Orvieto is a showstopper of a medieval hilltop town in southern Umbria. Thanks to its unique location on a volcanic tufa plateau, Orvieto has a well preserved architectural and historic heritage.
The island in the sky city charms with honey-colored Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance buildings. The ancient streets are filled with flowers and ceramic shops.
The city is dominated by its grand cathedral, which is one of the world’s most beautiful churches. There are also countless noble palazzi, monumental churches, and museums with treasure chest collections.
History of Orvieto
Orvieto is 3,000 years old. It was the first Etruscan town in Italy. The town flourished in the 6th century B.C. with an economy based on ceramics and bronze work.
Some modern historians believe that the Etruscans named the town Velzna. But there’s some debate about this identification.
The Romans arrived in 264 B.C. and conquered the town. Orvieto was the last Etruscan town to be annexed.
It took a two year siege to starve out the inhabitants. Orvieto then fell to the Lombards in 606.
In 1263, the Miracle of Bolsena occurred. A rebel priest in the neighboring town of Bolsena had lost his belief in the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation.
But, one day, while performing the Eucharist ritual, blood began to drip from the host he held up and stained the altar cloth. That changed the priest’s mind on the spot.
When the pope, Urban IV, heard of the miracle, he embraced it with fervor. He decided to build a mighty cathedral to enshrine the precious relic. In 1290, the first stone of the cathedral was laid and the sublime facade was begun.
In 1348, Orvieto came under papal control after it was decimated by the plague. Orvieto remained papal property until 1860, when it was became part of a unified Italy.
Today, Orvieto is most known for its beautiful Gothic Duomo and a delicious combination of porchetta, truffles and Umbrian wine.
One Day Itinerary For Orvieto
You’ll likely arrive at Piazza Cahen, the easternmost point of Orvieto. This is where the funicular drops you off. You can also park there.
If you want, from the piazza, a shuttle bus takes you straight to the Duomo. The bus is included in the funicular ticket.
This one day in Orvieto itinerary starts at the piazza. You’ll work your way down Orvieto’s main drag, Via Cavour. And then in and out of the cute cobbled side streets, ending with the Etruscan Necropolis.
You should buy a ticket to St. Patrick’s Well before you exit the funicular station. Then, turn left to visit the Albornez Fortress, which is free to enter.
Here are my picks for the top things to do in Orvieto in one day. I also give you must know tips for visiting and possible day trips if you can stay longer.
1. Saint Patrick’s Well | Pozzo di San Patrizio
Saint Patrick’s Well is a unique and seemingly bottomless well that is a masterpiece of engineering. It’s 175 feet deep and 45 feet wide.
The well was built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger for Pope Clement VII. The pope often sought refuge in a fortified Orvieto after the Sack of Rome.
Wanting to ensure he had water if the town was besieged, he commissioned the emergency well. It has two double helix spiral staircases.
This allowed efficient traffic flow. People going down never met people (or beasts of burden) coming up.
The first half of the well was built in tufa, the second half in clay. It included a secret escape tunnel. The well was never used, so it became a national monument.
Don’t sit down on the well’s large arched windows. People have fallen.
2. Albornez Fortress
This imposing fortress was begun in 1364 in honor of Cardinal Albornez.
It was an “attack and defense” structure. The fortress was renovated in the 15th century, but then fell into ruins.
You can see the remains of the Porta della Rocca (city gate) with two high pointed Gothic arches.
From the top of the fortress, you have splendid views.
2. Orvieto Cathedral
Next head to Orvieto’s top attraction, it’s magnificent cathedral, which is a marvel of theatricality.
Begun in 1290, Orvieto Cathedral is adorned inside and out with the best Italian art on offer at the time. It’s awash in color with a riveting ensemble of spires, spikes, golden mosaics, statuary, stained glass, and black and white striped marble.
And that’s just the facade.
Inside, there’s a chapel containing a holy relic and another famous one covered in stunning early Renaissance frescos that influenced Michelangelo.
The frescos were painted by Luca Signorelli and are in the spectacular San Brizio Chapel, which was renovated in 1996. Art lovers may want to bring a small pair of binoculars to see the frescos in detail.
The frescos are considered Signorelli’s masterpiece, his greatest and most complex work. With brilliant colors and sweeping designs, they’re one of the most ambitious and inventive depictions of the apocalypse and last judgment in Italian Renaissance art.
The expressive frescos depict the usual religious themes — temptation, damnation, resurrection, and salvation. They’re a searing vision of the end of the world, executed with fiendish exuberance.
