Ancona, Italy: More Than Meets The Eye

by sockii

This Adriatic Seaport in Le Marche is often overlooked by tourists. But Ancona and the surrounding area can be worth a visit for its history, natural beauty, and delicious cuisine.

I have always wanted to visit Ancona—perhaps an odd desire, given the city is not a particularly popular one with visitors to Italy. But for me, the connection to Ancona is a very personal one: I was actually born and spent the first few months of my life there, before being brought to America with my mother. I grew up hearing many stories of what life was like in the city and how much my mother had loved the nearby beaches, particularly Portonovo. But I'd never had the chance to see it for myself...not until 2016, when I spent several days there at the end of a longer trip to Venice and Bologna.

If you are looking to visit an off-the-beaten-path destination in Italy, love the water and delicious seafood, consider spending several days as I did in Ancona and the surrounding area. You can tour through beautiful beach resort areas, stunning ancient hill towns, and even visit important religious pilgrim sites such as the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto.

What follows is my brief guide to the city, including recommendations on what to see, where to stay, and of course, what to eat!

All photos on this page were taken by the author, sockii, unless provided by Amazon.

A view of Ancona, including the Cathedral and the Arch of Trajan
A view of Ancona, including the Cathedral and the Arch of Trajan

Ancona: A Brief Historical Overview

The port of Ancona today
The port of Ancona today

Ancona is a seaport and city in the Marches region in central Italy, located on the Adriatic Coast. It is one of the main ports on the Adriatic Sea, especially for passenger traffic, as many ferry boats travel between it and Croatia, Albania, Greece and Turkey.

The city was founded by Greek settlers from Syracuse around 387 BC, and given its name from the Greek word Αγκων, meaning "elbow", because of the shape of the harbor.

It later became a Roman town, although the exact date of Roman possession is uncertain. The city survived attacks by the Goths, Lombards and Saracens—in fact in 840, Saracen raiders sacked and burned the city.

After the year 1000, the city became an important Maritime republic, increasingly independent and strong enough to even push back on attacks by the Holy Roman Empire in the 12th Century. The city also has an important Jewish heritage, as along with Rome and Avignon it was the only Papal city where Jews were allowed to stay after the year 1569.

Chiesa San Domenico in Ancona
Chiesa San Domenico in Ancona

Along with Venice, Ancona was an important destination for merchants from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. There came to be a strong Greek community in the city as a result, although along with it came frequent conflicts between Orthodox and Catholic Greeks. This persisted until the French occupied the city in 1797. Ancona entered the Kingdom of Italy on September 29, 1860 and was to become one of the most important ports on the Adriatic during World War I.  In World War II, the city suffered severe bombing damage by the Allies, although fortunately some historic site remain and are preserved for today's modern visitors.

In 1972 (the year I was born there!), earthquakes caused considerable damage to the town, particularly in poorer areas where buildings were not as well constructed or maintained. (In fact my mother was there for the earthquakes and as a result had to move out of her apartment which was too badly damaged!)

Archival video of the 1972 Ancona Earthquake Swarm

Getting to Ancona

Primary transit options
The Rail Station in Ancona
The Rail Station in Ancona

Ancona is easy to reach by rail from other major Italian cities—2 hours to Bologna, 3 1/2 hours to Rome, and a little under 4 hours to Venice.  Marche Airport offers regional flights throughout Europe on carriers including easyJet and Ryanair and is just about a half-hour taxi to Ancona.

If you plan on traveling around the area to nearby hill towns and beach areas, you may wish to rent a car at the airport. Otherwise you may use local taxis or bus services.

Major Attractions in Ancona

Things to See, Places to Visit

While there are not as many famous museums and attractions in Ancona as in other major Italian cities, there are still noteworthy things you should make sure to see while visiting.

Cattedrale San Ciriaco (Ancona Cathedral) - This Roman Catholic church is located on the site of the former acropolis of the Greek city. On top of Guasco hill, visiting the church grounds offer impressive views of Ancona and its gulf. The famous red marble lions outside greet all who come to visit, and the church's dome is one of the oldest in all of Italy.

Chiesa Santa Maria della Piazza - This Romanesque Church is noteworthy for its unusual, dramatic exterior and early mosaics within. If you are lucky to be there when open, take advantage of the guides who will help you understand the church's history and importance.

