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The Micro-states of Europe- discovering the six smallest states

These tiny states are easily overlooked when making travel plans and can even be difficult to locate on a map, but each offers their own unique essence that make them worth checking out! It is also an easy way to add another country to your list of visited places by extending a larger trip through the surrounding countries. Learning a little about them and seeing what they have to offer made me appreciate and enjoy each one more than I expected. See which of the six you are interested in exploring!


Andorra

The main attractions:


This landlocked country is nestled in the mountainous Pyrenees region between France and Spain and is a world class destination for all winter sport lovers. After a long day on the slopes, there are numerous spas to relax in, including the largest mountain spa in Europe. Unique museums, shopping, and exploring some of the historic Roman churches dotting the landscape are also popular attractions.

My visit:


Because there are no airports in Andorra, I rented a small car in Barcelona and made the three hour drive north to the first stop on a solo road trip before heading back to Spain to do the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Narrow roads weaved up the mountains before reaching small towns in the center. Arriving early in the morning, I grabbed a coffee before spending the afternoon hiking through the Escaldes-Engordany to visit Estany de la Nou, a small lake, and making my way to Refugi de Perafita for a sunny picnic before returning to Andorra la Vella. Vineyards laced the steep slopes and views from wineries perched near the top provided sweeping views of the countryside. Because the mountain slopes are so steep, all of the harvesting must be done by hand, which keeps the production levels fairly small. I visited the beautiful Casa Auvinya winery where the grapes are grown at an altitude of over 1,200m high! After seeing the cellar and walking around the vineyard, I ended the day with a tasting and soaking up some sunshine.


Liechtenstein

The main attractions:


In the heart of the Alps, Liechtenstein is squeezed in between Austria and Switzerland. The mountains make it a natural choice for avid outdoor enthusiasts for either summer or winter seasons. The historic Castle of Vaduz overlooks the capital city that was named after it, but is not open to the public since it remains the residence for the royal family of Liechtenstein. Downtown Vaduz offers a contemporary fine arts museum and a traditional Roman Catholic church, the Cathedral of St. Florin, which are popular places to visit.


My visit:


I made a weekend road trip to Liechtenstein during winter, planning on taking advantage of Malbun to get in some skiing at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, there was not much snow at the time so instead I did a cold hike up to the Castle of Vaduz and explored the capital city. I was pleasantly surprised that Lichtenstein was in in full swing for Fasching. For those who have not yet experienced Fasching, it is the Carnival celebration and the best way I can describe it as a perfect blend of Halloween and Mardi Gras in the US. It is celebrated across Europe with local flare and in Liechtenstein that meant a parade teeming with bands performing, large devils chasing down small children, and adults getting rowdier and louder as the alcohol flowed heavily. I loved every minute of the confetti and glühwein filled afternoon, which gradually transitioned from the parade to a full-fledged competition of the bands showcasing their musical and dancing talent while flaunting vibrant colorful costumes. Since the total area of the capital city is less than 7 miles, all the festivities were located in an easy walking distance from each other!


Malta

The main attractions:


The beautiful Mediterranean island of Malta has a fraction of the visitors of some of its neighbors, (as many as 33 million tourists visit Greece annually) with just over 1 million tourists per year. The old city of Valletta looks like a movie set with its rich Baroque architecture overlooking the narrow cobblestoned streets that are lined by small restaurants offering a variety of cheap delicious cuisine. Malta also offers numerous pristine beaches to relax on, lagoons and grottos to explore, and cliffs to jump off.


My visit:


The warm weather and array of water activities made Malta the perfect destination for a weekend girls trip. Traveling with two friends out of Germany, we spent a several days exploring the charming historic center of Valetta and trying all the beach activities while sipping drinks in the hot summer afternoons. Hands down my favorite part of the trip was when we took a day cruise out to the historic island of Gozo to explore the fortified medieval city and then cruised around and swam in the stunning Blue Lagoon in Comino!


