One Day in Urbino, Italy: A Renaissance Gem

Are you searching for an Italian Renaissance town with all the charm and history of Florence or Assisi but a fraction of their visitors? Then visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Urbino, the cultural capital of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Situated in the hills of Le Marche, Urbino spawned and nurtured Renaissance art luminaries such as Piero della Francesca and Raphael and the great architects Bramante and Martini. This was thanks to its status as a Renaissance court city and one remarkable man: Duke Federico da Montefeltro.

I was captivated by this achingly beautiful Renaissance gem on a shore excursion from an Adriatic cruise. Walk in the footsteps of Renisaanace giants by spending one day in Urbino.

sandstone medieval buildings in urbino italy

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What to See in Urbino

Curious to know what you can do in Urbino in a day? Here are my suggestions for your itinerary:

  • Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
  • Raphael’s Birthplace (Casa Natale di Raffaello)
  • Urbino Cathedral (Duomo) and Museo Diocesano Albani
  • Oratory of St. John (Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista)
  • Oratory of St. Joseph (Oratorio di San Giuseppe)
  • Botanic Garden of Urbino (Orto botanico di Urbino)

A Short History of Urbino, Italy

Urbino’s golden age was in the 15th century when the powerful Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1444-82), one of the giants of the Italian Renaissance, established his court there.

He was a military leader, a man of letters and a patron of the arts. Under his stewardship, Urbino attracted the greatest artists, architects and scholars of the day and became a thriving artistic centre.

But by the end of the 16th Century, Urbino had faded into provincial anonymity, largely because of its separation from other cultural centres on the western slopes of the Apennines.

However, this may have been a fortunate accident of geography. Avoiding the later development that blighted its erstwhile rivals, Urbino is one of the best-preserved Renaissance cities in Italy.

The most famous portrait of Federico da Montefeltro is the diptych with his second wife, painted by Piero della Francesca. This is one of the must-see paintings in Florence and hangs in the Uffizi Galleries.

painting of a nobleman and his wife
The Duke & Duchess of Urbino, Piero della Francesca (1475)

During a horseback joust, a lance broke his nose and removed his right eye. Consequently, he was always painted in profile, showing the left side of his face.

My Day in Urbino

I visited Urbino on a guided tour as part of a shore excursion from Ancona. Luigi, our guide, met us at the top of the slope opposite the Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale), from where we looked over the pantiles crowning the town’s rooftops.

Today’s Urbino hasn’t changed much since the days when Duke Federico of Montefeltro was walking its streets. Steep, narrow lanes – navigating these streets in winter can be challenging – are lined by houses and palazzi of weathered red brick.

Rising above the town, Fortezza Albornorz, Urbino’s defensive fortress, keeps watch over the town and across the undulating countryside receding into the distance.

This is a real-life version of the Italian Renaissance paintings that Urbino’s artists spawned.

narrow street lined by old buildings in urbino italy

The Ducal Palace, Urbino (Palazzo Ducale)

Our day in Urbino started in the exquisite main courtyard of the 15th Century Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale), in Luigi’s words:

… the most beautiful example of what the Renaissance means

This is all about balance and harmony; an almost square courtyard, with five series of six Corinthian columns, featuring a comic strip of Latin script.

Built by Duke Federico da Montefeltro, this is one of the largest palaces in Italy and Urbino’s main tourist magnet.

In the 15th Century, 10% of Urbino’s 5,000-strong population loved here, the nobility upstairs and the servants on the lower floors. A Renaissance Upstairs Downstairs if you like.

Federico made his mark throughout the Ducal Palace. Literally.

On walls, ceilings fireplaces and window frames – his name appears wherever you look: ‘Federicus Urbini Dux’ or ‘FE DUX’ for short. Although the rooms of the Ducal Palace are mostly plain, its vast fireplaces and elaborately decorated doorways are evidence of the palace’s past splendour.

The most striking room is Federico’s private study, a small space within his apartment, with beautifully inlaid wood panelling. A photograph would not have done it justice.

