Monaco is considered one of the most glamorous destinations on the planet and perfect for a weekend visit or short city break. At only 487 acres (less than a square mile), can there be anywhere else on earth with so much to see in such a small area?
Millions of tourists visit the Principality of Monaco each year. The Royal Palace, with the quaint changing of the guard; the fairy-tale legend of the late-Prince Rainier and Princess Grace; the annual Monaco Grand Prix; the world-famous Casino; the Monte-Carlo Rally; the magnificent setting of the Rocher de Monaco; the harbor packed with some of the most exclusive yachts in the world – it all adds to up to an amazing place to visit.
And then there are the people that live in Monaco. Just 4,500 are native Monegasque citizens. But many others live there to avoid paying tax. And the wealth is apparent everywhere, with Bentleys, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis the car marques of choice.
Of all the countries in the world, Monaco has the largest proportion of over-65s – and most of them are very rich.
As well as the obvious attractions, there’s much else to see. The Musée Océanographique has possibly the finest aquarium in Europe, while the stunning Jardin Exotique is worth visiting simply for the astonishing views over the rest of the Principality.
Monaco is also easy to reach, as the Nice airport is only a short distance away with cheap flights galore. However, what you save on your budget airline flight you can spend on a helicopter flight from the airport to Monaco’s Heliport at roughly 130 Euro per person. You may have to share with the odd millionaire, but it’s still an arrival you’ll never forget.
Did you know? If Monaco has no male heirs to the throne, the country becomes part of France.
History of Monaco
Monaco has been inhabited since prehistoric times, but its modern history started in 1297. Francois Grimaldi, disguised like his men, as a monk, captured Monaco and, eleven years later, another Grimaldi bought the domain from the Genoese. The Principality has been ruled by the Grimaldis ever since, and the family coat of arms still features those two monks.
Foreign occupation has been frequent – by Spain (1524 – 1641); France (1641 – 1814) and by Sardinia (1815 – 1861). The French then took over Monaco again as the Nice area became part of France. Nearby Menton and Roquebrune, which were then part of the Principality, were bought by the French and Monaco regained its independence in 1862.
The first casino was opened in 1856 to raise funds for the Prince – it moved to Monte-Carlo soon afterward, became fashionable, and housing was built around it. Soon, Monte-Carlo was the world’s most famous casino, and the wealth flowing into the area, helped by attractive tax concessions.
Buildings went up at a pace, so much so that the shoreline was extended and the Principality also built skywards. The industry was encouraged, notably tourism, including conferences. The Conference Centre below the casino can now accommodate 1,100 delegates. Banking; the media (Radio Monte-Carlo and Tele Monte-Carlo) and light industry are also important but the Casino and the associated Hotel de Paris is still the largest private-sector employer.
More space has been created by going downwards with car parks, access roads and the railway and bus station all underground. A 54-acre peninsula has also been built out into the sea as Monaco becomes ever more successful and popular.
The marriage of Prince Rainier to American film actress Grace Kelly in April 1956 captured the imagination of millions. Princess Grace gave birth to three children – Caroline, Albert, and Stéphanie, all since capable of attracting headlines – and were hugely popular and involved in charitable work. She died in a car accident on the Grande Corniche in 1982.
Prince Rainier died in 2005 and was succeeded by Prince Albert. Earlier, Albert had formed a bobsleigh team for Monaco and competed in five Olympic Games, from 1988 to 2002. The history and glamour surrounding the Royal Family of the world’s second-smallest nation (only the Vatican is smaller), has been a huge factor in attracting visitors. The changing of the guard at the Royal Palace (11.55 am daily) is still a popular attraction.
Did you know? The Grimaldi family has ruled Monaco since 1297
Top City Sights in Monaco
Monte Carlo Casino
Probably the most famous in the world, the casino was built in 1878 by Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opera House. Surrounded by magnificent gardens and terraces, everything is on a grand scale, with Rococo turrets, green copper cupolas, and gold chandeliers.
You have to be 18 or over to enter, and ID is obligatory. There is a strict dress code, with a jacket and tie for men. It costs €10 – the slot machines are available from 2 pm except on weekends when they start at noon. Roulette and Trente et Quarante are afternoons. There are also private rooms for European and English roulette, trente et quarante, chemin de fer, blackjack, and craps.
You enter through a huge central hall with the theatre ahead – the atrium leading to the Salle Garnier Opera House is paved in marble with 28 Ionic columns in onyx – and the gambling rooms are on the left. A staircase leads down to the Ganne Room where there’s a nightclub.
