Tucked away between Switzerland and Austria, the independent principality of Liechtenstein covers just 160 square kilometres of Rhine Valley and towering mountains, and is home to a mere 34,000 inhabitants. Liechtenstein is the smallest German-speaking country in the world, and it is also the only European country whose border countries are also surrounded by land. Whilst remaining independent Liechtenstein has been politically aligned with Switzerland since Austria abolished the Habsburg monarchy after World War I, and its currency is the Swiss Franc.
Situated in the upper Rhine Valley, Liechtenstein is only 15 miles long from north to south and has very limited natural resources, but despite its lack of geographical wealth Liechtenstein is one of a handful of countries that has more registered companies than human inhabitants.
Remaining neutral during World War II, Liechtenstein came to the fore in 2001 because of a report alleging that its banks had had dealings with the Nazis during the war. The accusations proved unfounded, and today the country is best known for its status as a wealthy low tax haven, with its inhabitants earning the highest per capita income in Europe. As well as being popular with businesses, Liechtenstein is a busy sporting destination, particularly during the winter when its resorts open for the ski season.
With its mountainous terrain, Liechtenstein is surprisingly mild compared to other alpine climates, with summer lasting from June to September and the ski season beginning in late November and ending in April when the last of the snow melts. Tempered by a warm southerly wind, the climate reaches highs of 25oC during the summer, and its substantial wet spells tend to linger a lot longer than in neighbouring Switzerland or Austria.
Things to see and do
Compared to its neighbouring countries, Liechtenstein has a reputation for being sedate and lacking in things to see and do, but those who enter the tiny principality will find a quiet charm and unspoiled beauty that is lost in more active European destinations. With its range of mountains and valleys, Liechtenstein is a popular country with athletes, offering skating and cycling tours along the Rhine, skiing in the high peaks and some truly spectacular mountain walks. It is also host to an array of birds of prey that nest among the beautiful forests, vineyards and mountains that give the country its unique and natural beauty.
Despite having just two main streets, the tiny village of Vaduz is the capital of Liechtenstein and undoubtedly the principality’s most visited destination. Vaduz houses the country’s three most important museums as well as the fine sixteenth-century castle home of the current Prince Hans-Adam II.
The State Art Collection is host to a historic selection of paintings that were collected through the ages by the Princes of Liechtenstein, as well as a programme of high quality temporary exhibitions. For the budding philatelist the Postage Stamp Museum is well worth a visit, containing a collection of over 300 frames of stamps that have been issued since 1912. Open only in the afternoons, the Ski Museum charts the history of skiing over the last 100 years and features Tony Sailer’s 1958 world cup skis, as well as Hanni Wenzel’s 1980 Olympics equipment. The village is marked by gently climbing vineyards and overlooked by majestic mountains which attract ramblers, cyclists and skiers from all over the world.
To the north, Triesenburg is a tiny region situated on a terrace overlooking Vaduz and the Rhine Valley. The region boasts a beautiful onion-domed church and the Heimatsmuseum which is dedicated to the Walser community, which made the pilgrimage from Switzerland in the 13th century and whose dialect is still spoken within the region today.
The ski resort of Malbun is one of Liechtenstein’s most popular destinations. Situated high in the mountains, the premier resort has a snowboarding school as well as a range of slopes for all levels of skiing. The resort is easily reached by buses travelling from Vaduz every hour. As well as skiing there are plenty of other outdoor activities to engage in when visiting Liechtenstein. The snaking banks of the Rhine Valley provide excellent opportunities for cycling and the mountains of Raatikon and Drei Schwestern are popular with adventurous hikers. The country is inhabited by spectacular species of birdlife and wild flowers, and the Fuurstin-Gina-Weg trail is an ideal route for trekking and bird-spotting, particularly in the spring time.
There is no airport in Liechtenstein but Zurich Airport and Friedrichshafen Airport in Germany are both relatively close to the border. From both airports there are direct trains to the Swiss border towns of Buchs and Sargans where there are regular buses travelling to Vaduz.
One of the richest per capita countries in Europe, Liechtenstein is not the cheapest of backpacking destinations. There are a range of accommodation options across the country from mountain huts and inns to hotels, most of which are found in the capital town of Vaduz. Most affordable, however, are Liecthenstein’s three campsites situated in Mittagspitze, Triesen and Bendern. There is also the ‘Youth Hostel Schaan-Vaduz’ which nestles between the towns of Schaan and Vaduz offering beds for up to 110 visitors in a variety of room sizes. The hostel costs from 20 Euro per night for a shared dormitory and is a cheap and accessible way of exploring the mountains surrounding the Schaan and Vaduz regions.
A relatively low risk country, backpackers should be aware of over exposure to the cold and to the deceptive heat of the sun in the mountainous areas, but with the highest peak standing at 2,600m there is little danger of altitude sickness.