On the map, they’re just little blips. You might not even notice them at first. But when you do, curiosity takes over. Look at those tiny outposts sticking out by themselves in the midst of a much larger country. How did they get there? Why aren’t they just part of the larger country? Well, as you may have guessed, there are some interesting stories behind the creation of microstates. Here are a few unique ones particularly worth a visit.

Monaco


On the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded on three sides by France, Monaco has an interesting history. Near the site of an ancient Greek colony, the city-state was given by the Holy Roman Empire to the Republic of Genoa. In 1297, Francesco Grimaldi, head of an ousted Genoese family, captured Monaco. At times it fell under the possession Aragon, France, Sardinia and the Axis Powers of World War II. Through it all, the Grimaldi family has been there, and their opening of a casino in the 1860s and subsequent abolition of income tax turned Monaco into the playground for the rich and famous. The casino remains a big attraction, as do the annual Monaco Grand Prix Formula One car race and the yacht-filled harbor.

Singapore


Just barely an island, Singapore lies off the southern tip of Malaysia but has been an independent republic since 1965 after bouncing between the influence of various empires, being colonized by the British, captured by the Japanese in World War II, falling back under British control and briefing becoming part of Malaysia. Singapore has always been a trading center at the crossroads of East and West. It remains a powerhouse economy with a high standard of living and quite a bit of diversity among its population of nearly 6 million. Though, as anyone who remembers the caning controversy involving American teenage Michael Fay knows, law and order are a big deal to the local authorities.

Hong Kong & Macao


Strategically located at the mouth of the Pearl River Estuary, both cities are today part of China. But their status as special administrative regions lends insight into their histories. Hong Kong was part of Imperial China before being colonized by the British in the 1840s. After a brutal Japanese occupation, the trading power became an industrial and financial center following World War II and was officially transferred to Chinese sovereignty but maintains a great deal of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” policy.

Similarly, Macao was under Portuguese control for more than 400 years before being handed over to China yet retains its own legal and monetary systems. Macao is the most densely populated area in the world with 650,000 people living in less than 12 square miles and is the world’s gambling capital.

Vatican City & San Marino


For more than a thousand years, the popes were in control of a large swath of central Italy known as the Papal States. With the Unification of Italy, the pope lost these territories, and Rome itself became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. For a few decades after that, the status of the pope was an open question until it was settled by the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which established the independent state of Vatican City. It is today the smallest state in the world at about 110 acres and 1,000 residents and yet welcomes more than 5 million visitors per year.

A 24-square-mile enclave surrounded by Italy, San Marino may well be the oldest sovereign state still in existence, dating to the year 301. Located atop Monte Titano in the Apennine range, San Marino is certainly picturesque, but it’s the charm of its citizens that has kept it independent all these years. Regent Antonio Onofri managed to earn the respect of Napoleon, who promised not annex the republic. Later, thanks to San Marino’s offering of asylum to people persecuted for supporting Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi honored the republic’s wish to not become a part of Italy.