san marino

A Day Trip Guide: San Marino From Bologna

One of the maddest additions to our recent trip to Italy was a day trip to the tiny country of San Marino.

In itself, this wouldn’t be a weird stop to add – but originally, the trip was just going to be Venice and Slovenia. We decided to add another country to the list, and after working out that San Marino would just about be doable and that I was a bad influence on my friend, it made it onto the growing itinerary. Adding San Marino meant a massive detour, and we settled on Bologna as our base rather than Rimini, because overall Bologna seemed like a better city to spend some time, and we wanted some good Italian food.

I don’t think we did enough in Bologna to warrant a blog post, but I will highlight some excellent places to eat at the end!

San Marino, though? This underrated microstate is WELL worth a visit!

View of the second tower, San Marino

From Bologna, it can be a long day, but it’s very doable.

We aimed for the 9.25am bus, which meant getting up early and jumping on a train to Rimini. Idly waiting on the platform, we were perturbed by the lack of anyone else there, when Ash noticed a message playing on the board. It was in Italian, but we could tell it wasn’t good. Our train was meant to be in ten minutes, and it was going to terminate before Rimini. The next train wouldn’t get us there in time to catch the bus.

We ran back to the main concourse and asked someone. Thankfully they were really helpful, explained we could get a different train instead, and told us it left from X platform in five minutes. We ran like hell and just made it!

Whizzing through Italian countryside is a lovely way to travel, and we passed close to the Tuscany hills and watched as endless vineyards disappeared into the distance.

We arrived in Rimini with twenty minutes to spare before our bus to San Marino, which goes from just outside the station, making it a really easy connection from Bologna.

Plan your trip to San Marino with the Bonelli bus timetable!

You can buy tickets online, from a shop opposite the station, or from the driver. We planned to just buy them from the driver, but when more people started appearing and they all had paper tickets, Ash panicked and bought them online – and then when the driver scanned them, he said one of them didn’t work! Which made no sense as they were all on the same booking. The driver let us on anyway as obviously he could see the other two worked, so it was fine, but I’d recommend just playing it safe and buying a ticket from the shop.

The important thing is, we were on the final leg of the journey!

The bus takes around 50 minutes and drops you right at the bottom of the old town, which to me sounded like it was going to be at the bottom of the massive hill that San Marino sits on. It’s not – the bus climbs up and up the hill for ages until you’re faced with the most amazing views, which is an apt introduction to San Marino.

View from San Marino

From there, it’s only a short walk into the old town, but we were stopping first for a quick tea, coffee and pastries. After an early start with no time to stop (and literal running at the train stations), we needed it.

Our introduction to San Marino was lovely, with a friendly Sammarinese welcome from the guys in the coffee shop who seemed genuinely happy that we’d chosen to visit.

Old town San Marino

San Marino old town

Once we were in the old town, it was a little busier, but it didn’t feel overcrowded even in the narrow alleys shooting up the hill to the forts at the top.

One thing we noticed pretty quickly was that all the shops seemed to sell collectibles, like Harry Potter or Game Of Thrones merchandise, or branded goods like handbags, sunglasses and even *does a double take* guns. Where the hell were we? Had we hit some lawless country of duty-free goodies?

Pop culture collectibles in San Marino. Picture of a window display with Pennywise, Sauron and Voldemort

I’d noticed on the way in that petrol was much cheaper than Italy, and that there were huge shopping complexes near the border as we arrived.

Indeed, San Marino is actually a haven for Italian shoppers because a lot of goods are tax-free and therefore much lower prices. I even saw a FULL SIZE bottle of Sambuca for 5€. FIVE EUROS!! I’ve never even seen that sort of price in an airport duty-free shop. It was nuts.

View over San Marino
View over San Marino

Anyway, we weren’t there to shop, so we made a beeline straight for the viewpoint up at the top – and we’d already seen some fabulous views on the way.

View over San Marino

The views are FANTASTIC. You can even see the coast of Italy in the distance!

