Urbino – A Guide To Italy’s Secret Renaissance City

Urbino red rooftops at dusk

To wander through the streets of Urbino is to wander through Italy’s Medieval and Renaissance past. A walled city located in the Le Marche region of central Italy, Urbino is a truly spell-binding place to visit. And, due to its “great cultural flowering” during the Renaissance, Urbino has UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Yet, compared to Florence – the poster child for Italy’s Renaissance – Urbino remains one of Italy’s best-kept secrets.

In this guide, I’ll share a brief history, the best things to do in Urbino, how to visit, where to stay, and a map of the area.

Urbino – A Quick History

Although Urbino’s history stretches back to the 6th century, the city gained most prestige during the Italian Renaissance thanks to the efforts of the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro.

Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino

Italy’s cultural ‘rebirth’ i.e. the Renaissance, was often fostered by local wealthy families. In Florence, it was the Medici. In Urbino it was Federico de Montefeltro. The Duke ruled Urbino from 1444 to 1482 and during that time he primed Urbino to become one of Italy’s cultural hubs; a city to rival Florence’s Renaissance fame.

It was an act that has endured. Four places in Italy have the best-preserved sights of the Renaissance – Florence, Venice, Mantova, and Urbino. A fact recognized when Urbino Historic Centre was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1998.

Related: 45 Amazing Things To Do In Venice | 3 Days in Florence | 20 Best Things To Do in Florence.

Raphael – Urbino’s Renaissance Artist

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (also known as Raphael) also helped bolster Urbino’s Renaissance fame. Born in Urbino in 1483, Raphael was schooled by his artist father, Giovanni Santi, and became a prolific artist and architect. Together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael is considered one of the three grand masters of Renaissance art. His most important work took him to the Vatican in Rome (The Raphael Rooms) and included the Portrait of Pope Julius II.

Student Restoring artwork in Urbino.
Student of art restoration at the University of Urbino.

Renaissance Art Restoration in Modern Urbino

Visit today, and you’ll see that links to Renaissance art hold strong. Urbino is home to one of the country’s leading and oldest universities where students train in the painstaking work required to restore Italy’s Renaissance art heritage.

I spent time at the university while I was in Urbino and spoke to one of the students who had been working on the same piece of art for over a year. She told me that many of the works used by the students are donated by churches throughout Italy. The particular piece she was working on had the same painting on both sides, doubling the work required. Yet, I could see it was a labor of love, proving that pride for Renaissance art holds strong in Urbino, even today.

Things To Do In Urbino

A walled city, medieval streets, red-tiled roofs, an imposing Renaissance palace, and a backdrop of rolling green landscape, Urbino is the kind of city you came to Italy to see. Add a thriving University, a modern arts scene, buzzing nightlife, and local foods, and you’ll easily occupy your time in the city. In this section, I’ll share the best things to do during your visit to Urbino.

1. Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale di Urbino)

Ducal Palace Urbino

The Ducal Palace is the centerpiece of Urbino and the sight not to be missed. As a building, it’s both domineering, yet elegant, with a beautiful courtyard, pretty twin turrets, and satisfying symmetry. Constructed during the 15th century for Duke Federico da Montefeltro, the palace contains both the Duke’s Rooms and the National Gallery (below).

While the national art gallery contains prized pieces of Renaissance art and is the main highlight, don’t skip the Duke’s rooms. They give a wonderful insight into life in the 15th and 16th centuries. My favorite rooms were the Duke’s study (studiolo), which was partly designed by Botticelli, his bedroom, and the library containing the Duke’s collection, which became Italy’s first public library.

Tip: Most museums are closed on Mondays in Italy, including in Urbino.

2. National Gallery (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche)

Urbino's Ducal Palace - Art inside

On the first floor of the Palazzo Ducale is the National Gallery of Le Marche (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche). The problem with fame is that everyone wants a piece of it. Consequently, many of Raphael’s greatest works are found outside Urbino. For example, you’ll have to visit the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to see the famous double portrait of the Duke and his wife Battista Sforza. Some of his works have traveled further still to the National Gallery in London and Prado in Madrid. So, don’t arrive in Urbino expecting to see Raphael’s greatest works.

However, there are some treasures in the Gallery in Urbino. The most famous paintings include La Muta by Raphael, The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca, and the 15th-century Ideal City by Luciano Laurana, which shows an idealized Renaissance city with beautiful buildings.

It was a wet Friday morning when I visited and I practically had the place to myself. Roaming the corridors and exploring the grandeur of the palace, I was staggered that the works of art on display were as good as anything I’d seen in Florence. Better, in fact, for the lack of crowds.