Monaco


The main attractions:


Monaco is most famous for its annual Formula One Grand Prix race that shuts down the entire country as elite race cars speed around the hairpin turns. It is also known for its ritzy and glamorous side with the famous Monte Carlo Casino, a harbor full of luxurious yachts, and the chance to mingle with the rich and famous. The Prince’s Palace of Monaco, Cathedral, Jardin Exotique, and Oceanographic Museum all lend to this upscale and trendy destination.


My visit:


The closest airport is in Nice, France so after spending some time working on my tan in the French Riviera and frolicking through the lavender fields in Aix en Provence, I caught the train into Monaco to witness all the glamour firsthand. I started with a fresh seafood lunch at a waterfront café that overlooked rows of massive yachts watching stylish couples casually stroll off. I climbed up and down the hilly neighborhoods to explore the Palace and all the most famous sites, followed James Bond’s footsteps into the unbelievably extravagant Monte Carlo, and then spent the end of the hot afternoon relaxing at the sandy Larvotto Beach. Tanning on the beach while sipping a pricy fruity cocktail was possibly the only point in the day that I was not underdressed, yet I cannot wait to go back someday, dressed to the nines to see the Grand Prix action up close!


San Marino


The main attractions:


This city-state is only 2 square kilometers, making it the second smallest state in Europe. It also boasts the title of the oldest republic in the world. San Marino shares an open border with Italy, but for those who love getting their passport stamped to commemorate trips it is possible to do so at the small tourism office. The castles guarding the edge of Monte Titano in San Marino are often virtually empty allowing guests to freely explore the long connecting pathways that resemble the Great Wall of China. This UNESCO world heritage site overlooks the Italian Apennines, rivaling the beauty of the famous surrounding Tuscan region. San Marino is also the oldest surviving sovereign state in the world and it's known as the Serene Republic.

My visit:


On a girls road trip eating and drinking our way through Florence and around Tuscany, San Marino was an easy addition. Hiking around the long stretches of wall, we enjoyed a delicious dinner at the Ristorante Pizzeria Nido del Falco which is alighted on the ledge of the mountain before turning in at a little air bnb tucked into one of the nooks on the tight cobblestoned streets within the walled old town of the city. The next morning we enjoyed breakfast at a tiny family-run café before exploring the town and visiting the Museo di Stato to learn more about the long history of San Marino.


Vatican City- the Holy See


The main attractions:


The name is slightly misleading as Vatican City is technically a state. It shares an open border with Italy and is fully surrounded by Rome, but it does maintain its own security. The main attraction that cannot be missed is the massive St. Peter’s Square which can hold hundreds of thousands of people and leads directly into the Basilica. The Vatican Museum is another key component which is comprised of nearly five miles worth of art, collections, tapestries, and artifacts not to mention the expansive Vatican Gardens. The highlight of course is the 15th century Sistine Chapel which showcases four years of work in the painstakingly detailed frescoes from one of the biggest names in the art world, Michelangelo.

My visit:


The first time I visited Vatican City and made my awestruck way through the Museum was during my junior year in college on a study abroad program while completing an assignment. The sheer size of the museum and the amount of priceless objects and history that resides within those walls is simply incredible! I spent the entire day slowly making my way through the decades of history and after finally stumbling out hours later, I went around the corner into St. Peter’s Basilica and climbed the narrow staircase to the top of the dome. This was one of the highlights from the entire trip and easily the best view in town! The 360 panoramic view at the top showcases the neatly manicured gardens in the Vatican and the best vantage point over the Square and Tiber River far below. A few weeks later, I made my way back for a mass led by Pope Benedict XVI. Although I am not Catholic, it was still incredible to experience attending mass in the heart of the Vatican at the epicenter of the Catholic Church. If you have read ‘Angels and Demons’ by Dan Brown, are a history or art buff, or simply want to enjoy one of the best views in Rome, do not miss visiting Vatican City!



 

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