You’ve heard of it, and yes, you know it’s in Europe, but it’s so small, where does it sit, really? Tiny Liechtenstein comprises less than 62 square miles, tucked along the eastern border of Switzerland. For comparison, that’s a little short of the size of Washington, DC. If you are familiar with the shape of Austria, Liechtenstein is at the farthest western reach of the arm that stretches west from the main bulk of that country. It pins Liechtenstein against Switzerland, which isn’t all that big itself, though it dwarfs little Liechtenstein. Living in that neighborhood, it’s not surprising that half of Liechtenstein is in the Alps, with elevations ranging to just over 8,500 feet. The rest of country runs along the flatter Rhine Valley as the river flows between it and Switzerland, but still never dips below 1,400 feet. This makes for some stunning natural scenery, complemented by neat towns and grand historic buildings, churches, and castles. The place is well cared for, made possible by the substantial wealth of the country, about more of which later.
Liechtenstein has been around for a while, having started as a principality of the Holy Roman Empire in 1719. By 1806, after occupation by foreign forces during the Napoleonic Wars, Liechtenstein became a sovereign state, but allied itself at different times with Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Like Switzerland, it was neutral during World War II. It helps to be neutral when you don’t have an army, which they haven’t since 1868. With fewer than 38,000 citizens in total, the pool of volunteers wouldn’t be very large. Liechtenstein finds much of its strength in banking. The country uses the Swiss franc as its currency and owes none of those francs to anyone. With such a solid exchequer and an advantageous tax system, its stability draws much investment. A customs agreement with Switzerland that began in 1923 has given it economic heft beyond its size, and contributed to its strong financial footing. Though it has no natural resources to sell, Liechtenstein augments its wealth with agriculture and manufacturing. It has one market cornered: false teeth. A single company there makes 60 million sets per year, which is fully 20 percent of denture sales worldwide. And don’t worry, with 10,000 models, they no doubt have one that will fit you.
Unlike some small, wealthy countries, the money is not solely held by a ruling elite. Salaries are high compared to the rest of Europe, and the per capita income is nearly $140,000 a year. That’s not everyone’s salary level, but there’s money to be had, especially for skilled workers. The wealth is evident in the appearance of the place, which is uniformly well-kempt, not unlike next-door Switzerland. As you might expect in any wealthy neighborhood, crime is low. Consequently, there aren’t many people incarcerated there, and those miscreants who draw a sentence of over two years are sent to do their time in Austria. Apparently, with enough money, you can export your troublemakers. The upshot is that people feel safe—especially since there hasn’t been a murder there since the 1990s. Laws in Leichtenstein are made by Parliament, but as an officially Catholic constitutional monarchy, the royal family gets a big say in affairs. Prince Alois is in charge of that, but his dad, Prince Hans-Adam II maintains a title as well. Having a monarch sort of adds to the Old World cachet of the place.
The monarchy isn’t distant and unfriendly, however. Once a year, they open the grounds of the Vaduz Castle and invite the populace in to enjoy a brew and take in the sights. Members of the royal family are gracious hosts, appearing in person to schmooze with the citizenry. The Annual National Day then continues down in the streets of Vaduz, the national capital, with a day of beer consumption topped off by a huge fireworks display that night. Ever since 1940, the celebration occurs on August 15, already the Feast of the Assumption, and also the day before the birthday of Prince Franz Josef II, a beloved monarch who led the country during WWII’s dark days and who helped shape the country’s post-war prosperity. This year will no doubt feature an especially robust party as it is the 300th birthday of Liechtenstein. When the band strikes up the national anthem, it may sound familiar. The song they sing is based on the music of Britain’s God Save the Queen. Americans will recognize it as America (or My Country ‘tis of Thee). The proud citizens will be singing in a language that sounds like German, but is a variant more similar to Switzerland’s version of German. With this linguistic shading, they more frequently call their country Liachtaschta than Liechtenstein.
The mid-summer timing of National Day is a good choice, given the fair possibility that the weather will be warm and sunny. Liechtenstein’s climate is a curious combination of interior and exterior alpine influences. The exterior, tempered by the Atlantic, brings moisture, but the interior provides drying factors, such as the föhn, or foehn, winds, downslope-heated blasts that keep clouds from forming. These drying influences also mean Liechtenstein’s winters are not typically snow heavy, as you might expect in an alpine country. The weather can experience extremes, but it may just as likely be temperate. This tendency to reasonable conditions might mean your airline flight to Liechtenstein wouldn’t be delayed by weather…if they had an airport. Like the other mini-states of Europe, there is no air service there. Perhaps an airport would take up too much room in so small a country. They rely on Switzerland again—sizeable Zurich Airport is only 80 miles distant, and a smaller one in St. Gallen is about 30 miles away. Or you can fly in on your private helicopter. You do have a helicopter, don’t you? One thing is absolutely certain—you will not take a cruise to Liechtenstein. The country is landlocked, of course, but it is also one of only two doubly-landlocked countries, the other being Uzbekistan. For them, gaining access to an ocean requires crossing the borders of two nations. Given harmonious European relations, that probably isn’t a huge problem for Leichtenstein outside of paying fees for moving goods to ports by truck or rail.
So things are pretty nice in Liechtenstein, if you have the money to live there. Becoming a resident is not so easy, as their immigration rules are quite restrictive—there’s only so much room, after all! But you are welcome to visit, as over 80,000 tourists did in 2017. With all the fabulous natural scenery, historic architecture, and a free beer at the castle, why not?
Get a feel for Liechtenstein’s neighborhood with this National Geographic map of Switzerland, Austria, and the Northern Alps, and let it guide you to that region’s great scenery! You can order it from Maps.com.
caption: There….that tiny blue dot at the westernmost end of Austria, just above the “AN” in SWITZERLAND …it’s Liechtenstein!
source: Wikimedia Commons: Lt Powers, based on a map by Stefan Ertmann (CC by SA 4.0 Internationalday)
caption: Liechtenstein’s mountain scenery is stunning.
source: Flickr: George McCord (CC by 2.0)
caption: Vaduz Castle, where you get to hang with royalty on National Day.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Michael Gredenberg (CC by SA 3.0 Unsorted)
caption: The city of Vaduz is neat and orderly, and the lowland farm areas picturesque.
source: Pxhere: Unknown (Public domain)
caption: Liechtenstein’s landscapes look as though drawn from a storybook.
source: Flickr: Mathias Erhart (CC by SA 2.0)