San Marino is one of the world’s smallest countries (and Europe’s third smallest) at a mere 23.6 square miles. Completely surrounded by Italy, it is said to be the world’s oldest republic, with the microstate first mentioned back in 301 A.D. The capital San Marino is clinging to the top and side of Mount Titano, with steep, cobbled lanes and an impressive fortification from which you can look out over the surrounding area all the way to the Italian Mediterranean coast. While the country has nine villages and towns in total, it is the tiny capital of San Marino, with its population of 4,500 citizens, that most come to see.
I first fell in love with San Marino on a northern Italy road trip, coming from Florence through the Apennine Mountains heading toward the sea. In the while-I’m-here spirit, I took the opportunity to visit the tiny capital and found it certainly worth a tiny detour from wherever you are in northern Italy.
Things To Do In San Marino
As I already mentioned, this place is tiny, and you can easily see all the sights within a day if not half a day. But that is where its charm lies: The vast majority of visitors just pop in for a day trip to tick a country off their list, only to depart again in the afternoon. But if you stay a night, you can wander through the cobbled little streets, explore the fortifications, and do some shopping minus the crowds. Plus, you get the bonus of being able to enjoy a stunning sunset perched on top of the 2,500-foot-high mountain with the three towers and the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop. So, stay the night, and take your time to see the few sights San Marino has to offer at your leisure.
Enjoy The Views From Piazza Delle Liberte
This is the main square. It’s surrounded by buildings on three sides and then opens up to vistas of the town and countryside below on the other. In the center stands the San Marino version of the Statue of Liberty, while at the end, the castellated town hall watches over the proceedings. Here you can watch the changing of the guards, which takes place every 30 minutes during the summer months.
Climb The Three Towers On Mount Titano
It is easy to think of the San Marino fortifications as castles, but a monarchy has never ruled this nation. Instead, the three towers represent the fortifications protecting the freedom of this ancient republic. There are three separate towers, the Guaita Tower, or First Tower, the Cesta Tower, or Second Tower, and the Montale Tower, or Third Tower. You can get to all three towers via a path that at times has steps, slopes, cobbles and is, as such, not suitable for wheelchairs but is otherwise easy to manage. The first two towers are open to the public. The most scenic spots are the Witches’ Path, the stone arch between the first and the second tower, and the third tower’s views, especially as few visitors make it as far as the third one.
Pro Tip: Take your time, and wear shoes that will keep you steady.
Learn About History In The State Museum
This museum housed in the Palazzo Pergami - Belluzzi just off the Piazza della Liberte is crammed full with everything relating to San Marino: archaeological finds, art, and history, plus it hosts regular visiting exhibitions across its four floors.
Pro Tip: You can purchase an entry ticket either just to this museum or for multiple places, including the three towers, making it cheaper and easier.
Take The Funicular
Touted as a funicular, this is really a cable car that takes you up and down the side of San Marino’s steep mountain. The ride is a mere 2 or 3 minutes long. Still, it allows you views from the rooftops of San Marino to the Mediterranean, and you can appreciate just how precipitous San Marino’s location is. Plus, you can get the chance to look around the other San Marino -- the one on the ground rather than the one sitting on top of the mountain, before you head back up.
San Marino is famous for ceramics, stamps, and coins, which delight some but not all of us. However, the small boutiques in the old parts of San Marino are full of individual shops selling arts and crafts, great souvenirs, plus jewelry, and more. Especially in the late afternoon, when you have the shops to yourself, it is fun to explore and select some goodies to take home. All the San Marino shops are tax-free, so it might just be worthwhile to pop into the malls of San Marino, the Centro Atlante, or the Azzuro Shopping Centre to grab a few bargains.
Sample The Local Wine
Would you believe that this tiny country still manages to squeeze a few vineyards into its borders? From the valleys to the slopes of Mount Titano, across some 50 acres, grapes such as Sangiovese, Biancale, Ribolla, Moscato, and Chardonnay are grown and made into wine that you certainly won’t find at home. Check with the tourism office to book current vineyard tours.
Visit Some Unusual Museums
Pop Down To Rimini, Italy
While you are here, you must pop down to the fashionable coastal resort town of Rimini with its streets full of bars and restaurants and a beach full of neatly aligned sun loungers and umbrellas. You can rent a lounge and umbrella for the day and even get free Wi-Fi thrown in with it.
Pro Tip: You can take the local bus line 160, which takes around 35 minutes, or get into an Uber for the 25-minute drive one way.
Best Restaurants In San Marino
San Marino offers Italian food. Considering the nearest larger Italian city to San Marino is Bologna, you will see plenty of local takes on ragu, a meat sauce akin to Bolognese sauce. All pasta and pizza dishes are good, but also look out for more hearty local dishes such as roasted rabbit with fennel, thin and crispy veal escalopes with a mushroom sauce, and passatelli, a regional pasta served in chicken broth.
San Marino’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Ristorante Righi, offers fine dining right on Piazza della Liberte. But, as with all celebrity-chef-headed restaurants, the menu comes at a price. In the same location and headed by the same team, try the Osteria Righi for more affordable lunchtime offers.
Nido Del Falco
Right at the top of the mountain lies Nido del Falco, a pizzeria with a large terrace and mind-blowing views. The food is more than adequate, solid Italian fare, but it is not the main reason to come here. You come here to sit back around sunset and enjoy a mellow summer night outdoors on top of the world while eating a pizza accompanied by a bottle of chilled rose wine.
Normally, I would not suggest a hotel restaurant, but Restaurant Cesare is actually rather good. It has a traditional setting, traditional menu, local specialties -- and it’s not overpriced. If you are a meat-lover, they grill their steaks and lamb right next to the open fireplace and offer fresh fish from the nearby coast.
Best Hotels In San Marino
Hotel Cesare won’t necessarily win any design prizes, but its location is great. It’s on a quiet, steep alley in the old town not far from the top of San Marino, next to shops and bars. Also, the service and the restaurant are good, at least they were when I stayed there, and here is the clincher: If you grab a room with a view, you can hang by the window and enjoy the vistas across the town and beyond.
Right in the old town, Hotel Rosa, a cozy three-star hotel, has comfortable rooms and won’t break the bank. Plus, it has a superb roof terrace where you can take breakfast or simply sit and enjoy the views. This hotel also offers undercover parking on site.
Grand Hotel San Marino
Grand Hotel San Marino has all the amenities and is steps away from the old center. The Grand is modern, large, and even has an in-house wellness clinic -- some facilities such as the gym and hammam are available to guests.
Pro Tip: Crossing the border between Italy and San Marino does not involve a checkpoint, but you can get your passport stamped in the Tourism Office.