
A good way to work off your morning pastry is to climb the 150-or-so feet up the Torre del Moro. The tower was originally part of the noble Della Terza family’s Palazzo dei Setti, next door, but after passing from private hands to the Church and then to the Commune, it became the residence of the papally-appointed governors and delegates to the Holy See.
Now the palace is an exhibition space. Inside the tower, there’s an elevator that goes up partway but then you’ll need to take the stairs. It’s “valsa la pena” (worth the pain), as they say in Italy, because at the top you’re rewarded with a 360-degree view of the countryside. While you’re looking off, it’s likely that the clock, cast in 1313, will strike the time (it tolls every quarter-hour) and ring out over the countryside.
Visit Torre del Moro at Corso Cavour, 87. It is open daily between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. or 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in low season. Tickets cost 2.80€.
A Step Back in Time
One of my favorite areas in Orvieto is the far western end of the town. From Cavour, walk through Piazza della Repubblica, pausing to admire the Church of Sant’Andrea with its 12-sided bell tower. The church served as the community center in the Middle Ages where citizens’ meetings were held. Pope Innocent III announced the 4th Crusade from the church in 1216 and one of the kings of Jerusalem, Pierre d’Artois, was crowned here.
Continue on to Via Filippeschi, and follow signs to the Churches of Sant’Agostino and San Giovenale. Sant’Agostino is now a part of the Opera del Duomo museums and houses dramatic sculptures of the apostles, by various artists, that once stood in the Duomo, along with Francesco Mochi’s beautiful depiction of the Annunciation.
Around the corner from Sant’Agostino stands the oldest church in town, the Romanesque San Giovenale, built in 1004, where 12th- and 13th-century frescoes still grace the interior. Standing near the edge of the tufa cliff, the church is a peaceful retreat, and if the local priest is there he can provide a brochure with more information about the church in English. But go early or later in the afternoon, it’s usually closed from around noon until 4 p.m. From the small piazza in front of San Giovenale, you can stroll along the edge of town for a spectacular view.
Sant’Agostino is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in high season and 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-5 p.m. in low season; closed Tuesday. Tickets cost 4€. San Giovenale is free to enter and is generally open noon to 4 p.m.
St. Patrick’s Well
Finally, heading back to the funicular, you may want to take one last opportunity to go underground. In 1527, Pope Clement VII, hiding out from the latest sack of Rome, commissioned Florentine architect Antonio da Sangallo to construct St. Patrick’s Well and its two spiral staircases that descend 248 steps down to where water had been found and could be used topside in case of Orvieto falling under siege.
Completed 10 years later, it’s a beautiful work of engineering that’s worth seeing if you have the energy left after two jam-packed days in this enchanting Umbrian town.
The well can be found on Viale Sangallo and is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (or 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in low season. Entrance fee is 5€.
Lisa Chambers, an American expat living in Rome, contributes regularly to Dream of Italy. She wrote about Caravaggio’s Rome for the April 2015 issue. Visit her blog at www.searchingforbernini.com.
Where to Stay
Hotel Palazzo Piccolomini
Piazza Ranieri, 36
(39) 0763 341743
Rates: Start at 150€ for a double room.
A lovely 4-star hotel in a 16th-century palazzo.
Piazza Duomo, 5, Orvieto
Rates: Range from 80 to 190€ for a double, including breakfast
A lovely, 3-star boutique hotel located near the Duomo.
Ripa Medici Bed & Breakfast
Vicolo Ripa Medici, 14
(39) 0763 341343
Rates: Start at 65€ per night, including breakfast.
Small, friendly B&B on the western side of town
Where to Have Coffee or an Aperitivo
Corso Cavour, 23
(39) 0763 341261
Corso Cavour, 74
Corso Cavour, 111
(39) 0763 340455
Where to Eat
Trattoria del Moro Aronne
Via S. Leonardo, 7
(39) 0763 342763
Excellent for local pasta and meat dishes.
Trattoria La Palomba
Via Cipriano Menente, 16
(39) 0763 343395
Good place to try pigeon!
Where to Drink Wine
Enoteca al Duomo
Piazza del Duomo, 13
(39) 0763 344607
Where to Eat Gelato
Piazza del Duomo, 14
Via del Duomo, 10
Where to Shop
Via Garibaldi, 27
This young Roman cobbler moved to Orvieto and with his wife is continuing an artisan tradition of handmade and custom-made shoes, handbags, wallets, belts, etc.
Via del Duomo, 14/16
(39) 0763 344206
Master jewelers Massimo and Tiziana Aloisio create original, unique and beautiful handmade jewelry and will happily answer any questions you might have about the items in their shop (they speak some English). They have a range of pieces from simple and affordable to more intricate and expensive, and they do custom work.
Via del Duomo, 74
(39) 0763 341060
The owner of the shop, Lamberto (if you see a bald-headed man with a great smile and kind eyes behind the counter, that’s him), sells all kinds of olive wood items, soaps and linens. He’s also a papermaker.
Via dell Duomo, 42
(39) 0763 341394
Unusual handmade, artisan ceramics by artists Nadia and Alberto.
Piazza dell Duomo, 36
(39) 0763 343667
Another great place for ceramics, including modern designs.
Where to Take a Class
I Love IT School
Vicolo Ascanio Vitozzi, 2
(39) 0763 450016
A local school owned and operated by two wonderful women, Laura Cardinali and Evelina Santaguida, it offers Italian language classes to students of all ages. They also offer cooking lessons. Find out more in the June/July 2013 issue of Dream of Italy.