Raphael's Renaissance 'hood, the vibrant university town of Urbino is often the first stop on a trip to Le Marche, and understandably so. The patriarch of the Montefeltro family, Duca Federico da Montefeltro, created the hippest art scene of the 15th century here, gathering the great artists, architects and scholars of his day to create a sort of think tank.
Straddling low-rise hills, Macerata combines charming hilltown scenery with the verve of student life – its university is one of Europe's oldest, dating to 1290. Its old town, a jumbled maze of cobblestone streets and honey-coloured palazzi, springs to life in summer for a month-long opera festival.
Straddling a hilltop and visible from afar, Loreto is absorbed entirely by its bauble-domed Basilica della Santa Casa, which sprung the town upon the arrival of its Holy House shrine, home to a jewel-encrusted black statue of the Virgin Mary that draws religious pilgrims from over the hills and far away.
Parco del Conero
Only minutes from Ancona but a world unto itself, Parco del Conero (aka Parco Regionale del Conero) is stunning, with limestone cliffs razoring above the cobalt blue Adriatic, and crescent-shaped, white pebble bays backed by fragrant woods of pine, oak, beech, broom and oleander trees. Walking trails thread through the 60 sq km park, which is a conservation area.
Spilling photogenically down a hillside, its medieval heart a maze of narrow cobbled lanes, Sarnano looks every inch the Italian hilltown prototype, particularly when its red-brick facades glow warmly in the late-afternoon sun. It is a charming, hospitable base for exploring the Monti Sibillini range and home to 11km of ski slopes.
Monti Sibillini National Park
Straddling the Le Marche–Umbria border in rugged splendour, the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini never looks less than extraordinary, whether visited in winter, when its peaks – 10 of which tower above 2000m – are dusted with snow, or in summer, when its meadows are carpeted with poppies and cornflowers.