Just 121 kilometers (75 miles) north of Rome, Orvieto is a popular place to take a day trip from the Italian capital. The small city, situated on a rocky tuff outcrop, is replete with medieval history, and boasts a wealth of architecture and even a connection to the Papacy.
With all this fascinating history to learn about – not to mention the attractive city’s streets to lose yourself in – it’s no wonder that people trek from Rome to explore the sights of Orvieto. Without further ado, let’s dive into the details and see what makes this little city so special.
A Brief History Of Orvieto, Italy
Orvieto has long been inhabited. In fact, the city actually dates back to the Etruscan era and was a thriving center of civilization. Many artifacts found in the area point to a mingling of cultures, with Etruscan and Celtic roots seeming to coexist. It shows the life people used to lead in ancient Italy.
In the 3rd century BC, Orvieto was annexed by the Roman Republic. Its strategic location, built high upon steep volcanic rock, meant that the city had tough defenses. The city was almost insurmountable.
Because of the city’s defensive quality, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Orvieto was fought over by the various cultures that had invaded the Italian peninsula, including Goths and Lombards. However, in the 10th century, it gained the status of a self-governing commune. In the same century, Pope Benedict VII visited with his nephew, Filippo Alberici, who later became consul of Orvieto.
Moving on, the city’s fortress-like setting continued to shape its fortunes. Not only is it situated on an outcrop of tuff, but it is also located along a major road between Florence and Rome. This made it an attractive place to live and boasted a population of 30,000 by the 13th century. This attractiveness also attracted noble families of Italy, who feuded over who would be in control of the city.
This gradually involved the Papacy, who were at the peak of their wealth and power at this time. Despite not being officially part of the Papal States, it was eventually under effective control of the Holy See.
It was here in Orvieto, among other cities (including Viterbo) that many Popes found refuge. There were a number of political and strategic reasons that the Pope, along with the Papal court, would move around during the 13th century.
In total, Orvieto played host to five popes from 1261 to 1303, namely Urban IV, Gregory X, Martin IV, Nicholas IV and Boniface VIII. During the reign of Nicholas IV and Boniface VIII, Orvieto was actually more frequently used as the Papal residence than Rome was.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a period of tranquility for Orvieto; later it became a canton of Napoleon’s European empire. Following this, its fortunes began to decline in the 19th century, until it joined the fledgling Kingdom of Italy in 1860.
Orvieto was occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany in World War II, who used the surrounding areas for airfields – it was again of strategic importance. Towards the end of the war, it was liberated by the British.
The Best Things To Do In Orvieto, Italy
With such a long and interesting history, you may be thinking that there are many sights to see in Orvieto. This is very much true; and here are the top spots you should make sure to visit on your trip to this Umbrian city.
See Orvieto from afar
To really get an understanding of the striking location of Orvieto, and just why it was seen as such a strategic place, you need to get a glimpse of the city from afar. As you approach Orvieto, the towers and jutting buildings of the city seem to hang from the sky. It’s an impressive sight.
There are many spots dotted around the countryside where you can get a great view of Orvieto from afar. If you’ve got your own wheels, simply head out and find a spot to park where you can admire Orvieto in all its panoramic glory.
Check out Orvieto Cathedral
The Orvieto Cathedral, or the Duomo of Orvieto, is a particularly stunning example of religious architecture. With construction beginning in 1290, the cathedral was largely a work in progress throughout the 14th century, and was finally finished in 1561.
Its facade is the most famous part. Divided by four pillars, it’s a shining display of Gothic style architecture, including stained glass, sculpture and – most interestingly – golden mosaics. The design is attributed to Arnolfo di Canvio, but in more recent years, a monk called Fra Bevignate has also been credited with coming up with the design.
Similar to that of Siena’s cathedral, Orvieto Cathedral features black basalt and white travertine in stripes. There are three enormous bronze doors leading into the cathedral. The interiors are large and cavernous and were, until 1877, filled with statues. At this time it was decided that the Baroque detailing inside should be removed.
