San Marino is the fifth smallest country in the world (81 sq km /24 sq mi, about half the size of Manhattan), the third smallest country in Europe, and has one of the smallest populations at about 34,000 residents. Completely surrounded by Italy, San Marino is one of the three countries in the world that’s landlocked within another country (the others being Vatican City and Lesotho). The country was named after Marino, a stonecutter who fled from the Roman island of Rab in present-day Croatia during a Turkish invasion. He took refuge on Mount Titano, the center of today’s country, and founded an independently ruled monastic community in 301 AD, resulting in the claim that San Marino is the oldest sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world. The Catholic Church later canonized him and he’s also known as St. Marinus.
Although the Marino story might be partially mythological, the nation has indisputably been a city-state with no monarch since the 13th century. Over seven centuries, they have built a soaring city with medieval fortifications and neoclassical buildings, collectively now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Quite incredibly, San Marino stayed independent during Napoleonic annexations, the unification of Italy, and Mussolini’s fascist state.
The whole country is basically Mount Titano with three imposing towers and a medieval village at the summit and small communities, farms and factories at the base. Located very close to the Adriatic Sea (about 10 km / 6 mi), San Marino is most known for its tourism, shopping and cuisine.
Where is San Marino?
Enclaved in central Italy, San Marino is about 335 km / 210 mi from Rome, 240 km / 150 mi from Florence, 280 km / 175 mi from Venice and 80 km / 50 mi from Ravenna.
Why We Went to San Marino
My wife Khadija and I visited Malta and Tunisia in May 2022 and continued the trip to relatively nearby Italy. We visited Khadija’s niece studying fashion in Milan and went to Venice. While in Italy, we took advantage of the opportunity to see a new country, San Marino. This was country #113 for me out of the UN member states of 193.
Is San Marino Safe?
It’s a safe country, but here, as everywhere you travel, employ basic safety precautions and use common sense to avoid problems.
How Long to Stay in San Marino
We stayed two days, but I would’ve spent another if we could. If you want a beautiful place to chill, you could spend more time there.
Is San Marino Expensive?
Prices are about the same as most places in Italy but lower than popular big cities like Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence. San Marino uses the Euro as its currency.
Where to Stay in San Marino
The attractions in San Marino are in the historic old town on Mount Titano. Fittingly, we stayed in Hotel Titano which I can’t say enough good things about. Of note, the hotel provided parking in municipal lots. There are some hotels which have outstanding, unobstructive views.
How to Get Around San Marino
Everywhere in the Old Town is walking distance from each other. Here’s a map of some of the attractions.
Many of the streets are steep and could be difficult for those with walking issues.
Parking can be tight and the municipal lots often are full. As an alternative, you can park at the bottom of the mountain and take the cable car.
Where to Eat in San Marino
San Marino is known for good restaurants. They mostly serve the standard Italian food and regional dishes such as pasta e ceci, a chickpea and noodle soup. We liked Ristorante Il Beccafico in the Hotel La Rocca with its ample dishes and great views. There we met our Australian friends Gary and Susan, who by chance were also visiting San Marino.
What Languages to Use in San Marino
The official language is Italian, although many in the Old Town speak English.
The Three Towers and the Witches Path
On the top of Mount Titano (739 m / 2,425 ft above sea level) are three fortress towers on three different peaks. They are the defining feature of the country and are on the country’s flag and coat of arms.
Guaita, the “First Tower”, means “to guard” and is the oldest and most famous of the three towers. It was constructed between the 11th and 15th century, first into the mountain and later with a foundation. It has been successful in protecting the population especially during a 15th century war against the Malatesta Family from Rimini.
This tower was used as a prison until 1975. On display in one tower is recently discovered prisoner graffiti that had been hidden under layers of whitewash for at least the past 200 years.
Cesta (also known as De La Fratta), the “Second Tower”, was built in the 13th century and constructed on the highest peak of Monte Titano. From Guaita, there are many good views of Cesta, including through battlement windows.
As an indication of San Marino’s ancient roots, Cesta was built out of the ruins of a Roman fort. It has a museum dedicated to Saint Marino and has an extensive exhibit of weapons over many centuries.
The “Third Tower” is Montale, built in the 14th century, which sits on the smallest of the three peaks and is the only fortress that’s not open to the public.
