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Updated: 13th August 2020
Adventures come in all shapes and sizes, and as Europe’s smallest nations show us, big doesn’t always mean better. Spread across the continent, you can find half a dozen micro countries, and each of these small states offers up something different to suit all types of travellers.
When you first think of micro countries in Europe, your mind probably wanders to teeny-tiny Vatican City, the smallest country in the world. But the Vatican is, in fact, only one of many micro countries to visit in Europe. Many of these destinations can easily be combined with trips to their neighbouring nations, so you can double your country count on one holiday, while also exploring some of Europe’s underrated cities.
Whether it’s hitting the slopes in Andorra during the winter months, lounging on the beaches of Malta in summer, or being blown away by the unique facts of San Marino, where the entire historic centre is UNESCO listed, these nations prove that quality matters more than quantity.
The sixth smallest micro-country in Europe is the only one I haven’t visited yet, I was, in fact, supposed to be there next week, but sadly plans fell through.
Located between France and Spain, among the Pyrenees Mountain Range, the official language is neither French nor Spanish but Catalan due to the neighbouring Spanish region of Catalunya.
Primarily known as a European winter destination due to the alpine mountains and ideal Skiing conditions (it boasts the highest altitude capital in Europe), it makes for a beautiful year-round destination due to the impressive mountains, popular boutique stores (and often duty-free shopping), and its mix of health cuisine and thermal spas.
Without a car, it’s easiest to arrive from the Spanish side, by flying into one of Spain’s best cities, Barcelona or Girona. Still, it’s not an easy day trip, so you’ll likely want to spend at least a night here not to rush and merely ‘tick it off the list’.
Like many of the micro countries in Europe, Liechtenstein isn’t part of the European Union, but it is part of the borderless free travel Schengen area, making it an easy side-trip by train and bus from Zurich, covered by the Schengen Visa. It’s actually so easy to visit Liechtenstein, bordered by Switzerland and Austria, that I ended up there entirely by accident.
Following a city break to Zurich, I hopped on a train to see some of the country’s famous nature, and when the train stopped at a station advertising a bus to another country, I knew I had to hop off and make a day trip of this principality!
The bus quickly whisks you to the capital, Vaduz, located along the Rhine River, where mountains and greenery surround the bicycle-friendly streets, underneath the watchful eye of the royal residence, Vaduz Castle, dating back to the 12th century. The modern art museum in the city is also well worth a visit.
But like its neighbours, much of Liechtenstein’s beauty is in its nature, where vineyards, castles and epic mountains await. While Vaduz is an easy day trip, to really soak up the country’s natural attractions, you’ll need to extend your visit.
The 75km hike along the relatively new Liechtenstein Trail will show you all the highlights of the nation in the summer months, though by winter, its main draw is Skiing. The network of hiking and cycling trails are well marked, and that fresh mountain air is the perfect contrast to a city break in Zurich.
Fancy a unique passport stamp to take away with you? One can be purchased at the tourism information centre.
Malta might be a surprise contender on the list of Europe micro countries, as with seven beautiful islands across its archipelago and a relatively high population for its size, many people don’t realise it is a micro-state at all.
Since 1974 Malta has been a proud republic, and it is also a member of the European Union, unlike many others on the list. While it gained independence from the U.K. nearly sixty years ago, what surprised me when I visited was how British it still seems, partly due to the party bars in St. Julien full of British tourists and the number of immigrants from the UK living here.
That said, if you get away from the night-club dense streets in summer, it’s a wonderful country to visit, and is packed with history, served in bite-size portions.
Valletta, the capital of Malta, is so small you can walk it in a few hours, but this walled city is a real gem of architecture and museums. Be sure not to miss the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a beautiful mixture of flowers in bloom and architectural arches amongst a battery, and the ornate Grandmasters Palace. A side trip to Mdina, the island’s medieval capital, is not to be missed; head there early to enjoy the quiet streets devoid of tourists and soak up the history of the fortifications.
Gozo, the second island of Malta, quickly accessed by ferry, was my favourite place, though. I loved the laid-back vibe of Xlendi Bay, where I stayed. Sadly, the famous icon of the Azure Window collapsed a few years back, but it’s still one of the best beach destinations in Europe, thanks to the sparkling coast and spectacular rock formations. Malta, for a micro country, might offer the best diversity of all those on this list, and it’s also one of the most accepting and open countries in the continent, being regarding as the most gay-friendly destinations in Europe.
While Monaco might be just a slither of a nation on the south coast of France, it certainly doesn’t hold back on its claims to fame. From the Formula One race, which takes place across the city itself (you might see the markings on the roads when you visit), to the world-famous Monte Carlo Casino and harbour crammed with luxury yachts, it’s certainly a destination for those with big wallets and the perfect addition to a weekend in France.
That said, personally, for me, Monaco didn’t wow that much, and there isn’t a whole heap of things to do here as a tourist for an extended trip. You can, however, easily fill a day trip with the likes of touring the royal Palais du Prince, wandering through the gardens and grand Cathedral, or merely enjoying fine dining and a flutter at the casino.
While Monaco would be the one micro country I wouldn’t rush to recommend dedicating a whole trip to, it is an ideal add-on to a visit to the French Riviera as train connections from the likes of Nice and Cannes are regular.
2. San Marino
The small nation of San Marino is surrounded by Italy, bordering the beautiful regions of Marche and Emilia Romagna, where the famous old city stands at the top of Mount Titano. The second smallest country in Europe and the fifth smallest country in the world packs quite a lot of interesting quirks.
The oldest sovereign state and republic in the world, San Marino fascinated me with some of its facts. For one, it isn’t part of the E.U. but uses the Euro, even having some of its own embossed coins. It also uses two calendars, the local one, using the dates of when the republic was founded, and the common international one. They also have two presidents at any one time, who only hold office for six months each.
Beyond these unique facts that establish the micro-country, and the quite bizarre and varied collection of museums, the old city has an amazing location on top of the mountain, offering incredible views across San Marino and Italy’s hidden gems, especially from the three towers that are icons of the country.
You can undoubtedly do San Marino as a day trip from Bologna, but I would highly recommend staying the night in San Marino as part of a long weekend in Bologna or Emilia Romagna, so you can experience the magic of both the sunset and the streets turning nearly silent in the morning without day trippers.
1. Vatican City
The smallest country in Europe, and even in the world, is also found in Italy. The Vatican City State is under 0.2 square miles and is, of course, home to the Pope inside the Apostolic Palace. The population of Vatican City is under one thousand, and you’ll need to buy and book your Vatican Tickets, ideally in advance, to enter.
If you ever find yourself near Rome, chances are you’ll want to visit the Vatican, though be warned, buying tickets in advance will make the process a lot easier. There are a couple of entrances to the city you’ll want as a tourist, with the north entrance for the Museum and the east gate for St. Peter’s Basilica.
Being a walled city, it’s not somewhere you just pop in to hang out, but taking a tour through the Vatican Museum is one of grand art and architecture. Housing an incredible collection of frescoes and artefacts, with the star attraction for many being the famous Michelangelo work of art on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
If, like me, you are always on the hunt for small, magical places that are off the beaten path, then check out my list of favourite Europe hidden gems next!