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Hidden Travel Hotspots: European Micro-States

Locations in this article:  Barcelona, Spain

European VillageYou may know that Vatican City, at 0.2 square miles, is the smallest sovereign microstate in the world. The second smallest, standing proudly at 0.76 square miles is the glamorous principality of Monaco.

But if you’re familiar with the similarly postage stamp-sized European countries of San Marino, Liechtenstein, Malta and Andorra … well, it may be because you’re a stamp collector. No, really.

Many of these miniscule, lesser-known countries once relied on the sale of historic and commemorative stamps and coins as a major source of their income. Or, you may be familiar with some of these destinations as tax-free havens for the wealthy.

But while these micro-states may not fill traditional guidebooks, they’re unique enough that you may just want to include them on your next European getaway.


San MarinoReputed to be the oldest constitutional republic in Europe, the Republic of San Marino is surrounded on all sides by Italy. Legend has it that San Marino was founded by a Christian stonecutter named Marinus, who fled persecution by hiding in the hills near Monte Titano. Today, San Marino is the third smallest state in Europe after Monaco and Vatican City—though it’s lesser-known than its smaller siblings, tourism still makes up a big chunk of its economy. There aren’t any official border control stations, but if you ask, the tourist office will stamp your passport for a small fee to prove you’ve been to the republic.

As for sights, San Marino may be small—about 23 square miles—but it isn’t without its points of interest. The Three Towers are located on the three peaks of Monte Titano, known as Rocca Guaita, the Cesta, and the smallest of the bunch, Montale. If the scene is familiar, it’s because the image is depicted on the country’s national flag.

The Guaita is the oldest of the three towers and is one of San Marino’s most impressive vistas. Reachable only by a steep climb, this structure once served as the main line of defense for Mount Titano and San Marino. The tower ramparts, chapel, and prison are all worth a peek. And don’t forget to peer over the tower’s walls to see how the fortress is actually cut out of the side of the mountain.

Museo della Tortura (Museum of Torture) is dedicated to more than 100 original torture instruments. It’s about as disturbing as one would expect, with classical music playing as you learn about how best to flay and impale a human body. Still, it’s easily one of Europe’s more offbeat museums. 39 0549 991215,

You’ll experience some real Euro- flair at the Maranello Rosso Collection, a private museum dedicated entirely to two legendary Italian sports cars, the Ferrari and the Abarth. Founded by Italian car enthusiast Fabrizio Violati, the pristine collection includes 25 Ferraris dating back to the 1950s and the largest publicly displayed collection of Carlo Abarth’s race car.

Getting there: There are no flights or trains into San Marino, so you’re limited to traveling by bus or by car. You can fly into nearby Bologna (about 78 miles away) or to Rimini (about 17 miles) and then take a bus to San Marino. The nearest train station is in Rimini.


Vaduz Castle LiechtensteinWedged between Switzerland and Austria, Liechtenstein, like many other European microstates, is something of an historical fluke. The country traces its roots to the days of the Holy Roman Empire, when a powerful noble family bought the land to obtain a seat on the Imperial Council. Liechtenstein was ruled from afar for centuries and technically remains the last piece of the long-defunct Holy Roman Empire.

Today, the landlocked principality is known for having more registered companies than residents, due to its extremely low business taxes, and it has embraced the banking industry as its lifeblood. It’s a quiet alpine nation, similar to Switzerland. Liechtenstein also shares some cultural attributes with its Swiss neighbor, namely, a restrained nightlife and clean, well-kept streets; however, a visit to Liechtenstein certainly doesn’t have to be dull … or bank-related.

Back in 2003, Liechtenstein put itself on the marketing map by launching a campaign that offered out the principality for rent. In reality, the then-prince Hans Adam II, hatched the concept for corporations to hold major events, retreats or conferences on Liechtenstein soil, but population of about 35,000 residents could still remain on their native soil.

