Little Europe: Five Microcountries
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 504
Don't blink as we blitz through Europe's tiniest countries: Vatican City, the world's smallest country, comes with the planet's biggest church. The fairytale princedom of Monaco lures visitors with its fancy casino and glamorous views. Italy's last independent hill town of San Marino still looks formidable, as does the castle-guarded principality of Liechtenstein. And tiny Andorra entertains shoppers and hikers alike, surrounded by the rugged beauty of the Pyrenees.
- Read the script from the show.
The four miles of displays in this immense museum, range from ancient statues to Christian frescoes to modern paintings, culminating in the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo's glorious Sistine Chapel. (If you have binoculars, bring them.) This is one of Europe's top three or four houses of art. It can be exhausting, so plan your visit carefully, focusing on a few themes. Allow two hours for a quick visit, three or four hours for enough time to enjoy it.
Vatican City contains the Vatican Museum (with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel) and St. Peter's Basilica (with Michelangelo's exquisite Pietà). A helpful TI is just to the left of St. Peter's Basilica as you're facing it (tel. 06-6988-1662, Vatican switchboard tel. 06-6982). The entrances to St. Peter's and to the Vatican Museum are a 15-minute walk apart (follow the outside of the Vatican wall, which links the two sights). The nearest Metro stops still involve a 10-minute walk to either sight: for St. Peter's, the closest stop is Ottaviano; for the Vatican Museum, it's Cipro.
Heading south on the A13 expressway in Switzerland, the road actually skirts Liechtenstein just across the Rhine (the border). For a 30-minute detour, exit at Buchs and go through Schaan to Vaduz, the capital. Park near City Hall, the post office, and TI. Passports can be stamped (for a fee) in the TI (tel. from Switzerland 00-423/239-6300). Liechtenstein's banks (open until 16:30) sell Swiss francs at uniform and acceptable rates. To leave Liechtenstein, cross the Rhine at Rotenboden into Switzerland, immediately enter the autobahn, and check another country off your list.
Monte Carlo, which means "Charles' Hill" in Spanish, is named for the local prince who presided over Monaco's 19th-century makeover. Begin your visit to Europe's most famous casino in the park above the traffic circle. In the mid-1800s, olive groves stood here. Then, with the construction of the casino, spas, and easy road and train access, one of Europe's poorest countries was on the Grand Tour map — the place for the vacationing aristocracy to play.
The casino is intended to make the wealthy feel comfortable while losing money. Charles Garnier designed the place (with an opera house inside) in 1878, in part to thank the prince for his financial help in completing Paris' Opéra Garnier (which the architect also designed). The central doors provide access to slot machines, private gaming rooms, and the opera house. The private gaming rooms occupy the left wing of the building. Anyone over 21 (even in shorts, if before 20:00) can get as far as the one-armed bandits (push button on slot machines to claim your winnings), though you'll need decent attire to go any farther. After 20:00, shorts are off-limits anywhere. The scene is great at night — and downright James Bond–like in the private rooms. Men can rent a tie and jacket (necessary in the evening) at the bag check. Dress standards for women are far more relaxed— only tennis shoes are a definite no-no (tel. 00-377/92 16 20 00).
For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves' Italy travel guide or the Rick Steves' France travel guide or the Rick Steves' Switzerland travel guide — or join us on one of our free-spirited tours of Europe.