Small cities and countries you should visit

It's the little things that make life worthwhile, according to conventional wisdom: a baby's smile, a sniff of roses, a sunshine walk or meal with friends.

Yet we rarely take this adage literally, least of all when it comes to travel. Indeed, we're encouraged to think bigger is better. This is the age of back-to-back tours and extended itineraries, giant theme parks, mega-planes that carry 850 passengers, and mega-ships on which thousands holiday. 

Even travellers who grimace at such extravagances aren't immune to the lure of the large. Most of us visit big cities, leaving smaller alternatives overlooked, and yet York, Lyon or Suzhou​ may provide a far more pleasant experience than London, Paris or Shanghai.

We hurry into the world's largest museums and are overwhelmed by an art attack, while just down the road might lie dainty delights: just try New York's Frick Collection rather than the exhausting Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There's much to be said about going small, whether it be countries, cities, hotels or anything else in travel. In big destinations you can lose intimacy and miss out on that undefinable atmosphere that makes you feel connected. You begin to feel like a number, not an individual.

Visiting small places is a different experience, up-close, personal, arguably more authentic and more friendly and often more interesting because petite places have to make an effort to attract people and provide a point of difference.



Three inhabited islands and a half-million population make Malta a minnow, but its past has whale-like dimensions. Malta's long history starts with temples dating from 3150 BC and culminates in Valletta, a splendidly preserved Renaissance fortified town. A rich culture features Arabic-based language, Italian-inspired cuisine and British colonial influences. Malta is chock-full of monoliths, cathedrals, palaces and art treasures, all ringed by a spectacular coastline. See

See: Malta: Europe's holiday island with something for everyone


Slovenia packs in a Mediterranean coastline, the peacock-blue lakes and ski resorts of its gorgeous alps, amazing limestone caves and a rolling castle-dotted countryside of vineyards and fruit orchards: Europe in miniature. Ljubljana​ would top a list of best small capitals. More sophisticated than Eastern Europe, cheaper than Western Europe, youthful, and culturally rich, Slovenia demonstrates that small countries can impress. See

See: Even the beer has a rich history in Slovenia


Compact size and a dense population allow for good organisation, efficient transportation and a safe environment. Singapore ticks those boxes and has also overcome its sedate reputation with impressive waterfront redevelopments, tourist mega-projects and burgeoning dining and nightlife scenes. Its suave, mall-filled CBD dissolves into ethnic neighbourhoods, then nature reserves and beaches, yet the squeezed-up, pint-sized nation keeps itself polite and polished. See

See: 10 things you didn't know about Singapore


Think small means uninfluential and uninteresting? Vatican City – the world's smallest country by area and population – confounds that theory: it has been central to western history for nearly two millennia and dictates a billion people's lives. For visitors, the Vatican provides a staggering collection of art, the world's largest church, and either religious pleasure or a titillating glimpse into a secretive theocracy. See

See: 12 places that will exceed your expectations


Trade winds often bring a multi-ethnic population, diverse cuisine and cultural blend to island nations, making them the epitome of interesting small countries. French and British colonials, Arab traders, African slaves, Indian sugarcane workers and Chinese shopkeepers provide Mauritius' rich mix. The island of beach-draped coastlines, jagged mountains and fish-flitted reefs also has a good tourist infrastructure without overdevelopment. See

See: Airline review: Air Mauritius has the world's friendliest cabin crew



Nobody does small cities like the Europeans, and Innsbruck is a prime example of their ability to blend good urban transport, cultural amenities and decent shopping with a laid-back lifestyle. Innsbruck's old town and museums are impressive, restaurants and coffeehouses plentiful, nightlife jolly. Best is the small-town compactness: within 20 minutes you're in the mountains that form the city's splendid backdrop. See

See: Hiking in Innsbruck


Thanks to their architecture, history, tapas lifestyle and seductiveness, a half-dozen Spanish cities could quality for this list, but "who hasn't seen Granada, has seen nothing", as a local saying goes. The Alhambra palace and fountain-filled gardens surmount a city of street markets, flamenco bars, Moorish-era alleys and baroque squares draped in bougainvillea, all enlivened by strolling, gossiping locals. See


Mostly medieval and Georgian architecture collide in this well preserved, agreeably small, easily walked city, which has an historical importance that belies its size. Top sights in this youthful university town are northern Europe's largest Gothic cathedral, ancient shop-lined alleyways, and the Jorvik Viking Centre, a compelling account of a large Viking settlement from which thousands of treasures were unearthed. See

See: How the home of Terry's Chocolate Orange started the UK's choc revival


Kandy has just 120,000 residents but, like many small cities, is a cultural capital thanks to its preservation of Singhalese​ customs and festivals against outside influences. Its Temple of the Tooth is an important Buddhist shrine. The stately, lakeside city centre is colourful with silken saris, agreeably energetic without being raucous, and cooled by breezes from mist-shrouded hills. See

See: Beginner's guide to Kandy


Small capitals rarely get a good rap, but Ottawa distils the best of Canada by being bilingual, modest, quirky and rather homey, despite being surrounded by wild nature. It's a lovely town of parkland, promenades and neo-Gothic buildings above a grand river. Government expense accounts have promoted good dining and shopping, and several outstanding, family-friendly museums deserve visits. See

See: Ottawa: A city in love with winter

See also: World's smallest countries and why you should visit them

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