Perugia, the capital of Umbria and the province which bears its name, is not a city easily overlooked, nor should it be.

Surrounded by two perimeter walls – the inner Etruscan with 7 ancient gates built of massive stone and an outer Medieval ring intact over several kilometers – its historic centre is a 14th-century Gothic dream.

Perugia, the Etruscan City

The site of the city of Perugia occupies a strategic position in the landscape, controlling the border between the territories of the Umbrians and the Etruscans. While the locality has been inhabited for millennia it's origins as a city lie with both these ancient populations, but by the middle of the first century BC it had become the Etruscan city of "Perusia" and was powerful enough to be part of a confederation of twelve powerful Etruscan cities, Veio, Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vucci, Volsini (Orvieto), Chiusi, Vetulonia, Volterra, Cortona, Arezzo, and Fiesole, known as the "Dodecapolis" and created to strengthen trade alliances and defence.

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The Etruscan Arch in Perugia by Ciclista, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

However, to the south of Perugia the small gathering of tribes that was Rome was also growing and expanding and by 310 BC Perugia had been conquered by the Romans. The massive Etruscan defensive walls show that the inhabitants of Perugia were aware of the growing threat that Rome posed to their city - sections of these impressive walls still stand today. You can visit the Arco Etrusco in Via Ulisse Rocchi, it is the most impressive and original of the city's Etruscan gateways. Porta Marzia is also impressive but was moved to its present position by Antonio da Sangallo in the sixteenth-century when building the Rocca Paolina.

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Porta Marzia in Perugia, the Etruscan gate moved by Antonio da Sangallo - Enric, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Further traces of the Etruscan city can be found in the enormous well dug into the tufa in the centre of the city, so wide it is crossed by a bridge halfway up, and in large and sumptuous underground tombs outside the walls, like the Hypogea Volumnii which you can visit today.

Roman Perugia

During a series of battles in the third century BC the Etruscans are repeatedly defeated and finally surrender at the battle of Sentino in 296 BC. After this defeat Perugia falls into the hands of the Romans who establish their dominion over Central Italy. You can see traces of the Roman period in an interesting archeological dig beneath the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, in the centre of town, including remains of the "Decumano", the main road into Perugia, which shows the grooves left by the wheels of thousands of carts. To find out more on visiting this dig, as well as the Etruscan well and tombs, have a look at our Guide to Underground Perugia.

Perugia and Hannibal

Perugia was under Roman control but not fully part of the Roman world for another couple of centuries - it was only in 89 BC that the city was fully annexed and the citizens of Perugia could consider themselves Roman citizens. The city did however play a key part in the expansion and in the defence of Rome, most notably in the Battle of Trasimene in 217 BC when Hannibal exacted a harrowing defeat on the Roman army with a masterful ambush that allowed him to trap the unprepared Roman troops against the Lake Trasimeno. Over 15,000 Roman soldiers lost their lives, either hacked down by the Carthaginian cavalry or drowned in the lake while trying to escape, weighed down by their armour.

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Details of the battle of Trasimene in the fresco about Perugia in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican museums. By Pietro Oldrado

It is also around this time that the Monumental City Wall of Perugia was built, an impressive 3km long stretch of wall constructed of large blocks of travertine, with each level set slightly back from the one below to give it a strengthening battering. The walls are still largely visible and well-preserved, as well as the “Etruscan Well”.

The city's troubles did not cease after Romanisation in 89 BC, however, and in 41 BC the city was caught in the tail-end of an attempted coup by Lucio Antonio (brother of Mark Anthony) who was seeking to depose Octavian. As the attempted coup fell apart Lucio Antonio and his sister Fulvia sought refuge in Perugia and were put under siege by Octavian's troops. After the pair surrendered through famine, Octavian punished Perugia by setting it ablaze and killing 300 of its citizens of senatorial rank.

Later Octavian would restore the city's rights and rebuild it, renaming it "Augusta Perusia", but the ash line of the blazing city can still be found in archeological digs.

Perugia in the middle ages

The history of Perugia continued to be troubled by war as the various warring tribes and their leaders who swept into Italy as Rome weakened recognised the strategic importance of its position. The first of these was Totila the Ostrogoth who laid waste to the city following a long siege. The city and territory were soon after reclaimed by the Byzantines only for Longobards to continually skirmish over control of the land, never managing to take control of Perugia itself.

Perugia becomes a Comune

As the world approached the turn of the millenium, Perugia had become increasingly autonomous and in 1186 Henry VI offcially granted the city its independence. Perugia had developed into a medieval "Comune", administered by a group of men put in charge of various city matters, under the umbrella of a new body called the “Board of Consuls”. This new organisational system developed all over Central Italy as a political structure able to give voice and agency to the citizens (cives) and held great promise and hope after centuries of shifting political sands across Europe.

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Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia, the centre of secular power

On various occasions Popes found asylum here from crises in Rome. Yet the city never accepted papal sovereignity, to the extent that at one point it was excommunicated and in 1369 was in open warfare with Pope Urban V. During the Middle Ages the city grew in size and importance and its city centre still bears the look it acquired in these centuries.

The 14th century found the populace in conflict with the nobility and throughout the 15th century control of the city was passed from one noble or Pope to another with resulting bloody squabbles. Around 1540 the important Baglioni family decided to declare Perugia a republic, independent of the Papal State. This resulted in Pope Paul III asking Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane (1484 - 1546) to speed up the construction of a fortress in the city that was already underway.

The project required the demolition of the Baglioni family's main houses and fortified towers, which were covered by the enormous Papal fortress. Today you can still explore these old medieval roads closed and sealed nearly 500 years ago - read about it here: Guide to Underground Perugia.

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The medieval city now trapped under the remains of the Papal fortress

Things did not improve; in 1797 the city was conquered by the French and later merged with the Roman Republic. In 1849 they were seized by the Austrians and once again ruled by Papal authority. Only in 1860 were they united as part of the Kingdom of Italy. It certainly true to say that the Perugian character does not back down from a fight.

While its monumental buildings may speak of the past, the energy on its broad streets is decidedly present-day. For Perugia is a seat of learning, with both a major university founded in 1308 and Italy’s foremost University for Foreigners. Add other schools of art, music and translation and the reason for the city’s vibrancy and the many locales one can eat, drink and shop become clear.

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The pedestrianised streets and squares of Perugia make it a very livable city

The heart of the city with its historic Palazzo dei Priori, Fontana Maggiore and St. Lorenzo Cathedral is decidedly uphill – comfortable shoes will be appreciated by the end of the day – yet Perugia was the first Italian city to install escalators to help visitors reach the centre from its car parks. Once there, be prepared to be dazzled by the art, architecture and history found in wide piazzas or behind arched doorways.

To find a place to stay near Perugia have a look at our Villas near Perugia