Monaco is literally inside France, completely surrounded on three sides! No matter what you’ve heard, it should definitely be on your list of places to visit in France!
So what’s it all about?
Tell people you’re going to Monaco, and they’ll either turn their noses up and declare the ritzy Principality “vulgar and sterile”, or rave on about the stunning scenery, the glamorous stars, the fact that the hereditary Prince Albert is still single. “Monaco, Fantasy Pales In Comparison” purrs the official tourist office publicity. “A monstrosity” counters the budget traveller’s bible, the Rough Guide. With the highest per capita income in the world, the residents of Monaco enjoy a tax-exempt status, earning it the reputation of a financial outpost — the Hong Kong of the Mediterranean. Sure, it’s a playground for the ultra-rich big boys and girls, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have a bit of fun, too. People come here for the mild and sunny climate, the world-class food and entertainment, and the undeniable allure of high stakes gambling and Formula 1 racing. Come and make up your own mind. The water is warm, the Champagne chilled, and the view is free…
What to bring
Dress up, darlings! It’s very hard to overdress in a town where strappy stilettos and designer frocks are de rigueur. Pack your chicest set of shades for discreet ogling and leave the university sweatshirts at home if you want to blend in with the jet set. Tuck a compact camera, a silky headscarf for those windy terraces, and a bus pass into your purse. Not only is the bus très chic in the Principality, but it will also save your feet from those hills, and your francs for the late night taxi fare. This isn’t the sort of place for sensible shoes and rain parkas. And don’t fret if you’ve forgotten anything, it will be a good excuse to shop in some of the world’s top designer boutiques. Not that you need an excuse…
Getting to know Monaco
Most people visiting Monaco for the first time make a beeline for the Casino. And no wonder most of them leave town with a sour look on their face. If you’re Mrs. Ritchie, go ahead and roll right up in a vintage Jaguar to your 2600€/night suite at the Hotel de Paris. For mere mortals, a more stealth approach is needed. Think of Monte-Carlo as the main dish in an eight-course Alain Ducasse feast, and allow the rest of Monaco whet your appetite…
First of all, become familiar with the lay of the land. Three miles long, the independent Principality of Monaco sits snugly between the Mediterranean and steep mountain cliffs, completely surrounded by the French Riviera, and only a few miles from the Italian border. Monte-Carlo is in the center, where the Casino and Hotel de Paris dominate. Monaco-Ville is the old medieval city on The Rock to the west, where you’ll find the Prince’s Palace, Cathedral, and Oceanographic Museum. La Condamine, surrounding the port, connects these two neighbourhoods and makes up the central part of the Grand Prix circuit. Fontvieille is the man-made waterfront for leisure and light industry to the far west, and Larvotto is made up of the public beaches, the Grimaldi Forum and Sporting Club to the east. With only five bus lines, it’s hard to get lost, despite the winding roads and towering buildings built into the steep cliffs.
The turquoise waters of the Mediterranean are a welcome balance to the somewhat overpowering man-made jungle of Monte-Carlo. It’s here that you should begin your exploration. The public beaches of Larvotto are well-kept, like the rest of Monaco, and host a more attractive crowd than most Riviera beaches. For chic Art Deco ambiance, consider a day at the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel, renowned for its luxurious diving pool and private beach cabanas (closed during the chilliest days of winter). To see some of the most prestigious yachts in the world, stroll the Port Monaco or Port Fontvieille. If you don’t manage to catch a lift on a Princely yacht, you can always take a guided tour in a glass bottom boat around the harbour. Always interested in the natural environment, the Princes of Monaco have kept waters here exceptionally clean. If marine life fascinates you, don’t miss the Oceanographic Museum & Aquarium, where underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau was once director. For a more personal and luxurious encounter with the sea, be sure to book yourself an appointment at the new Thermes Marins Spa, which specializes in seawater therapies.
Time to meet your Royal hosts. The Grimaldi’s are the oldest reigning family in Europe, and the last constitutional autocrats. To visit Monaco is to visit the Monegasque royal family. Their very passions define the Principality, and are open for all to enjoy. The Prince’s Palace is a logical place to start, however the commentary is recorded and you’ll learn more about the furniture than the royal family secrets (hint: you can learn more about the rise of the Grimaldi dynasty next door at the Napoleon Museum). If you’re nearby at 11:55am, peek in on the ceremonial changing of the guards (they’re actually French soldiers, to avoid a coup d’état). Prince Rainier III has been ruling Monaco since 1949. You’ll know when he’s at home if you see the red and white flag flying from the turret. Rainier III’s 1956 marriage to the American film star Grace Kelly brought renewed romance and glamour to the country, as well as three children: Caroline, Albert, and Stephanie. It’s been almost 20 years since her tragic death on the Moyenne Corniche, but Princess Grace’s legacy is apparent throughout Monaco.
