In terms of terrain, there is little to this petite principality nestled into the Côte d’Azur, but Monaco is the high-end haven that doesn’t do a thing by halves. The diamonds shine brighter, the stakes are higher and the yachts are bigger. Things are different here and that’s just the way we like it.
There is something surreal about arriving into Monaco for the first time. Within 15 minutes, you notice two things. Firstly, there is clean and there is Monaco clean. Paintbrushes work double-time to touch up pristine white walls everywhere and, one expects, every week. Chauffeurs polish Bentleys in the street and drooping leaves are discreetly extracted from the seafront shrubbery before they can be spotted. The entire country – the second-smallest in the world – is engineered to appeal in the same way as the world’s most exclusive six-star hotels. Being here feels a lot like finding yourself in the middle of a movie set.
The second thing you notice about Monaco is the money. Boutiques showcase the crème de la crème of couture and the mega-yachts commanding the harbour are oligarch-owned behemoths worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Diamonds drip from ears and necklines, and champagne is ordered with the same frequency as coffee. To arrive into Monaco is to enter the lair of the rich, famous and fabulous.
Arrive by Helicopter
If you aren’t arriving into the world’s most prestigious principality by ship, it must be by helicopter. While it may sound like an extravagant way to travel, a one-way helicopter transfer from Nice Côte d’Azur Airport to Monaco costs around €140 per person with HeliAir Monaco, including a luxury Mercedes mini-bus transfer to your hotel or ship once you land. The 7-minute trip is worth every penny, especially if you manage to bag the front seat for views across the Mediterranean Sea and the villa-strewn coastline. The helicopters seat five people and while private transfers are available, they’re a far more expensive option at around €750.
Monaco is miniscule at just over 485 acres, which means it is incredibly easy to see in 36 hours. The cruise ship pier is very central, located just beside Port Hercules where pristine yachts vie for attention. Turn left and take the elevator up to street level and you’ll find yourself in Monaco Ville, the charming old town where landmarks including Saint Nicholas Cathedral and the Prince’s Palace are located. Straight ahead, just over the water, the glitzy new town awaits. Monte Carlo is tantamount to the Monaco you imagine, all casinos, Chanel boutiques and bourgeois bars.
With so much to see, the stroll from one side of the harbour to the other passes in a blur but there is a way to save your legs and see the sights a little differently. The Bateaux Bus is actually a little red boat that taxis you across the water for just €2 each way. The journey takes just a couple of minutes and your legs will appreciate the break after the steep climb up to the palace and its surrounding sights. Once you reach the other side, sit back with a Barracuda cocktail from Le Pattaya and watch fabulous Monte Carlo unfold around you.
Casino de Monte Carlo
Feeling refuelled and probably a little envious of how the other half live, walk past The Clubhouse – the Yacht Club de Monaco’s suitably swish headquarters – take the elevator and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with the Belle Époque building better known as the Casino de Monte Carlo. From there you can follow the steady stream of supercars round to the front of the building and into the heart of town.
Valets are poised at the foot of the famed casino’s red-carpeted steps, prepped to collect the keys of supercharged Lamborghinis and matt-black Bentleys. Numerous James Bonds have sauntered up these steps and into the gilded casino beyond, and you can follow in his footsteps with free entry into the casino lobby and doormen who are actually far friendlier than they first appear. Things go up a notch after 8pm, when you’ll need to dress the part if you’re to make it through the doors. You can appreciate the spectacular lobby for free and even try your hand on the slot machines, but you’ll need to show your passport and pay a €12 entry fee to dance with Lady Luck beneath the frescoed ceilings and chandeliers of the table gaming rooms.
Café de Paris
The white wicker chairs outside Café de Paris have a front row seat to the comings and goings of Casino de Monte-Carlo. Order a coffee and watch as car keys are thrown to the valet, and suited gents with fur-coated ladies in oversized shades are escorted in with handbag-sized dogs underarm. The coffee here isn’t the best or the cheapest, but you pay those €8 for the performance that plays out on the casino steps.
Shopping and Food in Monaco
Ladies that lunch are famously fond of shopping too and Monaco is an enabler to that end. The Cercle d’Or district around Place du Casino is paradise for fashion fiends. Whether you are flexing the plastic or window shopping like your life depends on it, the pebble-shaped Monte Carlo Pavilions are unmissable. The space age stores in Boulingrins Gardens were created a little under four years ago, in some sense becoming a designer distraction removing attention from renovation works to the nearby Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo and the Sporting d’Hiver building. They’re scheduled for removal at the end of 2018 so make sure you stop by and shop Chanel, Miu Miu, Balenciaga and more while they’re still standing.
Those who prefer cars to couture will be equally at home in Monaco. Home to arguably the most famous F1 track in the world, despite it being the shortest and slowest on the racing calendar, the principality has plenty to offer the motoring mad. The legendary Fairmont Hairpin is just a short walk from Place du Casino.
Monaco’s Top Car Collection
Another of the destination’s top attractions is Monaco’s Top Car Collection.
Prince Rainier III was a keen car enthusiast, eventually acquiring a classic car collection so large that it outgrew the garage at the Prince’s Palace. In 1993, the Prince put almost 100 of his prestige cars on display in a permanent exhibition in the shadow of the castle. There are American beauties like the maroon and white Lincoln Double Phaeton and the 1956 Chrysler Imperial.
Supercharged Bugattis sit bumper-to-bumper with quaint cars that were the run-arounds of the royals, including a Fiat 600 Jolly with wicker seats and Princess Grace’s mint-green Renault Floride. Then there are the F1 cars, from Lewis Hamilton’s 2007 McLaren to Nigel Mansell’s Grand Prix-winning Ferrari, all with the grit of the track still in their tyres. The motor museum is open seven days a week and tickets cost just €6.50. Better still, opt for combined entry to the car museum and the Prince’s Palace and you’ll pay just €11.50 for both.
Alternatively, entry to the palace can be combined with tickets to the Oceanographic Museum for €18. A must if you’re visiting Monaco with kids, the world-famous aquarium features around 90 pools, including a ‘Shark Lagoon’ filled with marine predators, plus the Touch Tank, where little hands can stroke a starfish or hold a hermit crab while a guide delivers fun facts on the inhabitants of the deepest blue. Drinks in the rooftop café offer stunning panoramic vistas of Monaco and the Mediterranean Sea.
The Prince’s Palace of Monaco
The Prince’s Palace of Monaco, a Genoese fort built high on the hillside of Monaco Ville, has been home to the Grimaldi family since the 13th century and is today home to Prince Albert II. The palace’s ornate State Apartments are open to visit during much of the year, with the exception of Saturday and Sunday of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend. Arrive for 11.55am to witness the changing of the guard, before heading inside the opulent apartments. Each room is as extravagant as the last, heavy in brocade fabrics, paved with Carrara marble and adorned with family portraits by some of art’s great masters. If you’re visiting with children, the castle is all their Disney dreams come true.
Follow the cobblestones into the old town from the Prince’s Palace and you’ll stumble upon another Monaco landmark with regal associations. Saint Nicholas Cathedral became the backdrop for the fairytale 1956 nuptials of Prince Rainier III of Monaco and his American movie star sweetheart, Grace Kelly. Years later, it also became their final resting place, with both buried in the Grimaldi family vault. After visiting the cathedral, cross the road to the Jardins de Saint-Martin, beautiful gardens of succulents and roses with views over the Mediterranean and Monaco, plus a children’s playground with scenery to keep mum and dad happy while the kids play.