Assisi is best known as the birth place of Saint Francis but its striking beauty, well-preserved medieval centre and UNESCO-listed Franciscan structures are enough to capture the heart of even the most fervent non-believer. Even better, travelling from Assisi to Rome doesn’t take long and our Assisi guide has plenty of suggestions for when you get there. Here are 10 Assisi things to do.
1. Rocca Maggiore in Assisi
Rocca Maggiore is perched on a hill overlooking Assisi, providing visitors with sweeping views of the spiritual capital of Umbria from its ramparts. The fortress was built by Cardinal Gil Albornoz in 1362, after the original fortifications were torn down during an uprising in 1198. Skip the lacklustre historical displays of mannequins dressed in period costume and climb the spiral staircase to the top of the tower where wind whistles through archers’ arrow slots and the view is superb. It is best to visit Rocca Maggiore early, before the tourist crowds arrive, so you can stroll the grounds and admire the imposing battlements in silence.
2. Roman Temple of Minerva in Assisi
While the Papal Basilica of Saint Francis is deservedly famous, it is the Roman Temple of Minerva which often elicits the biggest gasp from visitors to Assisi. Its towering facade dominates the town’s main square and dates back to the 1st century BC. The temple has six Corinthian columns, all in excellent condition, and has served many purposes over the years. It was turned into a Christian church in the Middle Ages and then a house for the town’s chief magistrate, complete with a small prison. If you look closely at Giotto’s frescoes in the basilica, you can see a painting of the church with bars. These days the temple houses a modest 17th century Baroque style church. However, what lies underneath it is truly remarkable.
3. Roman Forum and Archaeological Collection in Assisi
Underneath the church inside Temple of Minerva is the Roman Forum and Archaeological Collection, an atmospheric underground museum of sculptures and historical treasures. Walk around the corner to access the entrance on via Portico. The Romanesque crypt of a former church, which is fascinating in itself, serves as the entrance to the ruins of the original Roman forum which were only discovered in 1836. Recent times in a city as historic as Assisi. It is remarkably well preserved for something so ancient, with the base of the temple, and a podium with seats for judiciary members clearly visible. Keep walking and you will find three of the marble statues which originally decorated the forum.
4. Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi
When it comes to Assisi things to do, no trip is complete without a visit to the Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, which is actually three churches built one on top of the other. Visitors pass through security and enter through the gothic doors of the Lower Church which is adorned with frescos by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti and Byzantine specialist Giotto. Don’t miss the staircase to your left which leads to the Crypt Church and the Tomb of Saint Francis. The Crypt is simpler than the other two churches but filled with a palpable peace. Another staircase takes visitors to the Upper Basilica which has an interior lined with stunning Giotto frescoes which tell the story of Saint Francis. No photos are allowed which will torment even the most apathetic holiday snapper.
5. Eat at La Locanda del Cardinale in Assisi
La Locanda del Cardinale is one of the most upmarket restaurants in Assisi and also one of the most popular, not least because of its unique ancient decor. Many tables are positioned over a glass floor which showcases the Roman ruins below, including part of the street which once led to the Temple of Minerva. With a contemporary seasonal menu complemented by attentive service, historic surrounds and a superb Italian-focussed wine list, this is a classic and memorable Umbrian dining experience. Those who are willing to trust the chef and try the set menu with matching wines are rewarded with an exceptional meal, although there isn’t a different wine for each course so drink slowly. Bookings are highly recommended.
6. Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi
With its alternating strips of pink and white stone and massive supporting arches, the Basilica of Saint Clare is one of the most striking buildings in Assisi. The interior is adorned with frescoes depicting Saint Clare, one of the first followers of Saint Francis of Assisi and also the first woman to pen a set of monastic guidelines. Devout followers come to visit the body of Saint Clare which is housed here in a neo-gothic crypt. The square outside the church is a hive of activity with a colourful carousel and spectacular views of the surrounding area. If you are after spectacular sunset shots, this is the place to come.
7. Palazzo Vallemani in Assisi
Step inside Palazzo Vallemani, a beautiful Baroque residence housing the Municipal Art Gallery of Assisi, to discover famous frescos from Assisi and the surrounding area. All of the art housed here forms part of a collection which was created at the same time as Italy’s reunification, to prevent the works being sent to different parts of the country. While the frescoes are superb, this museum isn’t just about fine art. The poignant exhibition honouring locals who saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi persecutions will stay with you long after you leave Assisi. Don’t miss the excellent tour of the gallery included in the entry fee. A €9 ticket which includes Rocca Maggiore, the Roman Forum and Archaeological Collection and the Municipal Art Gallery offers the best value.
8. Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi
The Cathedral of San Rufino was built using stones from nearby Mount Subiaso on the site of Asisium, the ancient Roman town which later became Assisi. While the exterior may seem rather plain from a distance, the arch above the main portal is filled with intricate sculptures including floral motifs, saints and the cathedral’s namesake, San Rufino. Inside, there are not one, but 10 altars representing different prophets. Near the beginning of the right aisle, the original font used to baptise Saint Francis and Saint Clare remains to this day.
9. Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi
While it is not in the historic centre of Assisi, this intriguing basilica in the town’s foothills is the most sacred place for Franciscans. Inside the church is the Porziuncola, a tiny 9th century church gifted to Saint Francis by Benedictine monks, where the Franciscan movement began. When the Porziuncola could no longer hold the vast number of pilgrims who came to worship, the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli was built to house them and the original church.
Under the right columns of the dome, it is still possible to see the cell where Saint Francis died. The interior of the basilica is elegant in its simplicity, with a long aisle at the end of which sits the miniature church, and paintings by some of the period’s greatest artists confined to the side chapels. Intricately carved wooden choir stalls are an unexpected highlight. Outside, there is a famous rose garden where doves nest in the hands of a statue of Saint Francis.
10. Stay at the Nun Assisi Relais & Spa Museum
Bathe yourself in Assisi’s history – literally – at the Nun Assisi Relais & Spa Museum. What was once a 13th century convent has been transformed into an 18 room hotel within walking distance of Assisi’s major sights. During the renovation, a first-century amphitheatre was discovered under the convent. This has been converted into a functioning spa museum which follows an ancient Roman circuit, with a Tepidarium, Caldarium, Sudatorium and Frigidarium at various temperatures. Entrance to the atmospheric spa with its six original Roman pillars is included for guests. Deluxe rooms are chic and minimalist but far from austere. If you are considering one of the three suites, number 10 comes with its own c.1612 fresco.
If you are heading to Rome and looking for things to do, some of our favourite activities in the ‘eternal city’ are touring Rome in a Fiat 500, an Eating Italy or Walks of Italy food tour, and discovering hidden Rome on your own.
Disclosure: The writer visited Assisi at her own expense and fell in love with this beautiful Italian town.