These eight European microstates may be small, but they pack a lot of worthwhile sights into their confined borders. From Vatican City to Monaco, this week’s Bucket List is your mini guide to these tiny destinations.
Microstates, if you’re not familiar, are defined as sovereign states with either small populations or areas. There are six “official” microstates within Europe, but many consider countries like Iceland and Luxembourg worthy of the designation as well, and therefore they’re included in this round up.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.
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Unlike many of the other microstates in this gallery, Malta boasts a fairly sizable population at just under 450,000 packed into this 122-square-mile archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea. While Malta is small in size, it's home to plenty of historical and cultural attractions, including three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a calendar-jamming number of annual events from beer and wine to art and music festivals. Plan to spend most of your visit outdoors. Malta's mild climate and open-air attractions will have you under the sun most days, whether on a walking tour of its architecture, hitting the beach or boating off its scenic shores.
Photo by Neil Howard, CC BY-NC 2.0
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Nestled more than 3,300 feet above sea level in the Pyrenees and surrounded by Spain and France, you'll find Europe's sixth smallest nation--the Principality of Andorra. One of the biggest draws to this small nation is its mountains. Hiking and skiing are two popular activities among visitors. Skiing, particularly around Vallnord and Grandvalira, has led many resorts to pop up that cater to those looking to hit the slopes. If spending your vacation in the snow isn't ideal, but you still love the outdoors, trekking the slopes in the warmer months is possible via a network of hiking trails and camping huts that dot the nation's mountainsides.
Photo by Alessandro Grussu, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Liechtenstein's 62-square-miles are home to some 37,000 people. A wealthy nation by no stretch, it enjoys one of the highest GDPs per person, making it a fairly expensive vacation destination. One of only two double-landlocked countries in the world, Liechtenstein is nestled in the mountains between Switzerland and Austria. The principality is a popular destination for those looking to enjoy the outdoors, whether hiking, biking or skiing. Perched above the capital city of Vaduz you'll find Schloss Vaduz (Vaduz Castle), home to the Prince of Liechtenstein and the royal family. Take note: that you can't actually visit this Middle Age castle, but you'll be able to see if from surrounding areas.
Photo by Philip Roeland, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Like several of Europe's microstates, Monaco is a land of luxury for those with the money to indulge. Hugged by France and the Mediterranean Sea, this French Rivera destination is famous for the lavish lifestyle of those who call it home, even if temporarily while on vacation. Channel your inner James Bond and try your luck at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Several Bond films have taken place within the ornate casino. You'll have to dress like him or a Bond girl to get in, however, as the dress code is extremely strict. The city of Monte Carlo also plays host of the Monaco Grand Prix each year, a world-famous Formula One street circuit motor race and social event.
In scenic Monaco Ville (Monaco City), you can visit the Palais Princier (Prince's Palace), Monaco Cathedral, as well as the Oceanographic Museum. If you're looking to explore the rest of Monaco, its small size makes doing so easy. Renting a car, luxury rentals are particularly popular, is a great way to get around for a day.
Photo by Raging Wire, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Whether you're a practicing Catholic or not, Vatican City is a must-visit microstate. Occupying little more than 100 acres and home to just over 800 people, it's the smallest microstate in the world on both accounts. As the heart of the Catholic Church, Vatican City offers plenty for those who appreciate art, history and religion.
Start at St. Peter's Square before heading to St. Peter's Basilica where you'll find the awe-inspiring Michelangelo-designed dome. You can climb some 320 steps through the basilica's cupola or ride an elevator to the roof where you'll be rewarded with aerial views of the square below. The Apostolic Palace serves as the permanent residence of the Pope. If you're visiting over a Sunday, you stand a good chance of seeing him. He takes to the window of the palace at noon to bless those gathered in the square. At the Vatican Museums, also within the Apostolic Palace, you'll find among its 54 galleries of world-renowned classical and Renaissance art, the Sistine Chapel and its famous Michelangelo frescoes.
Photo by Diego Cambiaso, CC BY-SA 2.0
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San Marino's claim to fame is that it's the world's oldest republic, dating back to 301 AD, as well as the only country in the world where cars reportedly outnumber its permanent population. Like the Vatican, it's surrounded on all sides by Italy, making it a nice addition to any Italian vacation itinerary. The capital city, also called San Marino or City of San Marino, is a most-visit. The city on a cliff is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, officially San Marino Historic Centre and Mount Titano. The views alone are worth it, but there are countless sights, including the Palazzo Pubblico, the three towers of San Marino (pictured on the country's flag) and the Basilica di San Marino, among others.
Photo by Gianluca Papaccio, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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While Iceland isn't typically considered one of Europe's official microstates, many grant it the designation due to its low population of just over 300,000. It is undisputedly one of the most picturesque nations in Europe, if not the world at large. From the green-tinted night skies that result from the northern lights to its stunning blue lagoon, Iceland offers no shortage of colorful beauty. Its national parks are home to stunning scenes of sprawling mountains, fierce volcanoes and gorgeous glaciers. The UNESCO World Heritage Thingvellir National Park is a must-see, as are Snæfellsjökull and Vatnajökull national parks. The latter of which is home to Europe's largest glacier and the country's largest glacier lake.
Photo by Moyan Brenn, CC BY 2.0
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Like Iceland, Luxembourg is not technically a microstate by most accounts. As Europe's seventh smallest country by area, it deserves a place on this list regardless. Formally the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, it is considered one of the safest nations in the world and one of the three richest--the latter of which makes it a difficult visit for those traveling on a shoestring budget. However, its natural and historic offerings make it well worth every penny--or Euro, rather. Luxembourg City, the nation's capital, is a must-see. Its old quarters and fortifications are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Grand Ducal Palace, the residence of the Grand Duke, is open every day except Wednesday. Its 16th-century Flemish Renaissance exterior is worth at least a walk-by. The Roman Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral is also magnificent. Dating back to 1613, it serves as a splendid example of gothic and Renaissance architecture. Several other cities around Luxembourg are also worth the trip, particularly Vianden for Beaufort Castle, an 11th century medieval fortress and chateau.
Photo by mariusz kluzniak, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0