In general, however, Liechtenstein focuses its tourism on its alpine adventures like skiing, Nordic walking and rock climbing. The slopes of Malbun, though small, are quite popular with European winter sport enthusiasts. With seven lifts and 18 trails, the resort caters to skiers of all levels. Take the chair lift up, and you’ll be able to glimpse four countries at once: Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

About 15 miles away, in the town of Vaduz, is the can’t-miss landmark of Vaduz Castle (pictured above), the royal residence that sits perched on a hill. The hike up to the medieval fortress is steep, but manageable—while there’s no going inside the castle, the spectacular mountain views make climb worthwhile.

KunstmuseumAnother architectural landmark, the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, is a dramatic, black-box building made up of concrete and basalt. The museum houses mostly modern art, as well as rotating special exhibits. The modern pieces are an eclectic group, including a few huge installation pieces (such as an empty amphitheater and a giant white marble ball enclosed in glass). In contrast, located next door is the prince’s collection of Renaissance and Romantic masterpieces, including an impressively large collection of Rubens.

Getting there: There is no airport in Liechtenstein, but you can fly into Zurich, Switzerland, which is about 70 miles away. You can also travel by train to the Swiss border towns of Buchs and Sargans, or to Feldkirch, Austria, and then take a bus to Vaduz.


Malta HarborThe most heavily-populated of these micro-states, the Republic of Malta is an archipelago made up of seven islands located south of Sicily. Best known as a getaway spot for Europeans, Malta boasts a sunny, Mediterranean climate, a laid-back beach culture, back-to-nature activities, and a thriving nightlight. Strategically located between Sicily and North Africa, Malta was originally acquired by the UK in 1814, and it became a republic in the mid-1970s. Since joining the EU in 2004, the country has been prospering as a tourist destination, and in recent years, Malta’s rugged cliffs and rocky coastline have made it a hot spot for big-budget film productions.

With its long history, Malta is also the site of several ancient, megalithic temples. To put the term “ancient” into perspective, these freestanding stone structures are older than the Egyptian pyramids and older than Stonehenge.

They are remarkably well-preserved and were carefully restored in the 19th century after they were uncovered by archeologists. On the island of Gozo,  il-Ggantija is thought to be the oldest freestanding structure in the world, dating back to before 35000 BC. The temple of Hagar Qim stands on a hillside on the island of Malta, and next to it is the impressive l-Imnajdra temple.

Getting there: You can fly from parts of Europe and the UK to Malta International Airport. You can also travel by ferry from Sicily—Virtu Rapid Ferries runs from Pozzallo (90 minutes) or Catania (three hours) to Valletta several days a week.


Snow Fog AndorraAt about 180 square miles, the principality of Andorra practically dwarfs its competitors, but it’s still considered to be one of the world’s smallest countries. Located high in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, Andorra—officially Principat d’Andorra—consists mostly of mountainous terrain sliced by meandering rivers.

The Catalan-speaking country is one of the smallest in the world, with a population of 67,627. The capital “city” is Andorra la Vella, where about one-third of the country’s citizens live.

As recently as 1960, Andorra was largely cut off from the rest of the world, a semi-autonomous principality conceived late in the 13th century to resolve a quarrel between the counts of Foix in France and the bishops of La Seu. There are still no planes or trains, but Andorra’s current role is as an income- and tax-free haven, and as a drive-in, duty-free supermarket; in fact, the main highway through the tiny country is often clogged with French and Spanish tourists seeking duty-free products.

But shopping isn’t the only reason why travelers flock to Andorra. The country also offers decent slopes and a thriving après ski culture (the liquor is cheap), making it a popular getaway for Europeans. Andorra’s two main ski resorts, Pas de la Casa – Grau Roig and Soldeu El Tarter, joined forces to create one of Europe’s 20 largest ski resorts with about 120 miles of slopes. Now named Grandvalira, the combined resort has sparked a bit of a building boom in Andorra, especially in Soldeu, which now has a fairly diverse array of restaurants catering primarily to international travelers. Summer activities revolve mostly around hiking and shopping, with Andorra la Vella seeing most of its shoppers in this season.

Getting there: There is no international airport in Andorra, but you can fly into Toulouse (112 miles) or Barcelona (140 miles), and then travel by road. You can take a public bus from Barcelona, Girona or Toulouse airports or Toulouse train station. There is no train station in Andorra, but l’Hospitalet station in France is just a few miles from the Andorran border.

By Matt Calcara and Sarika Chawla for

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