Hard to say when Tuscany was “discovered” – perhaps during the Grand Tours of the 18th century, perhaps by English buyers in Chianti in the 1960s – but since then people have been looking for a region to fill it – the “next Tuscany” “.
Neighboring Umbria came first, Abruzzo, east of Rome, is likely to be next, but for now, Marche – or Marche or Le Marche – midway along Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, is Tuscany’s anointed successor.
No region, of course, should simply be the poorer relative of another; somewhere you visit if you can’t have the real thing. And the Marches are anything but a simple substitute. As everywhere in Italy, it has a regional identity and regional treasures – food, art, wine, natural beauty – of its own.
And often – if we want to play with comparisons – in excess of Tuscany: more mountains, more pastoral landscapes, more enchanting villages, more – much more – beautiful beaches and much less light industry and, above all, much fewer people.
Here is a guide to the best of the region, from its towns and villages to its beaches, mountains and unique attractions.
The cities and the villages
Urbino is the main cultural attraction of the Marches; not as rich in art as Florence or Siena – few places are – but a charming hilltop town that owes much of its importance to the rule of Duke Federico da Montefeltro in the 15th century, a former mercenary who presided over one of the most important Renaissance courts of Europe.
It was also the birthplace of Raphael. Visit Federico’s magnificent Palazzo Ducale, home to a superb collection of paintings, and take a morning to explore the streets and smaller churches and museums.
While you’re here, stay at the four-star Bonconte (doubles from around £75), the best of the largely unexceptional city hotel options, or Casale del Duca (doubles from around £100), a characterful historic property in countryside a few miles to the north.
As always in Italy, most of the big cities have something of interest: the Basilica of San Nicola in Tolentino, for example, or the main square in Fermo; even Ancona, once a dusty and daily port, has recently revived. Macerata is known, among other things, for the Sferisterio, an extraordinary open-air auditorium and main venue for the city’s annual summer opera festival, one of the best in Europe.
For another place to visit for more than a day trip, head to Ascoli Piceno, an ancient Roman city still enclosed within medieval walls and centered on Piazza del Popolo, one of Italy’s most beautiful squares. Treat yourself to a drink or light meal in the square at the historic Caffè Melitti or head to the traditional Osteria Nonna Nino. Wherever you eat, be sure to taste the local Ascoli olive (large stuffed olives). The best central hotel options are Residenza 100 Torri (doubles from around £100) and Palazzo Guiderocchi (doubles from around £110).
Spend more than a few days in the region and you’ll come across countless charming villages – Corinaldo, Gradara, Mondavio, Mondolfo, Montelupone, Monteleone di Fermo and many more – but to narrow your search, head to San Leo, north of the region not far from the more famous (but tacky) San Marino.
Dante mentioned San Leo, describing its fortress as one of the most beautiful in Italy, and if you see it today, perched on its extraordinary cliff, you’ll understand why. Stay – and eat – at the welcoming Castello, off the main square.
Like Tuscany or Umbria, the Marche is a largely rural area, so one of its beauties is that the scenery is reliable and pastoral almost everywhere you go. For the most part it consists of high hills (generally higher and more rugged than Tuscany), with numerous parallel valleys running east from the higher slopes of the Apennines, Italy’s mountainous backbone.
Inevitably though, there are a number of extraordinary landscapes. For the mountains, near the Umbrian border, head to the high, wild peaks of Monti Sibillini National Park, where superb hiking is possible, especially around the highest point, Monte Vettore (8,123ft/2,476m) . Ascoli Piceno is a good base in the south; or try the village of San Ginesio to the north, though the latter suffered damage – like much of the immediate area – in the 2016 central Italy earthquakes.
Along the coast, two areas are worth special excursions, both rocky, cliff-edged plateaus that are strange, but beautiful anomalies on an otherwise flat coastline of resorts, dunes and beaches.
To the north, between the busy Pesaro and Cattolica, is Monte San Bartolo, a protected reserve full of paths and pristine beaches. A scenic road shades the coast, linking superb villages like Casteldimezzo and Fiorenzuola di Focara, with a fine place to stay in the shape of Castello di Granarola (doubles from £110).
Immediately south of Ancona, by contrast, is Monte Conero, another small plateau directly on the sea, also protected by a nature reserve and again with hiking opportunities aplenty and some of the best beaches (see below) in the region. It is also known for its great food and red wines.
Hiking is popular in the mountains and elsewhere, but so is, increasingly, cycling. Serious bikers who want to tackle the great Marco Pantani’s favorite climb can ride his “his” mountain, Monte Carpegna, nine miles south of San Leo.
Resorts and beaches
Italians like Le Marche for its string of small, no-frills resorts, the sort of places parents went to as children and take turns taking their children: nothing fancy, modern hotels, good and cheap food, safe bathrooms, and lots of sand.
Chief among these larger resorts are Gabicce Mare, Senigallia – known for its “velvety” sand – and San Benedetto del Tronto.
Equally though, the region has plenty of empty or less developed beaches, as well as two glorious stretches of protected coastline: Conero and Monte San Bartolo.
Some of the beaches are among the best in Italy, notably Spiaggia delle Due Sorelle, along with the beaches in and around Sirolo (notably San Michele and Urbani) and elsewhere near the Conero (Mezzavalle, Portonovo, Numana, Molo, Passetto).
Every region in Italy will have its fair share of cultural and other landmarks – glorious churches, ancient abbeys, picture-perfect squares – that are worth a special trip.
Among the region’s most popular attractions are the Grotte di Frassari, a remarkable cave system only discovered in 1971 and featuring over eight miles (13km) of galleries and tunnels.
Less known are the five miles (8 km) of natural and man-made caves and tunnels dug beneath the small village of Osimo, where the local tourist office offers guided tours of different parts of the labyrinth, which contain, among other things, ancient and medieval rock art and sculptures.
Le Marche is a land of remote Romanesque churches and abbeys, many of which you’ll come across if you drive enough of the region. Three of the best are Fonte Avellana, the Abbadia di Fiastra and San Vittore delle Chiuse near Genga.
Like many things in Le Marche, the region’s wines are little known but often exceptional. The best known is Verdicchio, a fresh and grassy white usually sold in special amphora-shaped bottles.
Castelli di Jesi producers are among the best, especially if you choose the most expensive reserve, together with Matelica Riserva, known for its straw yellow colour. Other standout options include Conero Riserva, a deep red; Vernaccia di Serrapetrona (a sparkling white in dry and sweet versions); and a trio of Offrida wines – a red and two whites, Pecorino and Passerina.
Most of the villa companies that deal with properties in Tuscany and Umbria also have rentals in Le Marche. For a Marche specialist focusing on the region contact Marche Holiday. For more travel inspiration, read Telegraph Travel’s guide to the best hotels in the Marche.
Ryanair flies from Stansted to Ancona. Other options include Perugia (also Ryanair) and Bologna (BA and EasyJet).
Rome, about three hours’ drive from Ancona, could be the best choice for those traveling from northern UK airports.
Those hoping to arrive by train can reach Bologna via Paris and Milan in about 12 hours.
You will need a rental car.
For visitor information (in English) visit the portal of the Marche Region. For information on parks and reserves, follow this link. Residenze d’Epoca are an excellent umbrella organization for castles, villas and other historic accommodations that are often not found in hotel listings.
Local enthusiasts have a Facebook page dedicated to the Secret Places of the Marches, which offers excellent insights into some of the “Secret Places of the Marches” (with English translations).
This article is kept up to date with the latest information.