The tiny little Italian town of Orvieto is amazing, simple to visit and often overlooked by tourists in Italy. Size is one of its advantages. You can see all it has to offer in a few days, or most of it in an exhausting few hours.
Situated outside Rome on a train line, you can get there without needing to drive. Driving in Italy can be frightening, since the cars are small, and drivers in the passing lane go at very high speed.
Once you arrive in Orvieto, you walk a short distance to the bottom of a funicular that takes you to the top of the hill on which the main part of Orvieto lies. Orvieto, like many Italian cities, was built on a hill for security purposes.
Before you head to the top of the hill, however, there are some interesting sites at the base of the hill. There are also hotels at the base where much of the modern development has taken place. So if you plan to stay overnight, explore around the base. One of the interesting sites is the ancient Well of Saint Patrick, a bit hard to find in a park near the entrance to the funicular. Those with difficulty walking narrow stairs need not attempt this.
On the funicular ride, the vistas present a constantly changing landscape of green, rich olive fields and vineyards with scattered castles and monasteries, some of which now offer lodging for tourists.
Once at the top of the hill, you’re in the old city of Orvieto, dating back to the fifth century before the Common Era. Orvieto was home to many popes in the 13th century. Visit the papal residence. At one point, the Pope considered making Orvieto the papal city instead of Rome. During the sack of Rome in 1527 by Roman Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto.
One of the most fascinating and unique sites in Orvieto is neither at the bottom nor top of the hill. It is literally in between in an “Underground” labyrinth of caves and tunnels where ancient residents raised pigeons that served as food and as messengers. You will experience for yourself a wall of pigeon holes.
The Underground was long hidden and secret, but it is now open to tours. In addition to pigeon holes, you’ll find wells, stairs, quarries, hidden passageways, wine cellars and cisterns. When Orvieto came under siege, Underground residents were able to escape to safe exit points away from the city walls.
I suggest you purchase a special pass called the Carta Unica that entitles you to entry to all major attractions, including the Underground, for a single fee. The pass is available behind the rail station, at the Underground information point on the main plaza and at the museums and other points of interest included in the price.
Stop for a coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes that line the central plaza, and soak in the atmosphere. As you explore, leave time for more coffee stops, as your feet are guaranteed to ache from walking on all the cobblestone roads.
The main attraction of Orvieto is an absolutely beautiful Duomo or cathedral that dominates its main plaza. Built with white travertine and greenish-black basalt in narrow stripes, the church is stunning outside. Inside, find the Chapel of San Brizio. Frescoed between 1449-51 by Luca Signorelli depicting the Last Judgment, it is every bit as impressive and far less crowded than Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, which it partially inspired.