Little, Little Liechtenstein

By Rick Steves
Chair lift, Malbun, Liechtenstein
From the top of a ski lift you can hike the ridge that marks the border of Austria and Liechtenstein. (photo: Rick Steves)

Two centuries ago, there were dozens of independent states in the part of Europe that was German-speaking. Today, there are only four: Germany, Austria, Switzerland…and Liechtenstein.

I like the way tiny countries are defined so clearly by geography. Liechtenstein is a bowl in the mountains — high ridges on the east, milky baby Rhine River still giddy from its tumble out of the Alps running south to north on its west, and the stout and classic Gutenberg Castle guarding the entry to the valley on the south. About the size of Manhattan, it's truly landlocked, with no seaport or airport.

Rather than wandering past quaint half-timbered old buildings, visitors walk in the shadow of shiny bank buildings and office parks. Europe's tiny countries have historically offered businesses special tax and accounting incentives. For a place with such a small population (35,000), Liechtenstein has a lot of businesses.

And that's how the Prince of Liechtenstein, whose 13th-century castle is perched fairy-tale style above his domain, likes it. The billionaire prince, who looks down on his 4-by-15-mile country, doesn't open his castle to the public. When I knocked on the door, the guard looked at me like I was nuts. But anyone can enjoy his views. And, for a price, you can enjoy a glass of local wine in the prince's wine cellar.

The prince was in the news a few years ago for threatening to actually abandon his principality if his citizens didn't give him more political power. Liechtensteiners seem pretty easygoing about these things (women didn't claim the right to vote until 1984) and accepted his demands. Now the Prince of Liechtenstein apparently has more real authority than any other royal in Europe. (But you can't do a lot with that power when you're ruling a country with the population of Yankee Stadium on an off day.)

Liechtenstein is made up of 11 villages. The village of Triesenberg, perched above the valley, gathers around its onion-domed church, which recalls the settlers who arrived here centuries ago from the western part of Switzerland. The town of Vaduz sits on the valley floor. While it has only 5,000 people, it's the country's capital. Its pedestrianized main drag is lined with modern art and hotels, and borders a district of slick office buildings. There's so little of interest to tourists in Liechtenstein that souvenir shops stock as many books and postcards on Switzerland in general as they do on Liechtenstein.

The pint-sized national museum tells the story of the prince and his tiny country. Their family crest dates to the Middle Ages, when the Liechtenstein family was close friends with the Habsburg family, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire. The Liechtenstein family purchased this piece of real estate from the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1719, the domain was granted principality status — answering only to the Emperor. The Liechtenstein princes — who lived near Vienna — saw their new country merely as a status symbol, and didn't even bother to visit for decades. In fact, it wasn't until the 20th century that the first Liechtenstein prince actually lived here. (By the way, the art-packed Liechtenstein Palace, hours away in in Vienna, is the most exciting sight associated with that family.)

In 1806, during the age of Napoleon, Liechtenstein's obligations to the Habsburg Emperor disappeared and it was granted true independence. Later, after World War I, tough times forced the principality to enter an economic union with Switzerland. To this day, Swiss francs are the coin of the realm, most public transportation is on Swiss postal buses, and Liechtenstein enjoys a close working relationship with its Swiss neighbors.

Crossing the Rhine, going west into Switzerland, I snooped around to find the perfect vantage point from which to photograph a wide shot showing the entire country. All of Liechtenstein faces west. The entire country is in shade well into the morning. And each evening it's all bathed in the rich light of the setting sun.

The highlight of my visit and grandest photograph, however, was in the far east — at the literal top of the country. Liechtenstein's longest road peters out after about 30 minutes in Malbun, a tiny mountain resort from where a modern chairlift made me feel like literally the highest person in the land.

Like Switzerland, a big part of the principality's modern economy is tourism and sports — hosting visitors enjoying its dramatic natural beauty. Ski lifts, busy both in winter and summer, take nature-lovers to the dizzying ridge that serves as the border with Austria. From this lofty vantage point I saw that, even in little little Liechtenstein…the views are big and the hiking possibilities are endless.