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The Magic Of Monaco - Monte Carlo Uncovered

Joanna Hall

It’s the world’s best known playground of the mega-rich and famous, but down at street level Monaco is refined and unpretentious, and wonderful for a romantic getaway.

It’s barely 4pm and already the sun is dropping behind Mont Agel, casting a warm yellow hue over the Prince’s Palace and down into the harbour where scores of mega-yachts line up side by side on their moorings. It’s an early sunset of sorts, but only because the steep and dramatic escarpment towering behind the city at over 1,000 metres is acting as a shield, while also providing a backdrop which makes Monaco one of the most recognisable places in the world. My first impression is that it looks as though Manhattan or Hong Kong cruised past and tried to squeeze itself into the tiny 1.2 square kilometres that Monaco sits on, right up against the Côte d’Azure. The Principality of Monaco is the second smallest independent state in the world (after the Vatican) and is the epitome of wealth and glamour. Ferraris, Maseratis and designer clothes and accessories are commonplace, as are multi-million dollar yachts manned by private staff. This is definitely how the “other half” lives, and as a travel destination Monaco is unashamedly unconcerned by its outward ostentatiousness. On the surface, Monaco and its primary city, Monte Carlo, is like an exclusive club, which can make some people feel that at any stage they’re going to get tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave. But the reality is that as long as you dress well and act respectfully, the local Monégasques are happy to share their city with visitors, and they are nowhere near as snooty or dismissive as you’d expect. It is a playground for the rich and famous, and it’s quite okay to go and have a look. 

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There's More To Monaco Than Icons

It’s a city that’s famous for the annual Formula One Grand Prix and the lavish Casino, but there’s more to Monaco than these two icons. And in good news for visitors, the best way to get around is on foot. This is because the Principality is basically cut into a very steep mountainside with some trekking involved, although there are a number of public escalators and elevators which make the exploration easier. Every day at 11.55am, the Palais Princier in old Monaco-Ville has a changing of the guard which provides a bit of colour and movement. West of Monte Carlo this is where the Royal Family resides, and the magnificent building sits on top of an area simply called The Rock. First built in the 13th century, it has been added to and enhanced over the centuries. Guided tours of the Palace run most of the day, and it is a great spot to take in the magnificent view of Monte Carlo Harbour on one side, and the Mediterranean and harbour district of Fontvieille on the other. The Rock is an old fortified town and within a few hundred metres of each other there are restaurants and shops, a Cathedral, City Hall, and museums including the Musée Océanographique - which perches dramatically on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Inaugurated in 1910 by Monaco’s modernist reformer Prince Albert I, the impressive building took 11 years to build and used 100,000 tonnes of stone. For anyone who’s visiting Monaco by ship, the Museum is the first thing most people see from the ocean. The museum is home to a remarkable collection of sea life including seahorses, turtles, jellyfish, sharks, rays, lobsters, crabs, eels, urchins and sea animal skeletons, along with maritime objects such as model ships, tools and weapons used in warfare. In all there are more than 4,000 different fish and 200 families of invertebrates. 

Super-Yachts Abound

Heading down off The Rock and into the Harbour, this is the place where you’re likely to spot someone famous as they step off a super-yacht for a night of gambling, cocktails and fine dining. Some of these yachts are quite unbelievable in their size and opulence, and equally amazing is the numbers that fit into a small harbour. Perhaps the most famous of all the tourist attractions in Monaco, however, is the Casino which is located in one of the most beautiful parts of Monte Carlo. Entry into the Casino is inexpensive, and there is a strict dress code of a jacket and tie enforced for men after 8pm. But the small fee is worth it just to marvel at the architecture inside, which includes lavish marble and golden ornaments, stained glass windows, paintings and sculptures. Access to to other gaming rooms also incurs additional fees, and it’s here that you’ll find stern looking men gambling in near silence with thousands of dollars as a minimum, and the aroma of expensive cognac and cigars hanging in their air. This is the snapshot of decadence that sums up the essence of Monaco, and it’s a surreal and fun way to become a part of the Monte Carlo set - even if it’s just for a day or two.

Stay Somewhere Fabulous

Monte Carlo has some amazing hotels, but none are better placed, and arguably more famous, than The Fairmont Monte Carlo (read our hotel review here). Formerly the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel, the Fairmont Hotel Group took it over 16 years ago. Far from turning it into “just another Fairmont”, however, its unique design elements were embraced and improved on, and the hotel continued to earn a large and loyal following. It occupies possibly the most expensive piece of real estate on the entire Côte d'Azur, sitting right below the Casino on a terrace which wraps around from the Monte Carlo Harbour and its fabulous yachts, to views along the famous and dramatic coastline. Many of the foundations were sunk directly into the seabed, a feature which gives the hotel its uninterrupted water views, and all that the magical city has to offer is within easy walking distance.

Lesser Known Gems

The Princess Grace Rose Garden is a quiet park adorned with thousands of roses from around the world in memory of Princess Grace, who adored this flower. The garden is located on a gentle slope adjacent to the Landscape Park of Fontvieille, and in spite of the fact that it is surrounded by tall buildings, it is a relaxing oasis of peace and pretty colours. The best time to visit is May when flowering is at its maximum. Another garden to put on your sightseeing list is the Japanese Garden, a small space which is around 10 minutes away from the Casino along the coast. The garden is built in traditional Japanese park style featuring Bonsai trees, koi ponds, waterfalls, gazebos, and a lively ornamental carp pond packed with many different species of the exotic fish. It embraces the principles of the Japanese philosophy of Zen life, bringing joy to the soul and ideal for brief seclusion and meditation. Lovers of four wheels should add the The Cars Collection of H.S.H. the Prince of Monaco, located on the Terrasses de Fontvieille, and a unique exhibition bringing together around one hundred different cars, from a 1903 De Dion Bouton to an original 2013 Lotus F1 car.


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  1. Posted by on 3rd Feb 2020 Verified Customer

    Cruise Stop 5 Star Review

    Stopped here for a day on a cruise some years ago and it was the highlight of the trip. Absolutely stunning place, loved the sail in and then the sail out at sunset....magical.

  2. Posted by on 3rd Feb 2020 Verified Customer

    Princess Grace 5 Star Review

    Loved Princess Grace and was always enchanted by the idea of Monaco....may go one day but bucket list stuff!