Monaco may be the world’s second tiniest country (the Vatican is the smallest), but that doesn’t stop it from being a great place to visit. It’s a principality that has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since the 13th century. Monaco is famous for its gambling, car races and fairy tale romances, such as when the beauty (American actress Grace Kelly) marries the handsome prince (Prince Rainier III.). Monaco is glitzy and glamorous, and offers travelers a chance to mingle with the rich and famous, if only to ooh and ah over the awesome yachts in the harbor.
Before we begin, let us clear up a common confusion of nomenclature, notably between “Monaco” and “Monte Carlo”. Monaco is the name of the principality – of the country, if you like. Monte Carlo is the name of one of its five districts.
Now that’s clear, we can carry on with our visit. Let’s say we’ll get off the bus by hospital and start our tour right there. Near the Centre Hospitalier Princess Grace (where the bus stops) is located the first location I’m going to be talking about.
For a microscopic spot, Monaco crams in an awful lot of gardens and, to my mind, the Jardin Exotique is the most interesting. It’s definitely worth of every spent penny, though, for a world-class collection of cacti and succulents. Some date from early last century and have grown huge, so it’s like wandering through a sort of vertical New Mexico. Except that you don’t get the outstanding sea views in New Mexico. The entry price includes also access to a cave within the gardens full of stalactites and stalagmites (be warned: there are 300 steps) and an on-site museum of prehistory.
After some more steps and steep descending you get to the quarter called Fontvieille. Either you can visit one of three interesting museums on Centre Commercial de Fontvieille, or continue further to the sea.
Monaco-Ville on the left, Fontvieille on the right
The first museum, Collection de Voitures Anciennes exhibits all the Prince of Monaco’s vintage cars. The collection brings together almost 100 antique cars of various vintages and models, all made by prestigious European and American car companies. There are also six historic coaches on display.
Another musem worth of mentioning is definitely the Naval Museum. It opened its doors already in the 1990s and has a range of maritime related memorabilia including over 250 ships in model form. Many of the items on display here belonged to Prince Rainier III and were donated here from his private collection. This museum basically takes you back in time with a look at Roman ships, traditional Viking longboats, and graceful Spanish galleons. There is even a model of the Titanic as well as the Nimitz, a US warship that is also the largest in the world.
Last but not least, the Musée des Timbres (or so called Museum of Stamps and Coins) tells the postal history of the principality, and contains a display of Monegasque money dating to 1640.
Our next steps will lead to local park. Fontvieille Park eventually leads to the Princess Grace Memorial Rose Garden, although it is worth a visit in its own right. You’ll find there pretty palm trees and olive groves and there is a number of lakes and ponds that attract the local fauna. Ducks and swans swim in the lakes all year round and there is an elegant Sculpture Path – free exhibition of internationally renowned works that spans more than four hectares.
The already mentioned Rose Garden first opened its gates in 1984, with Prince Rainier III wanting to create a place in memory of his wife Princess Grace. There are over 8000 rose bushes in 300 different varieties here, so it’s best to visit in either the spring or autumn when the flowers will be at their most vibrant. At any time of year, however, this garden has a special kind of grace and is well worth the visit.
Another thing worth of at least looking at is Stade Louis II.. The football stadium is unique in its design, with the pitch some 8,35 metres above the road level, on top of the car park, totally compliant with UEFA’s norms and regulations and it has a seating capacity of 18 523!
When leaving the park and basically the whole quarter, try to stay as close to the sea as possible, because another unique view opens there. The Port de Fontvieille truly is a playground for the rich and famous, since only they can afford thousands of dollars a day to berth their boats and yachts in this harbour. The marina has space for 275 vessels of varying sizes, and offers all the amenities the sailors want. Fifty years ago the Port de Fontvieille was just a patch of sand sheltered by rocks. The marina basically borders the heart of the village of Fontvieille, with streets and buildings at water’s edge.
Now we’re moving to another one of Monaco’s five quarters, the old Monaco-Ville! The quarter, also known as Le Rocher or The Rock, offers visitors a chance to stroll through the country’s oldest neighborhood. This old town, which is built on rocky land that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea, may date back to the 6th century BC when the ancient Greek established a colony here. In the 13th century, Monaco’s founders, the Grimaldis, made an ancient fortress their headquarters. Monaco-Ville is made up almost entirely of pedestrian streets and passageways and retains its medieval character. There are a number of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as most of the city’s famous landmarks.
When passing the Avenue Albert II to enter this part of the city, you should also notice the Jardin Animalier, or so-called ZOO on the left side. It’s a perfect place for families, but also for everyone tired of crowded boulevards and avenues.
The first thing to see is the majestic Palais du Prince. In a unique position high above the sea on the picturesque peninsula, it is home to the oldest monarchy in the world. The Genoese noble family of Grimaldi established Monaco in 1297 after they captured the land from the Republic of Genoa. Originally built in the 13th century as a Genoese fortress, the site affords panoramic views, which provided defensive purposes in the Middle Ages. The fortress was renovated throughout the centuries and transformed into a luxurious Louis-XIV-style palace.
