Americans have always had a special fondness for Monaco, that tiny principality bordering France and Italy, thanks to the unabashed glamour of its location on the French Riviera. Backdrop for some of Hollywood’s most enduring films, from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief to numerous installments of the James Bond series, the picturesque streets of Monaco have made an indelible mark on the American consciousness.
But nothing cemented that celebrity more than the fairytale story of Princess Grace, formerly American actress Grace Kelly, who married Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in what was called the “wedding of the century” in the 1950s and who died suddenly in a car accident along the Côte d’Azur in 1982.
Monaco is also known for its Grand Prix, an annual car race so famous that acquiring tickets to the event requires connections and machinations beyond the scope of most mortals.
All this notoriety is especially remarkable when you consider that Monaco is less than a square mile in size — or about the size of Central Park in New York City — has no army and just over 30,000 residents.
Not technically French or Italian, the principality is a sovereign entity, having been fought over by generations of various warring families since the early 13th century. But while residents are called Monegasques, French is widely spoken and the principality has an overall French ambience.
Surprisingly, however, the earliest inhabitants were not from France, but from Genoa, and its first settlers built a massive fortress known as The Rock, which remains a landmark of the principality today. Another Genovese family, the Grimaldis, conquered — and re-conquered — the principality over the next few decades, leading eventually to a ruling house that has been in power virtually uninterrupted since 1419.
There are four sections of the principality, but most visitors head first to Monte-Carlo, dominated by the famous Casino that holds pride of place in the city center. Built in the late 19th century, the casino boasts an ornate exterior reminiscent of the Opera in Paris, which is not surprising when you consider that both were designed by architect Charles Garnier. (Garnier also built the elaborate Monte-Carlo Opera house, which was renovated recently and which has hosted some of the top international opera performers over the decades.)
While there are plenty of wellheeled Europeans dropping their share of euros at the baccarat tables in the Casino, you can also see tourists flocking into the gaming rooms playing for smaller stakes and just enjoying the ambience. And there is more to the Place du Casino than just gambling. Visitors should take the time to visit the square by day to explore the gardens that flank the beautiful building by the Boulevard des Moulins. Flower lovers can also spend a few hours at the Japanese Garden, boasting thousands of plant species of trees and shrubs.
Monaco-Ville, the most historic section of the principality, boasts attractions all its own, including the Prince’s Palace, the foundation of which dates from the early 13th century. Visitors swarm the pink palace daily, strolling past the dramatically patterned main courtyard dominated by a 17th century double staircase in marble. Known as the Place du to forget that real people live in Monaco, but a quick stroll through St. Martin Gardens, where children play and a statue of Prince Albert I keeps watch, offers a look at the daily lives of local residents.
Another section of the principality, La Condamine, is situated at the base of the castle and boasts an assortment of restaurants and boutiques as well as historic buildings dating from the Belle Epoque period. A highlight of this area is the harbor, bustling with expensive yachts and inviting beaches.
The Fontvieille district, composed of land reclaimed during the 1980s, is mostly known for its high-rise apartments, but there are plenty of activities to attract visitors, from the Zoo to the Princess Grace Rose Garden, which bursts with hundreds of varieties of roses that peak in late spring.
Fine cuisine is another hallmark of this toney destination, home to five Michelin-star restaurants. Celebrity chefs arrive on the scene here regularly. The latest is Yannick Franques, a protégé of Alain Ducasse and Christian Constant, who recently took the helm of the one Michelin star La Coupule at the Hotel Mirabeau.
Despite its size, Monaco has a robust economy — so much so that its inhabitants are among the most well-to-do in Europe. Local industries include banking, pharmaceuticals and electronics. And thanks to the scenery and panache, sprinkled with the pixie dust of its charismatic, attractive royal family, the tourism industry has flourished unabated for nearly a century.
As a result, business travelers lingering in the area after meetings in Nice or Cannes will find that Monaco offers more attractions and activities with which to fill their time than destinations many times its size.
