San Marino is the ultimate proof that good things come in small packages.
Landlocked by Italy, San Marino is simultaneously the world’s smallest and oldest republic and the world’s fifth smallest country. In Europe, there are only two other countries that are smaller than San Marino – the Vatican City and Monaco.
With a historic centre clinging to the steep Mount Titano, San Marino looks plucked from a fairytale. Its centuries-old defensive walls and fortresses that seem to spring from the rocky outcrops complete the picture.
And then, there is the stunning panorama that opens over the surrounding undulating landscape all the way to the sparkling Adriatic Sea.
History, architecture, and natural beauty turn San Marino into a great destination. Plus, the world’s oldest republic has some legendary tax-free shopping!
The best thing about all this is that you can easily experience San Marino for yourself. It is a great country to head to when you are in Italy!
So, if a visit to San Marino sounds tempting, keep reading!
This blog post gives you all the relevant information to make planning your visit to San Marino as easy as possible:
- a short geographical and historical overview;
- main things to see and do in and around San Marino;
- how to get there;
- when is the best time to visit; and
- what was my personal experience in the world’s fifth smallest country.
All this and so much more is covered in quite some detail.
Have a look and I hope you will find this first-hand tried and tested information useful when you plan your own trip to San Marino!
San Marino – A Travel Guide to the Oldest Republic and Fifth Smallest Country in the World
Where is San Marino?
You will find San Marino in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.
Now, San Marino is a country and Emilia-Romagna is one of the 20 regions which Italy is made of. So, San Marino is such a small country that it is completely landlocked in another country’s region!
It’s one of those things that make you scratch your head for a bit when you first hear it to then enthusiastically declare: ‘How very cool!’
In fact, San Marino is very cool on many accounts.
Built on a mountain that is three-quarter of a kilometer high, San Marino is a direct real-life reference to those city-states which populated Europe of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
If you think that once Florence was a city-state or Milan was a city-state and you struggle to comprehend how they used to function, you just need to look at San Marino for a present-day historic reference.
Anyway, you will find San Marino very close to the border between Emilia-Romagna and the Central Italian region of Marche. From the historic centre of San Marino’s capital city, you can enjoy a soul-inspiring panorama over the rolling hills of these two Italian regions.
The green hills then become a flat as a pancake plain stretching all the way to the sparkling Adriatic Sea. And you can see it all from the privileged position that San Marino has on Mount Titano’s top.
San Marino is about half an hour away from Rimini – an important city in Emilia-Romagna and also one of Italy’s major seaside resorts. On the Marche side, San Marino is closest to the city of Pesaro which is renowned as the City of Music for the famous Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini was born there.
How big is San Marino?
The Republic of San Marino is the world’s fifth smallest and Europe’s third smallest country. Its territory is just over 61 sq. km. (24 sq.m.). The country has nine administrative districts which, locally, are called castelli. Dogana and Borgo Maggiore are, respectively, San Marino’s first and second largest settlements.
San Marino’s capital city is officially called Citta’ di San Marino (or City of San Marino in English). It has its own castello (administrative district) which is called San Marino. The names of the other eight castelli are: Acquaviva, Borgo Maggiore, Chiesanuova, Domagnano, Faetano, Fiorentino, Montegiardino, and Serravalle.
It’s the historic centre of the City of San Marino – picturesquely clinging to the slopes of Mount Titano – that most people who travel to the country of San Marino are eager to see.
San Marino’s other castelli are located on the lower slopes and in the plains at the foot of Mount Titano – a mountain of the Apennines that reaches 739 m above sea level.
About 4,000 people live in the City of San Marino. The republic as a whole has just over 33,000 inhabitants.
What is the history of San Marino?
San Marino is the world’s longest surviving republic. It has an interesting and rich in events history which can be summarised in four words – from Saint to State.
Here are some important historical facts tracing the fate of San Marino through the centuries:
- San Marino’s territory has been inhabited since times immemorial. Artifacts discovered there date back to the Iron and Bronze Ages.
