What Should I Know About San Marino?

Brendan McGuigan

San Marino is a tiny enclave of Italy. The country covers 23.5 square miles (61 sq. km), making it less than half the size of Washington, DC, and the fifth-smallest nation in the world. San Marino has a population of around 30,000 people.

The closest airport to San Marino is in the city of Rimini in Italy.
The closest airport to San Marino is in the city of Rimini in Italy.

Although San Marino appears to be something of an oddity in modern Europe, it is more of a historical remnant of a past when Europe consisted primarily of small city states joined in loose federations. Like some of the other micronations of Europe, such as Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, or Monaco, San Marino offers a glimpse into the not-so-distant European past.

Tradition has it that San Marino was founded in 301 AD by a Christian named Marinus the Dalmation. He formed a small community on one of the mountains there, which practiced Christianity and peaceful values. The land was given to the community by the owner, granting them autonomy. The community eventually formed a functional government, made up of the heads of families.

By the end of the 13th century San Marino had been recognized as fully independent by the Holy See, and was forced to defend itself against would-be invaders. The Three Towers of San Marino were built to guard against aggression, over a span of a few centuries. The first tower, the Guaita, was built in the 11th century; the second tower, the Cesta, was built in the 13th century; and the third tower, the Montale, was built in the 14th century.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries San Marino was subjected to aggression by neighboring city-states and feudal lords. It managed to remain independent, however, fighting off Urbino and Montefeltro, among others. During the 15th century San Marino also expanded its territory through treaties, and grants from the Pope. At the beginning of the 16th century San Marino was briefly occupied by Cesare Borgia, but was liberated after his death. At the dawn of the 17th century, San Marino adopted a constitution, and over the next few years made a series of pacts with the Catholic Church to arrange for its defense.

San Marino managed to keep its independence through the Napoleonic era, and through the era of the Kingdom of Naples. In the mid-19th century, San Marino offered a safe haven to many important figures in the Italian unification movement, and when Italy was at last unified, San Marino’s desire for independence was respected. Independence was recognized by the new kingdom of Italy in 1862.

San Marino is a member of the United Nations, but not a member of the European Union. Nonetheless, by special arrangement San Marino uses the Euro as its official currency, making it much easier for outside visitors.

Tourism makes up more than half of San Marino’s economy, and the country has built an infrastructure to support that, so good hotels and transport are available throughout the entire country. The San Marino leg of the Grand Prix is one of the most popular events that happens in the country, for those interested in auto racing. The Three Towers of San Marino are also a popular tourist attraction, as are the surprisingly numerous wineries that dot the countryside.

Overland travel is the only way into San Marino, with the nearest airport in Italy, not far from the city of Rimini.

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