Why to visit Assisi
The charming town of Assisi offers tourists a wealth of tranquillity and this is amongst the most attractive destinations that you are likely to encounter in Umbria. Assisi is the birthplace of St. Francis (San Francesco), patron saint of animals and ecology, and its undeniable charm and appeal attracts huge numbers of visitors and religious pilgrims, who arrive here each year – literally millions.
Despite the somewhat surprising influx of tourists and thriving tourism industry, the town of Assisi successfully manages to more than retain its peaceful nature. Even during the very peak of summer, by simply taking a stroll away from the main streets you can be assured to find some personal moments. The Piazza del Comune is very much central to life is Assisi and it is here that you will find the tourist information centre, along with countless cafes featuring tables outside, on the paving stones.
1) The Cathedral of San Francis
Not even two years passed after the death of St. Francis, and already Brother Elias, the successor to the command of the Order, received the gift of a plot of land, outside of the western gate of Assisi, a steep rise of Mount Subasio where wrongdoers and criminals were hanged and was therefore called the Hell Hill (Colle dell’Inferno). On that already cursed ground would rise a great church that would receive the remains of the great saint.
From the Bishop’s palace, where he had been a guest of the Archbishop of Assisi, St. Francis had ordered to be brought on a stretcher to the Porziuncola in Santa Maria degli Angeli. He died on the ground of his favourite place. But his companions did not keep the body of St. Francis near the little church even for one day. On the morning of October 4 they brought him back to town, by S. Damiano, so Chiara and her companions could finally kiss the stigmata.
From S. Damiano he was taken to be buried in the church of S.Giorgio, which was located inside the city close to his home. In that little church on July 16, 1228 Gregory IX solemnly proclaimed the sanctity of the great son of Assisi and on the next day, invited by Brother Elias, the Pope went to Colle dell’Inferno to bless the first stone of the new large building in honour of the saint.
On May 25th 1230, less than four years after the death of the saint, the lower church was completed and the body of the saint could be brought to rest.
From S. Maria degli Angeli, looking towards Mount Subasio, at the western end of the city you can clearly see the massive construction of Brother Elias, supported by huge buttresses on the precipice.
It seems almost a fortified building and immediately evokes the idea of a stronghold. And that erected by Brother Elias was the material and spiritual stronghold of the Franciscans, as well as being one of the most beautiful manifestations of art inspired by the glory of the Saint of Assisi.
The basilica complex is composed of two churches – the lower (1228-1230) and the upper (1230-1253) and a crypt dug in 1818, with the tomb of the saint. The first one can be reached from the lower square, bordered by a 1400 portico. There is a beautiful twin portal surmounted by three rose windows. The plan is a double “T”. Inside it is decorated by the greatest painters of the 1200-1300s: Cimabue, Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers and Simone Martini. There are the beautiful stained glass windows by Giovanni di Bonino and Puccio Capanna. The monastery houses a remarkable Treasury with rare illuminated manuscripts, paintings, reliquaries, tapestries, sacred furnishings and altar frontals. Also of interest here is the Perkins collection.
The great Italian painting was born in the lower church: the nave preserves works of the Master of St. Francis; the Chapel of St. Martin presents the complete cycle of the Stories of St. Martin (1312 – 1315) painted by Simone Martini; the Chapel of Mary Magdalene was painted by Giotto after 1305; the right transept is a fresco by Cimabue (1280) and eight childhood Stories of Christ painted by Giotto. In the left transept Pietro Lorenzetti painted Histories of the Passion of Christ and the famous Madonna dei Tramonti. The cross vault above the altar is painted by the Maestro delle Vele and is the Glory of St. Francis and the Allegories of Obedience, Chastity, and Poverty.
The upper church, with one nave, has a simple façade, embellished by a Gothic portal and a beautiful rose window. The Gothic interior, with a nave, lit by large windows is the prototype of the Franciscan churches. And it is adorned by Giotto’s frescos illustrating the life of the saint. There are also works by Cimabue, Cavallini, Torriti and a wooden choir from the end of the 1400s, which still contains the most famous fresco: the presbytery was painted by Cimabue, the Maestro Oltremontano and Jacopo Torriti. The nave at the top was decorated with stories from the Old and New Testaments.
The lower section of the nave is occupied by a famous cycle of Giotto, which consists of 28 panels illustrating the highlights of the life of St. Francis.
The basilica complex includes a Romanesque bell tower of 1239 that stands majestically over the plains below. The convent houses the Theological Institute, a rich library of codes and sixteenth century manuscripts, the Treasury, exhibited in the Gothic Room, and the Perkins collection which consists of works by Italian masters, especially from Siena and Florence.
Tomb of St. Francis
Excavated between 1818 and 1824 with the mortal remains of the saint held in a rough stone urn built by Assisi architect Giuseppe Brizzi in neoclassical form and restored in neoclassical style by the architect Ugo Tarceva (1925-32). Above the altar, in the compartment of the ancient tomb, made of four rough walls, you see the simple stone urn locked by bars of two iron grates, in which was found the body of the saint and which still contains it. In the niches on the corner lie the remains of four companions of St. Francis: Rufino, Angelo, Masseo and Leone. Above is a bronze and alabaster lamp, offered in turn by the Regions of Italy to the “Holy Chief Patron of the Fatherland.”
