Tiny European Countries You Shouldn’t Overlook
Travelling through Europe is so easy: you can do short hops by plane, enjoy the scenery by train, drive across borders in a hire car or even walk. You can reach so many different countries quickly. Having breakfast, lunch and dinner in different countries is a favorite thing to document on social media, and famous places to see are ticked off the list within days.
And yet, there are some countries that are often overlooked. Be it because of their size and seclusion, be it because people simply don’t know it’s there or what’s there.
The tiniest of the all, Vatican City is about 0.7 times the size of the National Mall in Washington, whereas the largest on this list, Albania, is just a touch larger than New Jersey.
They might be small, but each of the countries has historic sites that often date back to pre-historic times, think 3600 BC, and are littered with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are a couple of Mediterranean Islands, a few land-locked countries, and others with amazing coastlines. Some of them do not have airports, making visiting a little more challenging; some you can tick off in a day, while others have so much to offer that a mere side trip won’t be enough.
All of them make worthwhile destinations and even if you haven’t heard of them or can with any certainty pinpoint them on the map — don’t forget to stop off and visit when you’re in Europe.
Area: 0.17 sq mi
Population: 1,000 (2017)
Capital: Vatican City
Language: Italian, Latin
The tiniest country of them all. Sitting in the middle of Rome, surrounded by a two-mile-long wall, the 0.17 square miles small independent country is ruled, not surprisingly, by the Pope. The official language is Latin, and there is a population of roughly 800.
Visiting this country is easy enough: St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Museum are all within its wall, and with the help of a museum pass many visitors step through the doors without realizing that officially they have crossed an international border.
If you do not only want to see the incredible artwork behind these country’s wall, but would also an audience with it’s ruler, the Pope, he gives public audiences every Wednesday and a blessing each Sunday.
Area: 998.6 sq mi
Population: 602,005 (2018)
Capital: Luxembourg City
Language: French, Luxembourgish, German
Starting off as an independent Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg in around 900 CE, subsequent years saw the country torn between Germany, France, Spanish and Austrian occupation, regaining independence in 1860.
It was left with a strong national identity, but a confusing language: Lëtzebuergesch, or Luxembourgish, an unusual mix of both French and German with a little extra Flämish-sounding something thrown in.
To get an overview of around 1,000 years of history in 100 minutes embark on the Wenzel Walk, a walk that takes you around the old UNESCO-listed city centre on foot. Head for the starting point at the Bock Promontory, past the Royal Palace, then follow the little golden crowns on the pavement guiding the way.
You’ll find ancient castles, the river Alzette, moats, and medieval bridges and old lock systems. Plus, the views across this city with its quite unique mix of ancient to modern architecture are truly amazing.
Area: 62 sq mi
Population: 38,111 (2017)
Currency: Swiss franc
Liechtenstein is the 6th smallest country in the world and lies between Austria and Switzerland. Without an airport, or its own railway, it is easy to overlook. The only country in the world to be named after its ruling family, who resides in a sturdy 12th century castle just above the tiny capital Vaduz, it is also extremely wealthy.
This German-speaking country’s riches come from banking and, sit tight, the export of false teeth.
To get into all the museums, enjoy a city tour, use the local buses, receive a free coffee and all sorts of other goodies, including sled hire should you visit in winter, get an Adventure Pass for 25CHF (25US$) from the Liechtenstein Visitor Centre.
And one more thing: go to the old wooden bridge across the Rhine, where you can stand with one foot in Liechtenstein, and the other in Switzerland.
Area: 180.55 sq mi
Population: 77,281 (2016)
Capital: Andorra la Vella
Nestled into the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France, Andorra’s 80,000 inhabitants are jointly ruled by Spain and France. Their 10 million-a-year visitors are drawn by the tax-free shopping (nearby residents even drive into Andorra to fill up their tanks), and their ski slopes and hiking trails.
Andorra’s capital, Andorra la Vella, located some 1,029 meters above sea level, is mostly a shopping paradise, with a hyper-modern day-spa complex, plenty of restaurants, a Salvador Dali sculpture and, higher on the mountainside, a beautiful 12th century church, plus an old government building.
The surrounding countryside is filled with natural wonders: hikes up mountains, to pretty churches, and along lakes, such as the Valira d’Orient trail; a 550-meter-long zip-line accessible via ski lift and open winter and summer; bike trails, and very good skiing at a more reasonable cost than compared to the Alps.
Area: 23.6 sq mi
Population: 33,537 (2017)
Capital: San Marino
Look up from the beaches of Rimini on the Italian Adriatic coast and you’ll see a mountain. That is San Marino. Pretty much. The third smallest European country, the world’s oldest republic, founded in 301, with its walled capital Città di San Marino. Here ancient buildings sit alongside a very steep and winding road to the top.
As far as tourist attractions go, there are a couple of very strange museums: a torture museum, a wax museum, alongside a state museum, plus frequent and colorful changing of the guards on Piazza de la Libertà.
The best thing to do though is to meander along the few steep roads, look at the medieval fortifications, and then order a local beer, settle down in the pizzeria right on top of the mountain, and watch the world go by and enjoy stunning views all around.
Area: 122 sq mi
Population: 475,700 (2018)
Language: English, Maltese
As if an island in the Mediterranean, somewhere between Italy and North Africa isn’t draw enough, this is also an incredibly historic place. Think the Pyramids are old, Stonehenge impressive? Think again.