  • Duke Federico da Montefeltro married first at the tender age of 15, but this union did not result in any children, at least not with his wife.
  • After his first wife’s death, he married again at the age of 38 to a woman 24 years his junior. The ceremony took part in the Ducal Palace’s Painted Room which has been fully restored after years of damage.
  • This second marriage produced eight children in 12 years, the last being the longed-for son and heir. Fate wasn’t kind to his wife, who died from pneumonia after the birth of their son, Guidobaldo.
  • However, Duke Federico’s family line died with him. Guidobaldo was impotent and died from gout at the age of 36. On his death in 1508, he was succeeded by his nephew Francesco Maria I della Rovere, thanks to the support of his uncle Pope Julius II.

Renaissance Art of the Ducal Palace

The Ducal Palace is a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance art. Many of these paintings were not originally housed in the palace but in churches, evident from their religious nature.

The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca, is a textbook example of the use of perspective. Luigi invited us to find the vanishing point of the painting:

Look at the shadow cast by my hand and see how I connect all of these lines. That is the vanishing point. People in the foreground look bigger; those in the distance look smaller

painting of a group of 3 renaissance men taking in front of flagellation of christ
Piero della Francesca, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Surprisingly, the flagellation itself is in the background of this masterpiece. Prominence is given to an unknown group of men standing in the foreground. Although there are many interpretations as to their identity and what they represent, a popular theory is that this painting is an allusion to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Variously attributed to Piero della Francesca, Luciano Maurana and Francesco do Giorgio Martini, The Ideal City depicts a 15th-century city landscape almost devoid of human activity. With its open doors and windows, this city appears suspended in time, waiting for something to happen.

the-ideal-city-renaissance-painting-hanging-in-palazzo-ducale-urbino
The Ideal City, Palazzo Ducale, Urbino

But Urbino’s most lauded son is Raffaello Sanzio, better known to English speakers as Raphael. Born in Urbino in 1483, this painter and architect formed the Holy Trinity of Renaissance masters, with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Woman, also known as La Muta (or Silent Lady), is displayed in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, housed in the Ducal Palace.

This portrait of an unknown noblewoman takes its name from her facial expression and sealed lips. As Luigi put it:

La Muta, Raphael

She is sad or is not willing to share her emotions and steps inside herself. Maybe grief or she is in pain. Maybe she is a widow more than a silent lady.

Today, we can only speculate.

VISITING THE DUCAL PALACE IN URBINO, ITALY

Opening hours: The Ducal Palace, including the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, is open daily from 8:30 to 19:15 (closed on Mondays).

Entrance fee: Visiting the Ducal Palace costs €10; combined ticket with the Castle of Gradara €13 (2024 prices)

You can buy tickets for the Palazzo Ducale online. However, this is not likely to be necessary.

Casa Natale di Raffaello

Our day in Urbino continues at Raphael’s birthplace, Casa Natale di Raffaello, a short distance from the Ducal Palace.

Today, this attractive house is a small museum but does not display any of Raphael’s paintings. There is a fine ceiling fresco but there is no certainty that he painted it.

exterior of medieval brick building with flags on street winding uphill
Casa Natale di Raffaello, Urbino, Italy

Raphael’s father was the court painter to Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who died the year before he was born. Under the patronage of Federico’s son, Guiobaldo, the court continued to flourish artistically.

After Raphael lost his parents early in life – his mother at the age of eight and his father when he was 11 – he was raised by uncles. At the age of 17, he started travelling and working outside Urbino, to Perugia, Sienna, Florence and Rome.

Raphael spent the last part of his life working in the papal city for Julius II and Louis X. On his death in 1520, he was buried in the city’s Pantheon.

Today, Raphael is in the company of the Kings of Italy.

VISITING CASA NATALE DI RAFAELLO IN URBINO, ITALY

Opening hours: As they are seasonal and staggered, check the opening hours for Casa Natale di Raffaello online.

Entrance fee: There is a modest entrance fee to visit Casa Natale di Raffaello

Other Things to Do in Urbino, Italy

Visit Urbino Cathedral

There has been a cathedral on the site of Urbino’s Duomo since 1062. It was rebuilt in the 15th Century and again in 1769 when an earthquake caused its dome to collapse.

Behind its dull neo-classical façade are religious paintings by Federico Barocci and Claudio Ridolfi.

Click here for more information and to book a ticket.

Visit Museo Diocesano Albani

Adjacent to the Duomo, Museo Albani showcases a small collection of frescoes and religious artefacts from the cathedral, as well as glass and ceramic items.

