Explore Monaco a tiny country on the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by France, although the Italian Riviera lies a few kilometers farther east. This is the second smallest independent state in the world (after the Vatican) and is almost entirely urban.
Monte Carlo is not the capital of Monaco but a government district. With no natural resources to exploit other than its location and climate, the principality has become a resort for tourists and a tax haven for businesses. Monaco is six times the size of the Vatican and the world’s most densely populated independent country.
Although not a member of either the European Union or the European Economic Area, Monaco maintains an open border and customs union with France and is treated as part of the Schengen Area. Both French and Monégasque authorities carry out checks at Monaco’s seaport and heliport.
A souvenir passport stamp may be obtained at the national tourist office. This is located at 2a Boulevard des Moulins, which is north of the garden across from the Casino. Weekend hours are short.
The nearest airport is the Nice Côte-d’Azur International, which is around 40 kilometers away from the city-centre in neighboring France.
Monaco is accessed by its land borders from France or Italy by a network of highways, most commonly used of which is the A8 which runs west from Monte Carlo to Nice and Marseille, and east towards the Italian border. Make sure to take into account frequent traffic jams when approaching and leaving Monaco.
Between Nice and Monaco, there are also three more scenic roads: the Basse Corniche (Low Coast-Road – Highway 98), along the sea, the Moyenne Corniche (Middle Coast Road – Highway 7), going through Eze-Village, and the Grande Corniche (Great Coast Road), going through La Turbie and Col d’Eze (Eze Pass). All are pretty drives offering spectacular views over the Coast line. For an extra-special treat, rent a convertible sports car from the many airport rental services and take in the French Riviera in style.
Walking is by far the best way to get around Monaco; however, there are some areas, such as the Exotic Gardens, that require a large change in elevation and therefore make for rather strenuous hikes. There are also seven public escalators and elevators (all free) that help negotiate the steep slopes of the city. If you find yourself afoot and wanting to reach the opposite bank of Port Hercule, look for the small pedestrian-only ferry that runs each 20 minutes or so during daylight; it costs only one Euro.
International car hire companies do have offices at the airport in Nice and also in Monte Carlo city. These include Avis, Gare Monte Carlo, Europcar and Hertz – drivers must have a national driving license for at least one year and it is usually requested that the cost is paid for with the driver’s credit card. Driving in the city center can be intimidating in Monte Carlo with heavy traffic – however, it is often worth this to drive alongside the more expensive vehicles in the city! Make sure to request a car with an automatic gearbox if you are not used to driving manual.
There are 125 different nationalities that reside in Monaco, hence many languages are spoken. French is the sole official language; however Monégasque is the national language. Italian and English are widely understood and spoken.
What to see. Best top attractions in Monaco
The principality of Monaco offers a great balance of historical and modern attractions. There are various museums and palaces to visit as well as shopping malls and casinos. Monaco also offers relaxation spots along the harbor and even around the attractions. It is relatively easy to navigate Monte Carlo and Monaco if you take the time to learn where the various “short cuts” are. City maps are generally available at most news vendor stands and shops for a small fee.
Take a walk through Monaco-Ville, also known as “le rocher” or “the rock.” Monaco-Ville is still a medieval village at heart and an astonishingly picturesque site. It is made up almost entirely of pedestrian streets and passageways and most previous century houses still remain. There a number of hotels, restaurant and souvenir shops tourists can stay, eat and shop at. You can also visit the Prince’s Palace, the Cathedral, the Oceanographic Museum, the City Hall, and the Saint Martin Gardens.
The Palais Princier (Prince’s Palace) is in old Monaco-Ville and is worth a visit. There are audio-guided tours of the palace each day and usually run around the clock. The Palace also offers a breathtaking panoramic view overlooking the Port and Monte-Carlo. Everyday at 11:55 AM, in front of the Palace’s main entrance visitors can watch the changing of the guard ceremony performed by the “Carabiniers.” “Carabiniers” are not only in charge of the Prince’s security but they offer Him a Guard of Honor and on special occasions, are His escorts. The “Compagnie des Carabiniers du Prince” has a military band (Fanfare); which performs at public concerts, official occasions, sports events and international military music festivals.
The Monaco Cathedral was built in 1875 and stands on the site of a 13th century earlier church. It is a mock Romanesque-Byzantine church dedicated to Saint Nicolas and houses the remains of former Princes of Monaco and Princess Grace. The church square also contains some of Monaco-Ville’s finest restaurants.
The Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium is a world-renowned attraction. Located 279 above sea level, the museum contains stunning collections of marine fauna, numerous specimens of sea creatures (stuffed or in skeleton form), models of Prince Albert’s laboratory ships, and craft ware made from the sea’s natural products. On the ground floor, exhibitions and film projections are presented daily in the Conference room. In the basement, visitors can take pleasure in watching spectacular shows of marine flora and fauna. With 4,000 species of fish and over 200 families of invertebrates, the aquarium is now an authority on the presentation of the Mediterranean and tropical marine ecosystem. Lastly, visitors can have lunch in “La Terrasse” and visit the museum gift shop. The entrance fee is 16€ for adults. Students can get discount by showing valid student ID. You need to take bus number 1 or 2 from the Monaco Monte Carlo train station to reach this aquarium.
The Jardin Exotique (Exotic Gardens) is one of the many gardens Monaco has to offer. Several thousand rare plants from around the world are presented in a walking tour that is quite memorable for the views as well as the flora and plants. The collection is mostly cacti, so do not expect to see a broad variety. Due to the rise in altitude, not only are there many displays of desert plants but there are a handful of subtropical flora displays as well. There is also a grotto (cave) that has scheduled guided tours. The tour (in French only) starts at the beginning of every hour and lasts for around 25 minutes. In the cave, you will have to climb the stairs equivalent to around a 6 storied building. The entry cost is a bit steep (€8) unless you’re under 16 or a student (€3.50). You need to take bus number 2 to reach this Garden. You can take this bus either from the train station or from the Oceanographic Museum.
The Church of the Sacred Heart (Eglise du Sacré-Coeur) or Church of the Moneghetti, not far from the Jardin Exotique, stands out as one of the most representative art déco churches in Monaco. Built by the Italian Jesuit fathers from 1926 to 1929 as a sanctuary for prayer and adoration, its remarkable frescoes by Italian painter Franzoni revealed their original bright colors in the renovation works completed in 2015.
La Condamine is the second oldest district in Monaco, after Monaco-Ville. Here you can stop and marvel at the many luxurious yachts and cruise ships which usually adorn the docks in the marina. La Condamine is a thriving business district where you can visit the Condamine Market and rue Princesse-Caroline mall. With enjoyable landscaped areas and modern buildings, La Condamine is surely worth a visit.
The Monaco Opera House or Salle Garnier was built by the famous architect Charles Garnier. The auditorium of the opera house is decorated in red and gold and has frescoes and sculptures all around the auditorium. Looking up to the ceiling of the auditorium, the visitor will be blown away by the superb paintings. The opera house is flamboyant but at the same time very beautiful. There have been some of the most superior international performances of ballet, opera and concerts held in the opera house for more than a century; consider taking in a show during your visit… but expect to pay top dollar!
The Marlborough Fine Arts Gallery was founded in London by Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer. A second gallery was opened in Rome, another in New York, and one more in Monaco. The gallery holds a grand collection of post-World War II artists and even paintings by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Jules Brassai, Louise Bourgeois, Dale Chihuly, David Hockney and Henri Matisse. Admission is free and the gallery also offers group exhibitions.
The Grimaldi Forum is the Monaco convention center. Completed in July 2000, the sun filled building on the sea has a remarkable glass entrance, two convention restaurants, an auditorium for ballet and opera, and two more auditoriums for meetings and other affairs. The Forum also offers two large exhibition halls that can be used for trade shows or other exhibitions. It is also a short walking distance from surrounding hotels.
The Prince’s car collection for any car enthusiast, it is the place to go, there is everything, from carriges and old cars, to formula 1 race cars.
What to do in Monaco
Τry your luck in the Grand Casino and gamble alongside the world’s richest and often most famous. You’ll need your passport to enter. You can also visit the casino without gambling, but also for a nominal fee. The dress code inside is extremely strict
Scenic flights: enjoy Monaco and the surrounding French Riviera from above with a scenic helicopter tour.
Monaco’s streets hosts the best known Formula 1 Grand Prix. It is also one of Europe’s premier social highlights of the year. The Automobile Club of Monaco organizes this spectacular Formula 1 race each year. The Grand Prix is 78 laps around 3.34 kilometres of Monte Carlo’s most narrow and twisted streets. The main attraction of the Monaco Grand Prix is the proximity of the speeding Formula One cars to the race spectators. The thrill of screaming engines, smoking tires and determined drivers also makes the Monaco Grand Prix one of the most exciting races in the world. There are more than 3,000 seats available for sale on the circuit. Monaco residents often rent out their terraces for the event. During the off season, it is possible to walk around the circuit. Tourist office maps have the route clearly marked on their maps, although devotees won’t need them! For those who can afford it, you can also take a ride around the track in a performance car.
