A town of the highest order: inside Umbria’s Assisi

by | 15 Jan 2024

In the Umbrian foothills lies an unassuming town that has helped shape Italy into the country we recognize today.
Assisi juts out from the green Umbrian hillside like the prow of a gleaming marble ship. Christian pilgrims know it well – it is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in Europe. This is because it was is the birthplace of Saint Francis, patron saint of animals, the environment and Italy itself.

Assisi boasts an awe-inspiring Basilica, lush natural surroundings, and even a well-preserved Roman temple. For an authentic insight into this gem of Italy’s green heart, we spoke with Umbrian, and this week’s Insightful Destination Expert, Marco.

Marco also helped us curate this week’s Insightful Travel Trivia questions. Read his interview, then return here to see how many questions you can answer correctly.

Marco, introduce us to Umbria

“This is the green heart of Italy. Where nature, spirituality, and art all come together. People come here from all over the world, some looking for a retreat in the nature, some are foodies, and many are art lovers, and they’re well served. I’ll explain a bit more on that shortly.

“In Umbria, we believe small is beautiful. We are in the 50 smallest areas in the country and there are so many picturesque little medieval towns with Roman ruins, renaissance beauty, and unspoilt landscapes.

“But at the heart of this green heart is Assisi.”


a close up shot of a brown bear’s face, with shaggy brown fur

Saint Francis is credited with inventing the live nativity scene

Tell us why Assisi is so famous?

“If you’re looking for a place which can offer you Roman remains, we’ve got Roman remains. If you’re looking for little streets, in a medieval atmosphere, this is the place. It’s also the cradle of Western art: the language of modernity in Western Art started over here, thanks to our Saint Francis. The artist Giotto paved the road to the Italian Renaissance in Assisi.

“It is just a wow place. When you enter, you believe that it’s not real, you believe that you’ve reached a piece of heaven. The same thing that the medieval pilgrims used to think when they reached this town. Because this was their goal, everybody wanted to come over here, because St. Francis was beloved by everybody. It’s not by chance that in 1939, St. Francis was named patron saint of this country, so this is the most important place of Italy. The patron saint of Italy is buried there!

“Francis and his spirituality influenced the artists and even the literature of the time. He started a new approach towards religion, and had a love for animals, Francis found the spirit of God even in the smell of a flower.”

How would you say it’s different visiting in the summer months versus in the off-season?

“Obviously, being such an important and famous place… in the summer months, or in even the springtime, you can find lots of people. And in winter, it’s a very special city. Like in December – you just skip all the queues, you skip in all the maddening crowds. In the bright lights of Christmas time you can see projections of the frescoes on the facade of the churches. Little inner streets are all embellished with the Christmas decorations. The nativity is all over the city. Don’t forget that Saint Francis is famous for the live nativity scene. His nativity became famous all around as the first ever with a real in baby, real donkey, to remind us of the humility of where Jesus was born.”

You may also like: Blossoming romance: why May is the best time to visit Italy

What St. Francis was the patron of?

“Saint Francis is famous all around the world as the patron saint of animals. But in Italy, we bring animals to be blessed in the church on the 17th of January, not on Francis day, because for us Francis is much more than that. He is not only the one who found God in the animals, but also in, as I said before, the smell of a flower. Francis spoke to the people in the people’s language, the same language that Francis used to talk to the people is also artistically speaking, shown by Giotto on the frescoes.”

So what should guests look out for in the Basilica?

“This is a place on three levels. First, there is all the spirituality of Saint Francis in his tomb. This stone coffin houses the remains of one of the greatest personalities that ever appeared on the world. I mean, it’s no doubt that this man was mistaken for Jesus by the people of the time. This is a man who showed the possibility of following the footsteps of Christ, of God. And it was not by chance that in 1986, the Pope John Paul II was invited here to Assisi to speak about peace, to pray for peace.

“And then you got the middle level. That was supposed to be the tomb, but it became a church. And that church was totally decorated with art that was the first step towards the Renaissance. The art developed step by step, fresco by fresco, until the arrival of Giotto and Lorenzetti, and Simoni martini.

“The top level is the place where you’ve got all the life of Saint Francis is in pictures based on the biography of Francis written down by St. Bonaventure. People can still understand nowadays his life and his way. Giotto, together with other painters started a new language. They showed people as normal people in their paintings, not just only saints. The cities were shown. People in it were the people at the time dressed how people dressed in their time. It’s really the place where we got the first stained glassed windows!”



The city of San Francisco is named after Saint Francis.

Assisi is this week’s featured destination on the Insightful travel trivia quiz, where Marco curated 5 brain-tickling questions on this unique Umbrian town. Take part in the quiz here and put your knowledge to the test. 

I'm Jay – born in Italy, raised in South London. Having French sisters and Hungarian ancestors, I've always been fascinated with the world and its cultures, and I carry this curiosity into my writing for Insightful. My favourite destinations I've traveled to so far have been Italy, Peru, France and Brazil.