Travel

14 Tiny Countries That Are Big-Time Destinations

Published On 08/12/2016 Published On 08/12/2016

International vacations are work in their own right. You've gotta schedule time off, maybe you've gotta update your passport, haggle with airlines, pack a giant suitcase. For such a production, you wanna go somewhere name-brand, somewhere full, somewhere BIG. Where you can pack a week with sights both natural and urban, meet a ton of people, eat your way around a capital-c Cuisine. 

Ah, but what about the tiny countries? The underdogs? The Olympics are the season to celebrate them, especially when the likes of Kosovo and Slovakia are winning summer gold, and when a shirtless taekwondo qualifier can set the world to Googling "Where is Tonga?" (We considered Tonga for this list, but settled on a couple of other Pacific paradises instead.) Small nations can pack just as much verve as you'd find in countries 10 times their size -- and, for the traveler, they offer the possibility to feel like you've actually done a place to satisfaction.

They're not places you'll stumble across, and rarely will you pass through them on the way somewhere else. But despite being geographically wee (or, in one case, uniquely vacant) they're all worth a visit on their own. We tapped our army of global travelers to give us the firsthand lowdown on the best small nations to take a chance on.

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Slovakia

How tiny it is: 18,932 square miles
Or, roughly: Vermont spooning New Hampshire
Tiny fact: Its 1993 break from the Czech Republic is called the "Velvet Divorce."

Slovakia inherited some of the best aspects of its five neighbors, enjoying Czech-style brewing, Polish diligence, Austrian architecture, Ukrainian good looks, and Hungarian stews. The one thing Slovakia can claim outright is the fact that it’s an undiscovered travel jewel. Culturally and geographically diverse, it’s simply a beautiful bargain; to visit now is to experience classic, ‘70s style Europe for a third of the price of nearby destinations. Slovakia blends the best of romantic Europe -- picturesque countryside, a charming capital city, ghostly castles, Renaissance churches, divine food and period-perfect museums -- with the eastward-expanding European Union. I found Bratislava to be chilled out, as I didn’t hear one car horn or a person sounding like one. There, a woman’s Slovak-to-English musings urged me to exercise my feet and my imagination: “You have to use your fantasia.”

Seventy percent of Slovakia is mountains. Passing through its knobby High Tatras region, it seems as if every 10th peak has a 14th-century medieval castle upon it. The big daddy of these eerie sites is Spiš Castle, central Europe’s largest medieval fortress compound. First built in 1209, it was wrecked by 13th-century Tatars, and rebuilt in the 15th century. Partially in ruins, it dominates the landscape from miles away. It made me ponder phantoms, and life before remote controls, in all their forms. - Bruce Northam, Thrillist contributor

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Singapore


How tiny it is: 278 square miles
Or, roughly: New York City
Tiny fact: Singaporeans are the fastest walkers, on average, in the world.

Known as the “Little Red Dot” of Asia, Singapore sheds its squeaky-clean image once the searing-hot sun goes down. Forget about the Singapore sling -- that syrupy cocktail is for touristy n00bs only. Locals prefer sipping crisp cocktails atop a gleaming skyscraper or gulping down an ice-cold Tiger Beer over their sixth meal of the day. (Seriously, people love to eat here. The city-state is home to some 6,000 hawker stalls alone, two with Michelin stars.) And it’s not just about the weekends: Wednesday and Thursday ladies nights are very much a thing, with many a bar plying their female clientele with free booze.

The best part of a big night out in Singapore? Arguably the best late-night eats in the world. Post-nightclub “suppers” are a way of life. Think 24-hour dim sum, slurping down pork-laced noodles, or soaking up that last drink you didn’t really need with chicken rice. On the off chance you do wake up hungover, there’s hope in the form of the neighborhood kopitiam, or local coffee shop. A zingy-sweet kopi and a few bites of kaya toast-plus-runny egg could be just the fuel you need to start the madness all over again. -- Hannah Bae, Thrillist contributor

Sarah Jessup/Shutterstock

Costa Rica

How tiny is it: 19,653 square miles
Or, roughly: Two Vermonts
Tiny fact: It's home to one-tenth of the world’s butterfly species.