MONTE-CARLO BAY HOTEL & RESORT
The principality’s first new hotel in nearly 50 years, the 334-room Monte- Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort marked its grand opening Oct. 1, 2005. The décor has a Moroccan twist with a three-acre garden and plenty of terraces overlooking the sea. There are 22 suites, four restaurants, a 320-foot-long lagoon swimming pool and meeting facilities for groups up to 350. The real draw, however, is the ultra luxurious Cinq Mondes Spa of Paris, which features 12 treatment rooms for serious pampering. 40 Ave. Princess Grace, tel 377 98 060 200 or 800 595 0898, http://www.montecarlobay.com $$$$
This Belle Epoque, 4-star property has been one of Monte-Carlo’s toniest addresses for decades, and it recently underwent a renovation of some 40 of its guestrooms. Also new are nine presidential suites in the Midi Wing, all of which boast private terraces overlooking the ocean and harbor. Five of the suites even offer Jacuzzis on their ter- races. Spa goers can visit the Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo, a day spa connected directly to the hotel. The one Michelin star restaurant, Le Vistamar, is known for its fresh seafood dishes. Square Beaumarchais, Monte-Carlo, tel 800 595 0898, http://www.montecarloresort.com $$$$
THE FAIRMONT MONTE-CARLO This 619-room property benefits from rooftop terraces that overlook not only the ocean and harbor, but also the Grand Prix circuit, making it a hot ticket every spring. Guests can also enjoy the two restaurants, the casino and the heated freshwater pool. This year, the property partnered with Galimard to offer a “Scent’sational” package that includes a two-hour VIP tour of the Galimard perfumery, a workshop on creating customized perfume and a bottle of the results to keep as a souvenir. The hotel also boasts the newly renovated Sapphire Bar, where guests can enjoy a snack or glass of champagne overlooking the Mediterranean. 12 Ave. des Spélugues, tel 377 93 506 500, http://www.fairmont.com/montecarlo $$$$
LE LOUIS XV
Even non-foodies know the reputation of Chef Alain Ducasse, whose three Michelin star restaurant Le Louis XV is the jewel in the crown of the Monaco dining scene. Presided over by chef Franck Cerutti, the restaurant garnishes its Provencal vegetables with black truffles, poaches shellfish in delicate sauces and serves blini with Iranian caviar. In addition to world-class cuisine, the restaurant has access to the extensive wine list of the Hotel de Paris, with a cave that boasts more than 600,000 bottles of wine. Guests at the hotel can even tour the cave, which in the past was not usually open to visitors. Hotel de Paris, Place du Casino, tel 377 98 068 864, http://www.alainducasse.com $$$$
CAFÉ DE PARIS
For a more casual atmosphere — and the best seat in town for people-watching — grab a brasserie lunch at the Café de Paris, adjacent to the Casino. Steak tartare and fresh oysters are among the specialties at this historic eatery, which has been in business since 1868. The brasserie — known for its stained glass panels — seats 250, while two terraces and private dining rooms offer additional seating. Best of all, the café hardly ever closes, with jet lag-friendly hours of 8 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily. Place du Casino, tel 377 92 162 000, http://www.casino-monte-carlo.com $$$
Situated in Port Palace, a 5-star boutique hotel, the Mandarine restaurant overlooks the harbor and offers terrace seating in season. The look is sleek and modern, and the cuisine, under the creative guidance of Chef Patrick Raingeard, features such Mediterranean delicacies as scampi with grated truffles and pineapple carpaccio, lobster risotto and scallops tempura. There is seating for 150 with 150 more on the terrace, which also can be used for private functions. 7 Ave. John F. Kennedy, tel 377 97 979 000, http://www.portpalace.com $$$$
INFO TO GO
Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport (NCE), the second largest in France, is situated only 15 miles from Monaco as the crow flies, but because of the scenic switchback road that links the two, many visitors to Monaco prefer to make the transfer by helicopter. There are numerous companies that offer helicopter transfer service, including HeliAir Monaco (tel 377 92 050 050, http://www.heliairmonaco.com) and Helicopter St. Tropez (tel 33 493 214 585, http://www.helicopter-sainttropez.com), and prices are a relative bargain at about $120 to $135 a person, one way. Limousine and car rental companies include Abey Limousines (2 Blvd. du Jardin Exotique, tel 377 93 253 286, http://www.abeylimousine.com) and Calandres (6 Impasse de la Fontaine, tel 377 93 502 525, http://www.calandres.com).
