San Marino may be tiny but it’s the only surviving medieval commune in Italy. The microstate has maintained relative peace throughout most of history, thanks to its mountainous landscape and political shrewdness.
Entirely surrounded by Italy, San Marino is the world’s third-smallest country. With a land area of only 62 km2, it is barely larger than the Vatican and Monaco. Despite its humble size, San Marino has proudly claimed itself as the longest-standing sovereign state.
Legend says that the country was founded in 310 by Saint Marinus, a stonemason who escaped Christian persecution from nearby Rimini. He quickly fled to Monte Titano where he built a small church and started a hermit life. Over the years, the site grew into a monastic settlement as more refugees traveled there. It later became a city and eventually the state of San Marino.
Throughout history, San Marino held onto sovereignty thanks to its geographic isolation and robust defense containing a network of stone walls and three mighty towers. Yet the decisive factor for its stability is the political savvy of its rulers. By maneuvering between factions and powers within Europe, they successfully maintained relative independence for more than 1,700 years.
These days, the landlocked enclave is protected by Italy, and perhaps its only concern is how to manage the throng of day-trippers from nearby towns. Most come here to take in the perfectly intact historic core – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and the beautiful surrounding scenery.
My first stop on the journey to San Marino is Rimini – an ancient Italian city, just about 20 kilometers from Sammarinese territory. Named “Ariminum” by the Romans, it served as a stronghold on the Adriatic Sea and the main gateway to the Po Valley. It’s also here that one of Italy’s most important Roman roads – the Vila Aemilia – starts, linking the north and south of the peninsula.
Though today Rimini is a thriving beach town, the city has some pretty impressive sites to testify to its grandeur past. Most notable is the simple yet solemn Arch of Augustus erected in 27 B.C. to honor the First Roman Emperor. Another famous monument is the Tiberius Bridge which was built in the year 14. It spans the river Marecchia and marks the starting point of the Via Aemilia.
The Three Towers
As my bus approached the capital city of San Marino, the imposing Monte Titano gradually took shape. It resembles a gigantic stronghold, towering over the lush green landscape. Crowned on its highest peaks are a trio of formidable medieval towers: Guaita, Cesta, and the Montale. They are the sacred icons of San Marino and thus could be seen on the national flag and coat of arms. Though being called a tower, each of these individual structures is as complex as a fortress, with battlements, solid walls, and even a small barrack. They are crucial parts of a fortification system that encloses the historic city.
Of the three towers, the Guaita is the oldest dating back to the 11th century. It perches on a clifftop and has a pentagonal base protected by a double wall. The tower got its current form in the 15th century after several reconstructions and reinforcements. By the end of the 11th century, another tower known as Cesta was erected. It stands grandly at the summit of Monte Titano (756m) and shares the same layout as Guaita. Meanwhile, Montale is the smallest and the youngest tower constructed by the late 13th century. Yet it commands the best position for looking out.
The Old Town
If you close your eyes and picture a perfect medieval village, it probably looks like San Marino’s old town. This area has it all, from cobblestone alleys, and stone houses, to centuries-old churches. Yet there is one site that stood out: the Palazzo Pubblico. A simple version of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, this building has been the seat of government since the late 19th century. It features beautiful arched entrances, ornate balconies, and a crenelated bell tower. The building overlooks Piazza della Liberta – literally the “place of liberty” – which is the heart of San Marino’s political life and history.
A short walk uphill brought me to the country’s most revered church, the Basilica de San Marino. It’s here that the relics of Saint Marinus – the protector and founder of the country – are enshrined. The present church was constructed in the mid-19th century on the site of an earlier one that dated to as early as the 4th century. It has a neoclassical style, characterized by a porch of eight Corinthian columns. The oldest part of the church is perhaps the Romanesque bell tower which was rebuilt in the 1600s.
Tips for visiting San Marino
- Rimini is the main gateway to San Marino. The city is easily accessible by trains from Ravenna (35 minutes) and Bologna (56 minutes).
- There are frequent buses running from Rimini Station to the capital city of San Marino. It takes approximately 50 minutes. You can find the timetable on the website of Bonelli Bus.
- The ticket (€ 6.00, one way) is purchasable at the tobacco shop just across the station or directly by the driver. Please note that the bus stop is a few meters down the road, in front of Hotel Napoleon.
- It’s highly recommended to spend a night in San Marino. In this way, you can enjoy the true beauty of this mountain haven. During the day, the old town might feel like a theme park full of day-trippers.
- As a sovereign state, you can get a passport stamp from the government of San Marino. The stamp is obtainable from the Tourism Office on Piazza Garibaldi and costs € 5.00.