If you are not passionate about gambling, luxurious restaurants, cars and shops, visiting Monaco in a few hours won’t be a problem. Otherwise you won’t be able to leave it that easily.
Monaco, or officially the Principality of Monaco, is a microstate on the French Riviera, about 15 km away from the Italian state border. With the area of 2.1 square kilometers, it is the second-smallest state in the world, after the Vatican City, and with about 40,000 residents, i.e. about 19,000 inhabitants per square kilometer, it is the most densely-populated sovereign state in the world.
It is also widely known as one of the world’s most expensive and wealthiest places.
Its economic boom happened in the late 19th century with the opening of the country’s first casino, Monte Carlo, and a railway connection to Paris. Its mild climate, fascinating scenery, and gambling facilities made it immediately a tourist destination for the rich.
Monaco is also well known for being a tax haven, with no income tax, and low business taxes. In recent years, it has become a major banking center, and about 30% of its population is made up of millionaires.
It is a constitutional monarchy, with Prince Albert II as head of state. Its defense is the responsibility of France, although Monaco maintains two small military units.
Monaco is the host of the annual street circuit motor race Monaco Grand Prix, and has a successful football team, AS Monaco.
The state consists of three municipalities: Monaco-Ville, Monte Carlo and La Condamine, that were merged into one in 1917, when they got the status of Wards or Quartiers, and Fontvieille, a newly constructed area claimed from the sea in the 1970s, was added later, as a fourth main ward. Monaco-Ville, or “The Rock” is the old city and the seat of the government positioned on a rocky promontory extending into the Mediterranean. Monte Carlo is the principal residential and resort area with the famous Monte Carlo Casino, and La Condamine is the southwestern section that includes the port area, Port Hercules.
- The Fort Antoine Theatre
- The Oceanographic Museum
- Saint-Martin Gardens
- The Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate
- The Palace of Justice
- The Prince’s Palace
- The Zoological Garden
- The Exotic Garden
- Port Hercules
- The Circuit of Monaco
- The Auditorium Rainier III
- The Japanese Garden
- The Opéra de Monte-Carlo
- The Casino de Monte-Carlo
- The Hotel de Paris
- The Hotel Hermitage
- Casino Square
I decided to start my tour at the Fort Antoine Theatre in Monaco – Ville, near the cruise ship dock. The theatre was originally constructed as a fortress in the 18th century on the northeastern part of the Rock of Monaco. It was seriously damaged in 1944, and then rebuilt in 1953 but its interior is now home to an open-air theater. Its watch towers, and pyramids of cannon balls still remind of its military usage. The cannons were used to announce the births of Princess Caroline, Prince Albert and Princess Stephanie.
Then I climbed up to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco (Musée océanographique), a museum of marine sciences, inaugurated in 1910 by Monaco’s modernist reformer, Prince Albert I. Jacques-Yves Cousteau was its director from 1957 to 1988.
The museum is home to 4,000 species of fish and over 200 families of invertebrates. It also includes a great variety of sea related objects, model ships, tools, weapons etc.
The building itself is a monumental example of the Baroque Revival architecture with an impressive façade above the sea, towering over the cliff to a height of 85.04 m. It took eleven years to build, and 100,000 tons of stone.
Just after the museum, I entered beautiful Saint-Martin Gardens (Les Jardins Saint Martin), with its paths and wonderful flora including Aleppo pine trees and yellow agaves and with a bronze statue of Prince Albert I as a sailor at the center. It also offers a spectacular view of the sea coast and of the whole Fontvieille.
Exiting the garden, I stayed amazed by the beauty of the Cathedral of Monaco. The Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate (Cathédrale de Notre-Dame-Immaculée), or Saint Nicholas Cathedral, as it is sometimes called, or simply Monaco Cathedral (Cathédrale de Monaco) was built in 1875, on the site of a 13th century church, dedicated to Saint Nicolas.
It is an impressive Roman-Byzantine style building, where Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace got married and it houses the tombs of the former Princes of Monaco.
Just next to it, there is another treat for the eyes, the Palace of Justice (Palais de justice).
Its unique architecture is definitely going to draw your attention. It was built in Neo- Florentine style at the beginning of 1924, from a porous stone called maritime tuff, that consists of many small pebbles and sometimes shells of mollusks.