Malta has pre-historic temples, that have been built between 3600cBC and 2500 BC. The complexes have several rooms, stone furniture, statues, there is a huge ancient burial site, and all are obviously listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Add to that the most beautiful church I have ever seen, St John’s Co-Cathedral, the church of the Knights of Malta in the capital Valetta, and you have an absolutely must-see country.
Not forgetting that Malta is indeed an island in the Mediterranean, whilst there are not many sandy beaches, there are plenty of superb scuba diving sites along the coast and the small sister islands of Comino and Gozo.
Area: 5,333 sq mi
Population: 642,550 (2017)
Montenegro is a small, mountainous country just south of the popular city of Dubrovnik. The 10th smallest European country, it is crammed full of things to see.
A rugged coast along the Adriatic Sea is dotted with tiny islands with often just a single church on them, castles and forts, not to forget the perfect beaches. Inland, in the mountains you find seemingly forgotten medieval villages, and stunning countryside of lakes nestled in valleys, snow-capped mountains, and ancient forests.
Much less visited than neighboring Croatia, Montenegro still caters to all: there are exclusive beach resorts that most of us can only dream of visiting; and then there are so-called etno selo villages, along the coast and inland, which offer cheap stays in traditional small self-catering houses, often with the use of a swimming pool and other facilities.
Area: 11,100 sq mi
Population: 2,876,591 (2017)
Just south from Montenegro and north of Greece, lies Albania. As it is still in baby shoes when it comes to touristic development, this is the time to go and visit this stunning country.
The coastline is a string of beaches and rocky coves where you can still find yourself completely alone, if also without the typical resort facilities. It is perfect for self-drive and beach-hopping, but not forgetting the interior beauty along the way.
Castles and churches dot the mountainous interior, the capital Tirana, nestled in the mountains, offers an eclectic mix of architecture reflecting its checkered history: you’ll find ancient Ottoman buildings next to clunkier Soviet architecture, fascist-era buildings near very colorfully painted, and very Instagram-able residential apartment blocks.
This country has it all but hasn’t quite realized it yet.
Area: 9,928 sq mi
Population: 2,103,721 (2017)
Currency: Macedonian denar
Not easy to find on the map, Macedonia lies on the northern border of Greece, inland from Albania. Constantly squabbling about its name with Greece (which has a province with the same name), the little land-locked country is now officially called “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’. Quite a mouthful.
Whilst lets-call-it Macedonia does not have a coastline, it does have the lovely Lake Ohrid, famous for not only its, yes, you’ve guessed, castles and churches, but also its depth which reaches down to 300m, making a dip quite refreshing.
The capital Skopje has recently had an architectural make-over, but retained plenty of gems like the old Stone Bridge, its Ottoman Bazaar and the picture-perfect fortress which has protected the city since the 6th century.
Macedonia is not (yet) a tourist destination, food and accommodation are cheap, and people friendly. Go now.
Area: 8,023 sq mi
Population: 3,125,000 (2017)
Language: Welsh, English
Currency: Pound sterling
The sticky-out bit on the western coast of the UK is often overlooked when visiting England. But Wales, which is not necessarily that small, but is a little out of the way, is worth visiting if only for the expanse of hike-able countryside, stunning rugged coast and long beaches, or the love of dragons.
But there is more: This is also a place to see plenty of wildlife from whales (no pun intended) to puffins, dolphins and even orcas; there is a tiny Italianate village called Portmeirion, and plenty of big castles.
More so than England, Wales is a haven for outdoor activities. Climb and hike in Snowdonia, cliff-dive into the sea, abseil and even camp on a cliff along the coast, and mountain bike, golf, and surf. And for those who don’t, there is the fabulous annual Hay Festival for book lovers.
Area: 7,827 sq mi
Population: 2,067,284 (2018)
In the northern corner of the Adriatic Sea, not far from Venice, lies Slovenia. The very difficult to spell Capital Ljubljana, is worth a detour in itself. There is a dragon bridge with four little green dragons guarding it, a castle on a mountain accessible by funicular railway, a market along the meandering river, and plenty of trendy little cafes and restaurants.
And then there is Lake Bled. If you ever see a perfect lake with a tiny island with a church on it on Instagram, chances are it’s Lake Bled. Green hills with snow-capped mountains on the horizon line this lake area, making is worth a few-days’ stay. There is an 11th century castle, plenty of monasteries, hiking trails, deep gorges, swimming areas, row boats and the village of Bled is famous for a layered vanilla cake called kremna rezina.
Area: 3,572 sq mi
Population: 1,170,125 (2016)
Language: Greek, Turkish
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, snuggled into the north-eastern corner of the sea, not far from Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Regular overnight ferries also go to Israel. Divided into a Turkish north and a Greek south, the entire island is officially the Republic of Cyprus.
The south is the more popular region to visit. Full of beaches and coves for swimming and snorkeling, there are the capital Larnaca, the resort city of Larnaca, and the popular small town of Paphos.
Paphos is a huge deal in history and archeology, having been inhabited since around 10,200 BC, and is a perfect mix of sun, sea and Greek mythology. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, was born here from sea foam, and apart from her birth rock, you can also visit other important archeological sites in this area, which might just keep you from the beach.