- In 257 AD, the stonecutter Marinus from the island of Rab in Dalmatia (nowadays Croatia) arrived in Rimini. Subsequently, he retreated to Mount Titano to live as a hermit. His strong Christian faith soon attracted several followers who set up a monastic community.
- In 301 AD, St. Marinus passed away leaving Mount Titano to his followers and thus – according to the established tradition – he founded the state of San Marino and bequeathed it its Libertas – Freedom – an intrinsic to San Marino value and way of life.
- In the 9th-10th century, a monastery existed on Mount Titano. An 11th-century document called Placito Feretrano (which is actually a copy of an original document from 885 AD) confirms the existence of the monastery. The Placito Feretrano is considered to be the oldest document preserved in the State Archive of the Republic of San Marino.
- During the late 13th century, San Marino became a free and autonomous city-state with its own legal Statutes. The historic centre of the City of San Marino dates back to that time.
- In the 15th century, San Marino fought on the side of the Duke of Urbino against the Lord of Rimini – Sigismondo Malatesta. As a reward for defeating Malatesta, San Marino received more territories, reaching its current area of about 61 sq. km. in 1463.
- The next couple of centuries brought repeated attempts to suppress the independent state and absorb it into the Papal State. Against all odds, San Marino managed to preserve its independence in spite of suffering several temporary setbacks along the way.
- The arrival of Napoleon in the 18th century led to the granting to San Marino of several economic concessions by the French Emperor.
- In 1849, Garibaldi sought refuge in San Marino after the fall of the Roman Republic. This led to the besieging of San Marino by Papal and Austrian armies. Garibaldi escaped at night with his wife and a few faithful to him soldiers.
- After a few politically fraught years, in 1862 San Marino was recognised for the first time as a sovereign State with the signing of a treaty with Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele II. Since then, the fate of San Marino has been tightly connected to that of Italy, although the Republic of San Marino zealously guards its political and social independence.
- During the Second World War, San Marino remained neutral. In spite of its tiny size, the republic gave shelter to 100,000 people who had been evacuated from the nearby Italian lands. San Marino was heavily bombed by the Allied Forces which led to a significant loss of life and infrastructure. One notable casualty was San Marino’s railway system.
- Nowadays, San Marino attracts millions of tourists every year eager to see for themselves one of the world’s smallest countries which also happens to be the world’s oldest republic.
Let’s finish this historical overview of the Republic of San Marino with a curious fact:
In Los Angeles County there is a residential city called San Marino. It is one of the USA’s wealthiest places. There is no historical connection between the Republic of San Marino and its American namesake. However, the seal of the city of San Marino in California is modeled after the crest of the Republic of San Marino in Europe.
What to see and do in San Marino?
There are many things to do and see in San Marino to keep a history enthusiast, an art lover, a shopping aficionado and/or a fan of hiking happily entertained for hours.
Although small, the City of San Marino hides many surprises and discovering them one by one as you walk through its historical centre is a great way to spend a day or two. Or a few hours if this is all that you can spare for this beautiful place.
In recognition of how unique San Marino is, in July 2008, it was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. The inscribed area covers the historic centre of San Marino as well as Mount Titano.
All sights – large and small – that are dotted around the City of San Marino are clearly signposted. Plus, there are many maps positioned around the historic centre. This way, you always know where about you are at any one moment and what’s near you to see and explore. The informational boards telling the story of each sight in Italian and English come in very handy when you want to quickly learn interesting facts about the city’s and the country’s most important points of interest.
Here is a tiny shortlist of what to see when in the City of San Marino:
- Mount Titano – reaching a height of three-quarters of a km above sea level, Mount Titano is part of the Apennines mountain range. The historic centre of the City of San Marino clings to its craggy slopes.
