Guide to Europe’s Microstates: San Marino

Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Quick facts (most recent available data)
Population: 32,404 (5th smallest country by population)
Area: 61 sq km (5th smallest country by area)
GDP per capita (PPP): 36,200$ (27th)

Visiting San Marino

Location and how to get there: San Marino is a landlocked country and an enclave located in North-Eastern Italy. Take the train from Rome to the Italian city of Rimini and from there the bus to San Marino City. Map

Why visit? The country’s capital, also called San Marino, has a population of less than 5,000 and is a beautifully-preserved medieval city that’s a delight to explore. Located on a 739-meter cliff, the city provides beautiful views of the surrounding valleys and hills. The main attractions are the three fairy-tale-like towers of Guaita, Cesta and Montale and the walking trails in the surrounding woods. San Marino truly is one of Europe’s hidden gems and the most scenic of all microstates (though it’s really hard to decide). Some cool museums (including the quirky Curiosity Museum), a relaxed atmosphere and excellent food add to the mix.

Recommended visit duration: 1-2 days

Fun facts:

  • The country’s official name is Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino (Most Serene Republic of San Marino) which I found very appropriate
  • San Marino claims to be the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world, as the continuation of the monastic community founded in 301 by stonecutter Marinus
  • The San Marino Government wrote to US President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and granted him honorary citizenship. The President responded with “Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history
  • San Marino has two Captains Regent who act as head of state and government and are elected every six months. This practice is derived directly from the customs of the Roman Republic which had a similar system for the consuls of ancient Rome.

Review of my trip to San Marino

After a delightful trip to Monaco I decide that all of Europe’s microstates need exploring. Two more are located inside Italy (San Marino and Vatican City) with another close by – Malta. I plan to see all three in one (cool) trip.

San Marino is the first on this list. I take the train from Rome and after several hours I arrive in the Italian city of Rimini. The bus stop is located in front of the train station – I catch the bus and about 20 minutes later I enter San Marino.

There’s a metal sign/monument marking the entry into the Most Serene Republic, but no border controls or formalities. San Marino looks a lot like Italy at first and I’m slightly disappointed – did I go to all this trouble for more of Italy? This looks nothing like Monaco.

After a while I catch a glimpse of Mount Titano and a cool-looking castle on top of it. The bus starts to climb. We reach San Marino (City), the country’s capital, by sunset. I leave the bus and quickly realize we have a winner: the views of the surrounding hills from 700 meters above are breathtaking in the evening sun.

Cool urban infrastructure is also apparent with a glass public elevator to take you up from the main bus parking to the city center. After a first sizeable batch of pictures I quickly locate the hotel and then head out for an evening walk. The obvious destination is the medieval walled city which is beautifully preserved and absolutely enchanting. The streets are nicely lit, there are almost no tourists and nothing upsets the magic atmosphere. People enjoy the excellent food at small restaurants or take a leisurely walk enjoying the views.

There’s a beautiful sunset sky colored in all shades of red, orange, purple and pink . I can’t stop taking pictures and head back to the hotel only when night falls.

The next day I head back to the medieval city as there’s so much more stuff to discover. A traffic officer in a bright orange and blue outfit keeps the light traffic orderly.

The Palazzo Pubblico, seat of the national Government is located in the Piazza della Liberta which is almost empty this early in the morning. The national colors of white and light blue complement well the Palazzo and the stone buildings. I wait for the change of guards, who look cool in their spiffy red and green outfits.

I stop by the cool Basilica di San Marino, check out some shops and enjoy the narrow stone streets, but can’t wait to get to the towers I saw from the bus. I reach the first one, Guaita, actually a small castle built in the XIth century. It is fabulous. You know the picture-perfect medieval castle located on a cliff and surrounded by forests? Guaita is just like that, only prettier.

I explore the tower and take a ton of pictures. Cesta (XIIIth century) can be seen into the distance and looks even cooler, if that’s even possible. I take a break from castles and towers to visit the Curiosity Museum. It’s odd with exhibits ranging from preposterous French wigs to wooden bicycles and mean looking chastity belts.

I finally reach the Cesta Tower which is gorgeous as well (it turns out to be a small castle just like Guaita). There’s a nice little weapons museum inside and more stunning views of the surrounding areas . I know I’m repeating myself with the views and everything but check out the pictures and you’ll see what I mean.

I next follow a stone trail in the forest to reach the Montale tower, the smallest of the three built in the XIVth century. This is actually just a tower and not a castle, and cannot be toured inside. It’s still cool though. A big yellow butterfly circles around begging for some pictures. People usually turn around at this point and head back to the city, but I decide to follow the trail for a change of scenery.

Back to the city, a rusty bomb serves as a reminder of the British bombing in WWII after they mistakenly believe the Germans had taken San Marino and use it to store ammunition. There’s an event of the Automobile Club San Marino with nice little vintage cars on display. I look for more forest trails and locate the more famous Costa dell’Arnella, a trail that leads down cliff to the city of Borgo Maggiore after a 10-minute walk.

Borgo Maggiore, one of San Marino’s eight minor municipalities, has a different vibe and is closer to a typical Italian town. There’s not much to do here as everything is closed for a local holiday, so I get back to San Marino City by cool-looking cable car.

More walks around town later and I find myself exploring even after nightfall.

There’s more magic when some sort of a religious procession quietly passes through the old town. Nicely lit, the Costa dell’Arnella deserves exploration during night time as well. Afterwards, the cable car dutifully takes me back up on Mount Titano.

San Marino is really delightful to walk around in the mornings and evenings, when there are no crowds. Not that the number of tourists is overwhelming or anything in the afternoons, but peace and quiet are always welcome if you ask me.

I leave the following morning. San Marino City looks even cooler today with clouds covering the valleys below. The Most Serene Republic was a great find with breathtaking views, a beautiful capital and a very distinct personality. Highly recommended!

See more pictures in my San Marino photo album:

More information available in the San Marino country profiles on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage.

Keep reading: Monaco | San Marino | Vatican City  | Malta | Luxembourg | Liechtenstein | Andorra | Gibraltar | SMOM