All about my trip to San Marino, one of Europe’s best kept secrets

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In mid-October I spent a long weekend in San Marino, truly one of Europe’s many hidden gems. I shared a vlog of the trip earlier, so here is a text version with some more details.

Some cool facts about San Marino:

  • It’s the world’s oldest republic and also one of the smallest countries, with only around 34,000 residents.
  • San Marino is a small Italian-speaking enclave in Italy, like Vatican City, but has always been an independent state.
  • The capital is also called San Marino, but there are other towns within the country, all clustered around the mountain on which the capital city sits.
  • Napoleon once offered them more land, but they declined and accepted some wheat instead.
  • San Marino has two heads of state, called Captains Regent, elected from opposing parties. They only serve for six months, so there’s a good chance one of them is your neighbor down the street. One of the current Captains Regent is only 26 years old.
  • The country has three medieval towers, which are a huge source of pride and an everpresent national motif.
  • Abraham Lincoln is an honorary citizen of San Marino.

Getting there

San Marino does not have a train station, so it’s only accessible by car or bus. I took the train from Geneva to Milan, then another train from Milan to Rimini, a popular beach resort town on the eastern coast of Italy that is only an hour from San Marino.

Due to extensive checks for the green pass (Italy’s version of the EU Covid certificate) and identity documents at the Italian border, my train to Milan was delayed by an hour and I missed my connection. However, the Trenitalia help desk at Milano Centrale printed a new ticket for me with surprising agility and efficiency. I ended up arriving in Rimini only an hour behind schedule.

When I emerged from the train station in Rimini, there was no signage pointing to the San Marino bus. I asked the information desk, and they directed me to the bus stop in front of Hotel Napoleon, which is about a two-minute walk down the road from the train station.

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The bus stop.

Roundtrip tickets between Rimini and San Marino cost 10 euros. They can be purchased at the convenience store inside the train station, the tobacco shop across from the train station, and from the driver directly by cash.

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The convenience store inside the train station.

The bus ride took 45 minutes. Along the way, some locals got on, but it was fairly empty overall. We zoomed through the Italian countryside, through the villages of San Marino the country, and made our way up the mountain that hosted San Marino the capital.

Where I stayed

I stayed for two nights at Hotel Rosa, just below the first and biggest tower. It was a steep climb from the bus station.

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Welp, here I go

The room was showing its age and smelled a bit musty, and the bathroom was tiny; I kept bumping into the bidet whenever I entered or exited the bathroom. These quirks are to be expected when staying in an old European hotel.

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The view from the window was beautiful, in a gentle and soothing way.

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Breakfast at the hotel was quite good, with a lot of variety in the buffet. The very kind gentleman working the breakfast shift bore a striking resemblance to Dan Levy of Schitt’s Creek fame.

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Day trip or overnight stay?

San Marino is overwhelmingly a day trip destination for people staying in nearby Italy, as well as a luxury shopping attraction for Italians. The capital city is nearly deserted by sunset; I was there on Thursday and Friday night, and there were maybe four or five restaurants open for dinner in the entire city. I’m exaggerating, but that’s what it felt like. Shops closed, streets emptied, alleyways darkened. It’s possible that the city is much more lively during the summer and also pre-Covid.

While San Marino can be explored in a day, I would strongly recommend staying at least one night. The quiet stillness that came from staying in an ancient, isolated citadel at the top of a mountain — it was really calming. It felt like being in a monastery, but with all the modern conveniences required. It reminded me of being in New Zealand a few years ago, when the geographic isolation and stunning natural landscapes made me feel as though I had stepped through the wardrobe into a new world.

Major attractions that can be explored in one day

Pretty much all of the popular tourist sites in San Marino city are in the old town and easy to access on foot. Even the three towers — which look far apart on paper — are only an easy 10- or 15-minute walk from one another.

I got the TuttoSanMarino card courtesy of the hotel I was staying at, which allowed me to purchase a multi-museum pass for 6 euros. That includes entrance to all of the towers and the state museum, which was a good deal.

In one day, I visited:

  • The three towers
  • Museo di Stato, state museum
  • Palazzo Pubblico, the public palace and government building
  • The Basilica del Santo

The three towers

I started my visit at Rocca Guaita, the first tower. It’s quite small and doesn’t actually have anything inside (besides a tiny art exhibit), but offers a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and of the second tower.

