I like quirky places, destinations that are a little different or unusual and, in most cases, the world’s smallest countries all fall neatly into this category. Usually formed due to a complex and politically unusual history, these microstates have embraced their stature, showing a fierce pride in what is ultimately a very small piece of real estate. I’ve had the great pleasure to visit many small countries around the world, including these personal favorites.
The quirky island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean has a long and important history, but it’s one not many people actually know a lot about. Long considered by Europeans as a sunny getaway, others from around the world are learning about this small country not just for its beaches and turquoise blue waters, but also for its art, architecture, cities and incredible history. Personally, there’s nothing I enjoy more in Malta than roaming the hilly streets of the capital city, Valletta. Whether it’s incredible harbor views or delving deep into the history of this colorful island, there’s plenty for all types of travelers to enjoy.
Located on the French Riviera, Monaco fulfills our collective dreams of what this swanky part of the world should be like. What immediately attracts most visitors is Monte Carlo and its famous casino. Drawing the well to do for generations, the massive building still has the air of wealth and exclusivity, but there’s a lot more to the microstate than roulette. The old town of Monaco is what interested me the most, wandering past the Prince’s Palace and along quite side streets, it was only then that I started to connect with the country. But there is no doubt that all of Monaco feels as if it’s sprinkled with fairy dust, and to pretend you’re part of that elite community, even if just for a few hours, is well worth the visit.
Enveloped by Italy near the coastal city of Rimini, San Marino is very much a real life fairy tale. This small speck of land calls a series of mountain peaks home; castle forts perched high above the surrounding valley serving as intimidating sentries. Most people only visit San Marino as a day trip from other areas in Italy, all eager for their opportunity to walk into that fairy tale. Visits to San Marino tend to be brief. It’s small, there’s only so much to see and do and for me, the hilly walking got a little annoying after a few hours. But there’s also no denying the travel magic contained within the city walls. Sure, most of the shops are touristy, but they’re in traditional buildings, ones that have been there for centuries. Walking along the winding streets, it’s very easy to imagine yourself in a San Marino of years gone by and you start to appreciate what life must have really been like. There are very few places left on this Earth, much less in Europe, where you can really and truly get this sort of perspective and it is for that reason more than any other that San Marino lives on as a place of enchantment for everyone who visits.
Rome is amazing and any first time visitor worth their travel salt will include some time in Vatican City. Thanks to its incredible history and importance, the Vatican fascinates me and I always find myself wandering around when I visit the Eternal City. For something a little different though, be sure to book a special Scavi tour. The Vatican Necropolis, or Scavi, is located directly beneath the immense St. Peter’s Basilica and contains everything from the Papal tombs to Roman cities of the dead. To visit you can book tickets on your own, which wasn’t the easiest process when I did it, but is well worth the hassle. The entire tour was an hour and a half, but it seemed like ten minutes. We wandered through all of the various levels of excavation, navigated uneven ground previously trod upon by Roman nobles. Included in the tour is an entire Roman city street and necropolis complex. It was incredible to peer through doorways and imagine the city two thousand years earlier.
I honestly didn’t expect a lot from my brief visit to Luxembourg. It was a stop en route to somewhere else, but as so often happens, Luxembourg quickly became a new favorite destination of mine. Let’s be clear, Luxembourg is not a microstate. It is not Andorra or San Marino or the oft-confused-with Lichtenstein. Although it’s not big (999 sq miles with half a million residents) it’s big enough to have more than one city with actual things to do and see, unlike the other European microstates. Naturally though the most popular, and likely also the most interesting, is the capital Luxembourg City. Recognized by UNESCO for the important role it’s played in European history due not only to its strategic position within Europe, but also to the fact that it’s one of the largest fortresses on the continent. A few days is really necessary to properly enjoy the country, a surprisingly fun country to visit hidden quietly away in the middle of Europe.
I love islands, but not for the reasons you might think. While the beaches and palm trees are always nice, islands tend to be quirky and interesting, full of local traditions and weird histories. They are floating small towns and I love learning more about them. This year, I think it’s important to visit the many small island countries of the Caribbean, as a nod of support following the devastating hurricanes of 2017. Much of the Caribbean was left unaffected by the hurricanes and even those islands hardest hit are already welcoming back tourists. Make 2018 the year that you visit, contribute to the local economies and help this beautiful part of the world get back on its feet.