Monumento ai Caduti - This World War I monument at the Piazza Quattro Novembre 1 offers more dramatic views, overlooking the beach. A nice place to visit any time of the day when the weather is pleasant, there are steps to walk down to the beach if you choose—or just soak up the atmosphere.

Ancona Cathedral
Ancona Cathedral
Chiesa Santa Maria della Piazza
Chiesa Santa Maria della Piazza
Monumento ai Caduti
Monumento ai Caduti
The balcony at the Monumento ai Caduti, overlooking the city beach.
The balcony at the Monumento ai Caduti, overlooking the city beach.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale delle Marche - History lovers should check out this archeology museum, located in a former private villa overlooking the sea. Collection includes prehistoric, Roman and more modern artifacts of note.

The Arch of Trajan
The Arch of Trajan
Fontana del Calamo
Fontana del Calamo
A view of the Piazza del Plebiscito
A view of the Piazza del Plebiscito

The Arch of Trajan - This Roman triumphal arch was built during the reign of Emperor Trajan. It was built to honor him after he spent out of his own pocket to expand the city's docks and fortifications. Today it makes for an unusual, ancient vision amidst the modern activity of the busy dock, but makes for a nice walk to visit on a sunny day.

Pinacoteca Comunale “F. Podesti” - This art museum contains notable works by artists including Titian, Carlo Crivelli, Lorenzo Lotto, il Guercino, and Francesco Podesti to name a few.

Fontana del Calamo - This 16th century, well preserved fountain is an intriguing sight to come upon while exploring the city. The thirteen masked faces on the water spouts allegedly represent thirteen people who were beheaded!

The Chiesa San Domenico and Piazza del Plebiscito - This church sits at the end of one of the main squares in Ancona (known locally as the "Pope Square" because of the statue outside). Try to catch it when it's open to the public; the inside is simple yet elegant, and it does feature a lovely Titian and other artworks. Afterwards the square makes for an excellent place to enjoy traditional Ancona fare for lunch.

For More Information on Attractions and Sights to See in Ancona

Other guides online

Ancona TripAdvisor - Hub of information and visitor reviews of tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels and shops in the city.

Lovely Ancona - A detailed guide to Ancona and the entire region for visitors, well illustrated with photos and historic information.

 

The Food of Ancona and Le Marche

Ancona specialties

Le Marche cuisine is truly a hidden gem of all of Italy's culinary delights. Of course the seafood of the Adriatic plays a major role in the region's cuisine, but you will also find rich poultry and game dishes in the inland regions, decadent cheeses, and delightful light and tasty wines. 

Seafood crudo in Ancona
Seafood crudo in Ancona

Brodetto

Brodetto

The classic “brodetto all’anconetana” or simply "brodetto" is the signature dish of Ancona. Tradition states that the dish should be made of 13 different fishes and shellfish, all caught locally and of the highest freshness. In a light broth of tomatoes, vinegar and herbs, this is something to savor with crusty bread—and friends to share it with!

Stoccafisso

stoccafisso

Stoccafisso all’anconetana is a dish that has been enjoyed for over 500 years in Ancona—and is so beloved in the city that there is actually an academy dedicated to it, the Academy of Stockfish. The fish is cooked and served with olives, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and a white wine of the region.

Mosciolo

The well-known wild mussels (mosciolo) of Portonovo

The wild mussels found along the shores of Portonovo are famous and known locally as "Mosciolo" (don't call them "cozze"!) They are extremely sweet and meaty, and found on the menu of any restaurant along the beachside area and resorts. It's a dish you definitely need to sample when you are visiting the area. Certainly they were the most delicious mussels I've ever tasted in my lifetime.

Learn More about the Cuisine of Le Marche

This wonderful cookbook explores the rich cuisine of the region. It is worth studying before you travel to know what dishes to look out for, or something you may want to purchase after your trip to learn how to prepare these classic dishes at home. From rice to pasta to seafood and antipasti, it covers all the traditional food of Ancona and Le Marche in excellent, easy-to-read detail.