If you've ever felt like surfing in the morning, spotting a sloth dangling in the rainforest in the afternoon, and relaxing in volcanically heated hot springs at night, Costa Rica is the place, folks. This tropical, nature lover’s paradise has managed to preserve a quarter of its land in national parks and protected areas for jaguars, crocodiles, monkeys, toucans, everybody. Also, it’s relatively safe, healthy, and educated (perhaps because a president had the chutzpah to abolish the military in 1948).

Everywhere you turn, someone seems to be offering fresh coconut water right out of the husk, which is best accompanied with some of the country's delicious guaro, a sugarcane liquor. And the affable Costa Rican people, also known as the Ticos, embody their ubiquitous catchphrase -- pura vida. It translates to "pure life" but can also mean "hello," "goodbye," "nice bathing suit," or just about anything else. Costa Rica is laid-back that way, until of course you find yourself on one of its extreme adventures, like whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, or scuba diving with hammerhead sharks. For such a tiny country, there's oodles of shoreline on the rich coast -- 800 miles of it, in fact, on both the Pacific and the Caribbean. The beaches, waves, and sunsets seen from clifftops have a way of making the place feel a whole lot bigger. - Ashley Harrell, Thrillist contributor

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Scotland

How tiny is it: 30,090 square miles
Or, roughly: South Carolina
Tiny fact: Was colonized by wankers.

Not technically its own country; post-Brexit it just needs a minute to mull another UK secession vote. Till then, it nonetheless feels like its own land. Trainspotting fans may favor Glasgow, with its luscious street art set against the old-Europe grime. Just as exhilarating is Edinburgh, the UK's true second city to London, and a city that demands you wear light, comfortable shoes. You're going to want to bounce to live ska and rock shows at clubs along Cowgate; or duck over to High St, literally, and try not to scuff your skull on the drop ceiling in front of the stage at Whistlebinkies. You're going to want to traipse up to Edinburgh Castle for some of the finest city views anywhere. And you're going to want to hike (or, if you're not feeling too many Innis & Gunns from the night previous, jog) to the peak of Arthur's Seat, the 800ft-tall faux-mountain that, along with the 12th-century castle, bookends the city's center. 

Then, get out of town. Get a car and drive north, past the hallway-shaped Loch Ness, up to the land of peat and Scotch, ideally on one of the numerous days when the silver clouds shade the sun, and you can see ostensibly to the edge of the sky. Find a proper spot and get ready to clamber again: this time, up one of the shaggy-grassed hills that give the Highlands their name. This craggy country, famous for writers and engineers alike, has fantastic and inspiring views, yet it makes you work for 'em. No wonder the Scotsmen of yore pioneered the world's most comfortable climbing pants, still commonly in use today, in an array of plaids. - Sam Eifling, Thrillist Travel editor

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Nepal

How tiny is it: 56,827 square miles
Or, roughly: Almost a West Virginia
Tiny fact: Nepalis celebrate their New Year in mid-April.

This colorful patch of mountains nestled between China and India is a fascinating blend of cultures: Buddhism and Hinduism, dizzying Himalayan peaks and sleepy backpacker towns, dreadlocked hippies and warm locals (with blessedly open hearts). For such a small country, Nepal has seen its share of turmoil: a royal massacre, a Maoist insurgency, and a devastating earthquake which last year killed thousands and toppled the historical squares in the Kathmandu Valley.

Nepal’s political infrastructure has made rebuilding slow, but tourism can help the country recover faster. You’ll still be able to experience the holy ritual of trekking across snowy peaks (Nepal claims eight of the world’s 10 tallest mountains), or learn to paraglide in the clear skies above Lake Pokhara. Before you head off for your big adventure, don’t forget to visit a temple to pray to Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god (overcomer of obstacles). Perhaps, you’ll be blessed with a smile and a tika on your forehead from the wrinkled woman tending it. - Laura Yan, Thrillist contributor

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Dominican Republic


How tiny is it: 18,704 square miles
Or, roughly: Two New Hampshires
Tiny fact: Some 83 Dominicans were on opening-day Major League Baseball rosters this year, about 10 percent of all MLB players.

Oh great, you say. The Dominican Republic. I think my aunt went on a package tour there last Easter. And you’re half-right. (Probably. I don’t know your aunt.) Millions of Americans are lured to the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola every year by cheap airfares and norovirus-rich all-you-can eat buffets. But if you’ll promise to avoid Punta Cana and other all-inclusive resorts, you’ll have a time worth remembering.