Here’s my complete guide to visiting Orvieto Cathedral. Unless you’re an expert, the images and iconography require some explanation.
I booked a 2.5 hour guided private walking tour. My guide was Emma and she was excellent, making the cathedral and its beautiful art works come to life.
You can also book a 3 hour small group walking tour that includes the cathedral, the old town, and Orvieto’s underground.
When you’re done admiring the cathedral, pop into the cathedral museum, the Museo del’Opera del Duomo.
It holds important pieces of painting and sculpture from the Duomo dating from the 13th to 17th century. There are works by Simone Martini, Andrea Pisano, and Signorelli.
Before you leave the Piazza del Duomo, take a look up at the Torre di Maurizio. It’s a medieval clock tower.
At the top, a bronze automaton strike the bells on the hour. The bell ringer is Maurizio, clad in a conical hat.
3. Claudio Faino Archaeological Museum
On the same piazza as the Duomo is Orvieto’s Claudio Faina Archaeological Museum, installed in a 17th century palace. The private collection is surprisingly large.
It’s a private collection that boasts numerous Etruscan and Greek artifacts discovered in or near the town. You’ll find every kind of object — carved stone sarcophagi, vases, glass vials, and terracotta portraits.
From the windows in the front rooms, you have great views of the Duomo.
Orvieto’s smaller Civic Archaeological Museum is located on the ground floor of the palace. Highlights include a Venus of Cannicella from 530 B.C., a head of a gorgon from the 5th century B.C., and the head of a warrior from the 6th century B.C.
There are many great places for lunch in Orvieto. But I will suggest one that’s near your next destination, Osteria Mamma Angela in Piazza del Popolo. The restaurant has delicious Italian food and excellent service.
5. Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo
Next, have a look at the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo. This 13th century palace is an incredibly striking piece of architecture. It was built in the Orvieto Romano-Gothic style.
It almost seems like a fortress. The impressive facade was built in volcanic tufa stone.
There are unusual crenellations framing the roofline. Delicate trifoliate windows are on the middle level. There’s a large loggia on the ground floor.
During the Middle Ages, this palace was the home of the Capitano del Popolo, the Captain of the People. He represented the interests of the populace in dealing with ruling nobility.
Since then, the palace has served as a university of law and theology, a theater, and most recently as a conference center.
6. Climb the Torre del Morro
It’s time to climb. The Torre del Morro stands in the heart of the city in the crossroads between Corso Cavour, Via del Duomo and Via della Costituente. The tower is adorned with coats of arms.
It was once home to the podesta, the governing body of Orvieto. It was comprised of seven guild members. To prevent corruption, the members only served for three months and were then replaced by other citizens.
A sign with a verse by Dante is one one side of the tower. It reads “Italy is a ship without a pilot.”
It’s 200 steps to the top of the tower and an elevator takes you midway. The climb is fairly easy and there’s a modern staircase and handrails. At the top, you’ll be treated to 360 views of Orvieto from above.
The entrance to the tower is also where you’ll also be able to access Palazzo dei Sette. The exquisite building was once the public seat of the arts council. Today, it hosts art exhibitions, conferences and trade fairs.
7. Piazza della Repubblica
Just down the road is another pretty piazza in Orvieto, the Piazza della Republic. It’s thought to be the site of former Etruscan and Roman public forums.
The square is home to the Palazzo Communale (City Hall) and the Church of Sant’Andrea.
The Palazzo Communale is an early 13th century building. it was renovated in the 16th century by Ippolito Scalza. The imposing arches on the facade are typical of Renaissance era architecture.
The Church of Sant’Andrea is right next to the palace. It was largely built in the 12th to 14th centuries. You can see remains of mosaic floor and fragments of frescos.
In the Middle Ages, the church was the most important religious site in Orvieto, a place where bishops and cardinals were named.
The most famous piece of art inside is the Magalotti Tomb, sculptured by the followers of Florentine artist Arnolfo di Cambia.
Right next to the church is a lovely 12 sided bell tower.
8. Wander Aimlessly
Part of the joy of visiting Orvieto is aimless strolling, an evening ritual the Italian call the passeggiata.
Wherever you look in Orvieto, there’s a picturesque lane, quaint shop, or terrific displays of flowers. Every once in awhile the medieval lanes part and you can glimpse a brilliant slice of the Umbrian countryside.
Orvietans take their flowers seriously. In June, there’s a contest to see who has the most beautifully decorated balcony. The winner gets 1,000 euros.
