Visiting San Marino: things you need to know

By Emma Marshall

I decided to visit the Republic of San Marino out of curiosity: what would the world’s 5th smallest country be like?  Just how small is it and is it as pretty as I’d seen in pictures? Entirely surrounded by Italy, does it have a real Italianate feel to it?

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Where is San Marino?

San Marino is a small independent and landlocked Republic situated in northern Italy. It is around 15 km from Rimini which is situated on the Adriatic coast.

It is the 5th smallest country in the world, covering just 24 square miles and with a population of just over 33,000 people.

Visiting San Marino from Rimini

We started our trip with an overnight stay in Rimini. We flew into Bologna airport and then took a shuttle bus to Rimini.

This was a convenient and cost-effective means of getting to the city for us (it took around 90 minutes and cost 20 euros. Click here for information).

Rimini

Rimini was much nicer than I’d been led to believe.

A picture of a street in Rimini with a pretty clock tower
A street in Rimini old town

It has a lovely old town, a pretty bridge and the remnants of a 15th century medieval castle. If you have time before visiting San Marino, it’s definitely worth a short stop here.

If you do have time to spend in Rimini and want to book some sightseeing, click here for tours you can consider.

The old bridge in Rimini backed by old coloured houses
Rimini’s old bridge
The remains of Rimini's old castle - you can see three sections with a neat green lawn in front
Rimini’s Castel Sismondo

There’s also a beach. We had a lovely start to our second day strolling along the near deserted and windswept beach.

A view of the beach in Rimini - you can see a person walking their dog
Rimini beach the morning of our visit to San Marino
Rimini beach with the gentle waves lapping the sand and clouds in the blue sky
Rimini beach the morning of our visit to San Marino

Getting to San Marino from Rimini

After our overnight stay in Rimini, we took the bus up to San Marino. This takes 45 minutes and drops you in the centre of San Marino.

The journey on the bus will take you out into the Italian countryside before entering the Republic.

At first it’s relatively flat and non-descript as you pass by modern residential and business areas. It certainly looks nothing like the guidebook pictures!

But this is because, as a tourist, you’re actually heading for the City of San Marino (or Citta).

You may have – as I had – overlooked the fact that the country of San Marino is not just the historic city at its heart perched high up on a scraggy rock. It also encompasses a scattering of outlying smaller towns and villages.

You therefore have to be patient and wait a while before what you’re expecting comes into view. And it’s then that you see the medieval mountain top citadel looming imposingly over the countryside and Mount Titano below. 

As you get nearer and nearer you realise just how amazing – and eye-catching – it is. So much so, that in 2008 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

View of the citadel in San Marino high on the top of a craggy rock
San Marino

Where to catch the bus from Rimini to San Marino

You can catch the bus from several places in Rimini, but we found it easier to head for the main train station. On the opposite side of the road you will find the buses. These drop you in the centre of San Marino.

For more information on the buses, click here.

What to do when visiting San Marino

What struck me immediately was how small the city is – the entire country is less than 24 square miles and has just over 33,000 residents. (If small and unique countries are for you, click here for information on an afternoon out in the world’s 6th smallest country – Liechtenstein).

San Marino’s size means its possible to walk around the main sights in a matter of hours.

Read on for ideas of things to do on your visit.

Visit the 3 towers

When visiting San Marino, you must see the 3 towers. After all, the whole place is essentially a citadel!

The ancient towers guard over the outer defence walls of the fortress. They are situated on Monte Titano, a mountain from which you get breathtaking views out over the surrounding landscape.

They are named Guiata, Cesta and Montale in order – the first, second and third tower, respectively.

The Cesta tower - this sits on top of the craggy rock face with scrubby trees below.  You can see the flatter landscape behind and below
San Marino’s Cesta tower
The Montale tower.  You can see people at base. The vegetation is quite sparse here.
San Marino’s Montale tower
Views out over the countryside from San Marino

You can enter the first two towers and wander around the ramparts. There is a also small weapons museum – the Museum of Ancient Arms – located in the second tower (Cesta). This is worth taking a quick look at.

Inside the weapons museum - you can see some armour displayed here behind glass panels
Inside the weapons museum

Chill out in the Piazza della Liberta

You must visit Piazza della Liberta, with the city’s Public Palace.  This is a lovely place to sit outside in a café soaking up the atmosphere and taking in your surroundings.

