My favorite hilltop town in Italy is Orvieto. Located in the rolling hills of Umbria, Orvieto is the quintessential Italian hill city with an impressive duomo, quaint restaurants, and elegant villas. If you’re looking for a place to dream about during this season of limited travel, Orvieto is a great option.
Many people are planning once-in-a-lifetime trips to Italy when travel restrictions are lifted. Orvieto is a great place to include on your itinerary since it is located about halfway between Rome and Florence and gives you the feel of Tuscany without the crowds. On our trip to Italy in 2016, we spent three nights in Orvieto, and I dream of going back!
The town has a rich history, dating back to the ancient Etruscan civilization (900-27 BC). The site of the city on a high, steep hillside of volcanic rock made it relatively impregnable from raids or battles, and it became a leading cultural center of Italy in medieval times. The papacy recognized its importance as a place of refuge for the Pope, and the cornerstone of the duomo (cathedral) still standing was laid in 1290.
One unique feature of Orvieto is its underground network of tunnels and caves. The volcanic stone on which the city is built, tuff (sometimes called tufa/tufo), is a soft rock so it is easy to carve out. This rock is used in many buildings around Italy (the Colosseum and Pantheon are two examples) but Orvieto is one of the only places you can see it in its natural form. The tunnels and caves have been used throughout history as places of refuge during siege and war and as storage vaults and pigeon roosts.
Getting to Orvieto is relatively easy. It is located on the main rail line between Rome and Florence (see this guide by Rick Steves for more information on Italy’s trains), and it’s about a 2 hour trip from Rome. I don’t recommend doing what we did – we got off an overnight flight and then took the train from the airport into Rome. Our next stop was Orvieto so we had to wait around the Rome train station for 2 hours, jet-lagged and with all of our bags, until the train to Orvieto left. It was not our finest moment, especially with two young children!
The drive to Orvieto from the Rome airport takes just under 2 hours and lets you skirt around Rome so I would recommend doing this if you have young children with lots of bags. Navigating the Italian trains with strollers and toddlers in tow is not fun!
The train station will drop you off in the lower town but you can take a funicular (cable railroad) up the hill to the old city above. Kids love doing this! Once you’re in the old city, you can walk to all of the sites, restaurants, and shops.
The winding medieval streets are charming. Orvieto is small enough to have mostly local and regional stores but is large enough to have many options.
Of course, a visit to the gorgeous duomo should be at the top of your must-see list. Built in 1290, this multi-colored facade is one of the most beautiful in Italy.
The striped nave is impressive and awe-inspiring, and its chapel’s frescos are beautiful.
There are two main historical sites in Orvieto I recommend seeing with children, one below ground and one high above. The Orvieto Underground Tours is a fascinating tour of the many caves and tunnels carved into the tufo stone under the city. While it sounds frightening or a bit dark, the tour is anything but. Your kids will love hearing the stories about each household’s cellar and what has been stored here over the years. My children’s favorite part was the dovecote (pigeon coop) where the birds were kept for hundreds of years. Book in advance to make sure you get an English speaking guide here.
High above the city, the Torre del Moro (Tower of the Moor) will give your family a bird’s eye view of the town and the surrounding countryside. It is a long walk up (there is an elevator which takes you partially up) but the view is worth it if you have older children.
The town also has several museums, including the National Archaeological Museum of Orvieto and the Etruscan Museum. Kids will be amazed at the medieval St. Patrick’s well, built to ensure a water supply in case of a siege. Rick Steves has a wonderful Orvieto walk in his guidebook that will take you by the main points of interest, including a hike around the rupe (cliff).
For more information about Orvieto, check out Rick Steves’ travel show here (Orvieto is at 7:00). Also be sure to visit the town’s tourism site here.
If you’re planning a family trip to Italy, be sure to put Orvieto on your itinerary. While not as well known as some of the Tuscan hilltop towns, it’s quiet charm coupled with its long history makes it a wonderful place to visit!
- Spend at least two nights in Orvieto or the surrounding countryside so you can get a good idea of what the town is like at different times of day.
- There are many hotels and villa rentals available in the area. Also check out the agriturismos – farms where your family can stay and participate in farm life! See the Orvieto tourism site for more details. I also recommend utilizing a travel agent specializing in child-friendly accommodations, like Ciao Bambino, to make sure your hotel or home is appropriate for children.
- Restaurants in Orvieto are plentiful. It is well-known for its local cuisine and Classico wine. Children will love the plentiful pizza and pasta meals at the restaurants!
Books to Read:
Check out my Italy list on Bookshop.org (affiliate link).
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