A tiny enclave perched high atop Mount Titano, completely landlocked in northeastern Italy, the microstate of San Marino prides itself on being the oldest sovereign republic in the world. And at only 24-square miles, it ranks as the fifth smallest country too. According to folklore, a Christian stonemason named Marinus of Rab founded La Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino in the year 301 C.E. as he fled religious persecution from the Roman emperor Diocletian. Now, over 1700 years later, San Marino attracts more than three million tourists every year to its picturesque medieval villages and duty-free shopping opportunities.
Only a speck on the map of Europe, San Marino is composed of nine towns, or castelli. However, the main tourist draw is the capital city, also called San Marino. Accessible by aerial tramway, the Historic Centre is like a page out of a fairytale. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008, San Marino is a perfect day trip from the nearby resort town of Rimini, Italy. Stroll around the medieval cobblestone streets as they seesaw up and down the mountain; poke your head into one of the many boutiques or souvenir shops to buy candles, lace, or replicas of medieval weapons; or just sit back at a café and enjoy an espresso while people watching.
High stone walls, complete with battlements, surround the Historic Centre. Most of the buildings, including the 19th century Palazzo Pubblico—centered on the Piazza della Libertà—are built from limestone mined from the mountain itself. This is where the changing of the guard ceremony is held every hour on the half-hour from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during the summer months (mid-May through the end of September.) Tourists crowd around to watch the pomp and circumstance of the soldiers, dressed in dark green double-breasted blazers, red pants and a cap topped by a red pom-pom, as the “Guardians of the Rock” change shifts.
A pleasant walk can be made along the rim of the mountaintop to three ancient towers, two of which you can enter. These same three towers can be seen on the nation’s flag and coat of arms. A stone path cuts through a forest of fir, pine, and poplars, offering panoramic vistas of verdant hills rolling toward the turquoise Adriatic Sea.
The Sammarinese are immensely proud of their tiny gem of a country and are more than willing to help the wayward tourist. Although San Marino is a bit off the beaten path for American tourists, it makes for a very interesting destination if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
How To Get There: There are no direct flights to San Marino. The closest international airport is in Rimini (RMI) [or fly into Bologna (BLQ) and then take a 1-hour train to Rimini.] From this point, you can either rent a car or take one of the many, frequent public buses. A return ticket costs around €8. By car: Take the A14 motorway from Bologna and exit at Dual Carriageway Rimini-San Marino SS72. There are no border checkpoints in San Marino so entering and exiting is a breeze. The best place to park is in Borgo Maggiore, one of the castelli, andthen take the aerial tramway up to the historic center. It costs €4.50 for a round-trip fare, with departures every 15 minutes.
When to Go: Summer is tourist season. Plus, every year at the end of July is the Tornano Le Giornate Medievali, the Medieval Days Tournament. During this festival, the citizens of San Marino transform the Historic City Centre into a medieval village and recreate the days of yore. The San Marino Crossbow Federation puts on impressive demonstrations of this centuries-old form of weaponry as well.
What to Buy: San Marino issues its own postage stamps and San Marino-minted Euros. Another popular favorite is Limoncello, the delectable lemon-infused liquor that’s produced locally with pride. Also, strangely enough, you’ll notice stores everywhere selling replicas of guns, swords, and medieval weapons.
Don’t forget: For a great souvenir, pay €5 at the Tourist Office [located at Contrada del Collegio, 40] to get your passport stamped with a tourist visa.
For more information: Visit the official San Marino Tourism website.
Here are more photos from my visit:
Have you ever been to San Marino? Have you even heard of it? Feel free to comment in the section below!
Michael Figueiredo is a freelance travel writer based in Los Angeles, California. When he’s not gallivanting around the world, he’s enjoying the laid-back lifestyle and perfect weather of Southern California. So far he’s visited forty countries and territories on five continents. His goal is to see at least one new country every year! . Read more from this author