9 Tiny Countries With Big Appeal

Take a closer look

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Many of the smallest independent nations on the planet are not located in out-of-the-way corners of the globe: They are adjacent to, or even surrounded by, some of the world's most well-known countries. Some were regions of former colonies that made their own way after independence. Others had traditional Old World monarchs who were savvy enough to remain independent. All of these nations have a unique set of cultural traits, and most also boast amazing natural landscapes. In short, some of the smallest nations on Earth are also the most interesting.

San Marino

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San Marino, which is surrounded by Italy, has been an independent republic since 1599. It has a population of just over 33,000 and a total area of less than 24 square miles. Mountainous landscapes, well-preserved medieval and Renaissance-era castles, and a mix of interesting history and charming fact-based legend make San Marino one of the most memorable places to visit in Southern Europe. The historic center of the capital, which also bears the name San Marino, is a popular stop for Italy-based tourists.

Lesotho

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Sometimes called the Kingdom of the Sky, Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa. Its nickname is an especially apt one because the country's lowest elevation is more than one-half mile above sea level. Winter snows are common in this mountain kingdom, and the main tourist activities in this 11,720-square-mile country are trekking on foot or horseback or swooshing down the slopes of one of Southern Africa's best (and only) ski resorts.

Lesotho has a unique history. It became a British protectorate after its then-king needed help to keep his lands from being swallowed up by South Africa. The country gained full independence in the 1960s, so it mostly avoided the effects of the apartheid system that marred South Africa's 20th-century history.

Brunei

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Brunei is a small nation of 2,226 square miles on the coast of Malaysian Borneo. Exclusive fishing rights and its location near an important shipping lane, in addition to its massive oil wealth, have made it a rich country. Officially called "the Sultanate of Brunei," it has been ruled by the same royal family for the past 600 years. To this day, the sultan remains the most powerful person in this land of nearly 400,000 inhabitants, though he now shares authority with parliament.

Because its oil fields are concentrated offshore, much of Brunei's inland remains untouched. Small stilt-house river villages that sit directly over the water are everywhere, even near the modern capital of Bandar Seri Begawan. Virgin rainforests, colorful coral reefs and quiet rivers make this an ideal eco-tourism destination, while the palatial mosques, modern architecture and mixture of Malay and Chinese cultures will give urban tourists plenty to see and experience.

Liechtenstein

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The Principality of Liechtenstein is a German-speaking nation that appears on the map as a small dot between Austria and Switzerland. Known for its beautiful mountain scenery, ski resorts, classic architecture and quaint alpine villages, the country draws a large number of tourists throughout the year. Because of its strong political and economic ties with Switzerland, Liechtenstein uses the Swiss franc as currency. People seeking a Swiss high-end shopping experience head to the retail outlets in Liechtenstein's capital, Vaduz, which also boasts plenty of classic architecture.

Established in the 18th century, Liechtenstein is the last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, whose rulers once controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe. Today, the country has a population of slightly more than 37,000 people spread across 62 square miles. It's ruled by a constitutional monarchy, with a popularly elected parliament handling most of the governing responsibilities.

Luxembourg

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Another small European kingdom, Luxembourg, sits between France, Germany and Belgium. This is a country of fairy-tale-like castles and small villages. Many residents are based in rural areas, with the capital, Luxembourg City, and the tourist hub of Echternach the only large population centers in the country. Scenery seekers head to the forested valleys and beautiful highland areas, while the quaint storybook towns draw hordes of sightseers.

Thanks to highly developed finance, technology and steel industries, Luxembourg is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Its multilingual population of around 600,000 and its relatively large size (just under 1,000 square miles) make it one of the larger nations on this list in terms of both area and population.

Monaco

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Situated on France's Cote d'Azur only a few miles from the Italian border, Monaco is the second-smallest independent nation on Earth in terms of land area. Unlike all of the other tiny nations on this list, Monaco is almost completely urban, with a population of over 30,000 in an area of less than one square mile. Officially a principality, it's arguably the best-known small country in the world.

The main district, Monte Carlo, is known for its sports-car culture, glitzy casinos and exclusive hotels, while an older section features outdoor street markets and charming narrow streets. The principality is an architecture-lover's dreamland, with palatial, classic buildings everywhere, and views of the coastline and hilly terrain within easy reach. Museums, art galleries (including the famous Marlborough Gallery) and Jacques Cousteau's Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium are also on the agenda for visitors. The country is within day-trip distance of the more reasonably priced hostels and guesthouses of Nice, France.

Vatican City

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Encircled by Rome, Vatican City is the world's tiniest sovereign country and is smaller than some big-city neighborhoods, covering 110 acres. This is one of the most attraction-rich countries on our list, home to museums, art galleries, gardens and some of the world's most famous religious structures. St. Peter's Basilica and many other historic buildings are visible from its namesake square, which draws a crowd during festivals and papal appearances.

The real highlights for many visitors are the Vatican Museums, which features the Sistine Chapel and other works by the most famous Renaissance artists, as well as collections of early Christian artifacts. The Vatican Gardens (shown here), which contain some of the most impressive plant collections in all of Italy, can be visited only as part of an official tour. But one of the most attractive things about visiting Vatican City is that you can see everything in a single day and still have time to experience the delights of Rome before heading back to your hotel for the night.

Andorra

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This country of more than 80,000 people covers almost 181 square miles and sits in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. Once remote and impoverished, Andorra's beautiful scenery and status as a tax haven have made it a popular destination for tourists and people immigrating from elsewhere in Europe.

Aside from the ski slopes (which are known for their family-friendliness) and mountain biking trails, Andorra has villages and towns that boast architecture and atmosphere that have not changed in centuries. Andorra La Vella, the capital and only city of any size in the country, has plenty of duty-free shopping options. The tourism boom has led to a vibrant retail scene, with about one shopping venue for every 40 Andorrans. Andorra La Vella also has a charming old town area with classic guesthouses and inns that provide a good base for exploring the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Swaziland

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Traditional culture and nature are at the forefront of what has become an impressive tourist industry in Swaziland (officially renamed Eswatini in April 2018), which sits on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. Hlane Royal National Park, Mlawula Nature Reserve and Malolotja Nature Reserve all have abundant wildlife and natural landscapes that have never been affected by humans. White rhinos, lions, zebras and even elephants are among the animal inhabitants at these parks. Swaziland is also a land of great traditional culture, with annual festivals drawing thousands of tourists.

Swaziland, one of the smallest countries in Africa at 6,704 square miles, is considered the world's last true absolute monarchy. Today, there is a parliament, but a majority of its members as well as the prime minister are directly appointed by the king. Despite its unusual political status, this tiny country is known for being friendly, open and peaceful.