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Set against a backdrop of wooded hills, the medieval hilltown of Assisi would merit a visit even without its spiritual significance as the birthplace of Saint Francis. It was here that the founder of the Franciscan church was born in 1181, and the Saint Francis Basilica is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics from all over the world. You don’t need to be religious to enjoy a visit however, for the town’s historic core is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its streets littered with Roman, Romanesque, Gothic and medieval treasures, among them some of the finest artworks in the world.

Things to see and do in Assisi

Saint Francis Basilica

Assisi’s central attraction, the basilica, dominates the historic core, its simple façade lording over the medieval streets. Construction began in 1228 when Pope Gregory IX laid the foundation stone on the day after Francis was sainted. The basilica consists of two churches: the Lower Church, built in heavy Romanesque style, was completed in 1230, while construction of the much lighter, early-Gothic Upper Church began nine years later.

Beyond its position as one of the prime pilgrimage sites in Italy, the basilica houses a significant collection of medieval masterpieces, with the artworks and frescoes inside tracing the development of Italian art in the late medieval period.

The Lower Church

Dimly lit with low vaulting and an extensive collection of religious frescoes, the Lower Church is home to the crypt of Saint Francis. Inside, almost every inch is decorated in an elaborate series of frescoes that span almost a century of work by artists such as Cavallini, Cimabue, Lorenzetti and Martini. Look for Saint Martin’s Chapel, which is richly decorated, and the four allegories in the vaults above the altar that depict the Franciscan virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience. Descending a double stairway, you’ll reach the crypt of Saint Francis, only rediscovered in 1818.

The Upper Church

Consecrated in 1253, the Upper Church is lighter, brighter and even more ornate. Inside, it houses one of the most significant religious artworks in Italy, a series of 28 frescoes attributed to Giotto that depict the life of Saint Francis.

Starting on the wall to the right of the altar and continuing in a clockwise direction, the frescoes include a scene of Francis Preaching to the Birds that is reproduced on publications worldwide. More importantly perhaps, is their long-lasting influence: by reflecting Franciscan virtues and depicting natural rather than supernatural scenes and figures, the frescoes changed the course of religious iconography.

Temple of Minerva and Roman forum

Site of Assisium’s Roman forum, the Piazza del Commune is dominated by the 1st-century BC Temple of Minerva. Although only the façade remains, it’s an imposing reminder of the importance of the town since ancient times. Behind the 2,000-year old columns sits the 16th-century Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which is decorated in ornate Baroque style.

Below the square, you can enter the excavated remains of the forum, including a cistern, magistrates’ podium, fountain, shops and a small temple, which now all sit 5 m (16 ft) below the current ground level.

Basilica di Santa Chiara

The 13th-century pink-and-white banded Basilica di Santa Chiara is built in Romanesque style with massive flying buttresses. It’s dedicated to Saint Clare, a contemporary of Saint Francis who founded the Order of Poor Ladies, now known as the Order of Saint Clare or the Poor Clares.

Inside, there’s a large rose window and in the crypt, the tomb of Saint Clare along with some of her clothes and hair. You can also see the original Byzantine Cross of San Damiano. It’s said that Saint Francis was praying in front of this cross when he heard the voice of God speaking to him.

Assisi in World War II

Saint Francis’s influence has remained present in the city for centuries. During World War II a local priest, Father Rufino Niccacci, assisted by a sympathetic German commander, Valentin Müller, helped save 300 Jews as well as the city’s treasures.

Together they contrived to have Assisi declared an open city, off limits to attack. Then, with the help of local people, printworks and religious communities, they sheltered refugees, provided false papers and hid Jews in plain sight. The underground group included a former Giro d’Italia and Tour de France winner, Gino Bartali, who couriered forged papers and photographs around the region while in training.

Modern-day Assisi

Assisi is a major visitor hub and at times can become swamped with visitors, the knick-knack stalls and tourist restaurants taking away some of its intrinsic charm. However, stay after the day trippers have left or visit outside of peak season, and its quiet streets and warm, stone houses reveal an entirely different side to the city.

Best time to visit Assisi

A major pilgrimage site, Assisi is busy year-round, but the best times to visit are April to June or September and October when you’ll benefit from warm, dry weather but avoid the crowds of the peak summer months of July and August. Winters are quieter but colder, while religious holidays can be uncomfortably busy.

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Laura at the Roman Forum

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Map of Assisi

Places & hotels on the map

    Places near Assisi

    Accommodation choices for Assisi

    We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Assisi. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.

    • Nun Assisi Relais, Assisi

      Nun Assisi Relais & Spa Museum

      Deluxe

      The Nun Assisi, a luxury property located at the top of the city, offers a peaceful base to stay in far away from the crowds below.

    Ideas for experiencing Assisi

    Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Assisi, and which use the best local guides.

    • Gardens of St Francis, Assisi

      Assisi walking tour and Spello

      Assisi

      Get an expert’s view of medieval Assisi on this guided walking tour that introduces you to the highlights of Saint Francis’s hometown as well as the quiet hilltown of Spello where Roman walls encircle a tangle of winding streets.