San Marino – it’s not a part of Italy
Read one of those “Top 10 places to see before you die” articles lately? Or perhaps, “The top places to visit this year?” How about “Emerging travel destinations you must not miss!” Chances are, if you have, you won’t have seen any mention of San Marino. I have to admit that I am pretty happy about that.
Keeping hordes of tourists away from almost secret locations means they stand a greater chance of never being overrun, to the point where it no longer bears any semblance of its former self. Despite my own selfish thoughts, it really is a wonderful place to visit.
Have you heard of San Marino, Italy? Chances are you have, but this is not correct. Did you know it actually isn’t in Italy at all?
The history of San Marino
Blink and you will miss San Marino. That’s if you are one of the fortunate people who actually know where it is. It’s a very common misconception that San Marino is part of Italy. Google searches will attest to this, with common searches of “San Marino Italy” rising to the fore. It’s “kind of” understandable, given that it is completely landlocked by Italy.
However, the Republic of San Marino is one of the world’s oldest republics and one of the smallest countries and as such totally independent of Italy and any other country for that matter.
It is also the only survivor from the Italian Renaissance days. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, Italy was divided up into areas known as city-states. Regional areas surrounding an important city like Venice, Florence and Milan were ruled, usually by a strong and wealthy family.
The Papal city-state, ruled by the Pope, was also a key part of the Italian system. With the later demise of the powerful city-states, curiously, San Marino maintained its independence.
A city on top of a mountain
The Republic of San Marino is aesthetically beautiful, to match its interesting history. The capital of the republic, also called San Marino, was built as a fortress on top of Mount Titano, some 650 metres above sea level. It’s a place of stone fairytale castles and buildings.
It’s the place where you can sit and sip a cold glass of wine on the edge of this mountain, as you take in the view below. On a very clear day, sweeping views across to the Adriatic Sea can be seen.
The streets of San Marino
As a mostly pedestrianised city, your trusty feet are the best option for exploring. Take your time, stopping along the way to take in everything this city has to offer. It’s impossible to get lost! Note that many of the cobblestone streets are quite steep, and wearing good walking shoes are definitely preferable. I wore heels out to dinner one night and had to almost tippy-toe on the stones. Luckily, I didn’t have to walk too far!
San Marino’s dependence on tourism
Despite relatively low tourist numbers, there is still a juxtaposition between this ancient city and its attempt to eke as much money as they can from those who visit. Whilst the streets lined with shops add to the overall ambience and beauty, I would much prefer to see the majority of them filled with the unique local crafts that can be found in some of the shops.
Once a tax haven and duty-free shopping city, the remnants of this over-commercialisation can still be seen in the bountiful handbag shops and other touristy items.
I didn’t allow this to cloud my view of the city though, as it’s easy to just ignore the shopping aspect and focus on the real beauty. I didn’t come here to shop anyway, and I’m not tempted by shiny baubles and souvenir offerings.
What to see in San Marino
The Republic of San Marino and the city of San Marino is all about the fortress that sits aloft its mighty mountain. As you approach it from the ground, it elicits that first gasp. It sneaks up on you ever so quietly that for a moment, you wonder if it’s someone else making that noise. I look sideways at my husband and see his eyes wide with an appreciation of what we are about to see.
The fortress, built in the 1200s, is comprised of three towers, all of which have been restored in some way over the years. Two of them were actually used as prisons up until the 1960s. The second tower sits on the highest part of Mt Titano, 756 metres above sea level. The third sits on its own, isolated from the others. Towers 1 and 2 can be accessed by the public.
Tip: Despite the website stating that the towers are open all day, they were closed when we visited, probably due to a midday siesta. Before climbing up the hill, find out whether they are actually open!
The Public Palace is the main location of all things official here in San Marino, including parliament. Located right on the town walls, it also contains guard towers, part of the city’s military defence in times gone by. It is particularly spectacular at night time.
As the scene of much of San Marino’s political history, the building has several Coat-of-Arms that represent both the republic and municipalities. It is of a Gothic style although much more sedate than many other Gothic buildings in Europe.
The Guardia di Rocca perform in a changing of the guard ceremony at the Palace during summer. They are performed every 30 minutes from 8.30 am until 6.30 pm seven days a week during this time.
The Public Palace sits on one side of Liberty Square. A fountain adorned with the Statue of Liberty sits in the centre of the square that overlooks the hills below. Take a break in one of the many bars and cafes that line the square and watch the people go by.