The State Apartments of the Palais du Prince is a private residence but is open to the public at certain times of the year. (Check the official website for opening times.) Visitors can see the sumptuous Italianate gallery adorned with 16th- and 17th-century frescoes; the gilded “Blue Room” featuring a resplendent decor of blue and gold; the wood-paneled Mazarin Room; and the Empire-style Throne Room, which has an impressive Renaissance fireplace. Be sure to admire the 17th-century Palatine Chapel and the Main Courtyard, with its monumental 17th-century Carrara marble double staircase. In July and August on some Sundays and Thursdays, the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra performs classical music concerts in the main courtyard. Another tradition of the Sovereign House, the Changing of the Guard takes place every day at 11.55am in front of the palace. This ceremony called the Compagnie des Carabiniers du Prince is conducted by the highly trained Palace Guards and accompanied by the Orchestre des Carabiniers du Prince military brass band musicians.
Leaving the Palace, take in the all-round views from the square, the glorious rock-side Saint-Martin Gardens and Cathedrale de Monaco. The tombs of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace are to the left of the choir. They make a striking, sober contrast with the neo-Byzantine over-ornamentation of the rest of the church.
Saint-Martin Gardens should definitely be on your list, too. Winding on the edge of the coastline, the garden’s pathways allow for the most splendid views out to sea, and the breeze is a welcome treat if you are visiting in the hotter months. It is one of the best spots for picnicking, too, as there are plenty of benches and shade. There are lots of exotics plants and flowers to spot, or you can simply just wander, slowly, watching the world go by.
Right alongside is located the glorious Monaco Cathedral. This Roman-Byzantine-style cathedral was constructed out of striking white stones from nearby La Turbie. The cathedral is the burial place of the Princes of Monaco and houses tombs of past sovereigns Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. Although the cathedral is relatively modern (built between 1875 and 1884), the interior features an altarpiece by the Niçois painter Louis Bréa dating from 1500. Another noteworthy feature of the sanctuary is the Episcopal throne of Carrara white marble. The cathedral has an impressive grand organ that is used for religious services as well as concerts of holy music. Every Sunday at 10am from September through June, mass is sung by the “Les Petits Chanteurs de Monaco” and the “Cathedral Choir”. The cathedral is open to the public (free admission) for visits except during religious services.
A little bit further in the heart of the peninsula lies the well known Musée Oceanographique. Though competition is not too stiff, this is the principality’s best, and most popular, museum. A neoclassical pile built straight up from the cliff, it looks far grander than the Princely Palace. Columns and pediments give it a sort of Victorian mission to educate. Which it does, very well. The vast place is packed with marine fascination, notably a fine aquarium (including a shark lagoon pool) and a 28m long whale skeleton which, if it rose from the dead, could swallow Monaco whole. Attractions have recently been boosted by the opening in recent years of Tortoise Island, an outdoor space devoted, unsurprisingly, to tortoises and turtles. The space also includes a play area for nippers and a lounge section where parents may sit, take a drink and survey their offspring. Meanwhile, there are immersive, maritime-themed movies on weekend afternoons – and touch tanks, that kids might discover what live starfish (and others) feel like. Also new is an old-style display of sea-linked curiosities – from a polar bear to a 1797 diving outfit. Sharks also remain a key attraction, as the museum attempts to get us up close and personal with the toothy monsters – and thus de-demonise them. Apparently, sharks kill only 10 people a year, while jellyfish account for 50 – and mosquitoes for 800 000.
Another museum located on Le Rocher is the Musée de la Chapelle de la Visitation. The spot marks the site of the Chapelle de la Visitation which is a baroque chapel that dates from the 17th century and has now been made into a museum where you can take in a range of galleries dedicated to religious art work and scripture. Some of the other highlights here include a range of paintings by some of the most famous Italian masters.
It takes a bit of wandering to get back to the Place du Palais where we have already been before, but if you do so, you have a unique chance to visit two more museums – Musée Napoléonien containing the collection of numerous possessions of the Emperor including letters and documents pertaining to his reign and conquest of Europe and relics from his exile and imprisonment on Saint Helena. Also included in the collection is clothing that belonged to Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome. Assembled by Prince Louis II. and completed in 1970, this spot is really a must-see for anyone craving history.
If you have something for wax figurines (like me, for example), you’ll find some in the Musée de Cires. It’s more about historical figures than the ones present, so don’t come here expecting another Madame Tussauds…but it’s really nice and worth a visit anyways.
When you feel hungry already, I recommend you to find a restaurant in one of the narrow cobbled streets here, because ahead is the most expensive part of Monaco – the famous Monte-Carlo!
