15 Tiny Countries You Never Knew Existed
From island paradises to little lands tucked away in Europe, these small nations are big on scenery and culture.
1. Sao Tome and Principe
The dual-island nation of Sao Tome and Principe off Africa’s west coast in the Gulf of Guinea is only 963 square kilometres, but what it lacks in space it makes up for in gorgeous, unspoiled nature—particularly on the remote Principe. The amazing needle-like volcanic peak Pico Cao Grande rises 1,000 feet sharply into the air from the surrounding terrain on the island, which is rich in biodiverse species. Uninhabited until the Portuguese colonized them in the 15th century, the islands are home to only around 200,000 people today, with just 10,000 on Principe.
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2. San Marino
Only 60 square kilometres with a population of just 30,000, the little-known nation of San Marino, surrounded by Italy, is the world’s fifth smallest country. Dominated by the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mount Titano and its three medieval fortresses, the country is said to be the oldest republic in the world. A ramble through the capital’s narrow stone streets makes your visit feel like a step back into history. Come for a day trip from Florence, and stay for the amazing views of the Adriatic Sea.
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Dominica, “The Nature Island,” is often confused with the popular tourist destination of the Dominican Republic. But this small country of only 751 mountainous square kilometres is a nation in its own right, with some of the best hiking and diving in the Caribbean, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of volcanic Morne Trois Pitons National Park. In Dominica, you’ll see lush rainforests, pounding waterfalls, and sweeping coastal views. The island is also home to the only remaining population of Carib Indians, known as the Kalinago, who are part of the island’s 70,000 inhabitants.
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This Pacific island nation of 33 atolls, or coral islands, are together around the same size as Dominica—just 810 square kilometres. But because the atolls are so spread out, Kiribati is the only country in the world to fall into all four hemispheres (northern, southern, eastern, and western). Only 20 of the islands are inhabited with the country’s 108,000 residents. Visitors to Kiribati enjoy some of the best deep-sea fishing in the world, as well as kilometres of saltwater flats. But see this tropical paradise before it is no longer—rising seas are threatening to swallow the country whole.
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Not to be mistaken for The Princess Diaries’ Genovia (which unfortunately isn’t a real place), Andorra lies in the Pyrenees mountains on the French border. But interestingly, the president of France (currently Emmanuel Macron) actually becomes prince of the tiny country when elected. In the 13th century, an agreement between the French monarch and the Bishop of Urgell, Spain, decided they should rule Andorra as “co-princes” to avoid war, and the odd arrangement has been in place ever since. This country of 469 square kilometres and 77,000 people boasts excellent skiing and duty-free shopping.
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6. Saint Kitts and Nevis
Another dual-island nation, this country once consisted of three islands, but Anguilla was allowed to become independent in 1971. Smaller Nevis, which is just 93 square kilometres, has made attempts to secede as well, but hasn’t been successful. At 261 square kilometres total, St. Kitts and Nevis rank as the eighth smallest country in the world, and the smallest country in the Americas and the Western Hemisphere. A Caribbean hideaway, the country features historic sugar plantation ruins, green vervet monkeys, and spectacular hiking.
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The least-visited country in the world is the closest thing to paradise, but travellers who make it to the secluded destination of Tuvalu in the South Pacific will find a thriving Polynesian culture, gorgeous lagoons, and coral reefs perfect for snorkelling. At only 26 square land kilometres, the nation of nine isles, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is the fourth smallest on Earth. Over half of the population of 11,000 reside on Funafuti, the capital. But away from the main island, you’ll feel like you’re a castaway.
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The fairy-tale country of Liechtenstein is the only nation to be located completely in the Alps. At 134 square kilometres, the German-speaking microstate is “double-landlocked” between coast-less Switzerland and Austria. The richest country in the world, Liechtenstein is a constitutional monarchy led by Prince Hans Adam II, who rules a population of about 38,000. You can join the royal family and all their subjects for a beer in the gardens of picturesque Vaduz Castle every year for the national holiday, Staatsfeiertag, on August 15. A fair and fireworks follow the celebration.
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Off the eastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean and north of Madagascar are Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands. Despite that large number, the country’s total land area is only 456 square kilometres, and almost ninety per cent of its nearly 94,000 residents live on the largest island, Mahé. But venturing to the more remote islands can bring visitors up close to endemic species, marine reserves, a breeding ground for giant tortoises, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site Vallée de Mai, a palm forest largely unchanged since prehistoric times. Oh, and the pristine tropical beaches aren’t bad either.
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10. Vatican City
You’ve heard of the Vatican, but did you know it’s its own nation? Set inside the city of Rome, the enclave is just 100 acres—an eighth the size of New York City’s Central Park. Headed by the Pope, the country, also known as the Holy See, has less than 1,000 residents, including the colourfully uniformed Swiss guards. These soldiers have guarded the Pope and his residence since 1506. Visitors can simply stroll over from Italy to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world, as well as Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
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This nation of hundreds of tiny islands near the Philippines comprises only 458 square kilometres of land with a population of 21,000. Its varying topography, which ranges from the mountainous main island of Babelthuap to low-lying coral islands, makes it the perfect destination for hiking and off-roading, as well as snorkelling and diving. World War II relics dot the islands both above and below the sea. To protect its ecology, Palau now requires visitors to sign a stamped passport pledge to “tread lightly, act kindly, and explore mindfully.”
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Located on China’s coast, Macau is autonomous although technically still a Chinese “special administration region” like its neighbour across the South China Sea, Hong Kong. Its glitzy casinos, hotels, and shows have given Macau the nickname “the Las Vegas of China.” Only about 28 square kilometres, Macau is also the world’s most densely populated, with 600,000 residents. A former Portuguese colony, Macau retains the charm of its heritage in its historic centre, and the fusion between east and west can be seen in everything from the architecture to the cuisine.
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The small South Asian island nation of the Maldives floats in the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lanka. Its 298 square kilometres of land make it the ninth smallest country in the world. Home to a growing number of luxury resorts, the country is also the world’s lowest, rising to only six feet above sea level, so its priorities have wavered between environmental protection from increasing sea levels and mass tourism. Visitors to the island can (responsibly) explore the islands’ crystal waters and even swim with whale sharks, year-round residents who regularly come to the surface. Just keep a safe distance from these gentle giants.
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Not to be confused with nearby Slovakia, this little county in central Europe is one of the continent’s best-kept secrets. Part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia has been an independent nation since just 1991. It’s the largest country on our list, but still only the 45th smallest nation in the world—and most people have never heard of it. From snowy mountains to aqua-coloured rivers to charming castles, it features spectacular, off-the-beaten-track destinations.
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We’re back to the South Pacific for our final tiny country, the 717-square kilometre islands of Tonga, near Fiji. The only remaining monarchy in the Pacific, the country is unique in the region for never totally losing its indigenous government, and many cultural traditions remain today. Known as the “Friendly Islands,” Tonga and its population of 106,000 are welcoming. Visitors to Tonga will discover an authentic Polynesian experience along with active volcanoes, “fishing pigs” (yep, these feral porkers actually catch fish), migrating humpback whales, and truly incredible beaches.