Where to Stay in the Ancona Area

My recommendation? The Hotel Fortino Napoleonico
The interior courtyard at the Hotel Fortino Napoleonico
The interior courtyard at the Hotel Fortino Napoleonico

If you are looking to stick to a budget, you will find quite a few hotels directly in Ancona with rooms around $100/night, or less. However, if you have a little more money to spend and would like to stay somewhere truly unique, I have to recommend the Hotel Fortino Napoleonico above all other options. It is located right on the beach in Portonovo, about a 20 minute drive from the Ancona train station, and makes for a great starting point to either relax and enjoy the beautiful waters or to explore the entire region.

A view from the deck at the hotel, where special events are held.
A view from the deck at the hotel, where special events are held.
Swordfish

The hotel is actually located in a 19th century real fort, within the Parco del Conero—meaning it is surrounded by natural, preserved beauty. The best rooms are the specious suites, each with their own style and design. The hotel has a pool, a private beach area, and a simply wonderful restaurant (the food was so good, we ate three dinners here and simply had to try everything we could!) While it can be pricey in season, you can often find good deals there if you are staying outside of the prime summer months.

From the hotel, you are only another 20 minute drive to the medieval village of Sirolo, 30 minutes to Loreto, and only 15 minutes to Camerano where you can visit ancient underground caves.

An elegant seafood entree at the restaurant at Hotel Fortino Napoleonico.

Photos of Portonovo and from the surrounding area

Sights and places to visit near Ancona
The beach at Portonovo, looking toward the Hotel Fortino Napoleonico at the far point.
The beach at Portonovo, looking toward the Hotel Fortino Napoleonico at the far point.

The beach at Portonovo is quite rocky but the water is pristine clear as a result. Locals say the clean water contributes to the exceptional, unique flavor of the seafood from the region, particularly the mosciolo. You will find a number of restaurants and bars along this stretch where you can enjoy a drink or rent a chair and umbrella for the day during season. 

The rocks at Portonovo Beach and surrounding natural beauty.
The rocks at Portonovo Beach and surrounding natural beauty.

Sirolo

Historic medieval town and beach resort
The view from Sirolo of the Adriatic Sea.
The view from Sirolo of the Adriatic Sea.

Driving through the area we spotted this quaint hill town and had to stop for a short while to soak in the atmosphere. Sirolo has a well restored medieval town center, full of shops and cafes where you can enjoy a drink...or a decadent ice cream treat! The town square looks out over the water and it is a 10 minute walk down to the beach.

Sirolo is a charming medieval hill town south of Ancona and Portonovo.
Sirolo is a charming medieval hill town south of Ancona and Portonovo.

Loreto and the Basilica della Santa Casa

Take the pilgrimage to visit "Mary's House"

This hill town outside of Ancona is most notable for the Basilica della Santa Casa—a major shrine of Marian pilgrimage. The late Gothic church features mosaics by Domenichino and Guido Reni, along with colorful frescoes.

Inside the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto
Inside the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto

But of most note inside the church is the marble enshrined Santa Casa or "Holy House", which by legend is the actual house from Nazareth where Mary was born and raised, received the Annunciation, and lived during the childhood of Christ and after his Ascension. The house was supposedly carried by angels, first to Croatia and then across the Adriatic Sea to the woods near Recanati to protect it from invading Turks. As a visitor you must line up in a queue to enter, say your prayers, and then continue on through the church.

Whether you believe the legend or not, it is hard to deny the powerful spiritual energy that falls upon you when you enter and imagine the possibilities. The house is attributed to many miracles, along with "Our Lady of Loreto", the "Black Madonna" carved of wood and blackened with centuries of lamp smoke located within.

Basilica della Santa Casa
Basilica della Santa Casa
Marble surrounding the Holy House
Marble surrounding the Holy House

Do you believe in miracles? Want to learn more about the story of the Holy House in Nazareth and how it came to be transported all the way to Loreto, Italy?

This book explores the history, documentation and miracles attributed to Mary's house with original sources going back to the thirteenth century. Read it and you just might come away a believer...

A view of the surrounding countryside from the hill top of Loreto
A view of the surrounding countryside from the hill top of Loreto

Guidebooks to the Region

More information on exploring Ancona and Le Marche

There are not many guidebooks focused on this region, due to its lesser popularity as a tourist destination (save for Italians themselves who flock to its beaches every summer). However there are a few books which can help with your travel plans should you choose to explore this area.

