5 Tiny European States Worth a Visit

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Looking to rack up the number of countries you’ve visited? No other continent has a greater wealth of tiny countries, principalities and territories than Europe. The second smallest continent next to Australia, Europe also boasts around 50 sovereign countries (second only to Africa, at 54), and five of the 12 smallest countries by landmass in the world. And thanks to the formation of the European Union and the 1985 Schengen Agreement, visiting these tiny enclaves is as easy as driving from state to state in the U.S. Here are five fascinating tiny states in Europe well worth a visit.

 

5. Gibraltar

A Barbary macaque sits atop the Rock of Gibraltar. The colony of macaques is a must-see destination there. © Avidday

One of Britain’s remaining overseas territories, Gibraltar is like a small slice of London clinging to the coast of sunny Mediterranean Spain. Britain gained control of Gibraltar in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession, and has held on to it through three sieges and numerous wars, including World War II. Control of Gibraltar has assured the British navy access to the Mediterranean via the 8.9-mile wide Strait of Gibraltar, opening up to the Atlantic. Today, shopping is duty free in the territory, the currency is the Gibraltar pound (fixed to the UK pound), and electricity is flat, three-pin UK standard. You can enter Gibraltar by foot or car across from La Linea, Spain, crossing over the sole runway on the territory, and travel all the way down to the tip of Europa Point in a 10-minute drive. Also, don’t miss the tram ride to the top of “The Rock,” where you can meet Gibraltar’s famous Barbary macaque monkeys, the only colony of wild primates in Europe.

 

4. Andorra

A scenic drive in Andorra. © Ferran Llorens

Sandwiched between Spain and France in the Pyrenees Mountains, Andorra is a largely unknown mountain microstate. Legend holds that France’s King Charlemagne founded Andorra in the early ninth century. Like Switzerland, Andorra remained relatively unscathed from the numerous wars that raged across Europe over the centuries, successfully staying neutral through the Spanish Civil War and World War II, while taking in refugees from both. Today, Andorra is best known as a popular skiing destination and a tax-free shopping haven. Curiously, Andorra has the highest life expectancy in the world at 81 years in 2013, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study, yet also one of the highest alcohol consumption rates per capita, at 13.8 liters per year. So maybe you won’t feel so guilty if you have a couple of cocktails during your visit there.

 

3. Monaco

Monaco as seen from the high point of Tête de Chien (Dog’s Head). © Tobi 87

A small principality along the southern coast of France, 0.78-square mile Monaco is nestled along a 2.38-mile stretch of the French Riviera, the smallest stretch of coastline for a continent-based country in the world. The royal House of Grimaldi has ruled over the Principality of Monaco and the strategic Rock of Monaco since the late 13th century. This rule has been punctuated by wars, annexations, and other brief interludes through the years. Today, Monaco is mostly known for the annual Formula One Grand Prix race held on its streets. Yet its beaches are a big draw, as is the famous Monte Carlo Casino. If you’re looking to get away from the crowds, Monaco probably isn’t your best bet. While it is the second-tiniest independent state in the world, behind only the Vatican, Monaco has the highest population density (43,830 people per square mile) of any nation in the world.

 

2. Liechtenstein

Vaduz Castle, home of the Prince of Liechtenstein, looms over the tiny principality. © Michael Gredenberg

The tiny principality of Liechtenstein is conveniently located along the main A13 highway crossing the Alps from Germany to Italy. Many travelers stop in the tiny country simply for the passport stamp, and the Liechtenstein Tourist Information center in the capital Vaduz will stamp your passport for 3 Euros. But Liechtenstein is well worth an overnight stay. A distinct nation-state since 1719, 15-mile-long Liechtenstein is surrounded by Austria to the east and Switzerland to the west. Nestled along the eastern side of the valley bounded by the Rhine River, it’s possible to book a hotel room high on the mountainside, overlooking the entire micronation. Liechtenstein has a thriving viticulture scene, and Vaduz is one of the most picturesque national capitals, with many interesting historical monuments. If you’re relatively fit, take the steep walk up to Vaduz Castle; although the castle is home to the royal family and closed to the public, the walk offers great views of Liechtenstein.

 

1. San Marino

The fortress of Guaita on Mount Titano is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. © Max Ryazanov

This mountaintop is its own sovereign country. Tiny San Marino is bounded entirely by Italy, and maintains its own currency and postage, mostly for the benefit of tourists. Located about five miles southwest of the city of Rimini, San Marino can be reached after a winding uphill drive, and is definitely worth an afternoon visit. Founded in 1600, San Marino is also one of the world’s oldest republics. Don’t miss the grand piazza, “Palazzo Pubblico” in the center of town, complete with medieval architecture and, on a clear day, a good view all the way down to the Adriatic Sea. San Marino is an easy stop between two major tourist destinations in Italy, the cities of Florence and Venice.

And speaking of major tourist destinations in Italy, if you’re in Rome and happen to visit the Vatican — as most tourists do — you’re also in the smallest nation-state in the world, at 0.17 square miles in size. Also known as the Holy See, the Vatican was established as a separate state by dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1929 Lateran Treaty, seeking to address and separate the power of the Pope from state and civil affairs in Rome.

 

Two More: Ceuta and Melilla

The Royal Walls of Ceuta site, some of which dates to the 10th century, can be seen by boat or on foot. © Jim Gordon

Strange but true fact: part of Europe is in Africa. Across the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain maintains two tiny enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla. These two tiny territories are remnants of Spanish Morocco, and, along with the Tangier economic free zone and the Barbary Coast, have a fascinating history of piracy and intrigue. Today, 7-square-mile Ceuta is easily accessible by ferries from Algeciras in Spain and makes a good gateway into Tangier, Morocco, to the west. If you’re there, be sure to see the Royal Walls of Ceuta, a massive medieval fortification built over some 800 years beginning in 962. Melilla, 120 miles along the coast to the east, makes an interesting entry point into the remote eastern Rif Mountains.

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David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.