- The Three Towers – Guaita, Cesta, and Montale. They are referred to as torri (towers) but the first two are small military fortresses and only the latter is a single tower. The three towers are San Marino’s most emblematic buildings. Built on Mount Titano’s three rocky peaks, they also feature on the country’s flag and coat of arms.
- Guaita (also known as the First Tower, Rocca Maggiore, and Prima Arx) is the oldest among the three. It was originally built around the 11th-12th century although it could be earlier. The fortress took its current shape in the 15th century during the wars fought between San Marino and the House of Malatesta – the then ruling family of the nearby city of Rimini. The tower bell is rung to announce the sessions of San Marino’s Parliament. In the past centuries, the bell was rung by the fortress’ custodian in case of danger of attack. In fact, the word Guaita is still used in San Marino in the sense of ‘to keep watch’.
- Cesta (also known as the Second Tower and De La Fratta) stands on the highest peak of Mount Titano. At 755 m above sea level, the fortress was first mentioned in a document in the 13th century (although the peak on which it stands has been used as an observation point since Roman times). At times of war, a garrison of crossbowmen lived in Cesta. Nowadays, the fortress houses the Museum of Ancient Arms where you can trace the history of cold weapons and firearms over the centuries.
- Montale – the third tower was once a strategic observation point helping the citizens of San Marino to keep an eye on their lands from the top of Mount Titano. You can reach it by following a stone-covered path that starts from the second tower – Cesta – and then winds through a nice little forest. The tower is not open for visits, however don’t miss it as the walk to reach it is very nice and it gives you a moment away from the historic centre of the City of San Marino which can get very busy during the high season.
- Passo delle Streghe – the Witches’ Pass is a sinuous stone path that connects the Guaita Tower with the Cesta Tower. Crossing it is an incredibly emotional experience. The fortresses look like they have spontaneously sprung from the craggy rocks underneath and the pass itself seemingly hangs over the abyss below opening stunning panoramic views all the way to the Adriatic Sea. Personally, for me, this easily is the most memorable spot in the whole of San Marino.
- Public Palace – a proud-looking late 19th-century building that houses San Marino’s main administrative and institutional bodies. Neo-Gothic in style, it was built on the foundations of the Domus Magna Comunis – the Large House of the Commune – which had been erected there at the end of the 14th century. A clocktower adorned with the images of St. Marinus, St. Agatha, and St. Leo peeks above the Public Palace’s stern facade.
- Liberty Square – known also as Pianello, this is an elegant square flanked by the Public Palace and dominated by a fountain crowned by a late 19th-century statue of Liberty. Curiously enough, underneath the square are the ancient water tanks. San Marino’s most ancient Statutes contain rigorous provisions about access to the water stored in these tanks. For a country built on a rocky mountain, the availability of water was often a matter of life or death.
- San Marino’s Funicular – zipping up and down between the City of San Marino at the top of Mount Titano and Borgo Maggiore down there in the plains below. A spectacular journey allowing you to enjoy far-reaching views over the nearby hills and the sparkling Adriatic Sea.
- Basilica di San Marino – the imposing Neo-Classical building of San Marino’s main church preserves the relics of St. Marinus – the republic’s founder. If this building from the first half of the 19th century looks familiar to you, it could well be because you’ve seen its image on a 10 euro cent coin or two. The adjacent bell tower is centuries older than the Basilica itself. Originally built in the Romanesque style, it was then renovated in the 16th century. It has seven bells each of which used to be rung for a specific reason – from festivities and funerals to death penalties.
- Church of San Pietro – a small church right next to the Basilica di San Marino. In its crypt, there are two niches, which, according to popular belief, were the beds of St. Marinus and St. Leo (a companion of Marinus from the island of Rab in Dalmatia). It is believed that the niches (especially the one of St. Marinus) have miraculous properties. In more recent times, Garibaldi and his wife Anita took refuge in this church after the fall in 1849 of the Roman Republic.
