The Ultimate Travel Guide to Assisi
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
Assisi is a small town in the center of Italy in the Umbria region. The easiest way to reach the region is by car: about 2 hours South from Florence, 3 hours North from Rome or 3 hours West from San Marino. Trenitalia has direct trains both from Florence and Rome to Assisi and the prices range between 10 and 30 euro depending on the chosen schedule.
The Umbria region has been populated for more than 3000 years, the first occupants being the Umbrians obviously, then the Etruscans. In 295 the Romans took over the region after the Battle of Sentium and built the town Asisium.
The town has 2 famous historical figures: the Latin poet Propertius who was friend with Gallus and Virgil and left behind 4 books of Elegies, and St. Francis, one of the early reformers of the Catholic church. Many of you might have heard of Assisi mostly due to the canonized priest who established the Franciscan religious order.
Assisi evolved into a religious place where other Catholics were canonized and where churches were built and named according to these saints. The most famous of all is the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi
Originally, the hill where now stands the Basilica was named the Hill of Hell and was the place where criminals were executed. With the construction of the basilica the place gained a more positive aspect and was renamed to the Hill of Paradise.
The walls of the basilica are well visible from far away in the valley and it has the shape of a grand castle. The basilica is constructed of 2 levels, the Upper Church and the Lower Church. The Upper Church has beautiful vaults which intersect each other in the form of crosses and on the wall opposite the altar is an amazing rose window.
This part of the basilica is also famous for the 28 frescoes considered to have been painted by the young Giotto. The Lower Church is similar to the Upper Church regarding the shape of the windows and the vaults, but it has much more frescoes and paintings from different known and less known artists depicting the lives of the saints. Under the Lower Church is the Crypt where the remains of the saint and a few of his followers are buried.
The entire building is so amazing that even non-religious people visit it and are awed.
The visiting hours are different in summer and in winter. The Lower Church and the Crypt are open from 6:00 until 18:50 (18:30 in winter) and the Upper church from 8:30 until 18:50 (17:45 last entry in winter). The Basilica is still holding prayers and masses and you can check the up-to-date calendar on the official website of the Basilica.
The entry is free, appropriate clothing is mandatory, and photography is prohibited.
The Churches of the City Center
Converted to Christianism in the 3rd century, Assisi evolved ever since into a religious place. The catholic churches and cathedrals arose in the city like mushrooms after rain. Beside the Basilica of the saint, other churches were built and named after his followers and other important catholic figures. Churches are generally open from 6:30/7:00 o’clock until 18:00/19:00 o’clock with a 2 hour break between 12:00 and 14:00. Entry to most is free of charge.
Santa Maria Maggiore was originally a temple dedicated to Apollo, and in the 12th century it was reconstructed as a cathedral.
The Basilica of Saint Claire is a Gothic church dedicated to St. Claire of Assisi who founded the Order of Saint Claire.
The Chiesa Nuova is a small church built on the birthplace of St. Francis. It was erected by Antonio de Trejo, a Spanish Vicar General of the Franciscans, who honored the saint by rescuing his home from destruction and raising in its place a Renaissance style church with the help of the Spanish Embassy in Rome.
The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels in Assisi is famous for housing the Porziuncola, the small chapel that served as the first church of St. Francis and his followers. St. Francis died near this chapel which in time was built into the Basilica.
The Cathedral of San Rufino is a church in Umbrian Romanesque style, dedicated to the patron saint of Assisi, Rufinus of Assisi, who is believed to have converted the town to Christianity. This is the place where St. Francis, St. Claire and other disciples of St. Francis were baptized.
Minerva or Hercules?
Situated in the communal Square, in the middle of the town, the Temple of Minerva is a more than 2000 years old building.
The archeological searches are unsure whether it is really the temple dedicated to Minerva or rather to Hercules as they found a female statue and a male statue.
Some studies suggest that the temple was originally dedicated to Hercules and not Minerva. Throughout the history the architecture remained known as one built in the honor of the goddess of wisdom. In the 17th century the building was reconstructed in Baroque style and was renamed Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
Only the façade with the six Corinthian columns was preserved from the original temple and the interior is entirely decorated with Christian relics.
It is open from 7:00 – 19:00 (8:00 – 19:00 on holidays) and the entry is free of charge.
A break in the Communal Square
In the middle of Assisi is the Communal Square (Piazza del Commune), the place where the social and political life of the town took place. It is a well-preserved Umbrian style square and is also called ˝platea communis˝ (the place where people gather).
On the northern side of the square is the Temple of Minerva and in the middle of it The Fountain of the Three Lions.
There are many restaurants and cafés in the square, so you can enjoy a 2 courses traditional Italian lunch with coffee and dessert or just simply have a cappuccino or a delicious ice/cream.
The forgotten castle
About 600 m towards North/West from the Communal Square is a castle which was forgotten for centuries, Rocca Maggiore.
The earliest records about the castle are from 1173 and it was home for the German chancellor Christian of Mainz and Frederick II, King of Sicily for a short time.
Reconstructed in 1356 and developed during the decades, by the 17th century if was completely abandoned. With the increase of tourism in Assisi and due to the beautiful view that the towers offer over the Basilica of Assisi and the Umbrian valley, the castle was reopened to visitors.
The general entrance fee is 6 euro and in summer it’s open from 9:00 till 20:00. In April, May and October the opening hour is between 10:00 – 18:30.
Assisi is a unique place with a unique history and whether you come as a religious person, an art lover, a curious or a skeptic person, you will be amazed by the beauty and value this place has.