Within the borders of Italy resides an ancient and fascinating secret, depending upon who you ask. The landlocked Republic of San Marino, the world's fifth-smallest country, is a sovereign microstate preserved in time. It may be the least-visited country in Europe, but what this tiny country lacks in size, it makes up for with pristine landscapes, medieval architecture and national pride. Spending a day in San Marino is as straightforward as just showing up and exploring the old town, but there is more to this nation than meets the eye. Take a closer look at this serene land and its heritage, and see for yourself what makes San Marino one of Europe's most rare and precious gems.
The first step in planning your trip to San Marino begins with choosing your mode of transportation. There aren't any train stations or airports in this mountainous country, but you can drive the winding road in a rental car or take the bus from Rimini in Italy. The 40-minute trip takes you to Borgo Maggiore in San Marino, where you can purchase a cheap ride on the aerial tramway. Most tourists opt for the cable car ride, which provides spectacular views of the landscape as it slowly ascends to the walled City of San Marino. Afraid of heights? You can stay on the bus from Rimini as it winds its way up the mountain, or take the steep hike at your leisure as you marvel at the views.
Like most European countries, the Republic of San Marino doesn't stamp your passport upon arrival. In fact, many travelers are unaware that they have entered the region until they arrive at Borgo Maggiore. It's enough to make you wonder if it was all a dream, and perhaps this is why San Marino postage and passport stamps are highly coveted by collectors and globetrotters alike. For a small fee, the tourist office will carefully imprint your passport with proof of your travels. The economy of San Marino relies heavily on tourism, specifically on the sale of these collectibles. You'll feel good knowing that your small indulgence contributes to the livelihood of this charming nation.
Atop Mount Titan lies the ancient walled City of San Marino. The capital was a haven for Saint Marinus and other Christian refugees in 301, and the country's famous towers and fortress walls were built to protect the community. Today they stand as a symbol of national pride. The three towers—Guaita, Cesta and Montale—are all accessible if you're willing to put in the footwork. You'll enjoy stunning views of the Italian countryside as you venture up the mountain and walk the ramparts. The best photo opportunities will be at the Cesta Tower, San Marino's highest point. From here, it may be possible to view the Adriatic Sea only six miles away. It isn't possible to enter Montale Tower, but the ten-minute hike through the forest to its base will take you to one of the quietest spots during peak season.
San Marino has a variety of small shops and markets that cater to tourists looking for souvenirs, but the area is also known for its abundance of perfume, wristwatch and weapons retailers. If you're looking for something a little more localized, peruse their assortments of ceramics, fine leathers, meats and cheeses, and locally crafted wines. Also, be sure not to limit yourself to just the old town. The surrounding municipalities like Serravalle and Borgo Maggiore are great places to find a keepsake. You can browse these stores while exploring San Marino, or by hiking or driving up to the old city instead of taking the cable car.
Aside from the medieval splendor of the City of San Marino, Mount Titan also boasts some of the most beautiful hikes in the Italian Peninsula. The Cliffs Trail overlooks the Adriatic Sea and the Romagna Riviera as it circles the base of the mountain. Canepa Path is a three-hour trek to the protected natural areas of Montecchio and Canepa. This route passes through the woods and past pristine waterfalls and streams, eventually leading hikers to the old watermills and Canepa Cave. Venture out of the old city to Fiorentino and take the Castellaccio Hike. This trail ascends Mount Seghizzo to the castle ruins, with a detour leading to the incredible Genga Falls.
The foods of San Marino are quite similar to Italian cuisine, but the country also has its unique dishes and flavors. In addition to the savory soups and pasta dishes characteristic of the Emilia Romagna region, San Marino locals enjoy eating piada. These are a Sammarinese take on the Italian piadina, which is a flatbread filled with any combination of meats, vegetables, and cheeses. After dinner, spoil yourself by ordering some dessert. Bustrengo, a traditional Christmas cake, and Torta Titano, a biscuit layered with chocolate, hazelnuts, coffee, and cream, are popular choices. If you only have room for one, try the Torta Tre Monti, a wafer cake based on the three towers of Mount Titan.
Touring the mountainous land of San Marino entails more than just hiking steep trails and appreciating extraordinary views. The old city is known for playing host to some of the most impressive and eccentric museums in one area. The Vampire Museum explores werewolf and vampire mythology, while the Museum of Torture displays a selection of both authentic and recreated devices from centuries past. For a more light-hearted experience, try the Museum of Curiosities, or The World of Leonardo exhibit. This museum focuses on the discoveries and inventions of Rennaissance Master Leonardo Da Vinci. Interactive displays and constructed models make this the perfect family-friendly activity during your stay.
More often than not, The Republic of San Marino is either a pit stop on travels through Italy or an hours-long day trip destination. While you can savor this Mediterranean paradise in a few hours, you cannot truly appreciate the culture of San Marino without spending a night. You'll understand as soon as busloads of day-trippers head out, leaving the medieval city all but empty for your enjoyment. Take your time wandering the cobblestone streets and fortress ramparts, and settle down at a viewpoint for a breathtaking sunset. Afterward, sit down for a nice dinner overlooking the countryside before retiring to your room. If you make the trip to your van or camper, there are plenty of campsites with modern facilities.
In 1932, service began on a railway line from Rimini to the mountaintop city of San Marino. The train was advanced for its time and traveled through a network of winding tunnels, powered by overhead lines. Intense bombing during World War II damaged the railway beyond repair, ending the San Marino line's short tenure. Thankfully, remaining sections of track and tunnels are well preserved, as well as one of the original train cars. These days, San Marino encourages visitors to the ruins of this once superior system. Walk the tracks as they lead through forest, refurbished tunnels and public parks for some great photo opportunities. A stretch of reactivated track near the terminal station opened in 2012, with further efforts to reopen the railway in the works.
You'll definitely want to take some bottles home, just make sure you save room in your luggage for a bottle or two of some Sammarinese blends. The republic has been producing wines for nearly 2,000 years, and they continue to take the process very seriously. A group of small independent wineries has remained faithful to the traditional methods of wine production. Caves in the mountainside have been transformed into cool cellars, where vintners age the bottles for at least five years. If you must limit yourself to one glass, try the Brugneto di San Marino, the region's best-selling Sangiovese red. White wines are also available, and a much better accompaniment to local fish dishes.