3. Urbino Cathedral (Cattedrale di Urbino)

Cathedral in Urbino Italy with people having coffee opposite

In a city packed with Renaissance architecture, the Cathedral of Urbino (Cattedrale di Urbino) is an outlier. Following an earthquake, the cathedral was reconstructed in 1789 using the Neo-Classical style. Although a popular style at the time, not everyone likes the cathedral – it’s been described as austere. Personally, I like the simplicity of it. Inside, the Duomo (cathedral) is grand and packed with paintings. There is also a small museum (Museo Diocesano Albani) which you can pay to enter for more works of art and religious items.

Like most cities in Italy, the Cathedral sits at the heart of Urbino in Piazza Duca Federico. Unlike the more touristy cities in Italy, you can sit and sip a coffee opposite the cathedral without fuss or inflated prices.

4. Raphael’s birthplace (Casa Natale di Raffaello)

Monument of Raphael in Piazza Roma, Urbino.

Raphael’s birthplace (Casa Natale di Raffaello) is one of the top attractions in Urbino. It’s a 15th-century house that was home to the famous painter until he was 16 years old. He painted an early fresco of Madonna with Child on one of the walls, and there is a small, pretty courtyard at the house. While it doesn’t take long to visit, it’s worth a stop to get a deeper sense of the artist’s life. Don’t miss: the monument to Raphael in Piazza Roma.

5. Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista

The Oratory of St John the Baptist (Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista) is a small chapel in the city that’s easily missed. Go inside and you’ll find 14th-century Gothic art frescoes by Giacomo and Lorenzo Salimbeni (brothers). It’s fascinating to see some examples of art before the Renaissance period. Check out the Crucifixion and scenes from the life of John the Baptist. You’ll find the Oratorio is on Via Barocci.

6. Oratorio de San Giuseppe

Just up the same road from the Oratory of St John the Baptist is the Oratory of St Joseph (Oratorio de San Giuseppe). It’s another small chapel in a medieval building famous for its nativity scene (presepio). Lifelike and cut into the rock, the stone figures and donkeys lean over the illuminated crib.

Urbino houses with green hills in background

7. Urbino’s City Walls

Put me in any walled city in Europe and I want to walk the walls. I did it in Lucca (home to Puccini), and Urbino offers the same opportunity. The walls were built in the 15th Century after the city had expanded and needed new fortification. What’s most impressive (including to UNESCO) is that the walls remain mostly intact even today.

8. Fortezza dell’Albornoz in Parco Della Resistenze

Panorama of Urbino's Ducal Palace

While walking the city walls is a great way to see the city, there are better viewpoints if you head further out. The view from Parco Della Resistenze on Viale Bruno Buozzi is my favorite. It’s a steep path to the top but once you’ve made it, you can gather your breath and inhale the views. Also within the park is the Albornoz Fortress (Fortezza dell’Albornoz). You can pay a small fee to go inside but it is small and, honestly, most people prefer the free views from outside.

9. Urbino’s Medieval City Streets

Urbino rooftops with church bells

Federico da Montefeltro did something especially wonderful when he completed his Renaissance expansion of Urbino – he did it without destroying the original Medieval layout and structure. Consequently, you can leave Urbino’s Renaissance epicenter and wander the city’s Medieval streets. Simply close your map and take a stroll through the streets. Rising above the valley of Le Marche, Urbino’s hilltop location means there are plenty of vistas of rolling countryside along the way – have your camera ready!

10. Bars and cafes in Piazza della Repubblica

Urbino at Night Italy - caffe sign lit up

Piazza della Repubblica is the social heart of Urbino with Renaissance porticoes packed with cafes, restaurants, gelaterias, and bars. Whether you’re standing at the counter for a short shot of espresso for breakfast, or sipping an Aperol Spritz on the terraces come aperitivo time, modern Urbino life echoes across this piazza. Caffè Centrale is my favorite bar in Urbino’s historic center.

Related: How To Order Coffee in Italy | How to Go Prosecco Tasting in Italy.

11. Academy of Fine Arts (Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino)

Modern Art performance in Urbino with puppet cat and rabbit

Speaking of modern Urbino, I managed to catch a play while I was in the city. Produced by the Academy of Fine Arts (Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino), Senza Fin.e., which means upending, featured a dead man, a dominatrix trapped in a TV, a human-sized rabbit, and a stuffed cat. Modern art? 100%. If you want to spend your evening a little differently, the art school occasionally offers exhibitions and performances open to the public. The Academy of Fine Arts Facebook Page is the best source for upcoming events.

