They’re pint-sized but perfectly formed – why Europe’s smallest countries are well worth visiting. Some of the small destinations mesmerize travelers with beautiful beaches and swaying palms, while others dazzle with their urban beauty and incredible art treasures. Each enchants travelers who search them out.
AREA: 0.44 sq km POPULATION: around 800
They like a drop of wine in Europe’s tiniest independent state. Those in Vatican City consume 105 bottles a year per head of population, according to figures released by California’s Wine Institute. That’s double the average of the inhabitants of France or Italy. This may be a consequence of entertaining visiting dignitaries, few children among the residents and that wine is almost completely tax free.
But it’s art, architecture and the Pope that draw at least five million people a year to this Roman enclave, which can boast true wonders such as St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and countless classical paintings and sculptures: it’s been said that if you spend one minute looking at each painting in the museums, it will take you four years to see them all.
Pope Francis himself is also something of a venerable attraction and can be viewed in the flesh in St Peter’s Square on Wednesdays, where he gives a general audience, or on Sundays during the Angelus prayer. Vatican City is the world’s only elected absolute monarchy, and in this modern-day game of thrones, the Pope plays the role of King, and appoints the citizens. There may only be a few hundred of them (and they all work for the Pope), but they get to have their own passports and to sing their very own national anthem. And they don’t pay any tax – government revenue is generated from sales of souvenirs and stamps, publications, museum admission fees and donations from believers around the world.
The local currency is the Euro, but Vatican City issues its own special versions of Euro coins, which are much sought after by collectors. If you’re short of cash, say ‘ salve’ [ hello] to a local ATM – the only ATMs in the world that include Latin among the multilingual instructions. TOURIST APPEAL: the Pontiff and Vatican City’s art.
AREA: 2.02 sq km POPULATION: around 39,000
They pack the locals in tightly in Monaco. With more than 19,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, this is the most densely populated sovereign state in the world. But that doesn’t seem to have any adverse effects on the Monégasques (as inhabitants are called): they have the world’s longest life expectancy, at just shy of 90.
Nearly a third of the population are said to be millionaires in a country that famously charges no income tax, making it a handy home from home for the super-rich.
If you’re hoping to join them, you could take your chance at the famous Monte Carlo Casino. It was originally dreamed up more than a century and a half ago as a revenue stream for the ruling House of Grimaldi, which was facing bankruptcy at the time.
Since then, it has become the premier symbol of Monaco’s wealth and glamour, and has featured in two James Bond films. It still provides a significant revenue stream for the current Grimaldi ruler, Prince Albert II, and his Zimbabwean-born wife, Princess Charlene, who formerly represented South Africa as an Olympic swimmer.
The principality is of course also famous for the Monaco Grand Prix. Its tight corners led former driver Nelson Piquet to compare it to “riding a bicycle around your living room”. Each year a global audience of TV viewers tunes in to see the cars whizzing through the streets as billionaires gambol on their superyachts moored in the harbour.
TOURIST APPEAL: see how the rich live – and watch the roulette action at the Belle Époque-style casino.
AREA: 61 sq km POPULATION: around 33,400
Alandlocked mic ronat ion perched in the mountains overlooking Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast, the Most Serene Republic of San Marino has maintained a proud independence since its founding back in AD 301 – unlike the rest of Italy’s erstwhile city-states. It is the world’s oldest republic.
San Marino is not a member of the European Union, but it maintains an open border with Italy. If you’re disappointed that you won’t get a stamp in your passport , don’t worry: you can buy one in the local tourist office.
San Marino leads the world in having the highest rate of car ownership – it has more vehicles, in fact, than people. In its ornate parliament building, there’s a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Back in 1861, the Sammarinese wrote him a letter congratulating him on his presidency, and he very kindly wrote back: “Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honoured in all history.” Endorsements don’t come much better than that.
Today, this most honoured country is a haven for day-trippers, who come for the City of San Marino’s three imposing defensive towers and the splendid views.
The changing of the local guard is also a major draw. Taking place hourly in summer months (these are clearly guards who cherish change), the ceremony showcases the beautifully plummed Guardians of the Rock, whose brightly coloured uniforms feature red pompoms and ostrich feathers.