- State Museum – housed in the recently restored Palazzo Pergami, San Marino’s State Museum has a rich exposition of over 5,000 artifacts tracing the archaeological, artistic, and numismatic history of the fifth smallest country in the world.
- Orti Borghesi – also known as Lovers’ Gardens, these are beautiful gardens in the historic centre of the City of San Marino. Their designer – Bartolomeo Borghesi – was a famous archaeologist and numismatist.
- Violin Museum and House of Music – a museum and concert place honouring the life work of Marino Capicchioni – a renowned luthier from San Marino.
- Cava dei Balestrieri – a former quarry which nowadays has been turned into an open-air theatre. This is where many of San Marino’s traditional events – like the annual Palio – take place.
In addition, in the City of San Marino there is a number of novelty museums like the Museum of Curiosities, the Museum of Vampires, the Museum of Medieval Criminology and Torture, and the Wax Museum.
How to reach San Marino?
The most convenient way to reach San Marino from anywhere in Italy is by car. There are several paid-for car parks on the outskirts of the historical centre of the City of San Marino.
If driving there is not possible, consider taking a train to the city of Rimini in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna (check train timetables at TrenItalia).
Once in Rimini catch the bus to the City of San Marino. The journey takes between 40 and 50 mins. For most up to date timetables and prices, you can check Rome2Rio, Gruppo Benedettini, and/or Bonelli Bus.
Unfortunately, San Marino can’t be reached directly by train. Although in the 1930’s the country had a very advanced for the time electric railway connecting it with nearby Rimini, the railway system was destroyed during World War II.
Nowadays, the Galleria Montale of San Marino’s former railway can be visited free of charge by tourists. Alternatively, a tourist train that circulates between Borgo Maggiore and the historical centre of the City of San Marino travels through some of the tunnels of San Marino’s former railway system. For current timetables, itinerary, prices and other information about the tourist train, please, click here.
You can find lots of useful information about parking in the City of San Marino, the tourist train, taxis, and other amenities at this link.
Do I need a visa to visit San Marino?
No, there are no border checks and no visa is required to visit San Marino.
As you drive, you will glimpse a sign on the side of the road announcing that you are crossing into the Republic of San Marino and that’s that.
If you want a San Marino stamp in your passport, you will need to visit the Tourist Information Centre in the historic centre of the City of San Marino and have your passport stamped there. The current price for this is 5 euros.
What was your personal experience in San Marino?
Like all good things in life, our visit to San Marino happened by complete chance.
Earlier in February this year, we spent a couple of days in a tiny village lost in the green rolling hills of the Central Italian region of Marche. Called Fortino, it was historic, peaceful, and beautiful.
Driving back from Fortino to Vicenza – where we currently live – it was with some delight that we realised that San Marino was on our way.
The road – patchy and potholed – curved through the Marche’s hills. Then, just before crossing over into Emilia-Romagna, we spotted a small mountain in the distance that was crowned by a fortress and had a city spilling down its steep slopes.
Soon, a sign stating ‘San Marino’ flew past our car and we knew that we had arrived.
Well, almost, as we soon discovered that San Marino is not just a hilltop town. Instead, its area of 61 sq. km takes in Mount Titano and a small portion of the plains around it, too. So, we kept driving following the zigzaggy road which, soon enough, started its ascent.
It being February, traffic was very low volume. Hence, we easily found a place at the topmost car park, right next to the imposing Porta della Fratta – one of the main gates leading into the historic centre of the City of San Marino.
The streets were largely deserted and although lined up by shops selling perfumes, jewellery, souvenirs, and (for some reason) lots of knives and B&B guns, most of them were closed in expectation of the high season which, apparently, starts around Easter and lasts until the end of September.
I was glad we had made it to San Marino in the off-season. I wasn’t looking to shop and crowds tire me quickly. Instead, we felt like we had the town to ourselves and exploring it felt like a pleasure rather than ticking sights off a never-ending must-see bucket list.