One of the most striking parts of visiting the Duomo is glimpsing the Chapel of San Brizio. It is decorated with beautiful frescoes by Luca Signorelli, depicting the Day of Judgement and the Afterlife. They brilliantly reflect the turbulent atmosphere of the Italian peninsula in the late 1400s. Signorelli’s masterpiece inspired the younger Michelangelo, who studied the older master’s work.
Orvieto Cathedral is open for visits from Monday to Saturday from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm (November to February), to 6:00 pm (March and October) and to 7:00 pm the rest of the year. It’s open from 1:00 pm to 4:30 pm (November to February) and to 5:30 pm (March to October) on Sundays. Admission is €5 and includes the Museum.
Visit Orvieto underground
Long kept secret, Orvieto is actually home to a crisscrossing network of tunnels, including Etruscan era caves, all dug into the tuff rock itself. The vast network can only be visited on a guided tour, but is well worth your time.
The tunnels here hide a wealth of insight into how the past inhabitants of the city lived. Equipment hidden in this subterranean world includes an olive press, kitchenware and even a pigeon coop. Many other ancient artifacts and archeological finds have been uncovered in the tunnels besides, of which there are over 1,200, in the form of various stairways, passages, and cisterns.
Interestingly, the labyrinthine network connects to the city’s precarious medieval past (and its wealth) as the tunnels were actually used by members of wealthy families as escape routes – just in case things got too heated in the city above.
Guided tours of Orvieto Underground are available every day at 11:00 am; 12:15 pm, 4:00 pm; 5:15 pm and every 15 minutes during peak season. They last 45 minutes and cost €7.
For a guided tour of Orvieto Cathedral and underground, click here.
Pop inside the Church of Sant’Andrea
Officially called the Collegiate Church of Saints Andrea and Bartolomeo, this venerable old Romanesque style church in Orvieto dates back to the 12th century. You’ll find it located in Piazza della Repubblica, next door to the town hall.
Before the Duomo was built, this church was actually the center of religious worship in the city. Because of its importance, it was used as a place for appointing cardinals in the medieval era.
Its walls are constructed of tuff, and its floors are made of marble. During its last restoration (1926) sculptures and a stained glass rose window (by artist Ilario Ciaurro) were added to the facade. It’s an impressive building in itself, but one of the most interesting things about the Church of Sant’Andrea is its decagonal (10-sided) belltower. Make sure you’ve got your camera handy for this unique aspect of the church’s architecture.
The foundations of the church are even older than the building itself. In its basement, you can actually find the remnants of Etruscan and Roman era buildings. There’s even the remains of an early Christian church here. It is possible to see this fascinating basement for yourself, but only with a guide reserved ahead of your visit.
Guided visits of the basement are available on demand, Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and on Sunday from 2:00 to 5:00 pm. They cost €5 and can be booked via email at [email protected]
Hang out in Piazza della Repubblica
The Piazza della Repubblica is where you’ll find the Church of Sant’Andrea, the Orvieto Town Hall, and other important buildings of the city. It was formerly called the Piazza del Comune, and thereafter the Piazza Maggiore, until being finally renamed Piazza della Repubblica.
It is thought to have been the spot of the Etruscan center of the city in ancient times. It has long been an important spot, with palaces situated on the square in addition to the church and town hall.
Orvieto Town Hall is actually somewhat unfinished. Though rebuilt in 1571, much of the work was left undone; head to the back of the town hall and you’ll find traces of original Gothic windows from the 13th century.
Today you can find numerous cafes and pizzerias dotting the piazza. It’s a sunny spot to sit for a while and watch local life going by; chances are you’ll find yourself sitting here a while during your visit to Orvieto.
Go up the Torre del Moro
If you like a good viewpoint, then make sure you make a beeline for the Torre del Moro during your trip to Orvieto. Built to protect the town in 1313, this towering red-brick structure commands the best views in all the city.
Complete with a large clock face, the building is worth a visit even if you don’t like heights. But if you’re here for the view, prepare yourself for the 236 stone steps that lead to the top. On clear days the view out across all of Orvieto, and to the Umbrian countryside beyond, are nothing short of stunning.