TOURIST APPEAL: it’s all about the views, the medieval public square (and the red pompoms).
AREA: 160 sq km POPULATION: around 38,000
There’s an element of the unknown about Liechtenstein. How many of us, for instance, could name its capital city ( Vaduz, population 5625) or its largest city (Schaan, population 6016). Yet each day it’s possible that, wherever you are in the world, you may well spot a little piece of Liechtenstein in your daily life.
The bright red power tools being used by workers on that nearby construction site? Made by Liechtenstein company Hilti. The steering column in your car? Very possibly manufactured by a subsidiary of Thyssen Krupp in the principality, which is responsible for the steering gear systems in one in four cars worldwide. Those with false teeth in a glass next to the bathroom sink might consider thanking Schaanbased Ivoclar Vivadent, who reportedly can lay claim to 20 per cent of all the false teeth sold worldwide.
Perhaps not surprisingly, thanks to its Alpine location between Switzerland and Austria, skiing is the country’s main attraction for visitors. Local heroine Hanni Wenzel, who won two gold medals and a silver at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, no doubt cut her teeth on the slopes of Malbun, Liechtenstein’s single ski resort.
Away from the slopes, other ‘princely moments’, as the local tourist board describes them, can be found at the country’s historic castles, hiking trails, museums and galleries. But try to be quiet, please. According to an official document giving advice to new migrants, ‘noisy festivities’ should be avoided at lunchtime and after 10pm. The same goes for mowing the lawn, but it’s unlikely this is something you’ll need to worry about on a brief holiday.
TOURIST APPEAL: a pocket version of the best of the Alps.
AREA: 316 sq km POPULATION: around 430,000
Even if you haven’t been to Malta, it’s possible you’re familiar with its sun-drenched landscapes or ancient limestone buildings from a scene in a movie or TV series. More than 100 international productions have been made here, at least in part, including Gladiator, Troy and Game of Thrones.
For the film version of Popeye, a brightly coloured cartoon village was constructed, and it has now become one of the country’s main tourist attractions.
Visitors flock here for the guarantee of sunshine (at least 3000 hours a year), the diving (reefs and sunken ships abound) and a rich and colourful history that goes back to Neolithic times. Countless nations have laid claim to this 21-island archipelago over the centuries, and most have left their mark in one way or another – not to mention the Knights of St John, who bequeathed the country its famous eight-pointed cross and its fortified capital of Valletta.
One landmark that’s sadly no longer to be seen is the Azure Window, a 28- metre- high rock arch on the coast of the island of Gozo. Long one of Malta’s most popular landmarks, it collapsed one stormy morning in March 2017, the giant pillar falling first, followed by the top part of the arch. No trace of it now remains above the sea.
On a visit to Malta before meeting Prince Harry, Meghan Markle claimed that her great-great-grandmother had once lived there. Other well-known individuals with ties to the country include author and polymath Edward De Bono (born there), singer Britney Spears (maternal great-great-grandfather) and rocker Bryan Adams (maternal grandmother).
TOURIST APPEAL: heaven for history buffs (and sun worshippers).
AREA: 2586 sq km POPULATION: around 600,000
Taking a lead from the Eurovision Song Contest, we’re happy to say our 12 points go to Luxembourg, which has won the famous song competition no fewer than five times. But we’re afraid it’s null points for the nation’s football team, which has yet to qualify for a major tournament despite nearly a century of trying.
Luxembourg is a welcoming kind of place, and visitors tend to stay a while. In the past, that applied to the Habsburgs, Burgundians, Prussians, Spanish, Dutch, Belgians and French, who all decided to call the Grand Duchy home. Today, visitors come here to work, with foreigners making up nearly half the very youthful population, which has an average age of 39.
Those who are just passing through come for the Michel in- starred restaurants, for the many imposing castles and the historic charms of Luxembourg City.
It’s a well- to- do place, with the world’s highest GDP per capita. The official languages are French, German and Luxembourgish. The latter goes back to Frankish times and traditionally is only spoken at home. A 2013 study showed that 70 per cent of people use it at work, school and/or home, and 56 per cent said it was their principal language.
TOURIST APPEAL: the food, the wine, beautiful castles, the countryside, the history…
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