To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting upon going to Monaco last week. I tagged along on someone else’s trip and explored the one square mile country. I’m not sure what I was expecting, maybe a constant resemblance to the Tuileries but no, a lot of it felt like an (expensive) resort island during the offseason. That’s not a negative review, it’s just to convey that the country is so small that you don’t have to seek out activities.
Geographically, the country is best known for the fact that it is smaller than Manhattan’s central park, but before going there, it’s important to know what that feels like, especially if you plan to do a lot of walking (which I highly recommend). The city is actually built on the side of a hill, so there are very few straight routes; however, one great city work which I had never thought necessary, and which can be found with some little difficulty, is the elevator from one sidewalk to the next. There are many and they will save you time, not because you avoid stairs, but because often, they keep you from having to walk half a mile around a highway to find the curve leading you upward. Another important facet of its geography is its separation into four main districts. Each focused on a different part of the country, one is the old city, which, perched high above the rest of the majority of the rest of the country, includes the Palace and Oceanographic Museum.
The palace alone makes the trip worth it. The Monagesque monarchy is one of the most well-known in the world, particularly to Americans, as one of the most beloved princesses (as a principality, the prince and princess are the ruling body), was an American movie star and Oscar winner, Grace Kelly. Though many of my friends (myself included) knew the family best through Prince Louis, the supposed heir to the throne, Princess Grace is known and beloved throughout the world, and to be fair, Blair Waldorf was more of a queen than a princess #ripgossipgirl.
In Gossip Girl, you may have noticed that Catholicism (primarily, an affair with a Catholic priest, and Regina George somehow convincing others that she, too is a priest in spite of the fact that there aren’t female priests in the Catholic Church? but that’s a problem for another day) is important to the Grimaldi family, the Monagesque ruling family, who have held a claim to the land for almost 800 years, and Catholicism is the official national religion. When visiting the palace in the old city, make sure to step into the Saint Nicholas Cathedral and visit Princess Grace’s tomb. The Cathedral is largely reminiscent of cathedrals built during the Florentine Renaissance, but construction didn’t start until the end of the 19th century, and the building was consecrated in 1911. Besides serving as the Royal tomb, the church also celebrates Saint Nicholas’s (ie Santa Claus) annual Saint Day, and has been the site of most royal weddings, the glaring exception being the current prince and princess, Albert and Charlene. The prince and princess got married at the royal palace, which is where the civil portion (not the religious portion) of every royal wedding, takes place and is certainly worth the (albeit labor intensive) hike.
The palace is the true star of the old city. If you are there at 11:55 AM, you can watch the changing of the guard, though I recommend being there a bit earlier to get a good view.
Within the palace, you will be directed upstairs above a small fountain into the second story of the main courtyard, through an impressive atrium to look over impressive and bright frescoes (many of which are currently under construction). You are then led by the complimentary audio guide into a series of official rooms, including a room where George III of England’s brother, the Duke of York, died after becoming ill after a ball in Genoa. Personally, I believe that the most beautiful room is the Mazarin room, named after a cardinal, who after the 30 Years War became the de facto ruler of France, and had a close family relationship with the Grimaldis. The ceiling and walls of the room are covered in beautiful frescoes. Another wonderful room is the throne room, the walls of which are decorated with family portraits throughout history. In the center of the room, there is a display of photos taken by members of the Grimaldi family, particularly under Rainier III and his wife, Princess Grace. Much of the signage description is in French, so it might be worth it to get a translator app on your phone like google translate, that translates photos. Within the palace, photography is also prohibited, so I have no photos. I have attached some from the palace’s website.
Up near the palace, in Monte Carlo City, there is also a famous museum, the Oceanographic Museum, founded by Albert I, known as the scholar-prince. The museum was wonderful, but the aquarium was actually phenomenal. I have been to a few aquariums in my team, and I often find them sad and boring, but this one, with its incredible array and interesting curation (ex, not just labeling fish, but, in the dangerous tank, talking about their poisons, spears, and so-on). There was also tanks of infant fish, which I have rarely seen.
