On our recent visit to Umbria, I regrettably didn’t find a property near Orvieto that I could confidently recommend. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss the charms of this imposing hill town; it’s easy to visit as a day trip from Rome or Florence, or as a stop between the two. Park in one of the lots beneath the city walls, and ascend to the well-preserved historic center.
Orvieto has been inhabited at least since the time of the Etruscans, who carved a honeycomb of wine cellars and wells in the tufa butte on which the city is dramatically perched. Much of what you see today dates from the medieval and Renaissance periods, when popes embellished Orvieto with impressive buildings such as the late 13th-century duomo (cathedral).
The striking duomo makes an excellent starting point for exploring. Its prison-stripe exterior culminates in a remarkably ornate façade, similar to Siena’s cathedral. The colorful mosaics in the gables catch the eye first, but closer inspection reveals richly expressive bas-reliefs flanking the portals. Inside, a relatively plain nave gives way to a colorfully frescoed apse. To the right, the glorious Cappella di San Brizio glows with vibrant frescoes started by Fra Angelico and completed by Luca Signorelli.
Touristy shops selling occasionally attractive ceramics and other bric-a-brac line the Via del Duomo, which leads to Orvieto’s main thoroughfare, the pedestrianized Corso Cavour. To the right, it’s an amiable stroll past shops and cafés to the Pozzo di San Patrizio, a well famous for its double helix of staircases descending to the water. But we preferred turning to the left, passing through the atmospheric Piazza della Repubblica to Via della Cava 28. Here you can explore the Pozzo della Cava excavations, which exposed an Etruscan cistern, a medieval wine cellar and various other curiosities. The café and shop up top serves glasses of Orvieto wine.
We always enjoy tasting wines at the wineries themselves, however, so I recommend heading south into the heart of the Orvieto Classico region. Take Strada Provinciale 12 south and wind your way up into the hills. The pleasantly serpentine road leads to Cantina Custodi, a winery with a modern but cozy tasting room and well-crafted reds and whites. Don’t miss the chance to taste the vivacious “Pertusa” blend, made in the traditional sweet style of the region, now sadly out of fashion.
Continue winding south to the town of Bagnoregio, unremarkable except for its sensational view of Civita di Bagnoregio, a hamlet crowding an eroding pinnacle of rock towering over a breathtaking bowl-shaped valley. Evocative Civita actually used to be much bigger, but whole neighborhoods have eroded away, collapsing into the valley. The Hostaria del Ponte has a terrace with fine views of Civita, but a number of inviting trattorie inhabit the picturesque village itself. One of several charming options, the Osteria Boccadoro has a particularly inviting flower-filled patio just off the main square opposite the cathedral.
Keep in mind that it’s impossible for cars to reach Civita di Bagnoregio; the hamlet can only be accessed by a climb on foot up the causeway.
From Bagnoregio, it’s only a two-hour drive to either Rome or Florence. Those determined to spend a night will find a very friendly welcome at the half-ruined abbey of La Badia, which has traditional tufa-walled suites with memorable views of Orvieto. Note that the accommodations could use some freshening, however, and the baths feel especially dated. Alternatively, Vissani on Lake Corbara has well-maintained contemporary accommodations above its Michelin two-star restaurant, but even the junior suites are quite snug, making them suitable for a one-night stay at most.