For leisure visitors, the best deal in town is a Le Club Diamant Rouge membership (http://www.clubdiamantrouge.com), which costs $55 and includes a free helicopter transfer to or from the Nice airport and a 20 percent discount on additional transfers. Also included are complimentary admission to all Monaco museums (about a $60 value); free admission to the Casino (about a $20 value), and a 10 percent discount on treatments at the Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo spa. Discounts on limousine service and car rentals also are included.
Visitors interested in exploring Monaco through the eyes of its late princess can walk the new Princess Grace Promenade (Stade Louis II, Fontvieille, tel 377 92 166 166, http://www.visitmonaco.com), a multilingual walking tour that highlights key dates in her life. The trail, which runs east to west and takes about two hours to walk, features 25 stops at landmark locations including the Cathedral where Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier. Information on the route is presented in five languages — English, French, Italian, German and Japanese — and top restaurants and shops are sprinkled along the way.
James Bond wannabes can learn the art of gambling with panache at the Casino de Monte-Carlo (Place du Casino, tel 377 92 162 000, http://www.casinomonte-carlo.com), which has opened its private Thouzet and Médecin salons for lessons. Participants receive a guided tour of the Casino, a presentation of several American and European games and two-hour lessons from a dealer, known here as a croupier. After the lesson and cocktails, graduates of the program receive a diploma and chips to use in the main Casino.
Don’t miss the pomp and circumstance of the Changing of the Guard in front of the Prince’s Palace (Place du Palais, tel 377 93 251 831, http://www.palais.mc) daily at 11:55 a.m. The event is free, but bring your walking shoes and be prepared to jostle with the crowds, especially in high season. The short ceremony is worth it, though, and offers a great spot to take pictures of the scenic views from the fortress and ramparts. From June to October, the State Apartments in the palace also are open to visitors.
You haven’t seen Formula 1 racing until you’ve seen the Monaco Grand Prix, and while hotel rooms are scarce during the multi-day event in May, wily visitors can sometimes score tickets for individual events from the Automobile Club de Monaco (BP 464 – 23 Blvd. Albert Ier, tel 377 93 152 600, http://www.acm.mc). Or check international newspapers for ads placed by locals who rent their terraces to visitors seeking a bird’s-eye view of the event.
Give your feet a rest and climb aboard the Azur Express (Ave. Saint- Martin, tel 377 92 056 438), a picturesque little “train” that plies the streets and harbor of the principality on a half-hour tour that runs from The Rock to the beaches. The commentary is in English, Italian, German and French, and highlights include the Port of Monaco, the palaces, the Casino and gardens of Monte-Carlo, Old Town, City Hall and the Prince’s Palace.
Golfers will enjoy the panoramic challenge of the Monte-Carlo Golf Club (Route du Mont-Agel, La Turbie, tel 334 92 415 070), where the 18- hole, par-71 PGA championship course is situated more than 2,500 feet above sea level. Tennis players can play on the 23 clay courts at the Monte-Carlo Country Club, and take a dip in the pool afterwards (155 Ave. Princesse Grace, Roquebrune Cap Martin, tel 334 93 413 015, http://www.mccc.mc). If beachcombing is more your style, head for Larvotto Beach for a dip or some people-watching, or try sailing and fishing via the Monaco Yacht Club (16 Quai Antoine Ier, tel 377 93 106 300, http://www.yacht-club-monaco.mc) for an afternoon on the turquoise water for which the Côte d’Azur — the Azure Coast — got its name.
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