Outside, the view from the terrace is breathtaking. You can also enjoy the roof-top promenades of the Spelugues complex with the enameled pumice stone statue by Vasarely called Hexa Grace. Le Bar du Soleil is also ideal for a morning coffee.
The Port in Monaco
The harbor is the center-piece of the Principality, situated in La Condamine, the area between Le Rocher and Monte-Carlo. Prince Albert, I commissioned the building of the harbor which is surrounded by a broad promenade. It’s always crammed with luxury yachts – imagine watching the Grand Prix from the deck of one of these floating palaces! There is also the Olympic swimming pool that was added by Prince Rainier and acts as a chicane during the Formula 1 race. During the summer season, you can take a boat trip in a glass-bottomed boat – they leave from the Quai des Etats-Unis.
Climb up to the Royal Palace, the Palais du Prince, on Le Rocher. The building dates back to the 13th century with 15th century and 16the century additions in Italian Renaissance style. Partly built into the vertical rock, the whole building, with its guards, has a fairy-tale feel. Be there for the changing of the guard at 11.55 am each day.
Tours of the palace include a visit to the Hercules Gallery, which looks down on the main courtyard. The throne room and state apartments are decorated with fine carpets and furniture as well as portraits.
The square outside, Place du Palais, offers superb views over Fontvielle (and even the tiled-roofed football stadium of Monaco FC blends in with the local architecture) to the south and over the port and Monte-Carlo to the north. It also leads off into the old town of Monaco. The row of cannons was presented to the Grimaldis by Napoleon.
Note that you cannot drive up to the Palace or Le Rocher unless you have a Monaco or Alpes-Maritime car plate.
The oldest part of the Principality sits on a rock that juts out to sea. It is always a breathtaking sight, floodlit at night and incredibly pretty with 18the century houses and quaint alleyways, packed with shops, bars, and restaurants. There are, of course, the inevitable tourist shops but Monaco is perhaps the one place where you want to buy a tee-shirt – Grand Prix goods feature strongly. The Rock is also the location of the world-famous Musee Oceanographique – see the ‘Museums’ section for details.
This tropical garden is situated on a steep rock looking down on Le Rocher and is worth visiting for the view alone. Combine that with a fabulous collection of cacti and succulents from around the world – there are over 6,000 varieties – plus a 279 step descent to the Grotte de l’Observatoire, and it’s worth putting an hour or so aside for a visit.
The grottoes include a series of chambers adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. There’s evidence of human habitation dating back 200,000 years. A selection of tools and bones are on display in the Musee d’Anthropologie Prehistorique.
The Musée Océanographique overlooks the sea on a 260 feet high cliff and is a must for both its location and content. Founded by Prince Albert I in 1910, the museum is devoted to marine science. Its aquarium is possibly the finest in Europe with more than 400 species in over ninety pools that replicate their natural habitat.
Highlights include the Red Sea coral reef; a huge pool featuring a nurse shark and a number of turtle species; the flying scorpionfish and a vast range of tropical fish.
There are also skeletons of marine mammals in the Salle d’Océanographie Zoologique while the atrium has models of diving bells. The central oceanographic hall has exhibits describing the expeditions of Prince Albert. In 1901 he collected fish from a depth of 6,000 meters, or almost 20,000 feet. In another expedition to Spitzbergen, he reached a latitude of 80°N.
In the exhibition Decouverte de l’Océan, marine phenomena such as waves, salinity, and upwelling are explained while there is also an animated display of the Titanic disaster. There’ll be much to see and enjoy in the museum, but make sure to visit the terrace with its magnificent views of the coast and islands.
Situated on a ground floor wing of the Royal Palace, the Musée Napoléonien et des Archives du Palais has many souvenirs of the life of Napoleon. The Prince of Monaco is descended from the Emperor. There are coins, uniforms, busts of Napoleon and Josephine, a watch and lorgnette, and much else. Upstairs there is a floor concentrating on the history of Monaco, including the charter by Louis XII that recognized the Principality’s independence.
Monaco National Museum
The Musée National de Monaco focuses on Dolls and Automata (clockwork and other working figures) and is located in a beautiful villa designed by Charles Garnier, the architect of the casino and Opera House. There are over 400 dolls, an 18th-century crib with 250 figures, and 19th-century automata largely from the golden age of French clockwork automata and mechanical singing birds from 1860 to 1910. Their intricate internal mechanisms are on display and they are also set in motion during the day.