Parva Domus Comunis
This was the site of the former postal administration and also the town clock, although the internal workings of it were transferred to the Public Palace some time later. The building dates back to the 1300s.
Basilica di San Marino
This Catholic church is the main church of San Marino and stands apart from other buildings here due to its Roman architecture, notably the Corinthian columns at the front. The coat of arms of the Republic of San Marino can be seen above the front door.
The Basilica is a relatively new construction by normal European standards, having been built in the 1820s. It sits on the site of a church built in the 7th century.
Cava dei Balestrieri
Just over the side of one of the walls of the city, is a huge hole, created when the rock was excavated to reconstruct the Public Palace. The San Marino Crossbowmen’s Federation was formed in 1956 and is made up of approximately 70 members.
This is now used as a training area and exhibition space for the members. As luck would have it, on the day we were here, we were given a great display of this sport. Various contests and festivals featuring this ancient art take place throughout the year.
The steps nearby were packed with people, sitting in the hot summer sun, watching the men ready their crossbows and shoot arrows into targets at the other end. The speed at which they whizzed past my eyes as I was watching them from above told me I didn’t need to get too close!
Where to eat and drink in San Marino
For a small city, there are plenty of opportunities to eat, stop for a refreshment or enjoy an aperitif as the sun goes down. Given the physical location of San Marino, it’s easy to understand that the Italian influence is significant, and this extends to their food. There’s plenty of pizza (good pizza) on offer, along with the usual Italian suspect of pasta.
There are many locations that offer a great view down into the valley or towards the Adriatic Sea. Alternatively, there are cosy cafes and restaurants, hidden in stone buildings in the main streets.
Bar Piadineria la Capanna
With sweeping views and a location on the way to the First Tower, this bar is one that I would normally be enticed by the view but fear the service. Unfortunately, bars in these areas have proven time and time again to be expensive (over the top really) and lacking in service. This was not the case here, with prompt service, excellent prices, and their own specially brewed beer as well. We just had a refreshing beer here but the pizza and pasta that we saw stream continuously from the kitchen looked very good.
Where: Salita alla Rocca 47
San Marino Città, San Marino, San Marino 47890
Located on one of the highest points of the city of San Marino, the Hotel Bellavista restaurant offers traditional Italian fare, overlooking the Cava dei Balestrieri. In warm weather, take a seat outside on the street, overlooking the training area for the crossbowmen.
Where: Contrada Del Pianello, 42/44
47890 San Marino
Hotel Cesare has a wonderful outdoor deck perfect for an early afternoon aperitif. Whilst in Italy this time I took a fancy to their Aperol spritzers, a simple blend of Aperol, soda and prosecco. Served in a huge wine glass over plenty of ice, it’s the perfect drink for a hot day.
Where: Salita Alla Rocca, 7, 47890 Città di San Marino
Restaurant Righi – Osteria
For casual dining, the osteria on the ground level of Restaurant Righi, overlooking the Liberty Square would be my pick. With food overseen by Michelin-star chef Luigi Sartini, this is traditional family fare, served with the freshest of ingredients and the greatest of care.
Where: Piazza Libertà, 10
For a significant step away from the common (but tasty) food of San Marino, look no further than Restaurant Righi, the fancy friend of its stablemate osteria. Located above the osteria is the pride and joy of Chef Luigi Sartini.
With one Michelin star under his belt, this intimate restaurant serves up innovative food made with only the freshest of ingredients. With degustations as a principal offering, the chef will prepare food unlikely to be seen elsewhere and perfectly matched with an impressive wine list.
Where: Piazza Libertà, 10
Where to stay in San Marino
If you are wanting to stay in the Old Town itself there are only a handful of hotels.
We stayed at Hotel Cesare.
- Four-star hotel just inside the city walls
- Small rooms
- Full-size shower and bathroom
- Good restaurant and bar
- Breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Adriatic coast is stunning
- Centrally located in the city of San Marino and close to the Cava dei Balestrieri
- Views over the Adriatic coast and the Apennines mountain range
- Its restaurant is also one of the best places to eat in San Marino
- Get the vibe of San Marino by staying in this 19th-century building
- Some rooms with views over the valley and Piazza della Liberta
- Small animal-friendly
How to get to San Marino
The easiest way to get here is from within Italy itself.
San Marino by train
Unlike much of Europe, it is not possible to catch a train to San Marino. The train line was bombed during World War Two and has never been fully rebuilt.
San Marino by car
The San Marino historic centre is a pedestrianised area, traffic controllers monitor the traffic. Towards the top of the mountain, the road becomes one-way, with one road leading into the city and one out.