Most importantly, we had all of the best viewpoints in town completely at our disposal and we could spend as long there as we wanted just taking in the stunning views in front of our charmed eyes without a crowd of impatient selfie-takers elbowing us out of the way.
For the views that San Marino offers to its visitors are – I feel – the most precious thing about this tiny country. Taking full advantage of its mountain-top position, San Marino opens a soul-inspiring panorama over the green rolling hills of the Italian regions of Marche and Emilia-Romagna and then the eye travels unobstructed all the way to the sparkling blue waters of the Adriatic Sea.
Seeing it was truly glorious!
Standing on top of Mount Titano, we feasted our eyes on the views that opened beneath us.
It was almost as if we were birds, flying even without wings, the fresh air filling our lungs, and our souls expanding with the beauty of it all – green hills to the horizon on one side, densely populated plains and the blue Adriatic Sea on the other. In the middle of it all stood San Marino with its stonewalls that sprang straight from the mount’s rocks, crenelated towers that had presided over the hills and the plains below for centuries, buildings that embodied the country’s history, and stone-paved streets which we traversed in peace and quiet.
The only noise that momentarily pierced the peace was that of a Russian radio station. The sales assistant in a solitary open kiosk selling leather bags and souvenirs was tuning into it. As soon as we walked past it, the quietness returned.
So, we walked the deserted streets of San Marino, followed the sinuous Witches’ Pass over the heart-stopping abyss and hiked the stone road through the forest to the 14th-century Tower of Montale. It was fairytale-like. And with the weather changing from a cold drizzle to a sunny rainbow-crowned afternoon to then dissolve in an early evening of icy hail, I felt we had the unique chance to see and feel the true San Marino – a city-state built on a mountain top where the elements and the human spirit meet to test each other’s resolve.
When to visit San Marino?
San Marino is a great year-round destination!
If you like long warm days of shopping, large-scale events and fun, head to the world’s smallest republic during the high season which runs roughly from Easter to the end of September.
In case you prefer your exploration of San Marino free of large tourist crowds, pencil a trip there during the off-season. This is when most tourist shops and restaurants are closed and weather can vary from sunny days to chilling rain and even large snowfalls. Yet, the freedom to explore San Marino without battling the crowds and to appreciate the beauty of its centuries-old fortifications without having to wait in line for a selfie or two is priceless.
What else can I see and visit near San Marino?
San Marino is very conveniently located for trips to some of the most important and well-known Italian cities as well as to a long list of lesser-known yet unmissable local sights and hidden corners.
Landlocked in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, San Marino is just a stone’s throw away from the Central Italian region of Marche and within a convenient distance from both Tuscany and the Veneto.
Here are some suggestions and ideas in order of their distance from San Marino to make your travel planning easier (links to directions in Google Maps are provided, too):
- Large destinations:
- Rimini – one of the largest cities in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. It is also one of Italy’s most popular summer resorts. Directions from San Marino to Rimini
- Cesena – a beautiful city in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna where, among many other things, you can see the Biblioteca Malatestiana – the first public library in Europe. Directions from San Marino to Cesena
- Pesaro – a seaside city in the Central Italian region of Marche. It is widely known as the City of Music and it was the birthplace of the famous Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini. Directions from San Marino to Pesaro
- Urbino – a fortified city with medieval and Renaissance roots in the Central Italian region of Marche. The renowned artist Raphael was born in Urbino and his house is one of the city’s most important sights. Directions from San Marino to Urbino
- Faenza – a relaxed city in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. It’s famous for its centuries-old traditions of glazed pottery called faience after the name of Faenza. Directions from San Marino to Faenza
- Ravenna – a must-see city in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. It’s famous for its colourful mosaics adorning churches and tombs dating back to the times of the Western Roman Empire, the Ostrogothic Kingdom, and the Byzantine Empire. Ravenna is also where the famous Italian poet Dante is laid to rest. Directions from San Marino to Ravenna
