What to See in Assisi, Italy

By |2018-08-31T16:45:36+00:00August 30, 2018|Categories: Europe, History Travel, Italy, Unesco World Heritage Sites|Tags: |8 Comments
italy assisi santa chiara at sunset

The Church and Cloister of Saint Clare of Assisi (Santa Chiara) at dusk. A lovely view that sums up one vision of the sacred city.

Before you start ticking off your list of things to see and do on your tour of Assisi, it would serve you well to at least take the time to learn just a little about the two saints, Francis and Clare, that make this Umbrian town the attraction that it is.

First, of course, is Saint Francis, known here by his Italian name, San Francesco. To say he changed the Church, and with it the history of Western philosophy, is probably not overstating his influence. I’m only going to go into a short biographical sketch here because this is a travelogue, not a religious treatise, and I don’t want to bore you.

But, it’s critical to the understanding of what you would be seeing in Assisi to know a little about the man who inspired what you’re looking at. If you want a bit more, there’s a very short biography of Saint Francis by the English novelist and lay theologian G.K. Chesterton that’s worth a read. It’s more of a discussion of his ideas than his life. But that, after all, is Francis’s real legacy. If you don’t want to tackle a hundred-page book, there’s always the Wikipedia entry.

Francis lived from the late 12th to the early 13th Centuries. He was the son of a prosperous silk merchant who renounced his father’s wealth and took the vow of poverty. His first task, as a result of a vision he had, was to restore and rebuild ruined chapels in the vicinity of Assisi. Among them was the so-called Portiuncula (“a small part” in Latin) which became the home of the Friars Minor, the first religious order founded by Francis. According to the story, he actually begged people for stones, or  found and squared stones himself.

italy Assisi portiuncula

The Porticuncula (Porziuncula in Italian) was a tiny Benedictine chapel restored by Saint Francis and is the traditional home of the Franciscan Order. The Portiuncula was surrounded later by the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels.

Traditional chronology has Francis moving on from amateur mason to nurse to the lepers in a colony near Assisi. Eventually, he became convinced that he should assemble a following so as to spread his message of adoption of poverty to the larger world. In a short time, he had eleven followers and traveled to Rome to seek permission from the Pope to form a holy order. The request was granted, and the Franciscan Order, or the Minor Friars, was founded.

It should be noted here that the Franciscans differed substantially from other orders in that they had no permanent monastery. The friars, or brothers, were itinerant, and lived by begging. There were no lands to be cultivated, no libraries to be maintained, and no parishes to be manned. The Franciscans were charged to be as the disciples of Jesus–eschewing all material goods and spreading the teachings of Jesus. Francis himself chose to never be ordained as a priest.

Soon after forming his order, he was approached by a noblewoman, Clare of Assisi, who wished to follow him. She was prohibited by her father from doing so, but she escaped his castle one night and came to Francis, who gave her a simple habit like his own and stashed her in a Benedictine convent. A female complement to the Franciscan Minor Friars was established and eventually took the name the Poor Clares.

There is much more to the story of Francis, particularly his mission to the Muslims and the appearance of the stigmata late in his life, but I’ll leave it to you to study up if you’re so inclined.

italy Assisi portiuncula interior

The interior of the tiny Portiuncula. Visible inside the chapel are rough stones laid by Francis himself.

It’s difficult to put an exact finger on what it is about Assisi that is so distinctly impressive. But if I had to say, it seems that the spirits of Francis and Clare are beautifully served by the tranquility of the small mountain town, as well as the stunning, yet simple, churches that bear their names.

italy assisi altar san francesco upper 2

The “upper” Basilica of San Francesco of Assisi. Be sure to spend the time to look at Giotto’s frescos that line the nave and tell the story of the life of the saint.

The Basilicas of Saint Francis

There are two Basilicas of Saint Francis, and upper and lower. Both churches were started at the same time, immediately after the canonization of Francis only two years after his death in 1226. Such was the immediate recognition of his importance for the Church.

The nave of the upper basilica is lined with scenes from the life of Francis and were, until fairly recently, attributed to Cimabue and Giotto, the two most famous and accomplished Florentine artists of the late 13th and early 14th Centuries. There’s some dispute now about Giotto’s contribution to the Upper Basilica. Unfortunately, the records of the Franciscans were destroyed in the Napoleonic Wars, so there’s no way to be sure.

