Monte Carlo is the capital of the principality of Monaco, located on the French Riviera, close to the Italian region of Liguria. Monte Carlo and its media-friendly ruling family, the Grimaldis, have long been associated with wealth and glamour, the hype even more fuelled when Prince Rainier married Hollywood star Grace Kelly in 1956. Monte Carlo’s sumptuous casino, owned by the Societe des Bains de Mer is legendary, with stories of fortunes made and lost by high rolling gamblers. Even if you don’t have the slightest interest in gambling and risking your hard-earned cash in Art Deco splendor, there is a lot to do and see on a fall day in Monte Carlo. The summer heat is over, the days are warm and balmy, the nights are long and there is always a fresh breeze from the Mediterranean to make strolling along the harbor, through the many parks and gardens, and just wandering around very pleasant.
The nearest airport is Nice, approximately 19 miles away. There is a train and also a bus connection between Nice and Monte Carlo. Hiring a car only makes sense if you wish to explore more of the Riviera because parking in Monte Carlo (and driving for that matter) is difficult. Remember, the Grand Prix circuit leads straight through town! The border between France and Monaco is open and the same rules and COVID restrictions apply in both. The currency is the euro and the language is French, but Monte Carlo is such an international playground that English is widely spoken.
I just love this place because of the glitz and glamour on the one hand and on the other the beautifully kept parks, gardens, and open spaces, not to mention the fabulous yachts in the marina. I’m also a great fan of everything art deco and there is plenty of that around. You’ll love to be a part of another world, even if only for an unforgettable day. And no, no gambling is needed for thrills.
1. The Prince’s Palace
To see all the fabulous sights of Monte Carlo a lot of walking is involved. The place is just one huge rock, with roads and footpaths meandering up and down from one level to the next. To make things a bit easier though, you will find several public elevators. They are most helpful. You can download the brochure Monaco Malin to find their locations and operating hours.
Of course, you want to visit the centerpiece of it all, the prince’s palace. It isn’t at Monte Carlo’s highest point, that label goes to Chemin des Revoires, on the border between Monaco and France with Mont Angel being the highest elevation at 529 feet. But the place is pretty high up, too, and apart from teaching you a history lesson spanning more than 700 years, affords great views of the port and you can indulge in a game of “yacht spotting” in the district known as Fengwei and Garlic Point. Just stand in the square in front of the palace and look.
The palace was built as a Genoese fortress in A.D.1191, and since the end of the 13th century has been the residence and stronghold of the Grimaldis. It has been fortified and remodeled many times and is unique among other European palaces in that there is no other palace for summer or pleasure. It is the home and today, also the business center of the Grimaldi’s economic enterprises that are the basis of Monaco’s wealth.
Make sure to be in the courtyard at 11.55 a.m. sharp, when the changing of the guards takes place, a very Instagramable event. The many rooms of the palace, like the famous Red Room or the Mazarin room full of works of art and paintings, can be visited, but currently, the staterooms including the throne room are closed to the public because of restorations. Reopening is planned for next year.
2. Musee Oceanographique
Monaco and Prince Albert are very committed to the preservation of the oceans and their wildlife. If you only visit one museum in Monte Carlos it has to be this impressive structure. Built in a Baroque Revival style, the museum perches on a sheer cliff at 279 feet above the sea, a most appropriate location. Look at the huge aquarium on the ground floor then explore all the other exhibits related to oceanography, research vessels, and much more. Notably, Jacques Cousteau was the director from 1957 to 1988.
3. Pay Your Respect At Saint Nicholas Cathedral
Built with white stone from La Turbie, the cathedral was constructed in 1875 on the site of a 13th-century church dedicated to Saint Nicholas. The cathedral in the Roman-Byzantine style has a lavish interior, several paintings, and two organs. It’s the resting place of the Monaco princes and the venue of royal weddings and baptisms.
In 1982, Princess Grace tragically died in a car accident and she is buried in the cathedral alongside her husband, Prince Rainier. The grave where you may pay your respects is on the left hand side from the entrance.
Admission to the cathedral is free but you have to dress respectfully. Ladies must cover their heads and shoulders and no shorts or miniskirts are permitted!
4. Stroll Around Monte Carlos’s Beautiful Gardens
If your image of Monte Carlo is of luxurious high rises clinging to the rock face and expensive houses, think again. A huge amount of Monte Carlo’s surface is taken up by beautifully tended and designed gardens. Reserve a couple of hours of your day to enjoy the best — fall is a great time of the year to do so. Make the casino your starting point as everything is easily reached from there.
My favorite is the Boulingrins Gardens, above the casino. Paths, stairways, pavilions, flower beds, fountains, and palm trees cross the fragrant and splendid garden in the heart of Monte Carlo, laid out in 1865, the same time the casino and Hotel de Paris were built.
Although located within Fontvieille Park, the Princess Grace Rose Garden is a completely separate entity. Opened in 1984, in her memory, you can freely walk around, stop at the bronze statue at the entrance and then admire an English garden with a Mediterranean flair with 6,000 rose bushes arranged in seven different themes and old olive trees planted in between.
Monte Carlo’s Exotic Garden is a special kind. It’s located a bit further away in Eze and features a huge array of the most exotic cacti imported from all over the world, hence the name. At the end and at the bottom of a cliff, you’ll find a surprise: a natural cave, full of columns, stalactites, and stalagmites. A tour of the cave is included in the admission fee.
5. Coffee Break At The Hotel de Paris
After all that walking, you need a break for coffee, a cake, or a snack and there is no better place than in the glamour of the legendary Hotel de Paris. Located in Casino Square right next to the casino, you can either sit in the American Bar for drinks or out on the terrace of Café de Paris for people watching and excellent coffee in art deco splendor. Just be aware that it’s an expensive place, but who cares, you are mingling with the beautiful people.
6. Take A Refreshing Dip At Larvotto Beach
Yes, fall in Monte Carlos is still warm enough for a dip at Larvotto Beach, the only public beach. It’s a manmade pebble beach with shallow waters which makes it ideal for kids, too. Monte Carlo isn’t known for its beaches, that’s why it has the exclusive Sporting Club or the beaches in France and Italy, but this one is accessible to everybody with enough facilities, bars, and restaurants nearby.
7. Shop At The Metropole
It will come as no surprise that Monte Carlo is an expensive place and if you are looking for some designer bargains you won’t find any. On the other hand, there is no internationally renowned designer that isn’t represented in Monte Carlo and if your budget doesn’t stretch to the real thing, you can enjoy window shopping in my favorite shopping mall, the Metropol. Located opposite the casino gardens, the building itself is a work of art, with marble floors, sweeping staircases with wrought iron banisters, and a massive period chandelier.
You’ll find some 80 shops selling everything from clothes and jewelry to gourmet food and even home décor items. It’s also one of the few places where you can exchange money if you need cash.
8. Spend The Night In Style At Hotel Hermitage
If you decide to spend the night so you can also enjoy a taste of Monte Carlo’s nightlife and you can afford to splurge, stay at the Belle Epoque grand old dame, the Hotel Hermitage. I prefer it over the nearby Hotel de Paris because it’s quieter but no less luxurious and an easy walk from the center of town.
If you want a cheaper overnight stay, head either back to France or to Italy, depending on your travel plans.
9. Have Dinner At Quai Des Artistes
Even if you don’t spend the night, treat yourself to a seafood dinner in one of Monte Carlo’s most loved Parisian style brasseries: Quai des Artistes located in the Hercule port. Enjoy the interior or sit on the ample terrace with a seafood platter and a bottle of wine and look out at the port and the impressive yachts, illuminated for the night.