Between the towers are connecting walkways. Between the First and the Second, there’s the visually dramatic Witches’ Path.
There are various explanations for this enchanting name. Such as that witches convened here at night to brew potions and cast spells. Another one is that the name was derived from the eerie, howling wind.
The Public Palace, located on Liberty Square, is the city’s town hall and its official government building. It stands in the same place as the Domus Comunis Magna, the previous government building constructed in the 14th century. It was replaced in the late 19th century with the current attractive and stately building, similar in design to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, but on a much smaller scale. The work was carried out by local masons using stone from Mount Titano.
The highlight of the structure is the top section with bells surrounded by a square of battlements over a series of corbels (supports). Underneath are three saints: Saint Agata, Saint Marino and Saint Leo, then a clock under a divided, sloping roof. Then there’s another set of battlements and corbels. Fittingly, in front of the building is their Statue of Liberty.
The government system is unique and extremely democratic. Two heads of state, individually called the Captains Regent, are elected from the ranks of the country’s legislature called the Grand and General Council. The unicameral legislature has sixty members, who are elected every five years. Both captains have equal power and serve in tandem during their term of six months until another two captains are elected. The practice of having two heads of state chosen in frequent elections was derived directly from the Roman Republic and the Roman consuls.
While visiting, we met Roberto who was a palace guard in a spiffy uniform. He grew up partially in San Marino and partially in the Bronx. In the San Marino parliament chamber he gave us a comprehensive description of the government.
The large fresco in the back dates back to the late-1800s. In the middle is Saint Marino with nobles on the left and soldiers and others on the right.
Basilica del Santo and Chapel
Basilica del Santo, originally constructed in the 4th century, is a Catholic church dedicated to Saint Marino (as you would expect). The church was torn down in 1807 and rebuilt in 1838 in a Neoclassical style, both outside and inside, with prominent Corinthian columns.
While checking out the small chapel next to the basilica, we witnessed these two young nuns singing beautiful hymns.
Notice the carved figure on the wall. With the hammer and anvil, we know he is a stonecutter and must be Saint Marino.
The Tactilia is a plaza , which exhibits models of monuments of San Marino, such as this bust of Bartolomeo Borghesi, an Italian antiquarian who helped establish the science of numismatics.
This is one of the best places to have unobstructed views of the surrounding countryside and towns of San Marino and beyond.
The Stamp and Coin Museum
San Marino’s Stamp and Coin Museum was one of the highlights of our visit. The museum opened in 2021 and exhibits a visual history of the republic and notable world figures venerated in San Marino, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd U.S President, who was an avid stamp collector.
San Marino has a special connection to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. President, as he wrote a letter in 1861, accepting San Marino’s offer of honorary citizenship. This letter was de facto U.S. recognition of San Marino’s independence.
The museum’s coin collection is also fascinating, including nine memorial coins, minted in 1979 dedicated to the concept that work is the basis of human dignity. They featured occupations such as the stonecutter, carpenter, potter, farmer and teacher.
Afterwards we received the famous San Marino stamp on our passports, which is available for all visitors of the museum.
The first level is devoted to the archaeology of San Marino and the second floor exhibits art pieces. I was impressed by the eagle brooch of the Domagnano Treasure, found in 1890 in San Marino. This is one of twenty two pieces from the 5th Century when the Goths ruled for a short time after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Except for one, the displayed pieces are reproductions, as the rest are in foreign collections. The eagle brooch is in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.
Though we didn’t get to visit any other museums, we wanted to see paintings at the Modern Art Gallery of San Marino from the early twentieth century to the present.
San Marino has a surprising number of quirky museums such as the Museum of the Creatures of the Night – Vampires and Werewolves and the Museum of Curiosities.
There are a variety of clothing and souvenir shops in San Marino, many featuring leather goods.
We were initially shocked by the number of gun shops in San Marino, but upon closer inspection all of them were air, BB and decorative guns.
While San Marino is a fascinating place for history and a superb locale for excellent restaurants and hotels, it has more, including a sense of style.
It also has a romantic aura, a charming place for couples to spend time among medieval towers and narrow cobblestone streets.
My advice: if you are in Italy, going to San Marino should definitely be on your itinerary!