The Torre del Moro is open daily from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm (March / April and September / October) or 7:30 pm (May to August) and from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm (November to February). Admission is €2.80.
And down St. Patrick’s Well
During the sack of Rome in 1527 by the Holy Roman Empire, led by Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII understandably escaped the city. He fled, together with his troops, to Orvieto, which was known for its defensive capabilities.
During his time in the city, the Pope ordered a sizeable well – St. Patrick’s Well, or Pozzo di San Patrizio in Italian – to be built; in case the city was put under siege, having access to fresh water would be an important thing. It is 53 meters (175 feet) deep and has a diameter of 13 meters (45 feet).
The well features two spiral staircases (496 steps each) that descend to various openings where water can be fetched easily. The double-helix of the two staircases made practical sense. The name of the well is said to be inspired by St. Patrick’s Purgatory, located in Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Well is open daily from 10:00 am to 4:45 pm (November to February); from 9:00 am to 6:45 pm (March and April) and from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm (May to September). Admission is €5.
Visit the Pozzo della Cava
St. Patrick’s Well isn’t the only well in Orvieto. There is actually an Etruscan era well – Pozzo della Cava – situated along the Via della Cava. This impressive well was amazingly dug by hand, and is 36 meters (118 feet) deep. There are two different parts to it: one is circular, with a diameter of around three meters (around 10 feet); the other is rectangular, little more than a meter wide.
This well also formed part of Pope Clement VII’s adjustments to the water supply in Orvieto during his stay from 1527. His orders to adjust the well were done by 1530. It remained in use until 1646, when it was ordered to close by the Orvieto city authorities.
In modern times, since its rediscovery, the well has become a site of celebration during the Christmas period in Orvieto. The largest of the caves hosts a Nativity scene, complete with animated figures that change every year. It gained the name “The Nativity in the Well” as a result.
The Pozzo della Cava is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm. Admission is €4.
Check out the Artisan’s Shops
With the city retaining such a distinct identity throughout its history, Orvieto is also home to a number of crafts and artisanal products that are unique to the town. For those of you who enjoy shopping, simply just browsing, or want to take a gift back home, spending time wandering the narrow medieval lanes of the city is something you should definitely put in your schedule.
These charming boutiques and shops sell a range of goods from meats and olive oil, to ceramics, leather and lace. If you like wine, seeking out a bottle or two of Orvieto DOC wine is something you should do. You’ll also have the bonus of prices being cheaper than other more heavily touristed cities, such as Rome or Florence.
Explore the Giardini Comunali
For a breath of fresh air and a taste of manicured nature, you should head to Giardini Comunali. Literally translating to “Communal Gardens” this green space is situated in what was once the Fortezza Albornoz. This castle no longer has a moat or a drawbridge, but you can still see the defensive wall that surrounds that garden.
This is a perfect place to enjoy a relaxing walk. You may even want to take a picnic and make this your lunch spot. There’s also a play area for children, making it a good place to check out if you are visiting with children. And thanks to its elevated position, the gardens boast a sweeping view out over the Paglia River valley.
Visit the Museo Claudio Faina and Museo Civico Archeologico
Both situated inside the Palazzo Faina on the Piazza Duomo, this museum opened its doors in 1954, when the final heir of the family – Claudio Faina Jr. – left his entire property to the city of Orvieto. It’s one of the most important archeological museums in the region, thanks to its large collection of Etruscan artifacts.
The ground floor is dedicated to interesting finds discovered in sites around Orvieto, as well as the surrounding areas. These tell the story of the Etruscan roots of the city, including terracotta artifacts from the 5th century BC, as well as many fragments of a local Etruscan temple.
On the second floor, you can be treated to a collection of artworks and sculptures accumulated by the Faina family over the years.
Museo Claudio Faina is open daily from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm (April to September) and from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm (October to March). Admission is €6.
Go to the Etruscan Necropolis and Belvedere Temple
To see more of Orvieto’s ancient Etruscan past, make sure you head to the Necropolis. Located below the cliffs of the city proper, there are dozens of Etruscan tombs to be found – over 200, in fact.