However no such doubt exists about his frescoes in the Lower Basilica, where he painted the transept area, and one can see his frescoes right next to those of Cimabue.

Assisi Lower basilica saint francis entrance Giotto

The transept area of the Lower Basilica, as painted by Giotto.

Perhaps the best evidence of the power of the life of Saint Francis is that he inspired a young Giotto to illustrate his life with such passion and skill. Giotto is generally recognized as the greatest artist of the early Renaissance. In fact, many credit him with “starting” Renaissance painting. Giotto’s main contribution was his break from the Byzantine elongation of the human form as practiced by his predecessor (and perhaps teacher) Cimabue, in favor of a more naturalistic presentation. Not to give short shrift to Cimabue, however, who was certainly a transitional figure between the old and new styles, as you can see in this fresco in the Lower Basilica.

Assisi Lower basilica saint francis cimabue fresco

A Cimabue fresco in the Lower Basilica. Note the static and elongated figures as compared to the more natural figures of Giotto to the left.

The lower basilica was decorated over a period of hundreds of years and its chapels and other features display a wide variety of styles. I particularly like the Mannerist Last Judgement by Cesare Sermei di Orvieto behind the altar, painted more than 300 years after the nearby Giotto frescoes.

Basilica of Saint Clare (Santa Chiara)

The Basilica of Saint Clare, begun in 1257, only four years after her death and two years after her canonization. The basilica is distinguished mostly by paintings over the altar and a huge Byzantine crucifix. No photos are allowed, so I only managed to grab this one before I saw the no photos sign, and before a demure young nun gave me an admonishing smile, but didn’t say a word. The crucifix alone is worth a few minutes to completely appreciate. It is mindful of a similar crucifix by Cimabue in Santa Croce in Florence.

italy assisi santa chiara crucifix ceiling

The Byzantine style crucifix in the Basilica of Saint Clare is reminiscent of Cimabue’s of Santa Croce in Florence.

Santa Maria degli Angeli

This huge church is important because it was built around the Portiuncula of Saint Francis (see the photos above) and because it also encloses the site of the Saint’s death, the Chapel of the Transit (Capella del Transito.) The tiny chapel is behind bars, and the frescos on its walls are crumbling, so it’s a bit hard to get the original sense of the place.

italy assisi santa maria degli angeli chapel transit

The Capella del Transito in Santa Maria degli Angeli, the site of the death of Saint Francis.

The other distinguishing site in Santa Maria degli Angeli is the Thornless Rose Garden, which is reached down a hallway at the back of the church. The story goes that Francis, when he felt temptation one day, decided to roll around among the rose bushes to remind himself of the passion and sacrifice of Jesus. But when he did so, all the thorns magically vanished. Again, you’re only allowed to view the rose garden through glass, but it’s true. The roses have no thorns.

Finally, at the end of the passage past the rose garden is a small group of semi buried rooms which were built long before the basilica. These include the so-called Rose Chapel, a cell where Saint Francis slept. In these rooms are some 13th Century frescoes, including a portrait of Francis.

Santa Maria degli Angeli is at the foot of the mountain on which the walled city of Assisi sits. It is reached by taking a bus from Piazza Unità d’Italia, just at the edge of the walls of the old city. The bus costs €1.30 if you buy your ticket in advance at your hotel or a kiosk. If you buy it on the bus, it’s €2. It’s a short ride of about 10 minutes, and the bus drops you right in front of the basilica. After your visit, you catch the bus back up the hill at a stop by the side of the church.

Other churches in Assisi

Saint Damian‘s just outside the walls is the church in which the crucifix supposedly spoke to Francis and told him to rebuild the ruined churches. The crucifix itself is now in the Basilica of Saint Clare, and has been replaced by a replica at Saint Damian.

The Temple of Minerva, which now houses the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva church, stands on the main square. The new Baroque church embodies all that is excessive about the Catholic church and can be absorbed in just a view minutes of wonder at how such a monstrosity could be erected between the two basilicas of the Saints. But, as someone once said, if you wonder what God thinks of money, look at whom he gave it to.

italy Assisi templo de minerva

The baroque altar of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (Saint Mary on top of Minerva) in the main square of Assisi. Quite out of place in the old city.