You can also get the funicular up to the top, but the bus took us close enough to the entrance to the old town that we didn’t need to use it.

Side note: San Marino has some VERY odd statues. Lots with wild hair sticking out of people’s heads, but my particular favourite was this one of some flies having an orgy.

Weird fly orgy statue, San Marino

Unless you can think of what else they’d be doing???

Anyway, on to some more scenic spots in San Marino…

View of the second tower from the first, San Marino

The towers & walking the walls

From there, we wandered up to the first of the famous towers overlooking San Marino all the way over to the coast of Italy. There are actually three towers, but you can only visit the first two, Guaita and Cesta, which have spectacular views across to each other as they’re set on the peaks of Monte Titano. Unfortunately, the second one was closed for renovations, so we only got to go inside the first.

There’s a small museum inside the first one and you can go up onto the walls and also up the tower. The tower is especially fun as you have to navigate this steep ladder up through a small hole!

Stairs up the Guaita tower, San Marino

Once at the top, we were rewarded with brilliant views in every direction. (Particularly the photo above of the second tower!)

View of San Marino
View of the second tower from the first, San Marino. I'm sitting between two parts of the fortress.

Even better, we pretty much had the place to ourselves! I imagine it gets busier in summer, but it really felt like we’d gone off the beaten path with San Marino. In fact, it’s the least visited country in Europe! (I have to admit this surprises me given that it’s in the middle of one of the most visited countries in Europe – I thought it would be Liechtenstein or even Moldova or something.)

Despite being closed off, we decided to walk to the second tower anyway, along the scenic city walls, and this turned out to be a brilliant idea because the view back to tower number one was fantastic, even from “ground” level.

View of the first tower, San Marino

I think what might have surprised me the most about San Marino was the pure, unadulterated natural beauty surrounding it. Even though I’d seen a handful of photos, nothing had quite prepared me for just how stunning it was.

We also got really lucky with the weather, as it wasn’t meant to have been as nice as it was!

Palazzo Pubblico, San Marino

Get a 2 museum ticket

We got a 2-museum ticket for 6.50€, which would have been perfect for the two separate towers, but as the second tower was closed, we were recommended some of the other attractions in town instead. We ended up visiting the Palazzo Pubblico (public palace, or town hall, pictured above) which we would never have gone into on our own. There isn’t a lot in there, but it’s worth a little look around, especially for the debating chambers which are beautiful.

Palazzo Pubblico inside the debating chamber, San Marino

(Also, we spent ages faffing at the entrance because David had somehow lost his ticket on the walk back down from the towers – when the people at the booth realised what was going on, they told us to just come in, because they could see that Ash & I both had tickets. Another thing that made San Marino so friendly!)

Unfortunately the 2-museum ticket doesn’t include private museums, which are all the quirky ones you can find around San Marino. We went to the Vampire Museum which looks ridiculous, but faced with an 8€ entrance fee for essentially one room of novelty monsters, we decided against actually going in. That was more expensive than visiting two museums and/or the towers!

Vampire Museum, San Marino
I did get a photo of this bad boy in the entrance though

There’s also a museum of curiosities, and one of the first things we saw in the old town was the very inviting Torture Museum. Normally I’m a sucker for weird museums, but these all have pretty average reviews and it feels like they’re just there for the novelty value rather than even being that fun and/or informative – I feel like it has to be at least one of the two!

San Marino passport stamp

Getting a San Marino passport stamp

Speaking of novelty value… we had one more thing on our list: get a San Marino passport stamp. Because there’s no border control from Italy, and no other way to arrive into the country, you don’t get a passport stamp on arrival. You can, however, go to the tourist information centre and buy one! It’s 5€ and although it’s not an official stamp, it’s a fun one to get!

You can also get a San Marino postage stamp, which is one of the most collectible in the world, as well as San Marino euro coins which we got in our change from somewhere.