Graffiti above sinks in Urbino art school
Sinks at the art school.

12. Egyptian Obelisk

An Egyptian obelisk isn’t what you’d expect in an Italian city, yet there it is, standing tall, outside the Ducal Palace in Piazza Rinascimento. Look closer to see the red stone, from Aswan. It’s one of many obelisks in Italy – Rome has 13 of them – and worth walking past.

13. City Museum (Museo delle Città)

If the Duke’s Palace piques your interest and you have a little more time, Urbino has a small city museum (Museo della Città) which explores the city’s history in more detail. It’s located outside the palace and while you’ll need Google Translate to read the written history (or a guide), the pictures are multi-lingual.

14. Eat the regional food

Chef serving plate of crescia.

Food in Italy is highly regional and Urbino is no different with a host of local delights to try. My two favorites were Passatelli (a fresh parmesan pasta soup in broth) and Crescia (a flaky pastry-style bread). I’ve written more in my guide to food in Urbino.

Related: Best Restaurants in Venice | What To Eat in Rome | What To Eat in Puglia | What to Eat in Sardinia.

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How to Get To Urbino

Urbino is located in the province of Pesaro and Urbino in the Le Marche region of Central Italy. It sits east of the Apennine Mountains with Florence 3 hours west and Bologna 2 hours North. As a region, Le Marche is a combination of rural countryside, hilltop towns like Urbino, and a coastline of beaches that front the Adriatic Sea.

However, getting to Urbino isn’t as simple as other places in Italy since it doesn’t have an airport or a train station. Yet, that’s part of the charm. Here’s the lowdown on how to get to Urbino.

By Air

Urbino’s nearest airport is Rimini. However, flights are typically summer-season only. Both Bologna Airport and Florence Airport are better airports with more flights but I recommend Bologna as it has better train and road connections from the airport to Urbino.

Urbino’s closest airports are:

  • Rimini (Federico Fellini Airport) – 69km (42 miles).
  • Ancona (Falconara Airport) – 89km (55 miles).
  • Perugia (San Francesco d’Assisi) – 114km (70 miles).
  • Bologna Airport – 181km (113 miles).
  • Florence (Peretola Airport) – 275km (170 miles).

Skyscanner is my go-to for searching flight connections, times, and estimated prices.

By Car

Driving to Urbino is the fastest way to get there but do check the route in detail before you set out since Urbino is separated by the mountains and only has a few connecting roads. That means you might find yourself driving east to head north or south to go west. For example, Bologna and Florence are a similar distance away from Urbino but it takes an hour longer to drive from Florence (3hrs) versus Bologna (2hrs) because of the road route.

Note: Cars aren’t allowed inside the walled city. There are parking options outside the gates but prepare for a steep climb.

By Train

The nearest train station to Urbino is Pesaro, which is 33 km (21 miles) away and is on Tren Italia’s main east coast route. From Pesaro, you can take a taxi. Otherwise, there is a bus (Adriabus) every hour which takes around 1 hour.

From Pesaro, you can travel directly to Bologna, Milan, and Bari (to explore Puglia). You can also connect to Florence (Firenza), Pisa, Venice (Venezia), and Verona. While you can book directly with Tren Italia, I find Trainline easier. Related: Venice Travel Tips For First-Time Visitors.

By Ferry

Ancona is one of Italy’s main ferry ports offering ferries to Rimini and Venice. You can also hop a boat to Italy’s remote Ionian Islands and out of the country to Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey. Related: How To Take The Ferry From Barcelona to Rome | How to Spend One Day in Venice.

Getting around Urbino

Since cars aren’t permitted in the center (except for locals), walking is the main way to get around. Fortunately, the historic center is small (less than half a square mile) and you can get across it in half an hour. Unfortunately, Urbino is very hilly. Pack good walking shoes with good grip, especially if you visit in wet or snowy weather.

Where to stay

There aren’t a huge number of hotels within the center but there are plenty enough. These are some of the best options.

Albergo San Domenica – A 4-star hotel in a former convent with a beautiful arched interior. Situated opposite the Ducal Palace and Cathedral.

Hotel Bonconte – an ornate 4-star hotel in a former villa. Close to the Ducal Palace.

Albergo Italia – A popular 3-star hotel that wins for its location with views of the Ducal Palace.

Map of things to do in Urbino

Here’s my map of Urbino.

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Ducal Palace in Urbino.

My visit to Urbino was courtesy of Regione Marche.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.