The Assisi Civic Museum and Roman Forum

The best thing about Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is that it sits atop the old Roman forum, which has been excavated and turned into the Civic Museum of Roman artifacts. You can actually see the old Roman pavement, and several statues and, particularly, grave stones and other civic markers of the ancient city. There’s even an entire cenotaph down there with the original inscriptions. The museum costs €3 for seniors, which we are.

italy assisi roman forum museum headstones

Some of the inscribed Roman tombstones in the Civic Museum and Roman Forum.

There’s also a Roman Amphitheater in Assisi, but only a bit of it is visible, and the area around it was long ago built up so it’s impossible to get any sense of what it was like. About all you can do is walk around it, which is ok to do since you’re walking the city anyway.

italy assisi woman walking up stairs

The beginning of the climb up to the Rocca Maggiore in Assisi. When I caught up to the woman, I offered her my arm to help her up the stairs. She told me she’d been climbing the stairs for 80 years and assured me she could still do it without help.

The Rocca Maggiore

The Rocca Maggiore is the big fortification that stands atop the Assisi mountain. It’s a hike up a hill, but is a good half hour walk on a sunny day, and you’re rewarded with spectacular views of the city of Assisi and the Umbrian valley below. I recommend taking a picnic and a nice bottle of wine and enjoying the vistas over lunch. Sometimes, there will be children playing in the yard in front of the castle. They were running relay races and kicking a soccer ball around the day we were there. You can go into the castle if you like, but we didn’t. We preferred the views over the hillside and the basilicas of Clare to one side and Francis to the other, framed by the verdant valley.

italy Assisi basilica san francesco umbria valley

A view from the Rocca Maggiore of the Basilica of San Francesco and the Umbrian valley below.

Assisi Restaurants

We certainly didn’t try them all, but there were several that smacked of tourism that we avoided. Most of those were right on the main Piazza del Comune and were crowded anyway.

The exception to that rule that we liked enough to go back twice was the Ristorante Il Tempio di Minerva, right across the Plaza del Comune from the temple. This lovely place was welcoming late one evening and stayed open just to serve us some absolutely delicious salads, which were a very welcome break for two people who had been in Italy for more than a month and had had their fill of pasta. As I said, we went back the next day for a light lunch of caprese, a starter sized pasta, grilled vegetables, and a nice bottle of white wine from Umbria.

Other restaurants we liked were Le Cantine di Oddo, where we had lunch after our visit to the Basilica of San Francesco. Because we’d spent so long in the church, we’d sort of missed the lunch hour, but again they were kind enough to stay open a little longer to feed us. Cheap local prices, and good.

And finally, our last supper in Assisi was at the Enoteca Mazzini, which, as the name suggests, is a wine store with an attached restaurant nestled into a lovely outdoor terrace. This is where we splurged on something other than the house wine–a nice Barolo, if memory serves–and then just a simple bruschetta and salad to go with. A supper made even more pleasant by the trio of young women at the table next to us, one of whom had a new baby. A lovely, if broken conversation in our meager Italian and their slightly better English. Babies are such conversation starters.

Assisi Hotels

When we choose hotels, we have several interchangeable criteria: location, quiet, cost, amenities. Assisi was a little busy when we went, so many of the more central hotels were booked. And that was fine with us because we don’t mind walking, and certainly don’t mind trading a most convenient location for peace and isolation from the ravaging hordes of tourists. That’s how we ended up at the Hotel La Terrazza, which was a pleasant and scenic 20 minute (just over a mile) walk from the center of old Assisi. (There was also a frequent bus into the center of town from just outside the hotel driveway.) Modern rooms, an excellent helpful staff, a very nice restaurant with a good breakfast. It was about a €12 taxi ride from the train station.

Of course, there are many hotels in Assisi. It is, after all, a tourist attraction. We like to use Booking.com for our hotels, and that’s how we found the Hotel La Terrazza, but there are plenty of choices, and we suggest you check them out.

How to get from Rome to Assisi

There are several trains daily, at least four, from Roma Termini train station to Assisi. Most of them require a change in Foligno, and take about 2 hours and 40 minutes. There is also at least one direct train, with no changes from Rome to Assisi. That train takes 2 hours and leaves middle of the afternoon. The time difference isn’t that great, so take the one that’s most convenient for your start time. If you’re going to be in Rome for any time, check out this list of 28 Things to do in Rome.