The coastal path there is absolutely unique – but, however, it’s located right next to a busy highway, so you can’t really enjoy the magnificient view….anyway! The Port de la Condamine you can see underneath you by your right side, in the shape of a square, was completed in 1926 and designed to hold a big number of luxury yachts – even the Prince himself docks his vessel there. The Yacht Club in front of the marine has more than 1 000 members from all over the world and hosts races and festivals all year long. You can also take catamaran ride around Monaco to see that fantastic coastline.
And the spot, that most likely attracts the most visitors is finally in sight! Although it’s just its right wing with a fountain and you have to turn left to enjoy that famous view, but it’s finally here! The Casino de Monte Carlo was established in the 19th century to save the Grimaldi family from bankruptcy. At that time, Monaco was poor with little infrastructure to support tourism. The plan worked. The Monte Carlo Casino today lures gamblers to Monaco, with games of chance, including roulette, Baccarat, craps and slot machines; even James Bond tried his luck here. The casino has a dress code and charges admission; foreign visitors need to show passports or other ID as Monaco residents are not allowed inside.
Beyond the casino is a street with high-end shops, another nice park and a tourist information office. But I guess it won’t be needed anymore, because there are only a few other destinations to see.
While heading to the biggest (and believe me, also the best) beach in the city, we’ll stroll through Jardins du Casino at first. There’s not much to see in there, just a huge amount of other tourists wanting to take a photo of the well-known F1 curve. On the right side opens a view at another garden. For a ‘zen moment’, take a stroll through this calm and uncrowded landscaped Japanese garden. It makes for the perfect pause to your Monaco break because of its central location and the care taken in its maintenance is clear. The Zen concept of compactness is at the heart of its garden and even though it is relatively small, the water and foliage makes you forget the hustle and bustle of a moment earlier.
The huge building above is the Grimaldi Forum…but that doesn’t have to interest you, because it’s just a congress centre, more interesting is the building on the left…the new Musée National. The museum celebrates contemporary art with temporary exhibitions of avant-garde paintings, drawing, and photography. Since 2009, the museum also has added fine arts acquisitions, including paintings, photographs, costumes, decorative objects, sculptures and architectural models. This forward-thinking museum is also devoted to conservation work, for example the restoration of an antique doll from 1880 and vintage theatrical costumes. The museum encourages dialogue between artists and researchers and promotes learning across artistic, cultural, and scientific disciplines.
Grimaldi forum is that white building with Starbucks coffee on the right and about the museum…well, we wanted to try the beach 😀
And it’s here! Larvotto Beach is Monaco’s most popular – and actually only – beach, even though the beach is more pebbly than sandy; beachcombers may want to wear sturdy shoes while walking along the Mediterranean Sea. While some visitors recommend the beach for families because the sea is quieter, parents should know it is popular with topless sunbathers. Some sections of Monaco’s public beach are free to visitors, while others charge admission.
on the way there
nice weather again!
If you’re a gourmet and you’d like to end the day with a dinner, Monaco is famous for its fine-dining scene, which caters to really discerning clientele. The fancy restaurants are designed for gourmets who appreciate the best meals that money can buy. For those prepared to splurge, there are several legendary restaurants to try. The most renowned is Le Louis XV restaurant, which boasts three Michelin stars and features the haute Mediterranean cuisine of Alain Ducasse, prepared with the freshest local ingredients. Second in line is Joël Robuchon Monte-Carlo, with two Michelin stars. Located in the opulent Belle Epoque-style Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo, Le Vistamar has one Michelin star and offers distinctive modern cuisine, served on a terrace overlooking the sea. Another place to dine al fresco with dazzling views, the Michelin-starred Blue Bay restaurant at the Monte Carlo Bay Hotel and Resort features a trendy setting and intricate cuisine with a subtle West Indian influence. The restaurant’s Chef Marcel Ravin hails from the Caribbean island of Martinique. In the upscale Asian cuisine category, Yoshi delights guests with delicate, contemporary Japanese dishes. Yoshi is a collaboration between Joël Robuchon and Chef Takéo Yamazaki and has one Michelin star.
You’ll find all these restaurants when heading back to both bus stop where you had started or the train station…as well as the Moneghetti District with seemingly endless steps and roads with hairpin bends, lovely villas and gardens – the most interesting part of the town for me.
As for the transport to/from Monaco…I really recommend staying in Nice, waking up a bit earlier, taking 112 bus at 7:30 from Vauban, visiting the Èze village in the morning, leaving it by the same bus at 11:30, spend the rest of the day in Monaco and leaving by the same bus at 19:25 (when getting on the bus on Monte Carlo stop, when you’d want to get on the stop by the hospital, it arrives there a few minutes later)…you’ll get back to Nice Vauban within an hour. The full timetable can be found here. I have tried it and yes, it is possible. Everything is possible 🙂 even buying a swan on the Larvotto beach for less than in our local shop!
Have a great day!
DISCLAIMER: some photos are not mine because of a bad weather (it was partly cloudy and mine sometimes looked really bad because of the terrible light under the clouds), copyright goes fully to their owners!