You can see the Public Palace in the Piazza de Liberta - a statue is in front
Piazza della Liberta and the Public Palace

We were there on Easter Sunday and were lucky enough to witness the formal parade that took place in celebration of the Most Excellent Captain’s Regent Investiture Ceremony.

This was a fanfare of several different troupes sporting a myriad of colourful and ornate military uniforms. Alongside what appeared to be the local dignitaries, they made their way through the streets, starting from the Piazza. 

Witnessing this display of one of San Marino’s traditions was a particularly memorable part of the trip.

San Marino’s Easter Parade

See the surrounding countryside from the cable car

From San Marino you can catch a cable car (the Funivia di San Marino) down to the lower village of Borgo Maggiore. The ride only takes about two minutes and offers great views out to the coastline.

It runs every 15 minutes and costs 4.50 euros for a return trip.

Wander around the old town

When visiting San Marino, a wander through the small winding cobbled streets is a must. These are really pretty and incredibly well preserved. 

Beware though, there are some steep slopes and steps to negotiate in the city, so it may not be suitable for anyone with poor mobility.

You’ll see more parts of the fortress when you walk around, as well as the 19th century basilica.

Part of the fortress walls in San Marino
San Marino’s basilica

There is a plethora of souvenir shops, and countless cafes and restaurants to sit in and have a bite to eat.  Much of the food is – unsurprisingly – Italian, although there are some more local Sammarinese dishes to try. This includes the Torta Tre Monti, a cake honouring the three towers in San Marino. 

Visit a museum

As well as the Museum of Ancient Arms in the Cesta Tower, there are others that you might want to consider. These include the Museo di Stato (which displays various pieces of art and historical objects), a wax museum, and the Museum of Medieval Criminology and Torture.

Entry to museums costs €4,50 (reduced price €3,50) or €6,50 for two museums and €10,50 for five.

Note that discounts are available with a TuttoSanMarino Card – a free tourist card which you can pick up your hotel (discounts also include for parking, shopping and eating).

My observations on a short visit to San Marino

I had a lovely time visiting San Marino and as you can see from the above, there are several things you can do. These would definitely occupy you on a day trip or an overnight stay.

However, I do think it’s fair to point a few things out and that overall, I found the place to be a bit of an enigma. As we stayed overnight, we started to notice small things that seemed to be in stark contrast to the splendour of San Marino’s main sights. 

For example, once the day trippers had left for the day and the streets were less crowded, we realised that many of the streets in the historical centre included either a gun or sword shop.

Yes, not one gun shop or one sword shop, but several….I have to say it was quite unnerving to see shelves of Samurai swords and pistols.

Guns in a glass display in a shop in San Marino
A shop containing guns in San Marino

Initially, I naively thought that these were shops selling replicas (there is, after all a torture museum here…), but that wasn’t the case.

Apparently, San Marino has the most liberal gun laws in western Europe and so buying your weapon of choice here is not at all hard.  Coming from the UK, it was a bit of a shock to see them so freely available and seemingly as easy to purchase as the local Italian gelato.

As well as this, not far from our hotel, we also stumbled across a shop where you could buy “dictator” beer and wine. So wine and beer with images of Hitler, Stalin, Tito etc splashed across them….

Quite why you would want to buy one of these, or who would want one as a souvenir, is a little baffling to me, but if you do want one, San Marino is the place.

We also found the evenings, when the tourists had left, a little desolate. The streets clear out – not a bad thing at all – but it means that some of the buzzy atmosphere of the day peters out. 

Some of the bars also close up early. Maybe this was because we visited at a time that was still fairly early in the tourist season. Or maybe this is usual for San Marino, it being a place where people often only come for the day. But this may contribute to the Lonely Planet guide’s statement that San Marino “retains a curious lack of intimacy and lacks soul”.

So, for me, San Marino was a bit of an enigma: it really is very beautiful and not to be missed if you’re nearby in northern Italy. It’s definitely somewhere that I’d recommend visiting for a short while – maybe for the day or just one night.  Whether or not you need to stay any longer is debateable.

For more ideas of short trips to take in Europe, read on…

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