We had been aiming to get the 5pm bus back to Rimini, but by around 3pm, we’d pretty much exhausted everything we’d wanted to do and had walked every street in the old town. We decided to get the 3.30pm bus to Rimini instead, giving us a bit longer back in Bologna.

(Plus I needed to change because we’d had pizza for lunch, and in one of my more dignified moments, I’d managed to spill – yes, spill – the tomato sauce all over myself. Quotes included “wow… oh wow, it really HAS gone all over you, hasn’t it”. Yes, thanks David.)

Paraglider over San Marino
Waiting for the next bus and we look up and see several paragliders!

However, despite the long journey to get there and back, it was well worth the visit to this little microstate.

It is super easy to visit San Marino in a day. There’s more than just the old town – you can hike and explore other parts of the country, but for the old town, a day trip is perfect.

Practical information about doing a day trip to San Marino from Bologna:

We got a train at 7.34am from Bologna Centrale to Rimini, which got in at 9.01am. We then got a bus to San Marino at 9.25am. There’s a later train at 8am which gets in at 9.11am, which we were going to get originally, but there were works on the line which I think is why the trains were messed up on the shorter route!
We planned to get the 5pm bus back to Rimini which would get us back to Bologna by 7.30pm, but we ended up getting the earlier bus at 3.30pm.
Train tickets were 21.60€ return and bus tickets are 6€ each way.
San Marino uses euros so it’s simple going between the two countries.
It’s also worth noting that we visited on a Sunday, and everything was open!

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Italy

A bit about Bologna

Despite spending two nights in Bologna, we mostly used it as a base to visit San Marino, so we only really had an afternoon when we arrived and two evenings. We didn’t do a lot of tourist things, but we did have one thing on our list: some Roman ruins underneath a library!

Salaborsa Library, Bologna, Italy
Salaborsa Library, Bologna, Italy

This is WELL worth a visit. Salaborsa Library itself is beautiful, and while we were stood on the floor peering through to the Roman ruins below, we realised people were down there. Well thank goodness we noticed, because I didn’t realise you could actually go down there – and it was TOTALLY FREE!

Roman ruins underneath Salaborsa Library, Bologna, Italy

Bologna is also, of course, a fantastic place to eat Italian food. One of THE best places to eat Italian food. I mean, we’ve all heard of bolognese, right? Ironically, it’s not called bolognese in Bologna; it’s simply ragu.

So we were on a mission to try some ragu.

I’d been recommended (after a controversial tweet about whether food tours are worth it, where I was blocked by a girl who was enraged that I would even question the value of her $189pp tours) a couple of places to eat in Bologna, and I wasn’t one to pass up recommendations.

The general consensus is that you can walk into anywhere in Bologna and have an excellent meal. I’d argue that McDonald’s might be the exception there, and anyway I didn’t want to risk a mediocre meal when we only had two nights there.

So we decided to treat ourselves to Osteria da Fortunata on our first night.

Ragu at Osteria da Fortunata, Bologna, Italy

The ragu was of course excellent, but I think Ash had an out-of-body experience with his spaghetti carbonara. I almost wish I’d had that instead, actually. It’s one of the best meals we’ve ever had, and when David and I ordered dessert, they were so determined that Ash would also have dessert that they served a slice of cheesecake the size of David’s head along with an extra fork so they could share!

Osteria da Fortunata, Bologna, Italy

The next night, we went to a more casual establishment near our hotel, which had been recommended by LOADS of people, Osteria dell’Orsa.

This place was manic, with huge tables full of students stuffing their faces, next to small tables of older gentlemen with wine and cigars enjoying the same meals. It was a juxtaposition that threw me off at first, but I realised that somewhere that attracts all walks of life has to be a good thing.

It took us a while to figure out the menu, as there’s a lot and it’s all in Italian (another good sign). We had a couple of the small plates of “crostini caldi” to share, and instead of ragu, I went for these popcorn pasta things, tortellini bolognesi, which weren’t what I expected at all, but they were really good! Weirdly, I actually found a whole stand of magnets the next day with them on, so they are obviously “a thing”!

