The lovable microstate of San Marino

It's officially known as the Most Serene Republic of San Marino

San Marino's 11th-century citadel.

Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is San Marino.

(Image credit: Courtesy image)

There's "no need to apologize if you haven't heard of San Marino," said Colin Covert at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Centered on a mountain ridge in northeastern Italy, this tiny nation of 31,000 "could barely fill a thimble." Officially known as the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, it is, by some accounts, the world's oldest sovereign nation, having been founded in 301 by Saint Marinus, a stonemason who was fleeing religious persecution. Though the country isn't unusually rich in history, culture, or dining, it is "irresistibly appealing," combining "fairy-tale-pretty" vistas, pristine medieval architecture, and "the ambience of a daffy, slightly sinister Disneyland." Tax-free shopping is a big draw, and the main cluster of boutiques "range from swank to seedy." A few steps away stands a palace — and guards wearing ostrich plumes on their heads.

Arriving by bus from Rimini, "I could feel the republic's wonderland mood coming a long way off." The capital city itself is perched on a sheer mountain ridge, and it "looked far-fetched the minute it came into view." Three tall watchtowers, two of which are accessible, rise above crenellated walls. In the shops that line the cobblestone streets below, I perused jewelry, fine fashion, and other luxury goods, and also came across vendors selling pistols, crossbows, and AK-47s to just about anybody. San Marino, I learned, has the most relaxed gun laws in Europe, and its anything-goes approach explains why bottles in the wine shops bear images of Hitler, Stalin, and naked women. Banking rules are notoriously loose, too, which tells you why some restaurants are filled with men in fine suits and women in diamonds.

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To reach the gate of the old citadel by car requires driving up a "nosebleed-steep" switchback road. You can also get there by gondola, and either way is worth the trouble. From anywhere on the city's walls, you soak in 360-degree views of the Italian countryside, with the Adriatic often visible to the east. In late fall, fluffy low-hanging clouds might shorten the vistas, but they also add to the mystique. "San Marino doesn't feel real, but it's make-believe beautiful."

Read more at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, or book a room at Hotel Cesare. Doubles start at $87.

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