10 Top Tourist Attractions in Assisi & Easy Day Trips
When UNESCO inscribed the Franciscan attractions in Assisi on the list of World Heritage Sites, it cited the way in which the city influenced both religious expression and Europe's art history. It is the intertwining of these two features that make this medieval town an important landmark for tourists. As the birthplace of St. Francis, and the center of much of his life's work, it is entwined with the Franciscan order, which he established. His life and work inspired great artists - Giotto, Cimabue, Andrea da Bologna, and Simone Martini among them - and their works in the basilica dedicated to him have told his life story to the faithful for eight centuries. But amid the treasury of art that Assisi holds, don't overlook its atmospheric medieval streets and the outstanding castle atop this Umbrian hill town.
1 Basilica di San Francesco (St. Francis Basilica)
The impressive basilica built over the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century is one of Italy's - and the world's - most important pilgrimage destinations. Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone the day after St. Francis was canonized, on July 17, 1228. It is really two churches, the lower one with heavy Late Romanesque vaulting and the upper one with the same floor plan, but soaring vertical Gothic lines. Completed in 1253, it is the oldest Gothic church in Italy. The basilica suffered extensive earthquake damage in 1997 and was not re-opened until 1999, but the damage was confined to the upper church.
Both churches are decorated with beautiful frescoes from the 13th and 14th centuries. In the first chapel of the lower church are remarkable scenes from the life of St. Francis by Giotto and Simone Martini. In the lower transept, the chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandria is decorated with 14th-century frescoes by Andrea da Bologna, and the cycle in the nave was painted about 1260 by an unnamed artist known only as the Maestro di San Francesco. Despite centuries of deterioration, these are the most important Tuscan frescoes prior to Cimabue. In the choir of the upper church and in the transepts are frescoes by Cimabue, and in the nave are 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis ascribed to Giotto and his students. Unfortunately, these were seriously damaged in the earthquake. In the crypt, you'll find a stone sarcophagus containing the saint's remains, brought here during construction and lost until their discovery in the 19th century.
2 Cathedral of San Rufino
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, the cathedral of San Rufino has wonderful examples of early medieval stone carving. Animals form corbels, mythical beasts climb pilasters, delicate foliage entwines capitals, saints and their symbols guard doorways. St. Francis prayed in its crypt, which dates from the 11th century, when he came to preach at the church. Today, this crypt is an atmospheric place, with three aisles and an apse, where you'll find an outstanding third-century Roman sarcophagus carved in marble. In the cloisters is a Roman well. Many of the cathedral's treasures, both historical and artistic and including Roman finds from the cathedral area, are housed in the museum. The multi-paneled canvas Madonna of the Rosary, painted in 1581 by Lorenzo Doni, 13th-century frescoes telling the story of Christ, a beautiful polyptych of San Rufino from 1462, and a second-century Roman sarcophagus are among the highlights, along with paintings by Jacopo della Quercia and Filippo Lippi.
Address: Piazza San Rufino 3, Assisi
3 Rocca Maggiore: A Picturesque Castle
From the Piazza di San Rufino, the old Via Santa Maria delle Rose ascends to the Rocca Maggiore, a picture-perfect castle high above the town. Originally one of several fortresses built along the town walls, it was re-built by Cardinal Albornoz in 1365. Emperor Frederick II sometimes stayed here when he was young. The castle is a good one to explore, as you can get a good picture of building techniques as well as panoramic views. A long wall extending from the main part of the castle ends in a tower, intended as a watch post, which you can climb for views. A tunnel connects the tower and castle, and walkways along the top of the wall are recessed for protection. The walls surround a large green that once held gardens to supply the castle in case of siege. Inside, figures are dressed in costumes showing clothing typical of 14th-century nobility.
Address: Via della Rocca, Assisi
4 Tempio di Minerva (Temple of Minerva)
The portico of the Temple of Minerva dates from the first century BC and was converted into the church of Santa Maria della Minerva in 1539. It was renovated in the 17th century in the Baroque style, but the façade is still the original Roman columns and architrave. A fresco of Giotto's in the Basilica of St. Francis shows the building with bars on the windows, leading historians to believe that it was used as a jail in Medieval times. Next to the temple is the 13th-century tower of the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo.
Address: Piazza del Comune, Assisi
5 Santa Chiara
The Gothic church dedicated to St. Clare was built in 1265 to honor the enthusiastic disciple of St. Francis who founded the order of Clarissines or Poor Clares. Under the high altar is the open tomb of St. Clare, who died in 1253. In the Cappella del Crocefisso, on the left side of the nave, hangs the Speaking Cross from the convent of San Damiano, in front of which St. Francis is said to have received the message from God to "go forth and rebuild my house." The interior is painted with a cycle of frescoes of the life of St. Clare by various artists. From the attractive Piazza Santa Chiara in front of the church is a beautiful view across the valley.