Open hours: Monday to Saturday – 9 am to 12 am, 2 pm to 5 pm.
Admission: free, donations suggested
2) The Basilica of S. Chiara
A striking Romanesque landmark from the 13th century, the Basilica di Santa Chiara features a very recognisable facade, comprising a mixture of pink and white stones, which appear to almost glow when the sun shines and illuminates the church. The Basilica di Santa Chiara stands next to the Church of St. George, where the body of St. Francis was once buried before being moved to its current situation. St. Clare, the daughter of an important local nobleman, is actually buried within the basilica’s crypt.
Erected between 1257 and 1265 in Gothic style, according to the Franciscan model, it has a gabled façade, a nave, a polygonal apse and is divided into four bays. The plan is T-shaped, on axis with the door. There is a magnificent rose window. On the sides there are three large flying buttresses (1351), to support the thrust of the vaulted roof; those of the right side are hidden inside the monastery; others are projected on the square, giving it a distinctive appearance. The interior preserves the Crucifix which, according to tradition, spoke to St. Francis, has frescoes of the Umbrian school of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and in the crypt is preserved a sarcophagus statue with the bones of the saint inside. Next to the church is the monumental Proto-Monastery of St. Clare (the cloister is not open to public), built in on a slope between Borgo Aretino and Mojano, among the olive groves. In the cloister the crypt of the ancient Church of San Giorgio can be seen.
Visitors will always enjoy the many colourful frescoes and 600-year-old paintings, which adorn the walls and remain very impressive, despite their considerable age. The body of St Clare was brought here from San Damiano (above) in 1253, and the nuns of San Damiano established a new nunnery here soon after. The relics of St Clare re-discovered under the high altar in 1850. The nunnery remains one of the most important in Italy.
Open hours: daily, April to October – 6 am to 12 am, 2 pm to 7 pm; November to March – 6 am to 12 am, 2 pm to 6 pm.
3) The Temple of Minerva
It was built during the first century.
The façade is surprisingly well preserved, still in original condition; the six columns are topped by fine and complete Corinthian capitals and rest on plinths that, for lack of space, are placed on the staircase that leads into the vestibule.
In the Middle Ages the ancient Temple of Minerva was turned into a Christian church. The cella became the residence of the Chief Magistrate, except for a part which was used as a prison. In 1228 the municipality bought some houses in front of the Temple to expand the square. On the same occasion, the vestibule between the columns was released and became the headquarters of public assembly. Only in 1456 the building returned to its earlier religious destination.
Then in 1539 the original plan of the cella with its rectangular plan was destroyed and the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was built and further modified in the Baroque style in the seventeenth century.
For Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, during his trip to Italy, this was the first intact monument of antiquity he had seen and was suitably impressed (1786).Today it commemorates the Roman period and symbolizes the values of UNESCO.
Open hours: daily
4) The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli
Outside the ancient walls, 4 kilometres from the centre, stands the majestic and beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, built between 1565 and 1685 and designed by Galeazzo Alessi. The little chapel of the Porziuncola (the small plot of land where the small church was licensed for use by the Benedictines to St. Francis and his first companions) is preserved on its inside. The chapel has a simple rib vault, on the façade there is a fresco of F. Overbek representing the Forgiveness of Assisi of 1829; inside the wall of the altar there is a table, by priest Ilario da Viterbo (1393) representing the Annunciation and scenes associated with the granting of Forgiveness. Outside the building there is a fresco by Pietro Perugino depicting the Crucifixion (1486). Not far from there is the Little Chapel of the Transit, where Francis died on October 3, 1226. From the Basilica you can access the famous Roseto without thorns and the Chapel of the Roses with frescos by Tiberio of Assisi (1516); the premises of the thirteenth-century convent houses the Museum of the Porziuncola. An elegant dome 79 meters high, stands on an octagonal drum, onto which large windows with gables and alternating lunettes.
Interior: The Basilica, a Latin cross structure, is 126 meters long and 65 meters wide. The interior of the basilica, with three naves, has a simple and essential style. This is because of the great emphasis on the fact that it contains the most important work of art: the Porziuncola.
Transit: Also inside the Basilica is a chapel. It was originally the convent infirmary, its fame is due to the fact that, in this place, St. Francis died on 3 October 1226. On the same place, the Umbrian saint finished composing the Canticle of Creatures. To celebrate these events, in 1886, Domenico Bruschi created frescoes depicting the death of St. Francis and his funeral. There are also more frescoes depicting saints and blessed Franciscans, done by a student of Perugino: Giovanni di Pietro, called Spagna. In a reliquary is kept the cord of St. Francis, a gift from Pope Pius IX to brotherhood.
