A Guide to Orvieto, Italy

My study abroad program in Italy was absolutely amazing, but one of the best parts of the trip was my home-base town of Orvieto. While there, I wrote a short blog about a typical day in Orvieto for me, and while this post will have some similarities, it’s also more of a guide to what to see and do if you only have a short time in this wonderful place. But first, let’s start with what I never leave out of a post – some history

History of Orvieto

Though Italy is most famous for the Roman Empire, Orvieto, like many Italian cities was founded by the predecessors of the Romans – the Etruscans. Today, it is believed that Orvieto was actually a center of Etruscan civilization where representatives of the twelve major cities would gather. Additionally, below the Orvieto cliffs is what archaeologists believe to be the Fanum Voltumnae, a sanctuary central to Etruscan religion. You really can’t escape the Etruscan history in Orvieto due to the numerous excavations that have uncovered everything from pottery shards to an ancient necropolis where research is still being done today.

Orvieto is surrounded by cliffs on all sides. Though this makes the location defensible (and makes for beautiful vistas of the surrounding country), it also means that there is a lack of water. To deal with this, the Etruscans built wells to find natural springs and dug into the volcanic tuff below the city to create cisterns for storage and passages to connect the various caves. Because of this advance planning, the Etruscans were able to hold out for two years against the Romans who laid siege to the city in the 3rd century.

Though the Romans did eventually conquer Orvieto, they did not leave much behind. Primarily, they used the area for agriculture to provide food and wine to nearby Rome. It was in the Middle Ages that Orvieto again prospered as a city.

Orvieto streets

Orvieto became a city-state around 1200 AD and controlled an extensive amount of land that was divided into four provinces. Pope Urban IV also lived here due to civil unrest in Rome, and it was during this time that the duomo (cathedral) was commissioned and other well-known buildings (like the Palazzo del Popolo) were built. The Middle Ages also saw further use of the cave system including the creation of an olive press below the city. However, all good things must come to an end, and Orvieto’s prosperity waned in the 14th century due to political fighting and plague.

In the 17th century, Orvieto was a papal province, and many popes and church officials found it to be a quiet vacation place away from Rome. At the same time, and in part due to this popularity and the ensuing economic benefits, there was further architectural work done in the city to create more of the buildings that remain to this day. In 1860, Orvieto became part of the Kingdom of Italy and the city continued restoring its old buildings while also bringing the city into the modern era. The first Funicolare that connected the upper and lower parts of Orvieto was built in 1888 and powered by hydraulics (today, it’s electric).

In the 20th century, the most important note in Orvieto’s history comes from World War 2. Unlike some other Italian cities, Orvieto was largely untouched by the fighting, and, to the relief of its residents, the duomo and other medieval buildings were spared. The Allies were in the process of chasing the Germans up the Italian peninsula, and other sites like the famous Abbey of Monte Cassino, had been destroyed in this pursuit. However, the German commander of the forces stationed in Orvieto saw that fighting here would destroy the cathedral and the art inside and proposed to the British that the city should be declared open and that the fighting should happen elsewhere. So, the three-day battle happened twenty kilometers away, and the city was saved.

Today, Orvieto is a popular spot to visit. It’s an easy day trip from Rome for those who, like the popes of old, are seeking a break in the countryside, and though it may not be as famous as other Italian cities, it has undeniable charm and beauty built on centuries of history.

How and When to Visit Orvieto

It’s hard to go wrong with a visit to the Umbrian countryside. My five weeks in Orvieto were roughly from mid-May to mid-June, which according to most things you’ll see about visiting Italy is pretty much ideal. To avoid the massive crowds from July-early September, spring (April-June) or mid-autumn (October) are the ideal times for a trip to Italy, and this aligns with what I experienced. Though it can get hot, the weather isn’t terribly oppressive, and as you’ll be there in spring, you’ll see everything in bloom.

I arrived right at the end of the Orvieto in Fiore (Orvieto in Bloom) festival, which concludes with the festival of Pentecost each year (the dates vary). This was a phenomenal start to the trip because the whole city was celebrating and decked with flowers as I arrived. The above pictures are scenes made entirely of flower petals that are a part of the celebration. The Pentecost festival (called Palombella) is also unique in Orvieto. The festival commemorates the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus’ disciples after Jesus ascended into heaven, so in Orvieto, a dove in a glass cage “flies” down a zip line to the top of an erected baldachin in front of the duomo where sparklers go off to symbolize the Holy Spirit. So basically, if you can be there for Pentecost, it’s amazing.

Though Orvieto was my home during my time in Italy, most people add it to an Italy itinerary as a day trip (or maybe weekend trip) from Rome. By train or car, the trip between Rome and Orvieto is just over an hour, and about an hour and a half by the time you get to the top part of the city. In a car, you can simply drive up to the tops of the cliffs, but if you’re in a train, you’ll take the funicular up to the city. However, in Italy, I found it easy enough to just take public transit everywhere as it’s easy to use and mostly on time.

