Urbino is one of Italy’s finest Renaissance cities. The university town has a remarkable artistic legacy and today it boasts a perfectly preserved centro storico (old town) with a lively student atmosphere.
Often overlooked for the more famous cities of Florence, Rome and Venice, Urbino has much to offer to the discerning traveller. With fewer tourists, there are no queues to enter museums, no menus with pictures on and more opportunities to practice the lingo from your Italian phrasebook…
The Ducal Palace is the main event in Urbino, and the reason many people visit this historic hill town. The palace was built in the 15th century by Federico II da Montefeltro – Urbino’s most famous Duke. He exercised his passion for art, literature and architecture during his reign and his efforts are evident in the design and layout of both the palace and city today.
Renaissance architects were obsessed with the divine proportions of ‘ideal beauty’ and the palace’s central courtyard, the Cortile d’Onore, or Courtyard of Honor, is considered to be one of Italy’s best examples of this.
Although many of the palace’s original masterpieces have been lost to Rome and Florence, there are still some very special works by Raphael and Piero della Francesca, as well as a remarkable example of intricately inlaid wood in the Duke’s study.
Next door to the Palazzo Ducale is the Duomo. The original building was destroyed by an earthquake in 1789 and rebuilt in a neoclassical style by architect Giuseppe Valadier. It’s the home of some significant paintings, including the Assumption by Maratta and the Last Supper by Federico Barocci.
There are a string of little cafes opposite the Duomo and palace, where you could easily wile away an afternoon watching the world go by against the dramatic architectural backdrop of these famous landmarks. Alternatively, head to one of the cafes on Piazza della Republica – the town’s main piazza – a short stroll down the hill. Settle into a wicker chair under one of the huge, graphic ‘aperitivo’ signs and enjoy an Aperol Spritz and plenty of (free!) snacks.
The region of Marche is a great destination for food lovers. With the Apennines and Tuscany to it’s west, Emilia-Romagna to the north and the spoils of the Adriatic sea down the long length of its eastern border, the region is a wonderful blend of simple, rustic dishes from the mountains, elaborate dishes from the north and an incredible wealth of seafood. Not forgetting truffles, which are also synonymous with the region.
There are some excellent restaurants to choose from, all catering for locals and students (read: authentic and affordable!). Try Taverna degli Artisti (Via Bramante, 52) for a well-priced, interesting menu in a romantic setting, or Antica Osteria da la Stella (Via S. Margherita 1) for fine dining in a historic venue frequented by Piero della Francesca and Raphael during its days as a simple taverna.
Urbino’s lofty position high on a hilltop lends some pretty incredible views across the Marche region once you’ve climbed to the top. With parking reserved to the lower perimeter of the town, its tough on the calves but certainly worth it for the slices of mountainous Apennine view between buildings as you explore the winding old town streets. Some of the best views are afforded from the top of Via Raffaello and around the city’s stone walls.
The view of the town on approach is pretty special, too. A perfect pile of fudge coloured stone high above the road, Urbino looks elegant and monied even from miles away.
Star of the renaissance Raphael learned to paint in Urbino, and you can visit his childhood home here. His father Giovanni Santi was also a famous painter of his day, and you can see works by both men in the museum.
Many artists and writers studied high art and social culture in Federico’s court, establishing the concept of the ‘modern gentleman’. Artist Piero della Francesca wrote papers on the art perspective under the Duke’s rule – a preoccupation in Renaissance high culture and evident across Urbino today.
Urbino has recently been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its rich history and influence on the art world, botanical garden, famous residents, Renaissance palace and iconic cathedral.
The town is very remote and cannot be accessed by public transport. By far the best way to get to Urbino is to fly to Ancona and hire a car.
Flights to Italy
- Hannah Frances