It was inaugurated in 1930 and it is now the seat of the court.
Rue Colonel Bellando de Castro, after about 100m, leads to the Prince’s Palace, built in 1191.
It’s not particularly palatial, but it’s unique and worth seeing because it reflects the history not only of Monaco, but of the family Grimaldi, which in 1997 celebrated 700 years of rule from the same palace.
While other European rulers were building luxurious, modern Renaissance and Baroque palaces, politics and common sense here demanded fortified palace.
The absence of alternative palaces and land shortages made this place be the only residence for more than seven centuries. The family Grimaldi could only build a new tower or wing from time to time, or rebuild an existing part of the palace.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, they became symbols of the glamour and decadence associated with Monte Carlo and the French Riviera, especially with the arrival of the American film star Grace Kelly in 1956.
The palace is still the residence of the current Prince of Monaco.
There are two other beautiful places nearby for those ones with more time to spend at their disposal: The Zoological garden and The Exotic garden.
Instead, I headed towards La Condamine and Port Hercules, the only deep-water port in Monaco. It has been in use since ancient times. The modern port was completed in 1926, and it was substantially improved in the 1970s. It provides anchorage for up to 700 vessels.
The streets of Monte Carlo and of La Condamine around the harbor, form the famous Circuit of Monaco. The circuit is annually used on two weekends in May. Its building takes six weeks, and the dismantling after the race another three weeks. It is narrow, with many elevation shifts and tight corners, that make it one of the most demanding tracks in Formula One racing.
The idea for a Grand Prix race around the streets of Monaco came from Antony Noghès, the president of the Automobile Club de Monaco, and close friend of the ruling Grimaldi family. The first race was held in 1929.
Heading to Monte Carlo’s main attractions, above the famous Monte Carlo Tunnel, I found a beautiful promenade, with plenty of sculptures, benches and plants, but also The Auditorium Rainier III, a 1000-seat performance hall and events venue on Boulevard Louis II. It has been home to the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra since 2002.
A bit further there is the beautiful Japanese Garden, for the ones who need a place to chill, or to have a calm break for picnic.
The promenade gives a beautiful view of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo and of the attractive terraced courtyard in front of it.
The opera building is attached to the casino, and is just as impressive, if not even more.
Due to the lack of cultural events in Monaco in the 1870s, Prince Charles III, decided to include a concert hall as part of the casino. The main public entrance to the hall was from the casino, while his private one was on the western side.
It opened in 1879 as the Salle Garnier, after its architect Charles Garnier, who also designed the Paris opera house, known as the Palais Garnier. The Salle Garnier is much smaller, with only 524 seats, compared to about 2,000 of the Palais Garnier, but their ornate style is quite similar and many of the same artists worked on both theatres.
The Casino de Monte-Carlo was built in 1863 by Charles Garnier. Its marble paved “atrium”, surrounded by 28 Ionic columns made of onyx, gives access to the Opera Hall which is entirely decorated in red and gold, with bas-reliefs and sculptures. Its “Gaming Rooms” are beautifully decorated with stained glass windows, sculptures, and allegorical paintings. The Casino is open to players from 2 pm until the last table closes.
Since 1869, the Casino de Monte-Carlo has generated so much money for the Principality that the ruling family Grimaldi stopped taxation. It made Monte Carlo a tax haven and today’s residents are 80% to 90% foreigners. Monaco has become one of the world’s most expensive places to live, with about 30% of its population made up of millionaires. Ironically, the citizens of Monaco are forbidden to enter the gaming rooms of the casino.
Only the cars worth more than $100,000 can be parked in front of it.
On its left there is the Hôtel de Paris, a five-star, luxury hotel, managed by the Hermitage and owned by the government, opened in 1863. Since then it has welcomed countless royalty, movie stars and dignitaries. Its circular tower provides outstanding views of the harbor and the Mediterranean.
Right next to it, there is another marvelous building, The Hotel Hermitage, a five-star, luxury hotel opened in 1896 famous for its spectacular Belle Époque architecture designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same man who built the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889.
I always finish my tour at Casino Square, because it is the place where I can enjoy Monte Carlo at its best. A beautiful fountain, Sky Mirror sculpture, a magnificent building of the famous casino, all those rich and famous people around you, and expensive cars parked everywhere… Simply breathtaking…