Assisi might not be on top of your travel list, but here’s why you need to give it a second thought! Although Rome is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, it’s difficult to picture having a truly unique experience while vacationing in Rome, with so many people to have already graced its splendour.
Though I wouldn’t take away the experience of Rome from anyone, I would recommend extending your itinerary to Assisi, and escape Rome’s maddening crowds and dirty, city-like feel. If you’re anything like my husband and I – we don’t do well with crowds – you’ll thank me for the suggestion!
Hitting the right travel spot – Rome might have a lot to offer, however…
How do you escape the under-whelming feeling after looking at beautiful pictures of the Colosseum, the Vatican City, or the Amalfi Coast towns over and over again on Instagram? How do you take in the imposing Italian architecture and savour the food without feeling the effects of over-tourism in Rome?
While planning a recent 10-day trip to the European country, my husband and I decided to give ourselves three different Italian feels – two nights in Assisi, a hilltop town in the Umbrian region, three nights in Rome, and four nights along the Amalfi Coast.
More than the latter, I genuinely thought Rome, home of the Vatican, would give me a strong feeling of awe. Assisi was just a passing suggestion by a colleague and bar planning where to stay and a few other details, we gave the place very little thought.
Little did I know, those first two nights in the walled city would be the most memorable of our trip.
Touch down Perugia – away from the madding crowds…
Besides taking an overpriced taxi from the airport to our hotel and eating an undercooked pasta dish (even though it tasted really good!), our two-night stay in Assisi was perfect.
We stayed on the outskirts of the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Villa Elda Hotel. The cottage-like spacious room we’d booked with its Italian décor was cosy, and you could see views of Subasio’s Natural Park and Assisi once you stepped outside. The budget accommodation had all the right trims to make our stay comfortable, including a bus stop just a two-minute walk away.
Assisi is a peaceful oasis that puts the mind to rest © Ali N. Salim
What’s all the fuss? A Rome away from Rome – Assisi…
As we took the bus from our hotel up the rolling hill to view the town of Assisi, the butterflies in my stomach started flapping wildly. This was it – this was the Italy I’d dreamt of since I was little.
As we got off, the narrow, cobbled streets with the gelato and ready-to-go pizza shops came into view. The church bells were ringing, and the air was fresh and crisp – not too hot, not too cold – it was just right for an October evening.
The well-preserved medieval town of Assisi exemplifies many characteristics of the Italian culture in a small place. Incredibly important in the Catholic religion, it is the birthplace of Saint Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in 1208.
Because of its size, we wanted to spend our first day wandering the streets and capturing the views on camera – leaving room to visit the main attractions the following day. The autumn leaves crunched under our feet as we roamed between narrow stoned walls, admiring classic Italian homes with their colourful, rustic doors and plant windowsills.
Assisi’s narrow, cobbled streets will keep bringing your cameras out © Ali N. Salim
As our feet grew tired, we sat, people-watching on the steps of Temple of Minerva, located in the Piazza del Commune with gelatos in our hand, taking in the magnificent sights and whiffs of heated mozzarella and basil.
Hiking up to Rocca Maggiore – breathtaking views…
The following day, we took the bus back to town and started our leg-burning hike up to Rocca Maggiore, located on a steep hill above Assisi. This medieval fort, built in the 12th century, is the perfect storm-the-castle experience. Just pay a few euros and make your way up the tower – after visiting the castle’s many extravagant rooms – to take in the sights of Assisi, perched halfway up the slopes of Mount Subasio. The views are truly breath-taking!
Breath-taking view from the top of Rocca Maggiore © Ali N. Salim
Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi – Romanesque architecture…
We then made the 30-minute journey down to the Basilica Papale di San Francesco d’ Assisi, which is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor Conventual. Gorgeously embellished, its grandiose lies in the architecture and the colours of its stained glass. Don’t forget to get an audio guide to learn the history while taking in the beautiful altar, detailed ceilings and commanding paintings.
Thousands of people visit the Basilica each year, both believers and non-believers © Mariam Gabaji
We visited other historical landmarks such as Basilica di Santa Chiara and Santa Maria degli Angeli, but besides the two highlights mentioned above, the beauty was in walking and getting lost among the cobbled streets, taking in views from different parts of the hilltop town.
Lovely town, with quaint rock homes © Ali N. Salim
Food, food, food – Assisi romances your taste buds…
And let’s not overlook the food and gelato! I don’t think I can forget my very first bowl of fresh tomato-based spaghetti, garnished with basil, in Assisi. The homey Italian feel of the flavours made my heart soar, literally. Ending the meal with two scoops of homemade chocolate and mixed berry gelato felt just right.
The perfect flavours for an October evening © Mariam Gabaji
Almost everything we ate in town, whether they were mid-range or cheap eats, was worth the calories! I would suggest using Trip Advisor – it helped us find some really good restaurants, nestled in discreet corners, that had the perfect quaint, Italian feels.