The modern-day Dominican Republic is where Europe, Africa, and the Americas have been colliding for five centuries now. You’ll see, hear, smell, and taste some of the greatest products of that mashup in its pulsating capital, Santo Domingo, whose colonial zone is home to the first European cathedral, street, and pretty much everything else this side of the Atlantic. You can feel it at games of the most exciting baseball league in the world. And you can imagine those first steps of discovery on its endless stretches of beach (all public by law, though sometimes rich people will ignore this) -- best among them the lesser-known gems like Bahía de las Águilas, a desert strand beside crystalline waters near the Haitian border, best accessed by fisherman’s boat.

Above all, you’ll hear the echoes in the music of the streets -- the staccato creole Spanish of its people, and the merengue, bachata, and reggaeton music shaking the ground. Unlike the explorers and invaders who came before, including your aunt, you will have only one mission: drink the rum, lose your fear, and dance.

And yet: Some people may tell you not to go. For the past few years, under the pretense of cracking down on illegal immigration, the Dominican government has been hassling the million or so people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic. Activist groups have called for tourism boycotts. The choice is yours, but here is an alternative take. Many Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent depend on tourism to survive, and if an economic crash comes, they will be among the first to suffer. Go and learn about the place, practice your Spanish, and come home rested, invigorated, informed. - Jonathan M. Katz, Thrillist contributor

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Monaco

How tiny is it? 485 acres
Or, roughly: 40% the size of Central Park
Tiny fact: Citizens of Monaco aren't allowed to gamble in the famous Monte Carlo Casino -- ensuring that the casino is only taking money from tourists.

If you throw the words “in Monaco” at the end of absolutely anything, it just sounds glamorous. Like if you said, “Yeah, I remember that time I had to go buy aluminum foil ... IN MONACO” people would probably assume that aluminum was encrusted with precious emeralds. 

The glitz and glamour associated with the city comes from its reputation as a tax haven for the world’s elite. And the grand, Roman-inspired buildings, yachts floating in Port Hercules, and high-end shopping doesn’t do much to dispel that reputation. After you don a tux and go all James Bond at the casino, though, you can do Monaco without going broke. Across the port from Monte Carlo is Monaco-ville, home to the old city, palace, and oceanographic museum. All of which can easily fill a day, and cost about the same as a day at your local history museum.

Restaurants here are all European charm, with outdoor cafes and authentic Italian pizza joints on literally every street. Most restaurants are reasonably priced, and the food is as spectacular as you'd expect from a country wedged between Italy and France. The casino might be intimidating, but on weeknights you can find 10 Euro minimum tables to gamble among the opulence. Or, if you’re hell bent on saying you played roulette in Monte Carlo -- and 10 Euros is a little steep -- the locals’ casino near the Fairmont has lower minimums, and is fun in a completely different way. - M.M.

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Vanuatu

How tiny is it: 4,710 square miles
Or, roughly: Less than two Delawares
Tiny fact: After a 1971 visit, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, reputedly was revered as a god by inhabitants of the island Tanna.

A jig-sawed collection of 82 tiny islands, Vanuatu is most often visited on whirlwind cruise ship tours through the Pacific. But, trust me, it’s a country you want to take your time with. As one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse places in the world, each island is its own unique pocket of adventure.

On Pentecost you can witness land diving -- the original form of bungee jumping -- where boys perform a sort of death-defying bar mitzvah by leaping from a 90ft tower of branches with only a vine tied to their ankles for support. The whole initiation into manhood is based on a legend where a woman tricked her husband to jump off a tree to his death. Watching the whole ritual still feels like a well-concocted ruse.

If you’d rather be a part of the action, abseiling through the Millennium Cave on the island of Santo has all the thrill-seeking you desire: sheer rock faces, bat-infested caves, and a rapid swim down a river. Or, for the more risk-adverse, head to Cook Reef near Emae, where you can swim with turtles and little Nemo fish who are way more chill than Disney would have you believe. Oh, and you’ve got to try kava -- Vanuatu’s national drink -- that is a sedative, stimulant, and hallucinogen all mixed in one. Even better if you get it served the traditional way, where the kava root is chewed up, mixed with water and strained right into a coconut shell for you to chug. - Prianka Srinivasan, Thrillist contributor

atm2003 / shutterstock

Rwanda

How tiny it is: 10,169 square miles
Or, roughly: Massachusetts
Tiny fact: The Hôtel des Mille Collines, of Hotel Rwanda fame, is still open in Kigali. TripAdvisor users give it a 3.5/5 rating.

