By Jim Ferri
In northeast Italy, San Marino doesn’t get a lot of tourists.
In fact, only three million travelers visit it every year, ranking it at the very bottom of the list for tourist arrivals in all of Europe.
And it doesn’t have an airport or a train station. Even worse, many people have no idea where it is or have never heard of it.
So what’s its allure? Why did even three million people visit?
Little San Marino, you see, is a sovereign nation. In fact, an exceptional sovereign nation…
Founded in AD 301, San Marino is the oldest constitutional Republic and oldest sovereign state in the world today.
San Marino’s anonymity means you’ll likely not find yourself in a crowd of fellow travelers there, with the single exception being in August when the place is packed. And, of course, there’s that curiosity regarding what’s this little country like?
The Power of Curiosity
When I visited San Marino in September, most of the travelers I saw were Germans and Russians, with a few Americans and Brits mixed in.
Despite their nationalities, I’d guess that, like me, many had traveled there because of a curiosity about this tiny country. And it is small, covering less than 24 square miles of the European landscape. Only its fellow micro-states of Monaco and the Vatican occupy less territory.
And curious or not, many of those visitors also came for shopping, since the entire nation is duty-free. You could get a better deal on Italian goods in San Marino than you could in Italy.
You don’t even need to bring your passport since there’s no passport control. Nor do you need to change your money since the Sammarinese, as its citizens are called, use the Euro, even though they’re not a member of the European Union.
Is San Marino in Italy? Well, Yes and No…
Is San Marino in Italy? It’s a question a lot of people ask.
While San Marino is completely surrounded by the Italian provinces of Emilia-Romagna and Marche, making it technically “in” Italy, it remains a sovereign nation and not part of Italy.
It was founded in AD 301 by St. Marinus, a stonemason from the Roman Island of Rab, now part of Croatia. After working on the reconstruction of nearby Rimini’s city walls, he founded a monastic community atop 3,300-foot tall Mount Titano. The place of the founding is now the City of San Marino, the nation’s capital, and, as you might have guessed, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s a relic of medieval Europe when city-states such as Venice, Florence, and Genoa controlled ancient Italy.
Heaven for Day Trippers
The old city of San Marino is a warren of cobblestone streets, spreading out below three ancient watchtowers. The towers are linked by a paved pathway called Passo delle Streghe, the “Witch’s Passage.”
Below the passage, the entire historic center, thank God, is a car-free zone.
Although most people who visit come on day-trips, I spent two nights to have a full day exploring this cozy little country. It turned out to be perfect. I enjoyed a nice quiet restaurant in the evening sans day-trippers. I also had the spectacular sunsets over the Italian countryside almost to myself.
However long you expect to stay in San Marino, just be prepared for numerous steps or inclines almost wherever you go.
The Top Thing to Do in San Marino – Visit the Castle Towers
The most famous places in San Marino are the three ancient castle watchtowers that run along the mountain’s ridge and dominate the skyline.
In the 1940s, they were restored by 20th Century Fox, which used San Marino as a film set for Prince of Foxes, starring Tyrone Power. Incredibly, for the filming, they rented the entire Republic for $40 per day.
The oldest castle and tower is Rocca Guaita, which was constructed in the 11th century. Parts of it were used as a prison until as recently as 1970. Once inside Guaita, you have to climb several wooden ladders and a somewhat rickety staircase to get to the upper level. Still, the view from the top is beautiful. Obviously, skirts are not recommended.
You can see the Apennines Mountains to the northwest and Rimini to the northeast on a clear day. If you’re fortunate, you may even be able to see all the way across the Adriatic to the Dalmatian coast.
The second and highest castle and its watchtower, Rocca Cesta, contains the “Museum of Ancient Arms.” The collection includes spears and lances, firearms, crossbows, coats of armor, etc. dating back to the Middle Ages.
The third tower, Montale, is the smallest of the group and is not open to the public.
Don’t Miss Piazza della Libertà and the National Museum
The most visited place in San Marino is the Piazza della Libertà. On it stands the Palazzo Pubblico (Public Palace), the neo-Gothic-style government house with a crenelated clock tower. Like everything in the old city, it was built of stone quarried from the mountain.
But what brings people to the piazza is the changing of the guard with the Guardie di Rocca. It takes place from late June to mid-September, starting at 2:30pm and occurring every 30 minutes after that.
