Monaco, the land of the rich and the famous, right? Well, it turns out there’s so much more to this tiny little principality clinging to the side of a rocky ledge overlooking the French Mediterranean. In fact, it should come as no surprise that in many ways, Monaco is very similar to France.
You can get your café au lait for breakfast, or maybe you prefer a tiny espresso? You can pick up your daily bundle of baguettes at the nearby boulangerie (bakery), a wedge or two of good cheese at the fromagerie (cheese shop), some incredible pâte at the charcuterie (butcher), and of course a nice bottle of red wine and enjoy your own French picnic in any number of stunning settings. And if the picnic is not really your style, choose from among the hundreds of cafés and restaurants and sit down for a long and delightful lunch of perfectly prepared gourmet dishes paired with a glass of wine (or two) from the local region. The food is French, the wine is French, the language is French, but this isn’t France.
Of course, the elimination of border controls through most of the European Union means that it’s sometimes difficult to tell when you’ve crossed that magic line between countries or cultures. Monaco is a bit different. True, we didn’t have to stop and show our passports when entering or leaving the country by bus or train, but there was still a police presence at the roadway borders. There was more to it than that, however, the feel of the country is different, more maintained, cared for, not necessarily cleaner but it was obvious more effort is made here on public infrastructure and services then in their larger surrounding neighbor.
Maybe one of the most impressive things for me was the pedestrian access routes, tunnels carved through stones, elevators from the port to the train station high up the mountain, and outdoors escalators all carefully designed to help smooth out the vertical challenges of this mountainside city. Pair that with the excellent and inexpensive bus system and you can easily navigate to any point of the city, from sea level to high above the yachts and high rise buildings.
The Top Ten!
One – Check out the Grand Casino de Monte Carlo
Even if you’re not a gambler the incredible architecture of this iconic European landmark is sure to impress. And why not splurge on the ten euro entry, buy a stack of chips at the roulette table and try your luck! This was on my cherry list for a long time and even though I didn’t see James Bond striding through the casino, it was still an amazing experience.
Two – Attend the Changing of the Guard
Renovations were going on at the Prince’s Palace when we visited so getting into the palace itself wasn’t an option, but the changing of the guards anywhere is always a spectacle that shouldn’t be missed and Monaco was no exception. Stake your spot at the corner of the chained off entrance and capture all the finery! The guards are changed at precisely 11:55, but be warned–they’ll cancel if it’s raining.
Three – Prince’s Car Collection
This isn’t a museum. Rather it’s a collection of a few hundred of the Royal families prized vehicular possessions. From horse drawn caleches, to Lexus hybrids, it’s all here. Even if your not into cars you’ll enjoy the story-telling nature of the exhibits.
Four – Swim at the beach
Monacao has a few very nice beaches, like Larvotto beach, that are easily accessible by bus and only a few minutes from the city center. If you’re not there during the swimming months, you’ll still find a nice seaside cafe where you can sit, sip on a coffee, tea, or glass of wine, and watch the waves of the Mediterranean roll in.
Five – Go Shopping
Let’s face it, with a median income approaching $200,000 the residents of Monaco have the money to spend. And even if you don’t, it’s still fun to window shop! The main collection of shops are centered around the La Condamine between the port and the flower market at Place des Armes. Or do some shopping while strolling under the crystal chandeliers of the swanky Metropole mall near the Grand Casino.
Six – Eat, Eat, Eat
Pick up all of the supplies for the perfect picnic at the Carrefour or splurge on a Michelin star restaurant. There are so many options from the simple to the sublime. One recommendation, after taking in the changing of the guards, walk up the Rue Comte Félix Gastaldi to number 14, to the restaurant U Cavagnetu, and enjoy a fabulous lunch of local cuisine fusing the best of rustic Provence with Italian favors and techniques.
Seven – Traipse the Old Town
Lying atop the headland between the castle and the sea, the oldest part of the city has been around since the Middle Ages when Monaco was born under it’s first Prince, François Grimaldi in 1297. True, here you’ll find the tourists and the tacky souvenirs, but there’s so much more than that to be found in these beautiful old Mediterranean villas, narrow cobbled lanes, cloisters and cathedrals, and sweeping views of the ports below. Here you’ll also find artisan bakeries, independent fashion studios, and quirky arts and crafts shops.
Eight – Visit the Ports
Walk along the port and marvel at the incredible yachts. You’ll find grand old wooden yachts and mega futuristic yachts all backed right up to quay. Wow!! I know I can’t afford to buy one, let alone crew it, equip it, and head out to sea, but these are incredible structures.
Nine – Meander the Parks and Gardens
The city is sprinkled with green spaces and parks. there are gardens and picnic areas all around. one of my favorites was the Japanese Gardens down along the waterfront near the convention center.
Ten – Wander…Just go for a walk!
I think this is really one of the top ten things to do in any new city. Don’t just concentrate on the main sites but get out and explore the neighborhoods and city streets. Enjoy the architecture and ebb and flow of the city. In Monaco, your walk could take you up and down escalators, elevators, narrow winding steps, along the waterfront, through swanky malls, along quiet residential side streets, and through lush Mediterranean gardens.
Getting to Monaco is cheap and easy. There are plentiful bus and rail connections between low fare airports in both France and Italy. A round trip bus or train ticket between Nice and Monaco can be less than ten euros. From the airport you can walk to the station at Nice-St. Augustin and hop on the train to arrive in Monaco in less then 45 minutes. Or, better yet, walk out of the airport, up the walkway to the highway bus stop at Promenade des Anglais, take a bus into the city and then transfer at the port to the 100 bus that winds along the coast to Monaco for less then five euros. Once in Monaco, buy yourself a 24 hour bus pass and get moving. Even though the country is quite small, there’s more than enough to pack into a weekend trip!
Have you been to Monaco? What would you suggest everyone visit?