The Marches: A Complete Guide to the Landscape and National Parks, and One Hundred Towns Includin...

The rolling green hills of the Marches embrace both Urbinothe Renaissance court city with its great Palazzo Ducaleand seaside resorts such as noble Pesaro, birthplace of the com...

View on Amazon

Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino: 2nd edition (2nd Edition) (Blue Guides)

New edition of this comprehensive, readable, reliable and affectionate guide. The only full-length English-language guide to focus on this area of eastern Italy. Most of the wor...

View on Amazon

Le Marche: an insider's guide

Le Marche: an Insider's Guide will help you discover Italy's Marche, or Marches, region, the place to go if you want a taste of real Italy, an Italy still relatively untouched b...

View on Amazon

General Italy Travel Guides

If you are thinking of only spending a few days in the region as part of a more expansive trip to Italy, then you might want to read through an all-encompassing travel guide to the country. This will help you plan routes and itineraries, and perhaps discover out-of-the-way places to visit you might not have considered otherwise.

Rick Steves Italy 2018

From the Mediterranean to the Alps, from fine art to fine pasta: with Rick Steves on your side, Italy can be yours!Inside Rick Steves Italy 2018 you'll find:Comprehensive covera...

View on Amazon

Fodor's Essential Italy 2018 (Full-color Travel Guide)

Written by locals, Fodor's travel guides have been offering expert advice for all tastes and budgets for more than 80 years.Fodor's Essential Italy is the indispensable take-alo...

View on Amazon

Frommer's Italy 2018 (Complete Guides)

From the most trusted name in travel, Frommer’s Italy 2018 is a comprehensive, completely up-to-date guide to one of Europe’s most storied vacation destinations. With helpful ad...

View on Amazon

For More Information on Italy Travel...

Do check out my other articles linked below
Visiting Italy is a dream of many...but is it too expensive to turn into a reality? Not necessary. Read on for my tips to enjoying an Italian vacation on a budget.
Italy has some of the most delicious food in the entire world. However, travelers to Italy often find themselves victims of restaurants out to scam tourists with bad food and infla
The churches of Italy are some of the most beautiful artistic and architectural treasures in the country. But be mindful of proper etiquette and decorum!
Is speaking English in Italy acceptable? Or do you need to be proficient in Italian before planning a vacation to the country? Advice & personal experience from a regular visitor.

Ciao, Ancona!

The Red Lions of Ancona
Updated: 01/01/2018, sockii
 
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sockii 13 days ago

@Veronica - While Ancona has its attractions, it's not nearly as full of world-famous museums, palaces, and archeological sites as compared to, say, the "big three" of Italy (Florence, Rome, Venice). So I can understand why it's not really a popular tourist destination, though we did run into some young adventurers there who had been taking the ferry boats around the Mediterranean and were staying for a few days. But the Italians themselves do flock to the beach resort towns nearby like Sirolo and Portonovo in the summer months. Indeed for my mother, back in the early 70s, it was the beach that captured her fancy while on a post-college tour of Europe...and that's how I ended up being born there (well, that's part of a much longer, involved story that's not fully mine to tell...)

But yes, the entire region of the Marches is quite beautiful and tranquil, and I would love to have the chance to spend more time there exploring.

Veronica 14 days ago

My dad's cousin married a man from Pescara of course not too far from your town of Ancona

Veronica 14 days ago

I wonder why this beautiful place is less well known.

Family; I now see why Italy is so special to you. My husband's grandma's family were from the North of Italy at Garzeno near Lake Como . It is a beautiful country and a huge favourite in our family.

It helps to read about a country from someone who was actually born there.

sockii 14 days ago

Thank you, Frank! I have plans to post some more guides and overviews of some of the other lesser-known places and attractions in Italy (and Sicily) I've had the good fortune to visit. They definitely can help expand understanding of the country beyond the major tourist attractions.

frankbeswick 15 days ago

Well written. This was a clear and informative guide to a part of Italy that was a closed door to me. Articles about places that are outside one's personal experience have the ability to expand the mind.

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