Everyone knows Vatican City and Monaco are the two smallest countries in Europe (or at least you do now). But while those tiny countries pack in big tourist crowds, Europe remains home to a handful of additional charming micro nations often overlooked by backpackers making their way along the well-worn trails from Barcelona to Berlin. Europe’s next five smallest countries may have a combined size smaller than Denmark, but they still pack in some big-time adventure.
1. San Marino: 23.5 Square Miles
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Located about 60 miles east of Florence but overlooked by most travelers making the rounds from Venice to Rome, this spectacular mountain enclave is also known as “The Most Serene Republic of San Marino.” And one visit quickly reveals why. Set atop the stunning Monte Titano that rises up from the placid green hills of the surrounding countryside, this tiny nation of 31,781 people is little more than a collection of a few small towns smattered amid mountainside terrain around one-third of the size of Washington D.C. Its capital of San Marino (known as “The Citta” to locals) is a gorgeous walled city famous for its picturesque cliffside towers and medieval fortresses. You can ride the aerial tramway, enjoy tax-free shopping at upscale shops and even buy AK-47s if that’s your thing (the country has Europe’s most relaxed gun laws). But we recommend simply strolling the peaceful cobblestone streets of the world’s oldest republic and enjoying the view.
2. Liechtenstein: 61.8 Square Miles
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Once famous as a tax-free billionaire hideaway, Liechtenstein these days is a welcoming (if still expensive) mountain paradise of fresh alpine air and medieval castles. Wedged between Switzerland and Austria, this country is home to a population of around 37,000 people who boast one of the world’s highest standards of living. The Prince of Liechtenstein (valued at around $5 billion) lives in an opulent castle perched high on a mountainside and, while his home may be inaccessible to visitors, the rest of the country is a wide-open and welcoming collection of massive mountain peaks and placid countryside valleys. While cities like the capital Vaduz are clean and modern, you best get out in the mountain towns of Ruggell and Triesenberg to truly experience this country Sound of Music-style.
3. Malta: 122 Square Miles
This scenic collection of islands located between Italy and Africa may be passed over by most European tourists who stop at the southern tip of Sicily, but the adventure continues. While Malta (pictured above) is made up of nearly two dozen islands (only three of which are inhabited), most travelers stick to the main Malta Island to check out the stunning 16th century capital city of Valletta. And you would be wise to spend plenty of time here, as this majestic walled city is jam-packed with historic sites and cool old bars like the ancient wine cellar of Trabuxu. Ride the ferry or gondola-style “dghajsa” (no that’s not a typo) around the beautiful harbor, swim amid the deep blue waters and caves of the Blue Grotto or relax on the placid Golden Bay beach. Be sure to explore the historic fortress city of Mdina and venture out to some of the country’s exterior islands like Gozo for a more off-the-beaten-path experience.
4. Andorra: 180.7 Square Miles
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Sandwiched along the Pyrenees mountain range between Spain and France, Andorra packs nine ski resorts into a country. But with a population of around 85,000, there is plenty of room to spread out and explore its nature smog-free. Vallnord and Grandvalira are the two dominant ski resorts and with several different towns in the country that are little more than resorts, one could forgive the initial traveler for thinking the country is just one giant resort for skiing and upscale duty-free shopping. But that would be misguided, as a dig beneath the surface reveals a wealth of Catalan culture and some of the finest hiking in Europe. Traverse lakes, valleys and streams as you make your way through the country’s rugged glacial terrain and stunning alpine national parks that extend along its borders. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, sleep in a mountain hut like the locals.
5. Luxembourg: 1,000 Square Miles
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Possibly the only country on this list that you’ve actually heard of, Luxembourg is outsized when compared to others we’ve mentioned (and that goes for the pricing, too). While many know of this modern European Union country roughly the size of Rhode Island that straddles the borders of France, Germany and Belgium, precious few know anything about it. With a diverse multilingual population in one of the world’s richest and safest countries, you’ll find the classic European experience available throughout the country (minus the tourists). The beautiful Luxembourg City, perched high on a cliff and packed with ancient fortresses and castles, is a good place to start. But you should also get to know the romantic fairytale village of Vianden (where you can tour the castle and ride the zip line), the wineries of Remich and the forests of Mullerthal. Caution: the more you learn about this country, the less you’ll ever want to leave it.
Jay Gentile is a world traveler and freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications including SPIN, VICE, Chicago Tribune, Thrillist and Consequence of Sound.