For a continent that’s pretty small, Europe sure has a lot of countries filed under its name –a party of 50 to be precise. First time travellers to the European continent are often side tracked and bowled over by the bright lights, big names: England! France! Germany!
By all means, tick the usual suspects off your bucketlist, but once you’re done, it’s time to move on from the big countries to the smaller ones. How small? We’re talking microstate small! According to Stratfor, Europe is home to five of the smallest microstates in the world that have been autonomous or independent for most of their centurieslong history and were rarely invaded. Their existence and longevity is the result of at least two key factors: geography and political genius.
These tiny countries are great for racking up your country count in addition to offering a completely unique experience different from the usual tourist trails. Plus, how many people can actually say they’ve been to Andorra? If you’re visiting Europe anytime soon, consider adding these microstates to your travel itinerary.
High up in the Pyrenees mountains, sandwiched between Spain and France is the independent principality of Andorra. Despite its modest size (under 200 square miles) the country has an Olympic team, a seat in the United Nations and diplomatic relations with other nations. In its heyday, Andorra was part of the Roman Empire and even garners a mention in church documents as early as 839.
Why go: When the snow falls, Andorra’s ski resorts become a haven for winter sports enthusiasts and when it melts, the rugged Alpine landscapes offers scenic walks and hardy summer hiking trails for the adventurous. Shopaholics can look forward to duty-free retail therapy in the capital Andorra la Vella which has more retailers than residence per square mile!
Arguably the most well-known European microstate, Monaco’s glamorous territory is crammed into a mere 0.78 square miles along the French Riviera. Before the likes of Grace Kelly, the Formula 1 Grand Prix and world-class casinos put Monaco on the international world map, this tiny principality was nothing but a fortress built by the Genoese atop the Rock of Monaco. Captured by the Grimaldi family, the country was recognized as independent in 1489 by King Charles VIII of France.
Why go: Depending on the season, there’s always something exciting going on in Monaco -from the International Circus Festival in January, to the Monaco Grand Prix in May there’s bound to be something for everyone. But even without a calendar chock full of glamorous events, Monaco has its charms. For starters, there’s the Jardin Exotique, home to the world’s largest succulent and cactus collections. If fauna is more your thing, then check out the Musée Océanographique de Monaco, a marine sciences museum displaying 450 Mediterranean and tropical species. And finally, the Casino de Monte Carlo’s beautiful Belle Époque design (courtesy of architect Charles Garnier) is one that deserves admiration from all, gambler or not.
An itty bitty principality it may be but Liechtenstein holds the honour of being one of the richest countries with the lowest unemployment rates in the world. Landlocked by Switzerland and Austria, Liechtenstein’s 62 square mile area sits comfortably atop rugged mountain ranges that overlook the Rhine. The 37000 German speaking citizens are headed by a constitutional monarchy that has been around for 1083 years!
Why go: Adventure enthusiasts have much to discover in this pocket-sized country full of hiking trails and rugged paths. Those looking to hit the slopes will find this Alpine country to be well equipped with ski chalets and enough ski trails minus the unbearable crowds. Of course, you can’t leave Liechtenstein without visiting the famed Vaduz Castle and the Postal Museum which displays a selection of Liechstenstein’s postage stamps.
3. San Marino
If you’ve confused San Marino to be a city in Italy, you’re not alone. Although located within Italy, San Marino is a proudly independent republic and one of the oldest sovereign states in Europe. Legend has it that the country was founded in 301 AD when a Christian stonemason named Marinus the Dalmatian fled the island of Arbe to escape the anti-Christian Roman Emperor Diocletian. Hiding on the peak of Mount Titano, Marinus later founded a small community of people who wished to practice their Christian beliefs openly.
Why go: Why not? If you’re already in Italy, San Marino is easily reachable from major cities like Bologna (90 minutes) and Florence (2.5 hours) via bus or rental car. Plus, it’s also home to UNESCO World Heritage sites like Mount Titano,(the highest point in San Marino) San Marino City and Borgo Maggior.
5. Vatican City
Technically the Vatican City doesn’t issue passport stamps unless specifically asked for at the post office, but it is a country of its own and easily accessible if you’re already in Rome. Formally established by the Lateran Treaty of 1929, a trip to the Vatican City grants you bragging rights for having visited the world’s smallest country with a population of just over 800 people!
Why go: Religious or not, who doesn’t want to see the Pope in the flesh, waving from his balcony above? Plus, if you’re a religious studies scholar or a good ole’ history buff, boy is this microstate a literal goldmine for you! St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel………need we say more?