(Unfortunately the British couple next to us didn’t understand it at all, asked us for help to decipher the menu, and left straight after finishing their food seeming very unimpressed with the atmosphere of the place…)

For me, there was no comparison between the places. They were totally different experiences. Osteria da Fortunata is double the price, fancy waiters, a lady making the fresh pasta in the window, but despite that, not a stuffy or pretentious atmosphere in the slightest. Osteria dell’Orsa is casual, hectic and serves fabulous comfort food.

I’d recommend both without hesitation.

Imagine lyrics in Bologna, Italy

We did manage to get a few drinks too, which was an interesting experience in itself, as we spotted Orkney beers in one bar, along with Scapa whisky (as opposed to Highland Park – Scapa seems to be getting everywhere now!). And then in another bar, we saw Tennent’s Super on tap!

It turns out that Tennent’s Super, a drink that is notorious in Scotland for attracting people you wouldn’t want to drink with, is considered a great beer in Italy and is available everywhere! It’s a phenomenon I can’t get my head around, but I did see this in an article shortly afterwards, which is hilarious:

Bologna as a whole didn’t win us over though, mostly because when we arrived on the Saturday it was so busy. And I mean busier than VENICE had been. It was insane, and in the noticeable heat difference, it was a bit overwhelming when we first arrived. I wanted to enjoy the main square, Piazza Maggiore, but there was nowhere to enjoy it – hence the lack of photos. We walked down the main shopping precinct and got stuck in a crowd. Ash almost had a panic attack, and David disappeared into a church.

The above two photos depict quite a comparison of the crowds – the view of the two leaning towers on the Saturday, in which I had to wait a few minutes for the crowds to disperse even that much for a photo, and a virtually empty portico on early Sunday morning. Porticoes are all over the city in place of pavements and provide shelter from the rain and, in this case, the heat from the sun. Plus they’re really pretty!

Main street in Bologna, Italy

However, I’d 100% go back just for the food (Ash would definitely go back just for that spaghetti carbonara), and maybe use it as a base to visit places like Florence this time.

Overall this was a really enjoyable addition to the trip – and I’m glad we managed to pull off our ridiculous itinerary so well!

Have you been to any of the tiny countries in Europe?

Want to read some more Europe posts?
Highlights Of Venice – On & Off The Beaten Path
Surviving Dubrovnik – And Falling In Love With It
Three Days In Fairytale Budapest, One Of My Favourite Cities
The Best Of One Day In Porto – Viewpoints, Bookshops & Port
A Whirlwind Tour Of Belgium: Ghent, Antwerp & Brussels

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11 thoughts on “A Day Trip Guide: San Marino From Bologna

  1. I’ve not been to San Marino, but I’ve seen videos and photos about it, and it’s gorgeous! I hope to make the trip over some day, especially when back in Italy…you had a whirlwind of a time, and the best Italian food back in Bologna! 😋

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really want to get to San Marino, but had no idea how to do it. You’ve made it sound really easy! I went to Andorra a few years ago and stayed a few days. Most people seem to hate it, but I loved it and want to go back. They had all those duty free shops with ridiculous prices too. I really couldn’t figure who buys it all, as there are border guards on the roads out and as it’s non-EU you’re only allowed to take a minimal amount into France or Spain. Is there no-one checking on the way back to Italy from San Marino?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d like to visit Andorra, it looks beautiful but I guess there isn’t a lot to do there. That’s interesting, I didn’t see any sort of border control for San Marino but it’s possible they have checkpoints with random spot checks. But I didn’t notice anything about limits.

      Like

  3. I think this is probably the first blog post I’ve ever read about San Marino. I can see why you enjoyed your visit, it seems to be densely packed with scenery, architecture, and quirky attractions.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always been curious about San Marino and what it would it would be like to visit, so I really enjoyed your blog post. It looks like a really interesting place to spend a couple of days. The views from top of the tower are spectacular!

    Like

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