45km (28 miles) W of Todi; 87km (54 miles) W of Spoleto; 86km (53 miles) SW of Perugia; 152km (95 miles) S of Florence; 121km (75 miles) N of Rome
The defining feature of southern Umbria's most touristy town is its cathedral, with its dazzling façade: day-trippers come to Orvieto from as far as Florence and Rome to see it. The rest of town looks much as it did 500 years ago -- a preserved medieval center stuck high on a volcanic plug some 315m (1,033 ft.) above the plain, visible for miles in every direction. This impenetrable perch ensured that Etruscan "Velzna" was among the most powerful members of the dodecapoli (Etruscan confederation of 12 cities); its Etruscan heritage has left an underground world that's just as much fun.
It was a close enough threat to the Romans that they attacked and leveled it in 265 B.C., driving the Etruscans to settle on the shores of nearby Lake Bolsena. The Romans built a port on the Tiber to ship home a steady supply of the famous wine produced in the area -- still much in demand today as Orvieto Classico, one of Italy's finest whites. As a medieval comune, the city expanded its empire in all directions until the Black Death decimated the population in the 14th century. Soon after, Orvieto became part of the Papal States and a home away from home to some 32 popes.
The city seems not so much to rise as to grow out of the flat top of its butte. The buildings are made from blocks of the same tufo volcanic rock (tufa, or more accurately, tuff, in English), on which Orvieto rests, giving the disquieting feeling that the town evolved here of its own volition. A taciturn, solemn, almost cold feeling emanates from its stony walls, and the streets nearly always turn at right angles, confounding your senses of direction and navigation. Of course, a goodly dose of wine with lunch can make the whole place seem very friendly indeed, and the stoniness is greatly relieved by the massive Duomo rising head and shoulders above the rest of the town, its glittering mosaic facade visible for miles around.