Address: Piazza Santa Chiara, Assisi
6 Piazza del Comune
Piazza del Comune is the town's main square, as it was in Roman times when it was the forum. You can explore the archeological site of the Foro Romano underneath the Piazza del Comune, accessible via the Museo Civico, whose entrance is on Via Portica. Along one side of the piazza are the Tempio di Minerva; the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo; and the bell tower, Torre del Popolo, built in 1303. At one end of the large square is a fountain with stone lions.
7 Pinacoteca Comunale (Municipal Art Gallery)
Palazzo Vallemani houses the town's art collection, much of it from decommissioned Assisi churches and convents. The collections include a large group of medieval and renaissance frescoes and paintings on wood panels and canvas dating from the 14th to 17th centuries. The most important works are a Maestà (Majesty) attributed to Giotto, as well as paintings by Pietro Perugino, Puccio Capanna, Ottaviano Nelli, Andrea d'Assisi, and Nicolò di Liberatore. A collection entitled "Museum of Memory, Assisi 1943-1944" tells the story of 300 Jews saved from the Nazis by Franciscans.
Address: Via San Francesco 10, Assisi
8 Franciscan Friary and San Pietro
On the edge of the hill to the northwest rises the Franciscan friary begun soon after the saint's death. It was already occupied by the friars in 1230, but completion of such a large set of buildings took so long that different styles had become popular. The resulting complex, built with pink and white stone from nearby Mount Subasio, blends Romanesque with Gothic. The Romanesque campanile was completed in 1239, and the courtyard and external passage, from which there are magnificent views, were renewed by Pope Sixtus IV between 1471 and 1484. The friary has a museum of art donated by centuries of pilgrims.
South of the friary, beyond the Porta San Francesco, stands the church of San Pietro, with a fine doorway and three delicate rose windows. Its austere nave is divided into three aisles by massive columns. Built as a Benedictine abbey sometime before 1029, it adopted the Cluny reform in the mid-12th century and later passed to the Cistercians.
9 Convento di San Damiano
Southeast of the town center is the little convent of San Damiano, founded by St. Francis. St. Clare was the first abbess, and died here in 1253; she was canonized two years later. San Damiano is where St. Francis is believed to have received the message from God to "go forth and rebuild my house," a command he took literally by rebuilding the little church with his own hands. It was a favorite retreat for St. Francis and his followers, and on the small flower-filled terrace in front of the convent, he is said to have composed his famous Canticle of the Sun. You can visit the church, the cloister with early 16th-century frescoes by Eusebio di San Giorgio, the convent, and the convent gardens. The San Damiano complex is part of the site inscribed by UNESCO, as "essential for the understanding of the religious awakening of St. Francis, as well as being the convent of St. Clare."
Address: Via San Damiano 85, Assisi
10 Chiesa Nuova
A little way south of the Palazzo Comunale, on a lower level, is the Chiesa Nuova (1615), a small church on a centralized plan, erected on what was thought to be the site of St. Francis's birth. Visiting Assisi in 1613, the Spanish Vicar General of the Franciscans saw the dilapidated condition of the house of Pietro di Bernardone, believed to be the birthplace of St. Francis. With a gift by King Philip III of Spain he was able to buy the house, and the church was built with its high altar over what was considered to be St. Francis's room. The late Renaissance-style church is decorated with 17th-century frescoes by Cesare Sermei and Giacomo Giorgetti. There is a small museum in the adjoining friary.
Day Trips from Assisi
Santa Maria degli Angeli
South of Assisi on the SS 75, in the small village of Santa Maria degli Angeli, is the massive domed Renaissance church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It was built between 1569 and 1630 over St. Francis' oratory (Porziuàncola) and the cell in which he died. The nave and choir were re-erected after the earthquake in 1832 and a new façade was added in 1925-28. To the east of the sacristy is a small garden where the roses are believed to have been thornless since an act of penance by the saint. Adjacent is the Cappella delle Rose with fine frescoes by Tiberio d'Assisi, from 1518, depicting scenes from the saint's life.
In a charming location east of Assisi, in a small wood of holm-oaks above a ravine between the bare rock faces of Monte Subasio, is the hermitage of Le Carceri where St. Francis retired for his devotions. These were originally caves, but between the 15th and early 19th centuries, a small monastery gradually grew at the saint's grotto. You can see his rock-bed here. From the monastery, it's an hour-and-a-half climb to the broad ridge of Monte Subasio, at an altitude of 1,290 meters, with panoramic views. You can drive over Monte Subasio to Spoleto.