The Rose Garden: In a wing of the Basilica is preserved the rose garden. This place is famous for an incident involving St. Francis: one night, in fact, the Holy One, taken by strong doubts, and from sin’s guilt, he rolled naked in the thorny rose garden. This rose garden, according to tradition, upon contact with the Saint’s body, lost all the thorns so as not to cause him any harm. Even today, the rose bush blooms without thorns.
Open hours: daily – 09:00 to 18:00
5) The Rocca Maggiore
The first information about the Rocca Maggiore dates back to 1174, when it was rebuilt after the conquest of Assisi by the imperial troops led by Christian of Mainz (1174); but it perhaps already existed at the time of the Lombards. It is therefore likely that – on the remains of a pre-existing fortification – the fortress had been reconstructed by the Swabians, as feudal castle.
The fortress stands on a hill that overlooks Assisi: above its walls stands out the ‘Maschio’ tower, from where you can enjoy a magnificent panorama of the city and of the Umbrian Valley, from Perugia to Spoleto. Since ancient times, the location of the fortress was considered sacred and essential to defend the town.
In 1198 the castle was destroyed following a popular riot to prevent it from falling into the hands of a papal governor: not unreasonably, the Assisans saw in it a symbol of the imperial oppression.
The fortress was rebuilt in 1365 by Cardinal Egidio Albornoz (then engaged in submission of the main cities of the peninsula) as a lookout: a typical example of medieval military architecture. Since then, the fortress was involved in every attempt to be conquered, in alternation, between the various governments, of the lords of different cities and its defensive role ratcheted in time with changes in the structure and with the construction of towers and bastions.
Subsequent to the Albornoz, the fortress was enlarged and modified by Pope Pius II (1460), by Sixtus IV (1478), by Paul III (1535) and took on an impressive aspect. It is tradition that the peak of the hill was occupied by an acropolis since the ancient times, but it was devastated in 545 by the Gothic King Totila.
In the 1600s, the fortress was completely abandoned to remain almost intact until the present day.
The fortress built by the Albornoz was enlarged several times with the addition of the ramparts, but was devastated by the population as a result of the unification of Italy (1859).
Currently, it is open to the increasing number of visitors; its towers offer the most beautiful and charming panoramas throughout all of Umbria: Assisi gathered below and the splendid Umbrian Valley. The various halls within host reconstructed themes inspired by medieval life.
What to eat in Assisi
We are in the green heart of Umbria so you have to expect a genuine and hearty cuisine with delicious local products. Usually an ordinary meal begins with a chopping board with Umbricelli, honey, bruschetta with the excellent local olive oil PDO Assisi and the truffle.
Among the first courses the stringozzi and umbrichelli are very popular, these are kinds of handmade pasta usually accompanied by pork, hare or deer sauce. We are in the area where spelt is produced, which is the main dish especially in the winter.
Among the main courses you can try the excellent local meat and the pecorino cheese from Assisi. Assisi has a typical dessert, the Rocciata, a kind of strudel filled with apples. As far as the wine is concerned, the area of Assisi has an extraordinary oenological production with 5 wines above all: Grechetto, white, rosato, novella and red.
How to get to Assisi by car
Coming from North:
Highway 14 – Autostrada Adriatica
– Exit at Cesena (150 km from Assisi) and continue to Perugia (E45) until Assisi exit.
Highway Autostrada del Sole A 1
– Exit Valdichiana until you reach Perugia, continue towards Cesena (E45) until Assisi exit.
Coming from the South:
Highway 14 – Autostrada Adriatica
– Exit Civitanova Marche towards Foligno – Perugia until the Assisi exit.
Highway Autostrada del Sole A 1
– Exit Orte, continue on the E45 towards Perugia – Cesena until the Assisi exit.
How to get to Assisi by train
Coming from North:
the main line between Florence and Rome has a station at Terontola (on the branch line to Lake Trasimeno, Perugia, Assisi, Spello, and Foligno), so coming from Florence take one of the dozen daily trains to Terontola/Cortona (1’/2 hr.) that meet up with a connecting train to Assisi/S.Maria degli ANgeli (45 to 60 min.).
Coming from South:
the main line between Rome and Ancona has a station at Foligno (on the branch line to Spello, Assisi, Perugia and Lake Trasimeno), so coming from Rome, take one of the nine daily trains on the line to Ancona, stop at Foligno (1 hr., 40 min. to 2 hr.), where you can transfer to a Perugia-bound train (10 to 15 min.).
How to move in the town
Assisi can be easily visited by foot, while for the further monuments you can take the bus or call a taxi.
The bus urban network of Assisi includes three lines (A, B, and C) which link the suburban areas with the centre of the town.
For more information, visit the website:
For those who reach Assisi by car, the main problem can be the parking, so we recommend to leave the car here:
Car park Piazza Giovanni Paolo II
Cark Park Piazza Matteotti
Car park Porta Mojano
Car park San Francesco (Porta S. Giacomo – Via F. Francisco Remon Jativa)
Car park near the cemetery – Via Albornoz