These rectangular shaped funerary markers – made of tuff, and all somewhat overgrown with grass and plants – are the final resting places of Etruscan families. The name of that family is still clearly visible on many graves.
Many vessels and objects found at the Necropolis are on display at the museum mentioned above.
For more Etruscan intrigue, pay a visit to the Belvedere Temple. Located near St. Patrick’s Well, these ruins are situated in an elevated clearing featuring a panoramic view (hence the name Belvedere; this means “beautiful sight” in Italian). So, as well as history, you can get some great views from this location.
Many of its artifacts can be found in the Museo Claudio Faina. It is thought that the 5th-century-BC temple was built to honor Tinia, the Etruscan equivalent to the Roman god, Jupiter.
The Necropolis is open from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm (Thursday to Saturday and second Sunday of the month). Admission is €3.
Visit the Church of San Giovenale
Another of Orvieto’s pretty churches is the Church of San Giovenale. It’s one of the oldest religious structures in the city, dating back to 1004. It was actually built on top of an ancient Etruscan temple dedicated to Tinia.
The church is built in Romanesque style and features a somewhat plain brick exterior. But inside the church you’ll see stunning frescoes and artifacts from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Go wine tasting
Orvieto is well known in Italy for its wine. It’s a wine-growing region, after all, and the city is surrounded by a number of vineyards, something you can see from the city itself (from the Torre del Moro, for example).
The so-called straw colored wines of Orvieto are some of the best to come from the Umbrian region. In fact, the wines from here were once a favorite of ancient Rome’s Imperial elite. It was enjoyed by emperors, senators and generals, who would import the wine by the barrel; these were floated down to the capital on the River Tiber.
Today, the wines are certified with an Orvieto Classico DOC. This denotes that the wine has been produced in the region. You can sample Orvieto’s famous wines at many enotecas throughout the city. Alternatively, you can head out of the city to sample wine directly from the source at the vineyards themselves.
Practical Tips To Plan Your Trip To Orvieto, Italy
How long should you spend in Orvieto?
Orvieto is actually quite small, and a day is enough to explore most – if not all – of it. As it is close to Civita di Bagnoregio, you could even consider visiting both on the same day: it’s fairly easy if you have a car. In fact, that’s what my sister and I did last time we went and there are plenty of guided tours departing from Rome that stop in both.
Guided tours of Orvieto
You can definitely and easily explore Orvieto independently. Guided tours are a good idea if you want to have a more in depth experience.
For a guided tour of Orvieto Cathedral and underground, click here.
For a walking tour of Orvieto with a local, click here.
How to get to Orvieto from Rome
Guided tours from Rome
If you don’t want hassle or stress added to your journey, then opting for a guided tour that takes you from Rome to Orvieto and back again on the same day might be the best idea for you. You’ll also have a knowledgeable guide on hand to tell you all there is to know about Orvieto and its fascinating history, too.
If you’d rather have a guided tour to Orvieto and Assisi, click here.
The best way to explore Orvieto and the surrounding region is by driving. This can be done either from Rome (it’s 76.4 km, or 47.5 miles), and even more easily from Viterbo (it’s just 45 km or 28 miles, so short of an hour drive).
Renting a car from the capital and then heading along the A1, you’ll reach Orvieto in around an hour and 45 minutes.
Parking is fortunately not an issue in Orvieto. The main parking lot is located below the old town, and you can then use escalators (yes, really) to reach the town above.
Reaching Orvieto by bus from Rome takes about one hour and a half (less, depending on the time of day or the station you travel from). Trains depart regularly from Rome Termini and Rome Tiburtina station.
Looking for more places to visit in Tuscia? Check out these posts:
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- A Guide To Civita Di Bagnoregio
- The Best Hidden Gems Of Tuscia
- A Guide To Visiting The Parco Dei Mostri, Bomarzo
- A Guide To Villa Farnese, Caprarola
- The Best Hidden Gems In Tuscia