From white-pebble beaches and cliff-backed Adriatic bays to medieval hill towns and snow-capped peaks, Le Marche is one of Italy's least-known treasures.
Sandwiched between the Apennines and the Adriatic coast, this hilly region boasts a string of exquisite provincial towns. Chief among them is Urbino, whose beautifully preserved centro storico (historic centre) recalls its heyday as a Renaissance cultural centre and birthplace of the artist Raphael. Ascoli Piceno is another highlight, a refined, animated town famous for its fantastic food. Music fans should make a beeline for Macerata, whose hilltop centre rings to the sound of opera each summer.
In the region’s western reaches, and bleeding over into neighbouring Umbria, the wild Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini boasts dramatic mountain scenery and thrilling outdoor pursuits. The area suffered terribly in the 2016 earthquakes, but it's slowly rebuilding and most places are now open for business as usual.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Le Marche.
Deep in the hill country near the remote village of Genga, the Grotte di Frasassi is one of Europe’s largest cave systems. This karst wonderland, gouged out by the river Sentino and discovered by a team of climbers in September 1971, can be explored on a 75-minute guided tour which takes in features such as the Ancona Abyss, a cavernous 200m-high, 180m-long chamber, and the so-called Gran Canyon full of parallel stalactites resembling pipe organs and waxy stalagmites that rise up like melted candles.
This majestic hilltop sanctuary is one of Italy's most celebrated pilgrimage sites. The basilica, built between 1469 and 1587, is a stunning hybrid of Gothic and Renaissance styles with a white two-tier facade, soaring dome and 75m-high bell tower by Luigi Vanvitelli. But more than the architecture, the chief focus is the Santa Casa di Loreto, a tiny brick house that is said to be where the Virgin Mary grew up and the Archangel Gabriel told her of her impending maternity.
Deep in the historic centre, the 17th-century Palazzo Buonaccorsi houses three of Macerata's best museums. The Museo delle Carozza boasts an extensive collection of horse-drawn carriages, while, upstairs, the picture gallery is dedicated to Arte Antica with works from the 13th to the 19th centuries. Best of all is the 2nd-floor Galleria di Arte Moderna, which showcases works by regional artists such as Macerata-born Ivo Pannaggi, a driving force behind Italian futurism in the 1920s and '30s.
Ancona's fascinating civic art gallery houses Le Marche's most important art collection. Spread over two 16th- to 17th-century palazzi, the museum traces the development of art in the region, skilfully juxtaposing modern and medieval works with daring disregard for either tradition or expectation. Unmissable masterpieces include the Pala Gozzi (1520), the first painting signed and dated by Titian, and Carlo Crivelli's absolutely flooring Madonna col Bambino (Madonna and Child; c 1480).
Housed in the beautiful 16th-century Palazzo Ferretti, whose ceilings are covered with original frescoes and bas-reliefs, this museum presents a fascinating romp through time, from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages. Among its treasures are Neolithic flint daggers, richly embellished Attic vases, Etruscan votive bronzes, Celtic gold (the torques and crowns are stunning) and a pristine copy of the famous bronzes of Pergola (50–30 BC).
Urbino’s great architectural masterpiece, the 15th-century Palazzo Ducale provides the monumental setting for the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche and its stunning collection of Renaissance art. The palace’s cavernous halls are lined with paintings by the likes of Titian, Signorelli, Guido Reni and Piero della Francesca, whose intriguing Flagellazione di Cristo (Flagellation of Christ) hangs in what was once the Duke of Urbino’s library. Other highlights include Raphael’s enigmatic La Muta (Portrait of a Young Woman) and Luciano Laurana’s Città Ideale (Ideal City).
The poster child of the Parco del Conero's beaches is this dreamy white-pebble beach named after two rock stacks (the Due Sorelle or two sisters) that rise out of the turquoise sea. It’s an idyllic spot but it can get busy in summer – despite the fact it’s only accessible by sea.
Topped by a pair of mismatched towers, Ascoli's cathedral was built in the 16th century and dedicated to St Emidio, the city's patron saint. Its most prized possession is the three-section Polittico di Sant'Emidio (Polyptych of Saint Emidio; 1473) by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli in the Cappella del Sacramento. An extraordinary work of 15th-century pictorial art, the work is still in its original frame and has never once left its current spot.
This harmonious piazza has been Ascoli's salotto (drawing room) since Roman times. The elegant rectangular space is flanked by the Chiesa di San Francesco and, on the west, the 13th-century Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo. The 'Captain's Palace' served as the seat of the city's Pontifical Governors for centuries and today houses municipal offices and temporary art exhibitions. The statue of Pope Paul III above the main entrance was erected in recognition of his efforts to bring peace to the town.