Click here for more information and to book a ticket.

See the Frescoes in Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista

On the street that leads from Urbino’s main gate, the little Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista is home to several important artworks.

These include colourful frescoes painted by the brothers  Lorenzo and Giacomo Salimbeni in the early 15th Century.

Address: Via Federico Barocci

Check Out the Crib at Oratorio di San Giuseppe

On the same street, the Oratorio di San Giuseppe is famous for its stucco nativity scene by Federico Brandani, a 16th– century artist from Urbino.

Address: Via Federico Barocci

Stroll Around Botanic Garden of Urbino (Orto botanico di Urbino)

Founded in 1809 as a scientific institution, this garden is planted on three sloping terraces along the side of the hill on which Urbino stands.

Urbino’s Botanic Garden is open from May to October

Address: Via Bramante

man-cycling-in-renaissance-piazza-with fountain n-urbino-italy
Piazza della Repubblica in the heart of Urbino

Getting There and Getting Around

It’s safe to say that Urbino is not the easiest Italian town to get to. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing as this deters the crowds that descend on the more popular and accessible tourist honeypots of Tuscany and Umbria.

The nearest towns are Pesaro, Rimini and Ancona on Italy’s Adriatic Sea coast.

map showing the location of the renaissance town of urbino in italy

As most of its main attractions are clustered in its compact historic centre, Urbino is very walkable.

 Getting to Urbino by plane

  • Urbino doesn’t have an airport.
  • The nearest airports to Urbino are Ancona and Rimini. For a broader choice of airlines, fly into Bologna, 166 km northeast of Urbino.
  • All these cities are served by the railway line that stretches down Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Getting to Urbino by train

  • The closest train station is Pesaro, 37km to the southwest. Pesaro sits on the railway line that connects Bologna and Rimini with Ancona. Trains are frequent but make sure that you buy the right ticket for the service you are taking and note that reservations are compulsory on some services.
  • Regional trains (Regionali) are marginally slower but far less expensive than Intercity services. There is no need to book tickets for regional trains in advance.
  • Take one of the buses that leave from Pesaro railway station for Urbino. If you can, catch one of the faster services, that make this journey in 45 minutes, rather than a slower local service.

Hire a car

Having your own set of wheels offers the greatest flexibility. Just be aware that as Urbino’s historic centre is a ZTL (Zona a Traffico Limitato), only authorized vehicles are allowed to enter.

You can leave your car in the car park at the town’s main entry square, Piazza Mercatale. From here, it’s a short walk to Piazza della Repubblica in the centre of town. If you don’t fancy this steep climb, take the elevator to  Corso Garibaldi.

Visiting Urbino on a shore excursion from a cruise ship

Ancona was my final port of call on an Adriatic Sea cruise. As it would not have been possible to get to Urbino independently and be assured that we would be back in time for the ship leaving port, I visited Urbino on a shore excursion organised by the cruise company.

dome and spire of cathedral in renaissance town of urbino in italy

Where to Stay in Urbino

Although I didn’t stay overnight, I have found these centrally-located places to stay that other travellers have loved:

B&B Villa Paradiso – This bed & breakfast, less than a ten-minute walk from the centre of Urbino has garnered fantastic reviews.

Residenza Ambrogi B&B – Located just outside Urbino’s walls, a ten-minute walk from the Ducal Palace, this choice is praised for the hospitality of its owners and for its breakfasts.

B&B Albornoz –  Located in the centre of Urbino, close to Casa Natale di Rafaello, this bed & breakfast has also attracted great reviews.

>>> None of these places take your fancy? Check out these other great accommodation choices in Urbino here.

Why I Think Urbino is an Italian Renaissance gem

If you are looking for a place that matches any hill town in Umbria or Tuscany, Urbino is it.

The better-known Renaissance gems of Florence and Siena, Perugia and Assisi are undeniably wonderful. However, chances are you will be sharing elbow room – and selfie space – with hordes of other visitors ticking these places off their cultural tour of Italy.

Half-forgotten by tourists and art lovers, Urbino’s sights are not crowded, prices are lower and the town has a relaxed and friendly feel. Go before word gets out.

urbino-renaissance-cityscape

This post was originally published on The Flashpacker