- Ancona – the capital of the Central Italian region of Marche. It’s well-known for its beaches, antique artifacts and proximity to stunning nature parks. Directions from San Marino to Ancona
- Bologna – the capital of the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna is also the place where the world’s oldest University was founded in 1088. The city is rich in must-see sights. Directions from San Marino to Bologna
- Florence – the capital of the Central Italian region of Tuscany, Florence is famous all over the world as the centre of the Italian Renaissance and as one of the most beautiful cities ever to exist. Directions from San Marino to Florence
- Venice – the capital of the Northern Italian region of the Veneto, Venice is the world-famous city of water. Formerly the head of a large commercial and political empire, nowadays Venice is a treasure trove for art, history and architecture lovers. Directions from San Marino to Venice
- Fun destinations:
- Acquafan – a large water park with lots to keep both kids and adults entertained for hours. Directions from San Marino to Acquafan
- Italia in Miniatura – a miniature park where you can see famous Italian and European buildings recreated in mini format. Directions from San Marino to Italia in Miniatura
- Acquario di Cattolica – with over 3,000 fish, this is the largest aquarium on the Adriatic Sea and the second largest public aquarium in Italy. Directions from San Marino to Acquario di Cattolica
- Local sights and hidden corners:
- Gradara – a fairytale-like fortified village in the Central Italian region of Marche. It’s famous as the setting of the love story of Paolo and Francesca to which most of the Canto V of Dante’s Inferno is dedicated. Directions from San Marino to Gradara
- Cervia – a town in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna which is famous for its ideal city plan and salt flats. Cervia is also a major seaside resort. Directions from San Marino to Cervia
- Frontino – a tiny yet very beautiful fortified village on top of a hill in the undulating landscape of the Central Italian region of Marche. Directions from San Marino to Frontino
- Brisighella – nestled in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, this is one of Italy’s loveliest villages. It has a castle, a clock tower built on top of a steep hill, a covered road and sweeping views over the Apennines. Directions from San Marino to Brisighella
Where can I find more information about San Marino?
Please, refer to the official websites of the Republic of San Marino, the City of San Marino and other relevant organisations as given below. They contain a wealth of information which will help you learn more about this beautiful country and plan an exciting trip to it.
- Republic of San Marino
- City of San Marino
- Visit San Marino
- Convention & Visitors Bureau of the Republic of San Marino (in Italian)
- Agricultural Consortium Terra di San Marino (in Italian)
San Marino is the world’s fifth smallest country. It is also the world’s oldest and smallest republic. It was founded in 301 AD by the Christian Saint Marinus on top of Mount Titano.
San Marino is landlocked by Italy. You can find it in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.
If you have ever wondered if San Marino is worth a visit, the answer to this question is a resounding yes.
With its unique location, centuries-old defensive architecture and heartfelt dedication to preserving its freedom and identity, San Marino is a great destination to explore in Europe.
The above blog post provides you with detailed and first-hand tried and tested information about visiting San Marino. From how to get there and when it’s best to visit the world’s oldest republic to what to see and do there, everything is covered.
I hope that you find the information useful when you are planning your own trip to San Marino!
More Helpful Links for Places to Visit and Day Trips to Take
- 18 of the Best Cities to Visit in Northern Italy (With Travel Tips and Nearest Airports)
- Bologna, Italy – 10 Stories to Introduce You to the Fat Lady of the Italian Cities
- Ravenna, Italy – 10 Stories to Make You Want to Visit the City of Mosaics Now
- Marche, Italy – 6 Reasons to Visit Italy’s Most Underrated Region
- 11 of the Best Day Trips from Venice (With Lots of Photos, Travel Times and Italy Train Tips)
- Day Trips from Padua – 35 Unmissable Destinations in the Veneto, Lombardy, and Emilia-Romagna
- Day Trips from Verona – 16 Destinations to Fall in Love With (With Travel Times and Train Tips)
- Day Trips from Vicenza, Italy – Over 90 of the Best Destinations
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