How to get from Florence to Assisi

There’s an early morning direct train from Florence Santa Maria Novella station to Assisi that takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes, and several later trains with a change that average around four hours. I recommend the direct train. It leaves around 8 a.m., which isn’t too early for veteran intrepid travelers.

A good idea for all European train travel, especially if you’re going to be in Europe for a while is look into Eurail. It takes a little bit of research to figure out which of their packages is best for your trip, but the elimination of the hassle is well worth the time. We use them every time we’re visiting Europe for any extended period. It makes everything so easy. They also have an app for your smart phone called, simply, Rail Planner. Whether you use Eurail for your tickets or not, the Rail Planner app is the best way to get train schedules.

Arriving in Assisi

If you get to Assisi by train, you should know that the train station is down the mountain, about four kilometers from the center of the historic city. There is a bus that runs every half hour that will drop you at the Piazza Unità d’Italia, and from there you can walk into the city (still uphill a bit) or transfer to a local bus that will probably run near your hotel. Just ask any bus driver at the piazza, and he’ll tell you which bus to catch from there. Bus fare, if you buy on the bus is €2, and you can transfer to another bus for 60 minutes. There are also taxis that will cost about €10-15 that will take you right to your hotel.

Assisi is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Italy. For a complete list of all UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy, with links to the ones we’ve visited, click the link.

We love traveling–with the right gear. You can check out a lot of the stuff we use to make all our travel much more pleasant and efficient all on one page. Click here to see it. If you purchase something from this page, Travel Past 50 will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Thanks.

Assisi Tours

When you’re confronted with the breadth and depth of a site like Assisi and characters such as Saint Francis and Saint Clare, you’d do well to take a guided tour of some of the things that will help put their lives and city in context. Below are some links to some tours of Assisi. Check these out, and know if you book a tour using one of these links, Travel Past 50 will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

What to see in Assisi, Italy. Learn about Saints Francis and Clare and this Umbrian town before you go. #Italy #Europe #TravelPast50 #Travel #TravelPhotography #SeniorTravel #TBIN #Churches #TravelTips #ClicktoRead

8 Comments

  1. Kellie Rae Theiss September 3, 2018 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    Now on my bucket list!
    Thank you! This is a great read, so inspiring. Thank you Tom and Kris for putting this together for us!! Love it!! Kellie Rae Theiss ❤️

  2. Julie McCool September 4, 2018 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    I visited Assisi in the 90s and fell in love. The churches are certainly lovely, but it was the winding staircases decorated with flowerpots that seemed so beautiful to me. The view from the castle/fort was also a favorite and it was a wonderful spot to relax at the end of the day. I was only in Assisi for a day but would love to return

  3. Doreen Pendgracs September 4, 2018 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    Thx for this great post about what we would be seeing in Assisi. The churches and Basilica of Saint Clare look really incredible.

  4. Cathy Sweeney September 6, 2018 at 11:13 am - Reply

    I’ve long been familiar with St. Francis, but never really knew about St. Clare although I’ve known about the Poor Clares. Interesting information about both of them and definitely important for visitors to Assisi to learn. I love the tiny chapel in the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels. Fantastic photos.

  5. Kemkem September 7, 2018 at 4:45 am - Reply

    Assisi is so gorgeous! Your pictures are insane, and makes me want to visit right now. We will be in Rome in January, but l don’t know if we can squeeze it this time as l already made plans for all days there and in Tuscany..bollocks! Thanks for the heads up though as for sure we will have to get there soon :-). I really want to see the little chapel in Portiuncula.

  6. Rachel Heller September 7, 2018 at 11:39 am - Reply

    I don’t know how many times I’ve traveled in Italy, yet I’ve never been to Assisi. Minerva really is a bit of a monstrosity, isn’t it? But the other churches and the Roman forum are just my cup of tea! Beautiful pictures too, that make me want to go back to Italy!

  7. Marilyn Jones September 8, 2018 at 1:01 am - Reply

    Assisi should be on everyone’s list of places to visit in Italy!! What a lovely community and the churches are gorgeous! Thank you so much for the excellent history lesson and for putting Assisi on my radar!

  8. Patti Morrow September 9, 2018 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    So timely! I’m in the process of planning a group tour to Italy for 2019. I hadn’t thought of including Assisi, but I think the chapels, basilicas, and churches are beautiful and a stop there should be considered! Gorgeous!

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