The shadow of the three-month 1994 genocide, in which perhaps a million Rwandans were killed, still hangs low over this landlocked country. I’ve tried to make a difference there as a volunteer, doing two months with a non-religious charity, offering media work and business consulting. You'd be stunned how many unpaid, unnoticed hours and dollars go to provide the simplest staples to those in need. Because more than half of Rwanda’s GDP is donor money, many career-bound graduates -- engineers, journalists, and academics -- gravitate toward jobs in the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector. In this way I appreciated my voluntourism there. It let me offer skills rather than money.

In Kigali, Rwanda’s hilly capital city, I soon comprehended that teaching Rwandans to tell their own story is a complex challenge. Poverty and lack of opportunity dash many writers’ hopes, and because the 1994 genocide began with government-controlled print and radio, Rwandans still justly fear media. This added a huge hurdle to mentoring journalists. Still, we tried. Our collaboration resulted in several students publishing their debut stories in The New Times, a leading Rwandan newspaper.

The world media tends to report only when Africans are either taking or losing lives, but there’s more to the story. Shining light on good news, however small, can give hope some lift. My friend Brian Steidle, whose experience as an unarmed military observer in Darfur in 2004 led to his book The Devil Came on Horseback, was assigned to mentor a Rwandan apprentice in photojournalism. After working side-by-side for weeks, Brian gifted his camera -- the Canon he discreetly used to inform The New York Times and the world about the massacres in Sudan -- to his student. That image has stuck with me. So has a postcard I saw, sent from Rwanda. On it was scrawled: “Due to genocide, postcards are in short supply.” - B.N.

Artaporn Puthikampol / shutterstock

South Korea

How tiny it is: 38,691 square miles
Or, roughly: Three Marylands
Tiny fact: Psy's Gangnam Style, with more than 2.6 billion views, is the most popular YouTube video ever.

South Korea is like the Tracy Flick-turned-cool-kid of East Asian countries. For years, it tried super hard just to make people like it. Then it propelled itself to the top of the global pecking order with K-pop’s super-sparkly global dominance, the country’s creative, unflinching cinema, and Seoul’s trend-setting fashion.

Korea may be Asia’s new arbiter of taste and style, but here’s the thing: it’s refreshingly approachable. There are English street signs everywhere. Free Wi-Fi abounds. Seoul, its capital megacity, boasts a spotless, futuristic subway system that makes navigating urban sprawl a snap. A 24/7 free, multilingual travel hotline will lead you to the nearest Korean BBQ fix or a cheap, clean place to crash.

Get to know Koreans, and you’ll find they’re anything but reserved. This is a country that runs on infectious exuberance. Insanely fast mountain hikers in head-to-toe neon will cheer you on as they pass you, even if they don’t speak your language. Sporting events draw epic watch parties in public spaces. Diners have insatiable appetites for the unlimited banchan side dishes that crowd restaurant tables. And there’s a good chance that stunner who looks like a K-pop star could end up handling her soju even better than you. - H.B.

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Mongolia

How tiny is it: 3 million people in 1.5 million square miles (or 4.4 people per square mile).
Or, roughly: The population of Arkansas in an area half the size of the contiguous 48 states
Tiny fact: It's the world’s least-densely populated country.

Once the largest land empire in history, Mongolia has become an isolated, unlikely travel destination where you can go to feel utterly free (and alone). Stop by the capital, Ulanbaatar, to climb inside the massive, shiny statue of the great conqueror Genghis Khan (it’s over 150ft high, taller than the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro), then get out of the city. In Khatgal, a tiny, sleepy town in the north of the country, get outfitted for a horse trek through mountains and pine forests. You can canter across grasslands and rest by the shore of the mirror-glazed Lake Khövsgöl -- at sunset, watch the water turn phosphorescent pink and blue. Step into the ger (or as you probably know it, a yurt -- yes people actually live in them there) of a round-cheeked local for traditional salty milk tea, and if you’re lucky (or not), get invited to try a bowl of horse meat soup.