Be sure to stroll by Via Michelangeli. There, you’ll find beautiful wooden sculptures from Orvieto artisans.
You can also do some shopping as you wander. Orvieto is especially known for its ceramics. They’ve been made in Orvieto since Etruscan times.
In the Middle Ages, Orvieto became a major center of majolica, Italian tin-glazed pottery. Today, you can find almost any style of ceramics you fancy from medieval to Renaissance to modern.
9. Orvieto Underground
As I mentioned above, Orvieto was an Etruscan city. It extant sites includes a necropolis, remains of a temple, and an extensive cave network. Almost every structure in Orvieto stands above a cave.
The Pozzo della Cava is one of the town’s most important archaeological sites centered around a deep well. The Pozzo itself is 118 feet deep.
The complex adjacent to the well includes dozens of caves, rooms, Etruscan tombs, pottery, shafts, etc. You may want to book a guided walking tour to have a guide “read” the grotto-like rooms for you.
The necropolis, the Crocifisso del Tufo, is a small “city of the dead” located outside the city walls in northwest Orvieto. If you have time in your one day in Orvieto, you should definitely visit. There’s a parking lot next to the site.
The necropolis lies at the base of a cliff and dates from the 8th to 3rd century B.C. Many important artifacts have been excavated from it and are in the archaeological museums.
The entrances to the necropolis tombs lie along well-organized streets in the complex.
The tombs resemble houses — with walls, roofs, and doors. You can enter dozens of chamber tombs built with tufa (just duck your head).
The most important burial ground is the Necropolis of Cannicella on the southern slopes. It includes both a sanctuary and tombs.
There are plenty of delicious places to eat in Orvieto where you can sample local food and wine.
Orvieto’s specialties are mushrooms, truffles, wild game, and animal meat like duck and pigeon. The local pasta is umbrichelli. It’s similar to the pici pasta of southern Tuscany, but not as thick.
And, while in Orvieto, you have to try a glass of Orvieto Classico Superiore. It’s a complex medium bodied white wine that’s simply delicious.
Il Sette Consoli serves up refined Italian cuisine in a peaceful spot on the Piazza Sant’Angelo. You can reserve a table in the garden for nice views of the Duomo.
The place to get gelato in Orvieto is Il Gelato di Pasqualetti.
More Than One Day In Orvieto?
If you have more than 1 day in Orvieto or are using Orvieto as a base, there are some great day trips to take from Orvieto.
1. Civita di Bagnoregio
The first is the stunning, but “dying,” hilltop town of Civita di Bagnoregio. It’s a magical, almost surreal, hill town just 20 minutes from Orvieto. If you’re ambitious and have a car, you can combine it with a day trip to Orvieto.
The Etruscans founded Civita di Bagnoregio over 2500 years ago. It’s largely unaltered ever since. The isolated and picturesque Civita teeters on a hilltop in a vast canyon.
Wind is eroding a few centimeters each year. In 250 years, the town may be gone. So be sure to see this beauty soon.
To access this little hamlet, you walk across an elevated and steep 1,000 feet pedestrian bridge. Civita is just unadulterated old world Italy. Have a seat on the steps of San Donato Church, be suspended in time, and admire the myriad flowerpots.
Todi is a beautiful town in Umbria that’s often overlooked.
It’s a collage of stone houses, palazzi, and steep cobbled streets pasted to a hillside. The town is about 45 minutes from Orvieto.
The Piazza del Popolo is one of Umbria’s prettiest squares. It’s flanked by palazzos, a duomo, and an art museum. You can climb the 14th century bell tower of the Chiesa di San Fortunato for stunning views.
Strangely untouched by tourism, peaceful Todi presents a slice of real Umbrian life. If you visit, you may want to book a 2 hour walking tour.
Bolsena is a pretty town in Italy’s Lazio region on the shore of Lake Bolsena. It’s famous for the Rocca Monaldeschi fortress, the church of Saint Christina of Bolsena, and the miracle that occurred there in 1263.
As I mentioned, the Miracle of Bolsena occurred when a priest reported bleeding from a host. The pope claimed it confirmed the doctrine of substantiation.
Orvieto Cathedral was built to commemorate and house the relic.
You can spend an afternoon exploring the town and then relax on the beaches around the lake.
Underrated Viterbo is a beautiful medieval gem 50+ minutes from Orvieto. Viterbo was at its zenith in the 13th century, when it overshadowed Rome itself as a center for papal power.