Aquavision: Discover Monaco from the sea during this fascinating boat tour! “Aquavision” is a catamaran-type boat equipped with two windows in the hull for underwater vision, thus allowing the passengers to explore the natural seabed of the coast in an unusual way. The boat can take up to 120 people per journey.
Azur Express: Fun tourist trains make daily tours all over Monaco. You will visit the Monaco Port, Monte-Carlo and its Palaces, the famous Casino and its gardens, the Old Town for City Hall and finally the royal Prince’s Palace. Commentaries are in English, Italian, German and French. This enjoyable tour runs about 30 minutes long.
In the summer time, Monte-Carlo is illuminated with dazzling concerts at the exclusive Monte-Carlo Sporting Club. The club has featured such artist as Natalie Cole, Andrea Bocelli, the Beach Boys, Lionel Richie and Julio Iglesias among others. The club also hosts a small casino which includes basic casino games. With no one under the age of 18.
While staying in Monaco, you can take a full-day-journey (or half-day-journey, whichever you prefer) to surrounding areas like France and Italy. Monaco is connected to France by highways so renting a car would be the best way to go. You can also take the “train bleu” or a bus to European cities closer to Monaco including Paris, Nice and Ventimiglia.
Yacht charters in Monaco are very popular and there are several companies who can arrange a trip either on a small boat, a bareboat yacht or on a luxury super yacht.
Monaco and the surrounding areas are beautiful and the region and especially the Casino are famous for being a mecca for luxury cars, such as Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bentleys. One very popular activity for visitors to Monaco is to rent a luxury car for a few hours or for a day to enjoy the stunning coastal roads.
Get a Monaco stamp in your passport at the tourist information center. It’s free.
What to buy
Monaco has the euro (€) as its sole currency.
Shopping in Monte Carlo is usually quite exclusive and is certainly no place for a budget holiday. There are plenty of places to melt the credit card alongside Europe’s high rollers. The chic clothes shops are in the Golden Circle, framed by Avenue Monte Carlo, Avenue des Beaux-Arts and Allees Lumieres, where Hermes, Christian Dior, Gucci and Prada all have a presence. The area on and around Place du Casino is home to high-end jewelers such as Bulgari, Cartier and Chopard. You will find, however, that most tourists will simply enjoy wandering the area and window shopping, even if you don’t buy anything. The normal shopping hours are from 9AM to noon and 3PM to 7PM.
For a more cultured take on shopping in Monte Carlo, try the Condamine Market. The market, which can be found in the Place d’Armes, has been in existence since 1880 and is lively and attractive – many hours can be spent simply wandering around, bargaining for souvenirs from the many tiny shops, boutiques and friendly locals. If however, your shopping tastes are more modern, just take a short walk along the esplanade to the rue Princess Caroline pedestrian mall.
The Fontvieille Shopping Centre is also a more “normal” shopping experience with 36 shops selling electronic goods, CDs, furniture, and clothes as well as a Carrefour supermarket and McDonald’s. The tourist office also issues a useful free shopping guide to the city.
What to eat
How to go wrong? Food in Monaco is universally excellent. There are many fine restaurants, beginning with the Cafe de Paris across the street from the casino, to the waterfront restaurants along the Port de Fontvieille. During the winter months, you will find the restaurants to be decently priced–for Monaco. Bouillabaisse is excellent here.
What to drink
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18 and is strictly enforced.
Champagne has the status of a national beverage in Monaco. A single glass can cost as much as €40 at a fashionable restaurant!
Where to sleep
If you’re on a budget, Monaco is not the best place to be. For example, a two star hotel without breakfast and bathroom will cost around €60 per person. A better option is to stay in one of the many towns outside of Monaco.
The Monaco Tourism center staff will also sit down and make phone calls to assist walk-ins in finding accommodation. Even if you ask for “cheap” lodging.
Monaco is a very safe, virtually crime-free location, with a strong police presence. In fact, there is one police officer for every 68 people, which means that Monaco has the largest police force and police presence in the world on both a per-capita and per-area basis. Every public space is blanketed with cameras, and any kind of disorder may produce an immediate reaction and the attendance of many officers.
The only time you ought to be careful is during the week of the Formula One Grand Prix, widely regarded as the most famous F1 Race. Bringing in thousands of tourists, the event renders Monaco extremely packed during the day. As a result, there has been a marked increase in pickpockets in recent years during the event.