The National Museum (Museo di Stato) is in the Palazzo Pergami Belluzzi, only a two-minute walk from the Palazzo Pubblico. It has as an archaeological collection ranging from the Neolithic age to Etruscan and Roman finds. The museum’s collection also includes Byzantine icons, antiquities from Egypt, and old coins of San Marino. I found it quite interesting.
A Basilica, and Things Wax and Quirky
Not far away – although in this postage-stamp-size country, nothing is very far from another – is the Basilica di San Marino. It’s a 19th-century Basilica built on top of a Romanesque church built in the 4th century and later abandoned. The relics of St. Marinus are on the high altar.
Although not up to the quality of Madame Tussauds, San Marino’s wax Museum has 100 wax figures of notable characters from history. They include Mussolini and Hitler, Jacqueline Kennedy in an audience with Pope John XXIII, Galileo, Marconi, da Vinci, and even President Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s theater. Lincoln, by the way, was an honorary citizen of San Marino.
Close to the Wax Museum is the quirky Museum of Curiosities. Its collection includes two-foot-tall wooden clogs to wear during floods in Venice, a flea trap, the longest fingernails in the world, etc. Kids will likely love it.
The Best Thing to Do: Wander the Streets
The very best thing to do in San Marino is to just wander its streets aimlessly, as I did. In fact, you can walk along almost every street in this landlocked medieval enclave in just a few hours regardless of the time of day.
You’ll find numerous little boutiques selling perfume, watches, handbags, and plenty else for tourists along almost every street. Surprisingly, there’s also a large number of firearm shops.
You’ll also find plenty of little cafes and restaurants all over the place. I had lunch in the piazza across from the tourist office, where umbrella-shaded tables lined the city’s old crenelated walls, serving up great views during lunch or cocktails.
The cafe was run by the nearby Ristorante Hotel Bella Vista, and I had a Caprese salad and glass of excellent wine. With service, the check came to €14.50, soon followed with “no credit cards under €20, sir”.
The salad was just so-so, but the view and the ambiance more than made up for it.
Down on the Plain
The mountaintop and city of San Marino don’t cover all of the country’s 24 mi.², of course. On the plain at the base of Monte Titano are nine small San Marino towns known as Castelli. They are quite old, as well.
Borgo Maggiore is the best known of all of them since it is from there you take the cable car up to the old center of San Marino. It’s a two-minute ride, €4.50 round trip.
Tour buses unload their passengers there, and many day-trippers who drive leave their cars there, as well. I was able to drive up the mountain on the other side of the city and leave my rental right outside the city gates. It was just a short walk to my hotel.
Borgo Maggiore is an old market town that’s also well-known among coin and stamp collectors worldwide. San Marino’s Coin and Stamp Museum is housed in a church there and has a complete collection of the beautiful and unique postage stamps.
It also has a collection of coins from the mid-19th century on, which San Marino commenced minting in 1862. Despite San Marino adopting the Euro, it continues to mint limited San Marino gold coins for collectors. They are also still accepted as currency inside San Marino only.
In the town of Rovereta, about a 10-minute drive from Borgo Maggiore, is the Maranello Rosso Ferrari Museum, a vintage car museum. Its collection relates to the life and cars of Enzo Ferrari and Ferrari designer Carlo Abarth. It includes the first Ferrari Spyder, owned by Marilyn Monroe, and the famous red GTO 250 that won three world championships.
If You Go:
How to Get to San Marino
There are no trains to San Marino. The most convenient way to get to San Marino is by car from one of the major cities nearby – Bologna, Florence, or Rimini. The driving time to San Marino from Bologna is 1½ hours, from Florence 2½ hours, and from Rimini about 30 minutes.
From Rimini, you can also take the Shuttle Rimini San Marino bus to San Marino. It departs the Rimini train station (opposite the station, just past Burger King) several times a day. The fare is €5 one way, €10 round-trip. Tickets can be bought on the bus.
When to Go
Spring and Autumn are good times to visit. When I visited in September, I found very few tourists, and the weather was perfect. Even though it was still quite hot in Italy, there was a cooling breeze flowing across the city, keeping it much cooler than at sea level below.
Although you don’t need a passport to enter San Marino, you can get your passport stamped at the tourist office for €5.