While Perugia is the capital city of both Umbria and the province of Perugia, it remains a largely underrated destination in Italy. Located in the center of the boot, it isn’t overcrowded with tourists or commercial shops, making it a charming, genuine locale to explore.
One of Perugia’s main draws is its rich history. This Umbrian city was one of the main Etruscan communities; Today it successfully continues to highlight this heritage within its walls.
It’s also home to the early 14th-century University of Perugia—one of the oldest universities in Italy—and hosts countless festivals throughout the year including the Umbria Jazz and Eurochocolate.
As a dynamic medieval town, it’s filled with a balanced combination of cute cafes, boutiques, and eateries, as well as, grand historic buildings, bustling squares where people watching is second to none and an infinite number of cobbled stone roads that lead to expansive views of the surrounding landscape.
You can’t visit Perugia without exploring its historic center, which maintains a significant amount of its Etruscan foundations. Plus, it’s car-free so, in addition to not having to worry about getting hit, it’s an ideal area to roam on foot, preferably with a cappuccino in hand.
Piazza IV Novembre is the heart of the downtown area where the city’s five main streets—known as the strade regali—converge. I could have spent hours watching life in the lively square pass by.
The square is large enough where you don’t feel cramped, despite there being plenty of people¾both foreigners and locals alike¾gathering, chatting and admiring the architecture of the centuries-old buildings surrounding them.
In the middle of the square is an ornate fountain made up of light pink and white stone called the Fontana Maggiore. Make sure to take a good look at the centerpiece of the Piazza IV Novembre. Upon further examination, you’ll see statues which represent scenes from the bible, zodiac signs, events from Roman history and more decorating the basin.
Behind the fountain resides the San Lorenzo Cathedral, and though its façade was left unfinished, it’s still quite a sight. Take a stroll inside to find an extensively embellished ceiling, the wedding ring of the Virgin (a safeguarded relic), sculptures and impressive frescos, including one by one of Perugia’s most famed painters, Raphael.
Opposite the San Lorenzo Cathedral is the Palazzo dei Priori. Make note of the two bronze copies of the griffin of Perugia and the Guelph lion (two symbols of the city) located above the portal. Within the striking gothic palace is the National Art Gallery of Umbria, home to the region’s most rare painting collections, as well as the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, the Nobile Collegio del Cambio, the Nobile Collegio della Mercanzia and the Sala dei Notari.
One of the fascinating aspects of Perugia, however, is underground. Nearby the main square is the Rocca Paolina fortress, which was built in 1540 by Pope Paul III after Perugia was defeated in the Salt War, one involving salt, taxes, rebellion, and lots of bloodshed.
Ultimately, Italy was unified in 1860 and the citizens of Perugia tore down the fortress which had guarded the city up until that point. Today, you can tour the endless passageways that remain under everyone’s feet.
The fact that these underground streets, chambers, vaulted ceilings and stairwells are as well preserved as they are is astonishing. Other points of interest are the Etruscan Well, which dates back to the 3rd century BC, a bread baking oven and the Porta Marzi, a monumental arch of the Etruscan walls that protected the city.
Once you’re done navigating the fortress, pop back up to Corso Vannucci (the main street) and grab yourself a gelato at Gambrinus. With your authentic gelato in hand, walk towards Giardini Carducci. This quaint park offers sprawling views of Perugia’s countryside, rolling hills, and mountains in the distance.
What do you know? You’re back at the top of the Rocca Paolina fortress.
Perugia is historic in more ways than one, and a visit to this Umbrian city wouldn’t be complete without a look at one of the most famous chocolate brands in all of Italy: Baci Perugina.
“To understand the meaning of Baci Perugina, you must understand what Perugina means to the Italians,” explained our passionate tour guide at the Baci Perugina Chocolate Museum. “Perugina is a very important trademark. It’s something very special for the Italians.”
Baci Perugina is a symbol of love and romance whose sentimental story began during 1922 in Perugia. The iconic chocolate was created by Luisa Spagnoli, an entrepreneurial woman who also went on to found her own global fashion brand.
The chocolate treat we know today was first crafted in the Perugina shop, which was run by Luisa and her husband. After creating the desert with a combination of chopped hazelnuts, a ganache, melted chocolate and a whole hazelnut, she named it Cazzotto, the Italian word for punch. (It looked like a fist.)
It wasn’t until she met Giovanni Buitoni, co-founder of Perugina, that this name was changed to Baci, meaning “kisses.” This name quickly became a symbol for their secret romance, one which blossomed during their time running the prolific chocolate brand together.
Legend has it that Luisa and Giovanni would swap love notes hidden within Baci chocolates. Inspired by their forbidden love, the then-art director of Baci decided that these chocolates would too be wrapped in its now iconic starry foil wrapper with a romantic love note tucked into each.
It’s safe to say that, with the addition of love notes, Baci Perugina went from being just chocolate to a means of conveying affection, whether for a lover, friend or family member.
While at the Perugina House of Chocolate—and in addition to taking a factory tour and eating as many Baci as you can—be sure to partake in a Baci making class with a master chocolatier. Not only will you come away with dozens of Baci you made yourself, but you’ll also get a certificate of proof that you’re now a trained, Baci making professional.
Every single Baci is produced in Perugia with more than 500 million sold yearly. As the birthplace of Baci Perugina, Perugia has played and continues to play a crucial role to the brand’s timelessness.
“It’s one of those products that represent our way of being, our way of life and who we are as Italians. It’s our heritage. It’s one of the beloved products that pass through generation after generation and even today you can find it in all Italian houses.”