The smallest mainland country in the Americas is affectionately nicknamed Pulgarcito de America, or the “Tom Thumb of the Americas”. With an untouched tropical interior, great surfing spots on its coastline and a thriving nightlife scene in colonial capital San Salvador, El Salvador is something of a microcosm of wider Latin America, offering a manageable introduction to this most energetic part of the world.
Malta and Gozo
Floating in the Mediterranean Sea somewhere between Italy and North Africa’s Roman Coast, Malta is a mêlée of cultures, with strong European, Arabic and English influences. Although small – in Gozo you can see the sea pretty much everywhere you go – the Maltese archipelago packs in a whole host of significant prehistoric sites, such as the labyrinthine Hal Saflieni Hypogeum underground necropolis.
It may be dwarfed in size by its giant neighbour across the Taiwan Strait, but since becoming the first true Chinese democracy in the 1990s Taiwan has developed into a vibrant civil society. Still largely undiscovered by international visitors, Taiwan boasts excellent food, aboriginal festivals and exuberant temples in its cities and towering mountains and hot-springs in the hinterland.
Comprising 26 coral atolls and over 1200 islands, the overall land area of the Maldives archipelago is just twice the size of Washington DC. But with some of the finest deep sea diving on the planet (with visibility of up to forty metres), palm-fringed beaches, and the absence of any agriculture or industry, the Maldives has become the ultimate island getaway)
Officially nicknamed the “Abode of Peace”, but known locally as “The Shelfare State” for the dominant role of Shell Oil in the country, minuscule Brunei is one of the world’s smallest and wealthiest nations. Because of its thriving oil wealth, seventy percent of the country is still covered by almighty virgin rainforest, home to clouded leopard, sun bears and the gravity-defying paradise tree snake.
A tiny island hanging off the southern coast of Malaysia, Singapore has evolved from a chaotic colonial port into the futuristic shrine to consumerism that exists today. As financial corporations and hi-tech firms moved in many of the city’s old quarters were bulldozed, earning Singapore a reputation for soullessness. Love it or hate it, Singapore is a frenetic, thriving micro-nation unlike any other.
In the northeastern corner of South Africa, enigmatic Swaziland has a unique political and natural landscape that belie its modest dimensions – approximately the size of Wales. Most often in the news for the escapades of its promiscuous monarchs (at the time of writing King Mswati III has 15 wives and 25 children; his late father had 70 and 210 respectively), but even more noteworthy is the beauty of its diverse highveld and lowveld terrain, stomped by rhinos, elephants and giraffes.
Africa’s smallest mainland country is also widely considered to be the safest and friendliest place on the continent, and has become something of a tourism powerhouse as a result. Its stunning beaches attract package holidaymakers in their droves, while a river cruise along the Gambia River offers an unparalleled birdwatching experience.
With a slice of Mediterranean coast, stunning pine-covered countryside and an alluring fairytale capital, Slovenia is Europe’s definitive underrated travel destination. The most prosperous post-communist state by some measure, small but mighty Slovenia offers something for everyone – whether it be wine-tasting in the Drava Valley, paragliding in Logarska Dolina or a romantic weekend break in Ljubljana.
Commonly touted as “the country you can drive across in an hour”, the world’s last remaining Grand Duchy warrants more than just a fleeting road trip. Landlocked Luxembourg’s Vianden and Bourscheid castles are among some of Europe’s best-preserved medieval fortifications. It is also an emerging giant on the global gastronomical scene, with more Michelin-starred restaurants per head than anywhere else on the planet.
Plonked on the French-Spanish border, tiny Andorra is a nation on the rise. Offering the finest skiing in the Pyrenees, this micro-state has seen a rush of investment in recent years with new chairlifts, plush apres-ski restaurants and snow-making machines donning its steep slopes. With over 2000 shops, and duty free prices, Andorra is also a popular spot for fashion shopping.
Squished between Switzerland and Austria, Liechtenstein is barely bigger than Manhattan, but it packs in plenty within its 25km-by-6km area. A natural haven, Liechtenstein boasts a network of scenic cycling and hiking trails across its mighty, undulating landscape. It’s also a tax haven for big businesses, with an average of two ‘letter-box’ companies per Liechtensteiner.
Just pipped to the post by the Vatican City as “smallest country in the world”, this micro-nation could be accused of trying to compensate for its diminutive size with its swish clubs, fast cars and casinos. A tax haven for the rich and famous, Monaco has a population of 36,000 of which only twenty per cent are local residents; the other eighty percent is made up of the likes of Shirley Bassey, Roger Moore and F1-racer Jenson Button.
Made up of 333 tropical islands, Fiji is one of the most geographically isolated countries in the world – dotted 1000 miles north of New Zealand in the South Pacific. Once the stuff of desert island fantasy (it was here that Truman Burbank dreamt of escaping to in The Truman Show), Fiji has established itself as a firm favourite on the ‘world ticket’ backpacker’s trail. The white-sand beaches, pumping nightlife and soft coral snorkelling all live up to their esteemed reputations.
Measuring just 0.2 square miles, the Vatican City holds the crown (or papal tiara) for being the smallest country in the world. It is nevertheless one of the planet’s mightiest. The global headquarters of the Catholic Church, the Vatican also proudly houses some of the most treasured pieces of Classical and Renaissance art in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms.