With the notable exception of Russia, Europe is not exactly a continent of giant nations. Not by the standards of Asia, Africa, North and South America, at any rate.
In fact, Europe is something of a specialist in small states. Not only is the average landmass of its constituent countries smaller than all the other continents, it is also home to the microstate – the very smallest nations on Earth.
Four of the top 10 smallest countries on the planet, and three of the top five, are found in Europe. The surviving relics of times past when large swathes of Europe were a jumble of tiny fiefdoms, city states and minor kingdoms, some of these dots on the map are so small their status as ‘independent’ countries is not entirely clear.
But political anomalies or not, they offer an attraction to curious travellers looking for something interesting to tick off their bucket list. We’re so often drawn to the biggest of everything – the biggest cities, the highest mountains, the longest rivers – it makes a refreshing change in its own right to think small.
So here are Europe’s smallest countries, in order of size, starting with the smallest (of course). Have a read, decide on where to go and then get packing!
At less than half a square kilometre in size, Vatican City is so small that you could squeeze it into New York’s Central Park eight times over. A walled enclave tucked away inside the Italian capital Rome, the Vatican is, of course, the seat of the Pope, the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church. For all its diminutive size, the Vatican has been a truly gargantuan presence in world history for well over 1500 years.
Interestingly, the Vatican’s status as a ‘country’ dates back less than 100 years to 1929. Even then, it is technically a sovereign city state rather than a bona fide ‘country’ as we generally understand it. The star attraction is the magnificent St Peter’s Basilica, reputedly the resting place of Christ’s chief apostle. Pre-COVID, this tiny pocket welcomed close to seven million visitors a year, a blend of tourists and pilgrims coming to worship at its great shrines.
Like the Vatican, Monaco just about clings onto the status of being an ‘independent’ city state, rather than just a small (but fabulously wealthy) city in the south of France. With the official title of a Principality, Monaco has its own royal family, and judging from the lavish lifestyles and eye-watering costs of pretty much everything, you have to be close to royalty to live there.
Monaco is best known for its mega-yacht filled marina, its casinos, its football team (a club that plays in the French league, rather than a national team) and the annual grand prix. As a tourist destination, it has been described as a tiny Las Vegas for the super rich, although the fact it is smack bang in the middle of the French Riviera means the curious can easily poke their noses around for a day (or night) without having to fork out for the 5-star hotel prices.
Compared to the miniscule city states that top this list, San Marino is almost gigantic – with a total area of 61km2, it’s more than 120 times larger than its fellow Italian enclave the Vatican, in fact. Yet that is still small enough to make this petite pocket of land in north east Italy the fifth smallest country in the world.
San Marino’s other claim to fame is that it is reputedly the world’s oldest republic. It traces its history back to its founder Saint Marinus, who started a monastic community in the mountainous region of Emilia Romagna in 301 AD. The country’s most famous landmark is the Castello della Cesta, which sits atop a towering bluff and gives dramatic views over the surrounding countryside.
Tiny as it is (just 25km from end to end), the Alpine state of Liechtenstein is the first on this list that can claim to be a ‘fully’ independent nation as the term is nowadays applied. To that end, as well as a constitutional monarchy, it also has its own Parliament, its own electoral system, its own courts. In other words, its 38,000 citizens decide on the affairs of the country with very little reliance on its much larger neighbours, Switzerland and Austria.
It also has its own economy, and a very successful one at that – one of Liechtenstein’s claims to fame is that it has the second highest per capita GDP in the world. That prosperity relies very little on tourism, however – despite the gorgeous Alpine scenery dotted with medieval castles, and plenty of opportunities to ski in the winter, Liechtenstein is the second least visited country in Europe. Which seems an excellent reason to go there!
Just pipping the Pyrennean country of Andorra to last place in our list (the latter is about 150km2 larger), Malta is also the first island. Which is a quirk of European microstates in itself, because elsewhere in the world, islands dominate the lists of tiniest nations.
In fact, Malta the country is actually three islands, with the Gozo and Comino joining Malta the island. It is also the only genuine mainstream tourist destination on our list – the south Mediterranean sunshine attracts two million visitors a year, more than four times the number of people who actually live there.
If you’ve got big ideas about touring some of Europe’s smallest nations, don’t forget to include travel insurance in your plans. With Omicron forcing countries across Europe to tighten their border rules again, you will have to take PCR tests to get into any of our microstates. A positive result will ruin your plans and force you into quarantine, which you will have to pay for yourself.
Travel insurance is the only way to cover potential losses arising from a positive COVID test. Click here for more information.