The trip from Rome to Orvieto will probably cost $10-20 one-way, and you’ll pay an additional € 1.30 ($1.50) for the funicular. When the train arrives at the Orvieto station, you’ll be in the Piazza Matteotti, which is also where buses and the funicular are based, so it’s easy to get between the the stations. The funicular runs every ten minutes between 7:15 am-8:30 pm, so as long as you arrive between that time, you should have no trouble getting up to the main part of Orvieto. Finally, your funicular ticket also includes the bus from Piazza Cahen (where the funicular lets you off) to Piazza Duomo, which will put you in the main tourist area. If you skip the bus, it will take about 10 minutes to walk between the piazzas, and you’ll see a bit more of the city.

Inside the duomo

What to See and Do

Probably the main attraction in Orvieto is the duomo. Construction started in the 13th century, but the church has elements from various periods as parts of it have been restored or redesigned. The Gothic façade of the cathedral is the first breathtaking view and includes some of the most famous sculpture of the 14th century depicting Biblical scenes from Genesis to Revelation. Though this sculpture is famous in art history, it’s the gold mosaics and rose window above the sculpture that are the most eye-catching. Above this portion, you’ll see far above you statues of the apostles with Old Testament prophets in niches on the sides. What I love about the decoration of old cathedrals like this is that you can spend as long as you want identifying each part, and, in doing so, you experience the cathedral the way people did in the Middle Ages. In a society with low levels of literacy, images helped to convey important aspects of Biblical stories and to make sure people remembered them.

This comes into play on the inside of the cathedral as well where two frescoed chapels contain further masterpieces, notably Fra Angelico‘s Christ in Judgement from the 15th century and the later additions by Luca Signorelli that added scenes like Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, Destruction of the World, and Damned Cast into Hell. Though they might not be the pretty pictures you would hang in your living room, they served a clear narrative purpose within the cathedral. While there are tours of the cathedral, these can be expensive, so a cheaper option may be to just buy a book (these are usually sold in nearby souvenir shops) and guide yourself through the duomo.

Opera House ceiling

While you can see the duomo on your own, you’ll need a tour to visit the Orvieto underground, which is a must on any trip to the city. I discussed the underground a bit in the history section of this post, but you’ll learn a lot more visiting it, and it’s also just really cool to walk through these caves and see everything that was built there. Tours start from the Piazza del duomo, so you can do these one after another or opt for a lunch in or near the piazza between stops. Official tours are seven euros for adults, though seniors and students are only six euros. It’s a great price for a must-see attraction in Orvieto

Also nearby the duomo is the Orvieto opera house, officially known as the Teatro Mancinelli (above). While you can’t book tours online, it’s definitely worth a visit! You can see shows there – though you’ll need to book those tickets in advance – but it’s also just amazing to walk through in the day and see the incredible artworks and the detail that went into them.

While there are other attractions in Orvieto (St. Patrick’s Well, assorted museums, the Etruscan Necropolis), you can fully enjoy the city just by doing a few things in the area of the duomo and, most importantly, taking some time to just wander the streets, pop into little shops on the Corso Cavour, and stop by market stalls. Orvieto is a magnificent Italian hill town that is best enjoyed with a relaxing day rather than one packed with activities and tours.

First night’s dinner – simple and classic

Food and Lodging

I ate so much amazing food in Orvieto (and in Italy more generally); however, I do have a few favorites. As a student, the restaurant I went to most frequently was a little sandwich shop where I could get lunch between classes. Apparently, however, I never wrote down the name of this shop (because how could I ever forget that?), and could not conclusively find it through my various Google searches. So, while I sadly cannot drop the name of that gem, I can still talk about my favorite gelato place (L’Officina del Gelato) and my favorite fancy restaurant (Le Grotte del Funaro).

Admittedly, L’Officina del Gelato became my favorite gelato place because it was close to my apartment, but it is well-rated on TripAdvisor too. Really though, you can’t go wrong with gelato, and I had an amazing treat at probably every gelateria in Orvieto. Most of them are all very cheap, and some have little extras – at L’Officina, for example, you can get whipped cream on top if you want it.

Gelato!

I didn’t eat out a lot in Orvieto to save money, but my roommates and I treated ourselves to dinner at Le Grotte del Funaro at the end of the trip. In addition to an excellent dinner, we could say that we ate in one of the underground caves, which was pretty fun! The food is also traditional to the region, which means you can try more unique things here. However, Orvieto has a lot of phenomenal restaurants, and it would be hard to pick a bad one.

My lodging in Orvieto was part of a homestay, which is definitely a great option for study abroads, though it’s not always possible or worthwhile on a quick trip. Hotels in Orvieto get very expensive very fast, but if possible I would recommend a hotel or airbnb in the upper town to be close to all the main things to do and see. This also has the benefit of not being dependent on the funicular or a bus to go between the old and new towns, especially in the morning and evening. Though very expensive, I would love to stay in a place like the Grand Hotel Italia, or as a cheaper option a room at La Magnolia.

Looking down from the city

Final Notes

Orvieto is one of my favorite places in Italy, and one that I would absolutely recommend on a trip to the country – especially if you’re looking for a countryside getaway that’s not far out of Rome. The food is amazing (of course), and you can’t go wrong getting a gelato and finding a place to survey the scenery below the city.

To read a bit more about Orvieto’s World War II history, check out this page, and for more information about everything Orvieto, visit Orvieto Viva and browse some of their pages.

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