Given Monaco’s association with Grand Prix racing and the Monte-Carlo Rally, it’s no surprise to find such a fabulous collection of old cars and carriages at the Collection des Voitures Anciennes. The display covers five floors and includes Prince Albert’s first car from 1903, and the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud presented to Prince Rainier by local tradesmen on the day of his wedding to Grace Kelly in 1956.
There are exhibits devoted to the Grand Prix, including the 1929 Bugatti, winner of the first race, and a Ferrari F1 car, also an explanation of the development of motor cars and other vehicles including a futuristic Lamborghini. Mind you, step outside into the streets of the Principality, and everywhere you can see a pretty impressive display of cars owned by the local residents.
There are hundreds of model ships in the fascinating Musée Naval. Pride of place goes to a gondola that was constructed in 15 days for Napoleon and of the USS Missouri as she was when the armistice was signed with Japan in 1945. Some models were made by Prince Albert I.
Stamp and Coin Museum
As any stamp collector will know, Monaco issues many stamps. The Musée de Timbres at des Monnaies, in a very modern setting, displays all the stamps issued by the Principality and the Princes’ collections. The museum is down near the Port de Fontvieille (at the exit of the road tunnel), alongside the Naval Museum and Collection des Voitures Anciennes.
The Anthropology and Pre-history Museum
Part of the Jardin Exotique, the Musée d’Anthropologie Préhistorique has a fascinating display of animal bones and Stone Age tools which demonstrates that elephants and hippos were once to be found on the Riviera. There are also skeletons of homo sapiens.
Did you know? On 6 April 2005, Prince Albert became Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco, on the death of Prince Rainier III.
The Monaco Grand Prix is the most glamorous of the Formula One season and one of the world’s greatest and most challenging motor-racing events. At present, it is the last of the ‘street courses’ remaining in the Formula One calendar. The history, spectacle, and sheer glamour mean the Monaco Grand Prix is considered “the jewel of the Formula One crown”.
The Monaco Grand Prix course is around the narrow, winding streets of Monte-Carlo which means the spectators are very near to the cars, creating an amazing atmosphere, and making the event the most sought after racing event of the year. The 77-lap circuit offers the best opportunities for spectators to enjoy the thrill of screaming engines, smoking tires, and see the driver’s close-up over the 263-kilometer race on a course that allows no margin for error. It is notoriously difficult to overtake, so it’s also a race where the practice sessions determining the grid positions are even more important.
The first Monaco Grand Prix was held on the 14th of April 1929. Since then, the fastest average race speed has risen from 80km (50 miles) per hour to 142km (88 miles) per hour. The 65th Monaco Grand Prix in May 2007 saw Fernando Alonso, driving a McLaren-Mercedes, win from pole position.
The Monaco Grand Prix has been run under the patronage of three generations of the Principality’s royal family: Louis II, Rainier III, and Albert II, all of whom have taken a close interest in the race. Given the importance of tourism, it’s a hugely profitable event for the local economy.
Monaco has produced only three native Formula One drivers – Louis Chiron, André Testut, and Olivier Beretta, but its tax status means many Formula One drivers have lived in Monaco, including Gilles Villeneuve, Ayrton Senna, Jenson Button, and David Coulthard, the latter part owner of a hotel there. After the race each year, many drivers can get back to their apartments in minutes!
Ayrton Senna holds the record for the most wins with six, followed by Graham Hill and Michael Schumacher with five each. British drivers have been the most successful over the years with Graham Hill, Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, and David Coulthard all winning more than once. In the sixties, British drivers dominated almost totally with eight winners in the decade.
Tickets are both expensive and hard to come by. Many visit as part of a hospitality package, normally with fine views of the circuit, excellent hospitality, and top-class accommodation. A seat at the famous Rascasse café on the circuit could cost €1,500 each for the weekend – but it’s hard to beat the view and the food is good.
Did you know? Prince Albert is International Patron of the ‘Year of the Dolphin’
Where To Eat
As you would expect, Monaco has many luxurious restaurants catering to extremely rich residents and visitors. The food is wonderful – the Principality has many Michelin stars for such a small area – and the prices equally mouthwatering. But look around, and you can also find excellent good value food. Head for the Rock for a range of atmospheric restaurants – there’s both more touristy prices and decent down to earth Provencal and Italian dishes.
Le Louis XV, at the Hotel de Paris, is the most renowned establishment. You’ll be eating refined Mediterranean food in a truly magnificent 18th-century style room. In the same hotel, the Grill de l’Hotel de Paris also has a fine reputation with magnificent views from the 8th floor with open-air seating also available.
