Size isn't everything. Here are ten of the smallest countries in the world. Some of them are rarely visited, except by travellers collecting visa stamps. Most are islands, often far flung. Their wealth varies, from nearly the highest per capita GDP to nearly the lowest, but all still manage to delight or enlighten the most world-weary of travellers.
Monaco, 1.95 sq km
If you want posh then you’ve come to the right principality. Monaco was established in 1297 when François Grimaldi seized the fortress that still dominates the area from a rival Italian faction. The 195- hectare independent state, which lies on an exceptionally picturesque, narrow coastal strip, has long been a tax refuge for the spectacularly rich and famous. Actress Grace Kelly, who married Monaco’s Prince Rainier, is buried in the cathedral in the heart of the wonderfully preserved Monaco-Ville old town. Exploration on foot is facilitated by public lifts and escalators to help overcome steep hills. Dress smart if you don’t want to stand out.
Grenada, 344 sq km
This oval landmass, known as the Spice Isle because it produces vast quantities of mace and nutmeg, contains some of the Caribbean’s most spectacular natural vistas. From a narrow coastal plain, volcanic cliffs rise majestically through luscious rainforest to form Grenada’s mountainous backbone, now under the protection of the Grand Etang National Park. Grand Etang itself is a water-filled crater that, legend has it, is bottomless; few have the nerve to swim in the eerily tranquil waters. Spectacular interior hiking trails lead to wonders such as Concord Falls, while beachcombers should head for the Levera National Park.
Malta, 316 sq km
You’ll never say there’s nothing to do in Malta. For its size, the tiny rock and limestone island puts on an inordinate number of festivals throughout the year, but particularly in summer. There’s the Mediterranean Food Festival, the Malta Fireworks Festival, as well as a Jazz Festival and, most fabulous of all, a two-day event put on especially so that attendees can help select the country’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. When you’ve had enough human interaction, head to a nearby uninhabited island to unwind, or wander into the interior to check out the megalithic ruins of the island’s conquered indigenous inhabitants.
San Marino, 61 sq km
Because of San Marino’s high altitude, the view when walking around this enclave of central Italy is a bit like looking out of an aeroplane window onto endless clouds and the spectacular snow-capped Apennines. Founded in AD 301 by a stonemason named Marino, the rugged city-state claims to be the world’s oldest republic. Steeped in medieval history, a visit here is not complete without trekking up to the three imposing tower-fortresses perched along the cliff tops, the oldest of which, the Rocca Guaita, dates back to the 10th century. Also check out the infamous torture museum, which uses diagrams to explain how the gruesome instruments were used.
Liechtenstein, 160 sq km
Despite being the butt of jokes told across its borders in Switzerland and Austria, Liechtenstein has much to offer the open-minded traveller. Within its 160 sq km are awesome ski-fields, centred on the enchanting hamlet of Malbun, that have produced 11 Olympic alpine-skiing medals for the tiny country. Cyclists of all levels can burn along more than 90km of trails in the Rhine Valley and around the Eschnerberg mountain..
Marshall Islands, 181 sq km
Mums and feminists get an especially warm welcome when they visit this remote chain of around 60 coral atolls and islands in the Pacific. The republican population of just over 52,000 has retained the matrilineal traditions of original Marshallese culture, and at a young age children are taught politeness and respect for women and elders. The region is celebrated for its juicy coconuts, and as a world-class haven for divers, the crystal waters concealing WWII wrecks and endless reefs. Wotje Atoll is generally regarded as the most beautiful atoll in the world, with a lagoon filled with giant clams harvested by the islanders.
Saint Kitts & Nevis, 261 sq km
Comparisons are often made between the dual Caribbean island nation of St Kitts & Nevis and the lush, tropical paradises of the South Pacific. St Kitts, the larger of the two islands, is dominated by a central mountain range, with a dense covering of rainforest, above which rises the cloud-fringed peak of Mt Liamuiga, a dormant volcano. Natural preservation is a key government aim, with laws forbidding any construction above the height of the tallest palms. The beaches are pristine, as are the surrounding waters savoured by aquanauts from around the world. The country’s colonial past has also been preserved and makes for a revelatory visit.
Maldives, 298 sq km
As with most remote islands, some of the best adventures in the Maldives are to be had in the ocean. Particularly renowned are sunset cruises offered on most of the 200 inhabited islands (out of a total of 2000). Expect to find yourself clicking with joy as scores of dolphins put on an effortless natural display that you won’t find at any marine park. Another popular excursion is night fishing, where even the lamest landlubber can expect to reel in a snapper. During the day it’s a toss up between sunbathing or donning a snorkel and chasing angelic reef fish through corridors of coral.
Tuvalu, 26 sq km
The nine low-lying atolls and islands of Tuvalu comprise one of the most isolated independent nations on earth, huddled together in an idyllic and unspoiled corner of the Pacific. Due to the high costs associated with getting there, Tuvalu is still rarely visited. The country’s total land area of just 26 sq km is formed by a curving chain stretching 676 km in length; it’s the gateway to tranquil reef diving, uninhabited beaches and paradisiacal weather (except during hurricane season). In this idyllic setting, dancing and singing is still the number one entertainment, with lively fale kaupule shows put on each night.
Nauru, 21 sq km
The main purpose of a trip to the world’s smallest republic is education. Named Pleasant Island by its first European visitors in recognition of its lush vegetation and friendly locals, Nauru has since become a striking example of resource mismanagement. In just 50 years, a consortium of British and Australian mining companies has destroyed 80% of the island’s 21-sq-km land mass, an area known as ‘topside.’ Standing in the middle of this wasteland, mined for its valuable phosphates, is a shocking lesson of how greed can decimate ecosystems. It is not something you are likely to forget in a hurry.
This article was updated in March 2012.
Ready to go?
Have a mini-adventure with these tours and activities:
- Take a St-Tropez day trip from Monaco.
- Head out for a sunset champagne cruise in Grenada.
- Cruise the coral reefs in the translucent waters of the Maldives.
For more hidden gems, check out our article on The world's best secret islands.