The capital of The Republic of San Marino (Città di San Marino) is a pedestrianised UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring enchanting architecture, from 14th- and 16th-century convents to neoclassical basilica, and three fortresses that stand as testament to the nation’s resilience and independence. It sits atop of Mount Titano, part of the Apennine mountain range, and offers stunning views of the landscape and Adriatic coast. Here’s our pick of the top activities for when you visit this charming and fascinating microstate.
Rocca Guaita (or The First Tower) is the most iconic of San Marino‘s three impressive fortresses located on the peaks of Mount Titano. It was built in the 10th century directly onto the rock with no foundations, and looks like it comes straight out of a story about medieval knights and dragons. Given its precarious position, it has been reconstructed many times throughout the centuries. Historically this was where the population of San Marino would take refuge against sieges – parts of the tower were still used as prisons up to as late as 1970! You can purchase a single entry ticket for this particular tower or a ticket that grants access to the second tower as well.
This castle was built at the end of the 11th century and was home to the Fortification Guards Division as well as a number of prison cells. However, much of the structure you see today is a reconstruction from 1930s, as the fortress fell into disrepair when it was no longer being used in the 16th century. It now houses the city’s Museum of Archaic Arms, a large collection of ancient and medieval weaponry and battle dress. This tower is must visit for military geeks or children still enchanted by knights and soldiers.
Montale is the smallest of the three towers and dates back to the end of the 13th century. In spite of its size, apparently for defensive purposes, it had a very strategic purpose: it is the best lookout post. It is encased in a primitive rock wall and has an eery prison cell that is eight metres (26 feet) deep. Entry is free.
The Republic of San Marino is one of the oldest and smallest nations in the world, and recently received the title of ‘least visited country in Europe’. This under-the-radar country is a living monument to an era in European history when city-states were common. While archaeological finds suggest settlement from as early as the 5th century BC, San Marino was officially consolidated as a political entity in the late 1200s during the Age of the Commune. The State Museum (Museo di Stati) is the best place to learn about this fascinating history. It houses archaeological remains from the Neolithic period to the Middle Ages, coins and ancient Etruscan and Roman artefacts, well as 17th-century paintings and sculptures by the likes of Guercino. With entry at just €3 (USD$3.50), it’s definitely worth a visit.
Like many other microstates, San Marino has a very low tax policy so you can shop liberally here. The locally produced hand-painted ceramics, refined lace and embroidery are lovely. For collectors of rare stamps and coins, San Marino is particularly appealing.
Sample the local specialities
Sammarinese cuisine is similar to that of the surrounding province, Romagna, including the historic piadina – the thin dough Rimini variant. Piadina are ancient Italian flatbread stuffed with an endless number of fillings. At Christmas be sure to look for bustrengo, a dense sweet bread/cake that the British might liken to bread and butter pudding. The San Marino interpretation of bustrengo is prepared with breadcrumbs or corn flour, instead of the rice used in Romagna and Marche. Collectively this small city-state makes an effort to support local cultivation, and the quality of food in the shops and restaurants is very high. The Consorzio Terra di San Marino works to protect local products (mainly oil, bread, honey, milk, meat) that is produced to a high standard or using traditional methods. Take a trip to Consorzio Vini Tipici and you can sample and buy the quality local wines.
L’Altro Gelato is the first ice cream shop in San Marino to use ingredients sourced solely from organic and biodynamic farms in the San Marino area. Young founders Samantha and Fabio have created unique Sammarinese gelato and semifreddo flavours, without additives. For example, ‘Happy Cow’: a Bucciatello ice cream with a mixture of Romagnole apricots and black sesame (its name is a dedication to the gelateria’s ethical supplier). Gelato is always the perfect accompaniment to a stroll around town, but especially when you know the cows are happy.
Piazza della Libertà was once the epicentre of political life in San Marino. Here you’ll find Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall and official government building, the façade of which is elaborately decorated with the coat of arms of the republic and its four municipalities. Over the square’s stone walls the views of the surrounding landscape are beautiful.
A little bit of archaic pomp and circumstance is always enjoyable, so if you visit during summer, try and catch the changing of the guard in front of Piazza della Libertà – it happens several times daily between June and mid-September. The guards wear a unique maroon and deep green uniform, and hats with a little red pompom.
Ride the funicular
The San Marino funicular/cableway connects the castle of Borgo Maggiore at the bottom of Mount Titano to the historic centre of the city of San Marino. It only takes about two minutes and certainly beats the steep ascent by foot, plus you get lovely views en route. A single ticket is € 2.80 (USD$3.30), a return is €4.50 (USD$5.30).