Other top-class venues include La Coupole at the Hotel Mirabeau and the Vistamar at the Hotel Hermitage while the Bar et Boeuf at the Monte-Carlo Sporting Club is superbly positioned on a promontory to the north of the Principality.
L’Hirondelle, Maxim’s, and Saint Benoit all have established reputations. The Café de Paris has fine terraces overlooking the casino while the Salon Bellevue has exactly what it claims, a beautiful view taking in the French and Italian Rivieras. The menus change regularly, focusing each week on a different cuisine, Provencal, or traditional French. There is also take-away sea-food and ice cream.
A little way inland, almost to the French border, try Polpetta, in the Rue Paradis, a small Italian restaurant with three different settings – a veranda, rustic dining room, or intimate room at the rear of the restaurant. To the north of the casino, Loga is a pleasant restaurant specializing in regional cuisine and fresh pasta dishes.
For the location, particularly for motor racing fans, the Rascasse-Café Grand Prix, situated right on the famous bend at the southern end of the harbor, is a must. The food is good and the prices reasonable – except during the race when you’ll pay €1,500 ahead for your table with a view of the circuit.
Another restaurant with a fine position is the Castelroc, over the square from the Royal Palace on the Place de Palais. Prices are reasonable for the pleasant regional cuisine.
Did you know? British drivers won eight Monaco Grand Prix in the 1960s
Shopping in Monaco is as you’d expect – an array of the world’s most exclusive brands. There are fashion boutiques galore, many of them in luxury hotels. In addition, there are jewelers catering to wealthy residents and visitors. For more mundane shopping, a trip over the border to France is likely to be both necessary and easier on the pocket.
Near the Port, in La Condamine, is Rue Grimald, a busy shopping street. More touristy items are to be found on the Rock, where there are many shops selling souvenirs, tee-shirts, and local crafts.
There’s a heavy concentration on Grand Prix items in some shops. The Boutique du Rocher in Avenue de la Madonne is the official boutique where you can buy local arts and crafts.
Many of the museums also have interesting shops with more specialist items on offer. For example, at the Musée des Timbres at des Monnaies, the Stamp and Coin Museum, you can buy a set of current Monégasque stamps and boxes of coins, both those currently in use or collectors’ items.
Did you know? Monegasque citizens are exempt from taxes and military service
For such a small country, less than a square mile in area, Monaco must have one of the greatest programs of music and culture in the world. There’ll be something to suit most tastes throughout the year.
Go to the Opera in Monaco and you’ll enjoy one of the finest theatres in the world. The Salle Garnier was an exact replica in miniature of the Paris Opera House and seats only 524. Like its Parisian predecessor, it was designed in the “Belle Epoque” style and still looks stunning. It opened in 1879 with a performance by Sarah Bernhardt dressed as a nymph.
The Salle Garnier has seen performers such as Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso while many operas have been first performed there, including Saint-Saëns’ Helene in 1904 and Puccini’s La Rondine in 1927 – indeed the theatre has hosted 45 world premiere productions of operas. It’s now near impossible for small companies to mount productions, but the present-day company presents a season of five or six operas each year.
Since the first performance of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Monaco in 1911, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo has been the official company of the Principality of Monaco. There are performances at the Opera de Monte-Carlo throughout the year as well as in leading theatres around the world. The programs feature creations by artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot’s as well as a large repertoire by major choreographers.
The Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1856. Since then it’s been led by guest conductors such as Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss, Sir Thomas Beecham, Leopold Stokowski, and Sir John Barbirolli. More recently Leonard Bernstein and Sir Georg Solti have been regular guests.
In addition to its concert season, the Philharmonic Orchestra also regularly accompanies the Opera and the Ballets de Monte-Carlo. Over the years, this has included the premieres of ballets of Serge Diaghilev and operas of Berlioz, Puccini, Ravel, and Massenet. The Philharmonic Orchestra has also been involved in contemporary symphonic music as well, premiering many works.
Le Cabaret, a Cuban Revue, performs daily, except Mondays, at the Monte-Carlo Casino with a show from 11.00 pm until midnight. There’s also jazz and pop concerts on occasions.
Folie Russe is a cabaret attached to the Hotel Loess in Avenue des Spélegues. There are dancing, juggling, and magic each night, except Monday, from 10.30 pm.
Monaco hosts many arts festivals throughout the year including the Spring Arts Festival each April; concerts in the Palace courtyard and even an International Circus Festival in December.
Did you know? The first Monte-Carlo Rally was in 1911
We hope you enjoyed this Monaco travel guide!