The main reason to visit Viterbo is to admire the beautifully intact medieval town center. The town is almost entirely surrounded by incredibly well kept walls. The San Pellgrino district is one of the best preserved neighborhoods in Italy.
The Gothic Palazzo Papale was built in the 13th century as a residence for popes looking to get away from Rome.
Viterbo is also a spa town. you can have a local volcanic mud bath or steam in an ancient cave at Terme dei Papi.
Tips For Visiting Orvieto
Here are my must know tips for visiting Orvieto:
1. Lunchtime Closures
When arranging your sightseeing schedule, know that many of Orvieto’s attractions close at midday for lunch. This is sometime between 12:30 to 2:30.
2. How To Get To Orvieto
Orvieto is located in southern Umbria. Orvieto is 1:25 minute drive from Rome.
Orvieto is on the main train line between Florence and Rome. You can also take the high speed train from Rome Termini, which takes just over an hour. Or, from Florence, it’s 1:30.
The train station is at the bottom of the town. You will need to take the funicular up to the top. The funicular runs every 15 minutes from 7:00 am to 8:30 pm.
It will drop you at Piazza Cahen.
From there, you can walk right into the centro storico. There’s also a shuttle bus you can take to the Duomo, which is included in your funicular ticket.
You can also drive to Orvieto, which is what I did since I was staying in Umbria. Orvieto is 62 miles north of Rome and 93 miles south of Florence.
If you’re driving, know that the center is closed to traffic. You need to park outside the historic center.
As I approached Orvieto, I put “public parking” in my GPS. I parked in a lot just before Via Roma in Piazza Cahen.
It’s a “pay and display” parking lot. You buy your ticket using cash or a credit card at the kiosk machine. Then, display the ticket in your car window.
You can also park in the lower town and take the funicular up. In high season, this is likely the best option.
Another option is to park on the west end of Orvieto in the parking lot known as the “Campo della Fiera.” From the lot, you take elevators and escalators to reach the part of old town near the Church of San Giovanni.
If you prefer to book a guided tour to get to Orvieto from Rome, you can book this 8 hour tour to Orvieto. I’ve done this one before and it allows you to really see the city.
From Rome, you can also book a guided day trip to Orvieto and Assisi. You can also take a guided day trip to Orvieto and Civita di Bagnoregio.
2. How To Get Around Orvieto
Orvieto is a compact town. It’s one mile long and a half mile wide.
The main drag is Corso Cavour. The city is divided in four quarters by Corso Cavour and Via del Duomo.
Once you arrive on the hilltop, the city is entirely walkable. You can also get around on a guided e-bike tour.
3. Guided Tours In Orvieto
I mentioned a couple guided walking tours of Orvieto above. There are some other fun things to do in Orvieto.
4. When To Go To Orvieto
Orvieto is best visited during shoulder season in the spring or fall. I was just there again in May and it was lovely and not overcrowded. October is also warm and balmy and there are fewer tourists.
If you plan to be there in summer, you may want to visit in August during the Procession of Corpus Christi. This is an event celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi, which the pope proclaimed after the Miracle of Bolsena.
The blood-stained altar cloth is paraded through the city, to the sound of trumpets and drums. Residents dress in medieval period costumes representing the nobles, knights, and guilds.
The four quarters of Orvieto vie for supremacy in jousting games and the like, much like the contrade in Sienna.
5. Where To Stay In Orvieto
Most people day trip to Orvieto. But, if you plan to stay overnight, you may find the town even more charming. The day trippers will have left and the city is lit up at night.
There are some smashing hotels in and around Orvieto.
Medievalists should check out the historic La Badia, just a few miles outside the town amid nature. The luxury hotel is housed in a splendidly restored 12th century abbey, complete with a church and Romanesque bell tower.
Another good option in the countryside is the Locanda Palazzone. It’s a rustic, but gorgeous, stone mansion with loads of charm. It has monastic-themed interiors and even offers private cooking lessons.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Orvieto. You may enjoy these other Italy travel guides and resources:
- 5 day itinerary for Rome
- Hidden gems in Rome
- 1 day itinerary for Vatican City
- 3 day itinerary for Florence
- 2 day itinerary for Venice
- 1 day itinerary for Milan
- 1 day itinerary for Siena
- Things To Do In San Gimignano
- Things To Do In Assisi
- 10 day itinerary for Tuscany
- 10 day itinerary for Italy’s classic cites
- 11 ways to spend 1 week in Italy
- 30 beautiful towns in Italy
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