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Tower no. 2 as seen from tower no. 1.
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There is a narrow stone bridge that leads you from the first tower to the second.

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The second tower, Rocca Cesta, was home to a museum of both medieval weapons and guns from the last few centuries.

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The presence of hand sanitizer in these old structures always feels so anachronistic.
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Tower no. 1 as seen from tower no. 2.
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From the second tower, it was a pleasant stroll through the woods to Montale, the third tower. Montale is the only one not open to the public, as it used to be a prison and the only door is built far above ground.

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The impenetrable Montale.
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That’s the door on the side.

On the way back from Montale, I stopped for lunch at one of the three casual cafes dotted along the path between the first two towers. I believe it was called Hocus Pocus. They had giant photos of every single item on their menu, and let’s just say the photos did not catfish. What you see is exactly what you get. I got a huge plate of food that was dry, tough to chew in places, and even had a dead fruit fly hidden under the fries. Other than that, the service, the coffee and the view from the outdoor terrace was quite good.

Museo di Stato / State Museum

This was one of my favorite parts of San Marino. The museum was not huge, but it had (I think) around four floors, was brightly lit, and had a lot of interesting roman artifacts. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything from after the 1800s, if I recall correctly.

It was like playing a fun game of I Spy, trying to spot the three castles motif incorporated into various paintings and statues.

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This one was not so subtle.
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“Hey, here’s a doll in a toy coffin. Don’t worry, there’s no way your daughter could get nightmares from this!”
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Obsessed with the “Olio bono” bottle.
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The three Christs of Ypsilanti.
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Palazzo Pubblico / public palace

This is the seat of the national government of San Marino. I didn’t go inside the building since no one else seemed to, either, but the view outside was charming.

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I believe these are the cars of the Captains Regent.
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Walking around old town

While quiet at night, during the daytime San Marino enjoys a decent amount of foot traffic. The streets are lined with luxury shops, artisanal workshops, souvenir shops, and even gun shops (??).

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The local basilica. It’s quite small and the decor inside is more minimalist / middle-of-the-road.
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I made a dinner reservation at La Terrazza, one of the more popular restaurants in town (and, let’s face it, one of the few restaurants open for dinner). Know that they likely won’t assign you a table next to the window unless you make a reservation. The view is phenomenal during the daytime, because this is where the restaurant is located:

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But when it’s dark outside, this is the view inside:

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I ordered a salad, a first course and a second course because I assumed that they would give me tiny portions, as is common in Italy. However, the servings were much more generous. Equally generous was the amount of salt and olive oil added to each dish — the salad in particular was very heavy and greasy. The fish, on the other side, was excellent and had a smoky flavor.

I also had a glass of local white wine from San Marino, which was fine.

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Souvenirs

The morning of my departure, I bought a few souvenirs. The first was a stamp in my passport, issued at the local tourism office for 5 euros.

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I also got a tea towel, a flag and a mug from a gift shop. All this was only around 11 euros. Pretty sure the shop owner thought I was starting a cult dedicated to San Marino.

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Next time, I’ll share a brief recap of my half-day in nearby Rimini, before heading back to Geneva by way of Milan.

Q&A

Q: Is San Marino a good destination for a solo traveller?

A: Yes.

Q: How long should one stay in San Marino?

A: One day and one night should be sufficient.

Q: What’s a good time of year to visit?

A: Definitely not during the winter months, because there are a ton of steep, winding paths and tall stairways. The other seasons should be fine.

Q: How well do people there speak English?

A: You should be able to get through most interactions with basic Italian phrases (ciao for hello/goodbye, vorrei for I would like to order, per favore for please, and grazie for thanks). Otherwise, the English proficiency level is not super high. The people selling tickets at the first tower did not speak English, for instance. Most people I met could understand English and respond with a mixture of English and Italian.

Q: What are the Covid requirements there?

A: It’s minimal. They’re not requiring a green pass to enter indoor establishments, like Italy is doing. Many servers don’t wear masks inside restaurants.

Q: How are Asian travellers treated there?

A: From my experience, just like anyone else.

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