From Bologna to San Marino: This trip covers 134 kilometres and just under two hours when traffic is normal. Be mindful that many locals head to the seaside on Friday to spend the weekend so traffic will be much heavier during these times. The A14/E45 are the main routes out of Bologna.
From Rimini to San Marino: Rimini is approximately 20 kilometres from San Marino, a trip which takes around 30 minutes.
Florence to San Marino: Located approximately 238 kilometres from Florence, this drive will take just under three hours.
There are street parks along the road for cars and a car park right outside the city gates. Parking is also available at Borgo Maggiore. From here you can ride the funicular back up to the top. Car parks in San Marino can be found here.
San Marino by bus
Buses leave from the main Rimini train station (20km away) and cost €5 per person each way or €9 return. The trip takes about 45 minutes. The buses operate daily every day of the year and tickets may be purchased on the bus. The buses also have wifi.
For the current timetable of Bonelli buses, click here.
If you are catching the bus back into Rimini, the area at St Francis’ Gate where the traffic controllers are is where you need to go to. The bus exchange lies directly beneath here and can be accessed via walking the winding road or by a lift just down a hill. If you are confused, just ask them as they are extremely helpful.
San Marino by air
There are no airports in San Marino. The closest airports can be found in Rimini, Bologna and Ancona.
Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport is the largest airport in Emilia Romagna and where the majority of visitors to Bologna (and San Marino) arrive. Depending on your itinerary, it might be a good idea to hire a car from the airport.
Buses are the cheapest option for getting from Bologna to Rimini. The Shuttle Italy Airport bus costs €22 one way and with several stops along the way takes approximately 90 minutes to arrive at Rimini Train Station.
Federico Fellini International Airport is in nearby Rimini. Trains run from the airport to Rimini Central Station. The number 9 bus also runs into the city. Cars may also be hired from here.
Aeroporto delle Marche is a very small airport servicing only a handful of cities. A train also runs from the airport into Rimini.
San Marino by funicular
A funicular is also a fun addition to San Marino, providing access up and down from the town of Borgo Maggiore. Great views are a bonus.
San Marino by walking
There is an ancient walkway called the Costa dell’Arnella path that runs up the side of the mountain from Borgo Maggiore to San Marino. If you fancy some incredible views and some exercise, this one is for you. It starts in the centre of Borgo Maggiore and ends at the city gate entrance to the walled city of San Marino.
Getting around San Marino
This one is easy. The small size of the historic city means that your two feet are the best option for getting around Marino. Cars are prohibited inside the city walls.
When is the best time to visit San Marino?
Like so much of Italy that surrounds it, San Marino enjoys a wonderful Mediterranean climate. In summer it is warm (and can get hot) but the ocean breezes coming up from the Adriatic usually keep the temperature at a reasonable level. Summertime means heaps of tourists and even though this is one of the least visited countries in Europe, the number of people and its sheer size means it gets very crowded.
Winter is much cooler given its location on the top of a mountain. We visited at the end of October and it was a really beautiful time to visit. The streets were also not busy at all. It’s also a perfect time to go truffle hunting in the Romagna Hills nearby.
San Marino – a great day trip from Bologna
Is San Marino worth visiting? Yes is the answer. There are plenty of things to do in San Marino, but there’s one thing in San Marino that you shouldn’t miss. There’s no denying it can feel a bit touristy, but we really wanted to come here. There are no official borders into San Marino, so a passport is not required.
Trying to eke as much out of the visitor’s experience as possible, the San Marino tourism office provides a “tourist passport stamp” upon presentation of your passport at their office. It will cost €5 for the pleasure, despite it having no official certification whatsoever.
However, I know I won’t come back here. As beautiful as it is, this is a place for a day trip, two days at most.
San Marino travel guides
Looking for additional reading on San Marino. These travel guides might be helpful.
- Northern Italy: Emilia-Romagna: including Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, Parma, Ravenna and the Republic of San Marino (Bradt Travel Guide)
- Guide to San Marino
Additional reading Emilia Romagna region
- What to do in Bologna
- Day trips from Bologna: Brisighella and Cesenatico
- Truffle hunting in Italy
- Scooter rental in Bologna
Special thanks to the team at Emilia Romagna Tourism and Blogville Europe for arranging our itinerary and journey into San Marino. Thanks also to the San Marino Tourism Board for having us as guests in their beautiful city. All editorial content is completely independent and all thoughts and opinions are our own.