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Lichtenstein: Stamp-sized Civilisation


There is a mini queue at Liechtenstein’s Tourist Information office as tourists wave their open passports at the staff behind the counter. They’re here to get their passports stamped – it’s not an official stamp (it says ‘Tourist Office’ on it), but at SFR3, it can be pretty steep for getting ink on paper. But, it’s THE thing to do while in Liechtenstein, and it’s the only way to prove you were ever here.

Some tourists also head across the road to the post office to get postage stamps – another of Liechtenstein’s famous souvenirs. They used to say that the entire principality’s income was based on their sales of souvenir postage stamps, but that, of course, is a farce. While Liechtenstein’s major income is derived from its manufacturing industries (cornering the world’s market for cordless power tools, freeze-dried cheese and false teeth), it is best known for its private banking industry. Every other shopfront in the city’s capital Vaduz is that of posh banks disguised as upmarket furniture shops.

For such a small place, Liechtenstein seems to have it all. Flamboyant royal family, great local wine and food, lots of money, friendly locals and stunning scenery. And yet, for some reason, tourists usually only stay for a few hours.

Wedged between Switzerland and Austria like a tiny raisin in a huge bun, Liechtenstein is a sliver of a country about 26km long. You could practically drive through it without ever realising it was ever there. While it isn’t the smallest country in Europe, it is the most mountainous – it’s the only country to be situated wholly within the Alps.

As the capital city, Vaduz is more like a tiny village pretending to be a central business district. It’s a collection of a few roads with low-rise buildings and a few museums, making it easy to cover on foot. Vaduz is probably the only capital city in Europe you can cover on foot in its entirety in an hour – and that’s walking slowly. A stroll through the residential area reveals a treasure trove of big old houses; almost all with private vineyards. This is one of the most expensive areas in Europe to live in, and the air smells of money.

Looming just above the city amidst the mountains is Vaduz Castle – home to the country’s ruling Prince. A picturesque walking path takes you up to the castle gates where you can admire the view. If you’re lucky, you might encounter the Prince himself, who makes regular walks through the nearby meadow barefoot. Failing that, the princely family can sometimes be seen shopping at supermarkets and shops, or plastered on postcards.

© Michael Schneider

© Michael Schneider

You could forgive the fact that most tourists treat Liechtenstein as a day-trip location if they don’t venture beyond Vaduz. Liechtenstein’s mountains are criss-crossed with hundreds of (literally) breathtaking hiking trails, and tiny highland settlements provide excellent birds eye views over its big neighbours, Austria and Switzerland.

As a little dot on the map, Liechtenstein has a small tourism industry and winter ski villages, but its eccentricities and unexpected hospitality are a delight to those who stick around long enough to find out.