Rent a sturdy jeep for a road trip around the alien, surreal landscape of the Gobi Desert. Stare at the stars while swinging in a hammock outside a guesthouse. Your only company will be the desert jerboa, with its long tail, big ears, and hopping gait, a kangaroo in miniature, staring at you with forlorn eyes. Mongolia, it turns out, isn’t really tiny. But with almost no one around, you sure are. -- L.Y.

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Belgium

How tiny is it: 11,787 square miles
Or, roughly: Almost one whole Connecticut
Tiny fact: Europe’s first casino opened more than 300 years ago in the Belgian town of Spa.

The beer, chocolate, and waffles, you're probably familiar with. But don’t sleep on Belgians themselves -- they're some of Europe’s friendliest (and most under-appreciated) folk. Belgium's whole culture revolves around not taking life too seriously. Just look at Brussels. You’d expect it to be all no-nonsense and offices as the de facto EU capital. Instead the city’s a haven of wacky art and eclectic graffiti. Then there’s the Manneken Pis -- that iconic sculpture of a tiny naked boy peeing (FYI, these days he’s often dressed in costume -- Elvis, e.g., or the Pope). In Belgium’s countryside, locals are even more welcoming, always down for telling self-deprecating jokes about their country’s mishmash of language and ethnicities. Belgians also love (love) making fun of the French -- which you just can’t help but appreciate. - Barbara Woolsey, Thrillist contributor

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Northern Mariana Islands


How tiny is it: 179.2 square miles
Or, roughly: 2.5 Washington, DCs
Tiny fact: The chief of state is... Barack Obama. Betcha didn’t see that coming.

This archipelago of 14 islands -- Saipan, Tinian, and Rota are the most populated -- are probably the farthest most Americans can travel with just a driver’s license. Since the ‘70s these islands between the North Pacific and the Philippine Sea have been a US commonwealth, similar to Puerto Rico... just 9,000 miles due west. People born there are US citizens, speak English (an official language, along with Chamorro), and use US dollars as currency. Once you arrive, you’ll find an island paradise: vodka-clear ocean waters, white sandy beaches, and year-round tropical warmth. You’ll likely visit Saipan, which is home to the Grotto, a collapsed limestone cavern turned world-famous freediving and scuba diving destination. Or take a quick boat ride to Mañagaha, a pipsqueak islet perfect for snorkeling, swimming, parasailing, and simply relaxing on the beach. Or take the steep hike down to a local favorite on Saipan, a sapphire tidal lagoon by an outcropping called the Forbidden Island -- which is, point of fact, neither.

The cuisine is a mashup of American influence, Japanese flavors, and tropical ingredients. Thursdays are the big days to hit up the street markets and grab some salty, pickled papaya or chicken kelaguen (a local take on chicken salad), beef kelaguen (raw meat "cooked" with tons of lemon). Or hit the red rice, short ribs, and barbecue chicken. Dipping sauces for dishes like these is typically finadenne, a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, chiles, and onions. Finish with latiyas, a Chamorro custard cake dessert. -- Agnes Constante, Thrillist contributor

Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock

El Salvador

How small is it? 8,124 square miles
Or, roughly: New Jersey minus Ocean County
Tiny fact: The smallest country in Central America boasts the region’s largest shopping mall, the MetroCentro in San Salvador.

Let’s just get it outta the way now: Yeah, El Salvador has a murder problem -- its capital San Salvador is the most murderous city in the world. But the good news for you, dear traveller, is your average Salvadorian street gang has absolutely zero interest in messing with tourists. And there should be more of us going there! El Salvador is the only Central American country without a Caribbean coastline, but with oceanfront like they’ve got on the Pacific, they don’t need it. It might have the best surfing of any country on the Pacific coast, more challenging than its famous neighbor in Costa Rica, and far less crowded. San Sebastian is El Salvador’s most famous surf town, but spending a few days hopping from there to La Libertad to Tamanique is as much a cultural education as it is a trip to the ocean. Hell, even if you DON’T surf, a trip here is every bit as beautiful as California’s Pacific Coast, at a fraction the price.

But this place is magical even away from the water. A challenging hike to the top of the Santa Ana volcano will have you peering from above the clouds down into a turquoise lake in the middle of the crater. A short drive down the road from there brings you to Lago de Coatepeque, where you can enjoy a fine steak dinner at restaurants overlooking the water for about what you’d pay at TGI Friday’s. And lakeside homes are easy to rent, cheaply, and a great home base for exploring the natural side of the country. - M.M.
 

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

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