If you thought Vatican City was the only independent nation inside of Italy’s borders, you’d be wrong. But up until a few weeks ago, I had absolutely no idea that this tiny country existed. Located inside of Italy’s Le Marche region, this mountain top castle town overlooks the Adriatic Sea. It’s made up of a small surrounding town, three castles at the top of the mountain and 360, panoramic views everywhere you look. During our quick Italian road trip, we visited San Marino using the nearby city of Urbino as our base and hit it up on our way back to Rome. Here’s some of the history, what to do and what to expect in San Marino.
San Marino is interestingly enough, the third smallest country in Europe, with a highly developed economy, no national debt and more vehicles than citizens. It was first recognized as independent from Italy in 1631 by the pope and has operated as a separate entity from Italy from that point on. All of this explains why the tiny country has such a different feel to it compared to the surrounding Italian region. The Sanmarinese people have been independent for a long time and they are proud of it. They’ve managed to keep an effective republic government and wealthy economy, mostly due to the many tourists that stop here on their way through Italy.
Things to do
Before getting to San Marino, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of what to do there. We really enjoyed our drive up the mountain and of our group, everyone kept remarking how the scenery and atmosphere of the town felt somewhat more similar to Germany or Austria. Some of the signs were in English and there wasn’t a small-town Italian feel to the big companies and factories we saw on our way.
When we arrived at the top of the mountain, we had to park our car and walk the rest of the way. We immediately started following a hiking trail up the hill to the top of the mountain. Luckily, we were all wearing sneakers so we didn’t have problems with the terrain, but it is a bit steep in some places and you should wear something that works for both nature and town activities. Along the path, we stopped so often to take pictures of the beautiful view that we got vertigo a couple of times because the cliff was very steep and not sectioned off with a fence or railing. If you’re bringing kids, be careful on the trail and make sure you have enough adults to keep an eye on them! Along the path there are three castles, each larger than the one before. You reach the final castle by crossing over a bridge and climbing to the very top, where the pictures and views are stunning. You can see the mountains of Le March in the distance with the Adriatic Sea directly behind the castle.
After you’ve taken your fill of pictures, the path leads you down into the small town that makes up “San Marino” and you start seeing the numerous tourist/souvenir shops that service the country’s many visitors. We skipped all of those and also opted to wait for our lunch, because all of the restaurants and caffes we saw weren’t very appealing. There doesn’t seem to be much of a local scene in the historic center so anything you buy or eat won’t be that great. There were plenty of weaponry shops and interesting products being sold, assumedly because it is a country separated from Italy and its laws.
After a quick walk through the town and people watching in a sunny piazza, we walked back to the car and drove off of the mountain!
What to expect
- A disney world-like feel
- Cliffside caffes with great views
- Swords, guns and other weapons
- Souvenir shops with candles, pottery, tea and other food products
- A cleaner feel than the usual italian city
- People who understand English and slightly higher cost of living
- All of the selfie sticks and cameras you could ever want
If you’re already in the region of Le Marche, I think a visit to San Marino is worth it solely for the pictures and views from its mountain-top castles. I wouldn’t make a trip out of this alone however, as the town itself didn’t offer much more than an afternoon’s worth of activities. We fit it in with Urbino the day before and then stops along the coast including Rimini on our drive back to Rome. Waiting for a piadina (Itlaian flatbread) for our lunch instead of eating in San Marino was a good call, as we were able to get a great lunch and pay a third of what we would’ve in the previous city.
What characteristics make you excited to visit a new city? And would you consider visit San Marino as a new country on your list?