Wander the narrow streets of the old town, ignoring the cheesy tourist shops, and marvel at the beautiful architecture, the spectacular view over the port, and the complete absence of litter or dog droppings on the streets. A minuscule studio here can cost 285,000€. Try some traditional Monegasque cuisine at Le Castelroc, including a Barbajuan appetizer — crisp fried pastry puff filled with zucchini, eggs, cheese and rice — “A Prince Albert favorite”, says the tourist office. The grand Cathedral attracts a long procession of visitors to the tomb of Princess Grace (inscribed Gratia Patricia), ignoring the paintings by Niçois artist Louis Bréa. If religious art interests you, the Musée de la Chapelle de la Visitation has an impressive collection, including a rare religious painting by Vermeer.
Over in the Fontvieille Terraces you can visit Prince Rainier III’s personal collections of perfectly restored vintage cars, as well as his stamps and coins (a good place to buy current Monegasque Francs and stamps as souvenirs). But the best collection is on the other side of town, at the National Museum. Set in a villa designed by Charles Garnier and surrounded by a beautiful rose garden, this quiet museum lovingly displays the world’s finest collection of automated figures and dolls.
Rev it Up!
Now that you’ve been properly introduced to Monaco, you’re ready to have a go at the highlife you’ve been eyeing from afar. Spend the morning touring the haute couture boutiques around the Place du Casino or the nearby Metropole shopping mall, where you’ll find Princess Stephanie’s Replay boutique. When you’ve shopped ’till you can shop no more, it’s time for a late afternoon espresso break with a view at Café de Paris. Ask for a table on the sidewalk terrace facing the Place du Casino, where you’ll see all the action. This is what sunglasses are for. Coolly regard the Ferrari’s and Rolls Royce’s, calmly note the bevelled jewels on the women, sneak a casual glance at who’s coming out of the Hotel de Paris across the square, and quietly revel in the Belle Epoch, Art Deco and Rococo-inspired architectural wonders. If there’s no saliva pooling in your lap, then you’re ready to get dressed and go out to play!
There’s no lacking in top restaurants in Monte-Carlo, but be sure to reserve ahead of time — even before you leave home — if you want to be guaranteed a table. For over-the-top extravagance, Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV in the Hotel de Paris is the way to go (hint: order the menu, it’s the best deal, and that little stool next to the table is for Mademoiselle’s Vuitton purse). Be sure to touch the shining knee of the bronze horse for luck on your way over to the Casino. Don’t let the large doormen with the piercing gazes shake your confidence. You’re ready to have some serious fun, and maybe even win back the small fortune you ate for dinner.
All of the action used to be centred in Monte-Carlo, but there’s plenty of evening entertainment in all corners of Monaco today, depending on your tastes. The ultimate party has always been at absurdly expensive Jimmy’z (men must have jackets). For thr trendy crowd,there’s the Café Grand Prix at the port (don’t show up before midnight), the Zebra Bar in the ultra-modern new Grimaldi Forum, or the hip bar of the Columbus Hotel, Monaco’s first trendy designer hotel with F1 star David Coulthard as part owner. Sass has been a classic late night spot, and two newer lounge bars have opened next door, making the avenue Princess Grace a pretty good bet for decent bar-hopping.
For more info:
Monte-Carlo Online http://www.monte-carlo.mc
Société des Bains de Mer Resort (SBM) http://www.montecarloresort.com/
Monaco Office of Tourism 2a, Bd des Moulins Monte Carlo 98030 Monaco Cedex Tél: +377 126.96.36.199
Inexpensive Lodging: It is possible to find doubles with bathrooms for under €60 if you know where to look. Try booking through the Tourist Office, or call directly yourself, keeping in mind to book far in advance for May and August. In Monaco try the Hotel Cosmopolite +377 9330 1695, or the Helvetica +377 9330 2171. If you’re a student or under 26, try the Centre de Jeuness Princess Stephanie, 24 ave Prince-Pierre +377 9350 8320. In nearby Beausoleil, just minutes from the Casino, try Villa Boeri at 29, rue General Leclerc, +33(0)4 9378 3810.
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.