It is a little principality with grand claims to fame. Anybody with even a vague knowledge of fine arts would have seen, or at least heard of, their royal family’s Princely Collections, deemed one of the most important private art collections in the world, with some 1,700 paintings, including masterpieces by the likes of Rubens and Rembrandt. Those in finance might remember its (former) reputation as a tax haven for the elite – until the country abolished its banking secrecy laws in 2009. It is also one of the most industrialised countries in Europe; and its per capita income stands as one of the highest in the world.
Liechtenstein is a small country with a huge reach. In its 300 years of history, the sliver of land separated from Switzerland by the river Rhine has transformed from an agricultural region plagued with floods and landslides to a formidable economy with a global presence.
If you’ve ever had “Europe-made” orthodontic product fitted into your cavity, you might actually be carrying a little piece of Liechtenstein with you, for Ivoclar Vivadent is a leading dental company, with its products available in more than 120 countries. Liechtenstein is also home to the number one roller coaster construction company in the world, Intamin; and Hoval, which provides heating and indoor climate solutions for big luxury hotels, as well as the Vatican and Buckingham Palace. And LGT – the world’s largest family-owned private banking and asset management group, owned by the Princely House of Liechtenstein – has its footprints in more than 20 locations worldwide and manages some US$200 billion in assets for private and institutional clients.
Yet for all the impressive corporate achievements Liechtenstein is known for, it is likely the small things that it will be remembered for. Such as how it is a highly democratic state whose population even voted on the opening of a McDonald’s (though the population doesn’t seem to have an issue with the opening of casinos, of which there are a handful).
Or how the Vaduz castle, which serves as the princely family’s primary residence and a vault for pieces in the Princely Collection, is out of bounds but is the venue for a public beer party on Aug 15, Liechtenstein’s national day. It is not uncommon for local kids to be invited over for playdates by the youngest members of the von Liechtenstein clan. And children who top their cohort are also invited to tea with the Territorial Prince, as education has always been an emphasis and a key to Liechtenstein’s development. Beneath the orderly, no-nonsense facade of this prosperous country are quirks and idiosyncrasies that make the place charmingly human.
Travellers can drop by for the “Princely Moments”, proudly advertised as the “creed of Liechtenstein’s touristic offering”. You certainly have the opportunity to shake hands and rub shoulders with royalty here. In a town that is all of 160.5 sq km, the royal family drives itself around with no security detail, and a prince or princess just might be supping at the same Michelin-starred restaurant (of which the country has two) as you.
The town certainly deserves more time than a drive-through or a pit-stop at the city centre’s inordinately large watch boutique (“We sell more watches than we have residents!” one local cracks) teeming with Chinese tourists checking off yet another country on their multi-city European package tour. Here, the highlights.
Get high on hiking
For the nation’s 300th birthday in 2019, a 75km hiking route was created. The trail – designed for hikers of all fitness levels – takes them through all 11 municipalities of the country, and highlights 147 historical sites and events. Sights to behold on this cross-country trail include the mediaeval Vaduz and Gutenberg castles, as well as the minimalist (and very Instagram-worthy) parliament building designed by German architect Hansjorg Goritz. Beyond learning about the history and development of the nation, the walk – which can take some five days, but can also be accessed mid-way from any of the 11 communities – also takes hikers through mountain ridges and dense forests, rolling hills with the sound of cowbells in the air, quaint townships with ancient churches, and delightfully varied scenery along the way. Find out more here.
(Related: Luxury hikes for the seasoned traveller)
Ski resort of the champions
Liechtensteiners like to joke that they have the highest number of Olympic medallists per capita – it is a bit of a cheat when there are only 38,000 people to share 10 medals with, and these come all from their Alpine skiers. Being the only country in the world which has its borders within the Alps, it is understandable that local kids dive into the sport as soon as they can walk. And everybody, from Olympic medallists to aspirants, to tumbling tots, heads to Malbun. In 1983, Prince Charles and Lady Diana also left their tracks in the snow here, during a visit to Liechtenstein.
Just a 20-minute drive up from the capital of Vaduz, Malbun is a popular getaway for the locals, and the idyllic landscape of grazing pastures is a contrast from the more densely populated areas along the Rhine. A cluster of log cabins sit at the foot of the 2000m-high Sareisjoch mountain ridge, and among them is the stylish yet very family-oriented Hotel Gorfi on.
The local institution was about to be demolished by a new owner, to the locals’ dismay – until the princely family stepped in to take over the ownership, like true knights in shining armour. Relaunched in December 2016, it is a gem that offers plush creature comforts and wellness programmes that will be appreciated by the adults, and a plethora of options for the kids, from an indoor pool complete with toys and ski-in/ski-out access to the local kids’ ski school. Find out more here.
Art of the ages
Another important private collection from Liechtenstein is that of the Hilti Art Foundation. Started in the 1970s by members of the Hilti family, a world leader in dismantling and fastening technology for the construction industry, it contains some 200 artworks from the classical modernism period to the present, including that from the hands of Picasso, Giacometti and Sean Scully. Until Jan 26, select pieces from this collection are juxtaposed against those by the Old Masters from the Princely Collection. This special exhibition, called On The Future Of The Past, is held at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, the state museum of modern and contemporary art in Vaduz. Find out more here.
The hills are alive
Music festivals are a big part of Liechtenstein’s annual calendar of events. Early last year, Lang Lang played at the third iteration of the Vaduz Classic, the summer highlight of Liechtenstein’s cultural calendar where international maestros, rising stars and local artists share the spotlight.
Then there is also the annual Princely Liechtenstein Tattoo, which is held every September, when the castle ruins of Schellenberg are transformed into a stunning backdrop and stage for exhilarating routines performed by an impressive line-up of showbands, bagpipe ensembles and dance troupes from around Europe. There is also the annual Liechtenstein Guitar Days – a week-long festival that attracts world-class guitar ensembles and soloists, offering performances and masterclasses for enthusiasts.
(Related: Masterpiece Gallery)