On the upper floors, there was a giant cabinet of curiosities, a giant room reminiscent of the New York Natural History Museum’s Whale Room, and a panoramic view of the country. Monaco city is the most clearly definable, largely because it is the most removed, district, and is a lovely place to walk around, with brightly colored buildings, (relatively) cheap Italian restaurants, and chocolate shops.
Besides the palace and Aquatic Museum, another one of the museums most associated with the royal family is the Car Collection, which is the personal collection of the Prince and contains race cars, classic cars (including some of the earliest car models), and limousines. The Car Collection is in the Frontville District, known as the business district, which also includes the famous Princess Grace Rose Garden. I have never seen such a variety of any type of flower in my life, let alone roses. Many of the flowers are named after actresses like Monica Belucci (one of my all-time favorite Bond girls by the way) and of course, the legendary Princess de Monaco rose, the Princess Grace Rose.
Very close to the Princess Grace Rose garden is the other Saint Nicholas church, which though not very famous, is a striking salmon color and well worth a few minutes. Just outside the church, there are a lot of lavender plants, and there is a large, quiet, courtyard.
In one of the older and larger districts, La Condamine, you will find another manifestation of the intelligence of Albert I, Les Jardins Exotiques, the path to which (wonderfully) is well marked. It can be a big effort to get up there though because, especially if you are staying close to the water, where the majority of the larger, (fancy and less-so) hotels are. What I love about the Exotic Gardens is the view, which is incredible, and is probably one of the few places where you can look down onto the palace.
If you do walk to the Gardens from Monaco City, you will pass what I now consider one of the world’s best children’s parks. It includes a petting zoo, (well goats, but still), a mini half pike, a well-maintained kid’s soccer field, basketball courts, and multiple playgrounds. All of this is free by the way. I even saw some kids playing in a tiny waterfall. The entire complex is known as the Princess Antoinette park.
The most famous district is the Monte Carlo district, which is known around the world for its glamorous casinos and nightlife. It also two very different luxury shopping centers; the first, classic building is Le Metropole, which houses luxury clothing stores as well as pharmacies and bakeries. It really is very glamorous complete with marble and chandeliers. The other shopping center is the Monte Carlo Pavillions, in which every top designer has a store (Chanel has two), It’s made of five space age-y white kidney bean-shaped pods which each have three stores.
Nearby, is the Casino de Monte Carlo, which you have to pay 17 euro to even enter, and honestly, looks like a Vegas casino on the inside. I didn’t gamble, and if you do it might be fun, but if you don’t, it’s not worth it. It really is impressive enough from the outside. On the other side of the Casino is the Opera and Ballet Building, which has a wonderful view of the ocean. Near to the Casino is the storied Hotel de Paris, which has a fantastic(ly expensive) restaurant called the grill. But if you don’t want to saw off a limb to pay your bill, go for dessert, the restaurant is well known for its delicious medicine ball sized souffles, which they make in five different flavors. Across the roundabout is the famous Cafe de Paris (not in the Hotel de Paris) which is the ultimate people-watching hotspot.
Below the area that is truly considered Monte Carlo is the long beautiful public beach. On the banks of the water is the Grimaldi Forum, which I never entered, but which is very close to the exceptional Japanese style Gardens. They are a beautiful place to read or to admire the array of koi fish.
Across from the beach and near the gardens is my favorite restaurant in Monaco, Avenue 31, which seems expensive, but compared to many of the other restaurants in the uber-wealthy country (they are first in median household income) is very reasonable and delicious. It serves Italian classics with a beachfront view, but view-wise you can’t go wrong anywhere. Even on my hour-long walk from the train station to my hotel (complete with luggage), I came across incredible views. Though the country may be small, it packs as much of a punch, culture, and beauty wise, as some of the greatest cities in the world.