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One of my top recommendations for people visiting the French Riviera is to technically leave the country for a day – by hopping over the border to the Principality of Monaco. This tiny city-state is surrounded by France in the same way that Italy surrounds Vatican City, occupying a prime piece of Mediterranean coastline.
But even besides the stunning coastline and mountain views, everything about Monaco is just beautiful. It’s a playground for the very rich and famous, and you’ll see more luxury cars in a day than you’ve seen in your entire life. Buildings, landscaping, streets, and decorations are carefully manicured to exude perfection.
While Monaco may be a small country, there is no shortage of things to do here. People often make it a day trip from the nearby cities of Nice or Cannes, about 20 minutes and an hour away, respectively. But you can stay a night or more if you want to do it all and live like a rock star in one of the principality’s luxury hotels.
Before you visit Monaco, read my take on the top tourist attractions. Living 45 minutes away has allowed me to come to Monaco scores, if not hundreds of times my favorite movie theater is here! Follow the tips below on what to see, do, and eat in Monaco, and check out some great places to stay.
- What is Monaco?
- Things to Do in Monaco
- 1. The Monte Carlo Casino
- 2. Dine or Drink at Café de Paris
- 3. Visit the Prince’s Palace
- 4. Tour the Monaco Museum of Oceanography
- 5. Monaco Cathedral
- 6. Visit the Panoramic Viewpoints
- 7. Explore the Exotic Garden and The Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology
- 8. Visit the Japanese Garden
- 9. Get Some Sun at Larvotto Beach
- 10. Experience the Monaco Grand Prix and Other Racing Events
- 11. See the Opera de Monte Carlo
- 12. Tour the New National Museum of Monaco
- 13. Explore the Princess Grace Rose Garden and Fontvieille Park
- 14. Admire the Prince of Monaco’s Car Collection
- 15. Relax at Les Thermes Marins
- What are the top tourist attractions in Monaco?
- What is the best time of year to visit Monaco?
- Can budget travelers also enjoy Monaco?
|Most significant landmark||Monte Carlo Casino|
|Best park||Exotic Garden|
|Best free activity||Panoramic Viewpoints|
|Best activity for kids||Oceanographic Museum of Monaco|
|Best activity for adults||Touring the Prince’s Palace|
|Best food||Café de Paris|
|Best place to stay||Hôtel Hermitage Monte Carlo|
What is Monaco?
The Principality of Monaco is a city-state, essentially meaning a tiny country, in Europe, which is completely surrounded by France – the French Riviera, specifically. It’s about 20 minutes to the Italian border in one direction or 20 minutes to the city of Nice in the other; the glamorous, well-known city of Cannes is about an hour away. That makes Monaco a popular day trip for French Riviera visitors.
This tiny country, just over 500 acres in size, has been independent for centuries. It has always been considered a strategic piece of land due to the Rock of Monaco, an ideal shelter and fortress that hosts the Prince’s Palace.
The House of Grimaldi, once prominent figures in the Italian city of Genoa, have controlled it for over a thousand years, and at one point, their monarchy included even more of coastal France.
Today, Monaco is the prosperous playground where ultra-high-net-worth people come to live and vacation. It’s got the feeling of a mixture of France, Italy, and just about everywhere else, as people from all over the world call this place home. In fact, Prince Albert is half-American and speaks French, English, Italian, and German fluently.
How the other half live, eh? You can visit Monaco at any time of the year. Summers are hotter and more crowded, thanks to the beautiful Côte d’Azur summer weather, but winters are mild and quiet.
To get there, fly into the international airport in Nice. You can take a quick helicopter transfer to the principality’s heliport, ride the train, or arrive by road or boat. There are no border controls into or out of Monaco.
Things to Do in Monaco
1. The Monte Carlo Casino
Address: Place du Casino, 98000 Monaco
You cannot go to Monaco and skip the Casino de Monte Carlo. It’s located in the northern/eastern part of the country, easily walkable from the train station. Casino Square is usually lined with millions of dollars worth of sports cars belonging to the players inside (or the residents of the condominiums next door, which rent for several hundred thousand per month).
The view from the outside is beautiful, with the best photo spots in the garden just past the square. But you can even go into the famous casino for a closer look.
Pictures are allowed in the lobby area, although there aren’t any games. Bring your passport if you want to go back to where the fun happens, as you’ll need to check in and possibly pay a fee of a few Euros – I’ve never figured out why sometimes they charge this and sometimes they don’t.
The first small room just has some slot machines, and no photos are allowed from that point. You can continue past that to get to the main casino with table games, more slots, and a bar. Order a martini, put on your shades, and pretend you’re in one of the James Bond films – it never gets old, I promise.
2. Dine or Drink at Café de Paris
Address: Pl. du Casino, 98000 Monaco
A drink or meal at the famous Café de Paris on Casino Square goes hand-in-hand with a stop at the Monte Carlo Casino. It’s in the also-famous Hotel de Paris, an excellent place to stay in Monaco if you’ve got the cash (or win big at the casino).
The cuisine at Café de Paris can be described as upscale Parisian brasserie food. The local-style menu items are the best, like Mediterranean seafood dishes.
You can also have a drink – I like to try one of their many Spritzes each time I go. Bring your casino winnings because it won’t be cheap like most things in Monaco.
If you are looking to stay a night, the Hotel de Paris is as close as it gets to the casino, with many rooms overlooking it. The hotel is gorgeous and as luxurious as you’d expect.
3. Visit the Prince’s Palace
Prince Albert II is the current reigning monarch of the principality, and he resides in the historic palace on the Rock of Monaco, just as past members of the reigning Grimaldi family have for centuries. The Prince’s Palace, or Palais du Prince in French, is in Monaco Ville. The area is somewhat of an “old town” of Monaco, located high on a hill between the two ports.
The impressive architecture up here will make you question how “old” the town is, as everything is immaculately clean and in pristine condition. But amazingly, the Prince’s Palace dates back almost a thousand years, having been besieged and bombarded many times but always repaired. It has a large, open square in front of it, so it’s easy to get great pictures and watch the changing of the guards.
During certain times of the year, usually summer, you can actually go inside the palace for a tour. You actually get access to a huge portion of the palace, including the State Apartments and the Throne Room. The latter is where Prince Rainier married Grace Kelley!
The tour is exceptional, as you learn a ton about the history of the royal family and Monaco, and this should be considered a do-not-miss if it’s available during your trip. The Monaco public bus goes up there, as does the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus, which stops directly in front of the palace.
See Related: Best European Palaces to Visit
4. Tour the Monaco Museum of Oceanography
Address: Av. Saint-Martin, 98000 Monaco
A great activity for adults and kids alike is the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, located in a tall, beautiful building on the cliffside of Monaco Ville. There’s also a yellow submarine in front of the entrance, making it easy to find.
Inside, there is a surprising variety of marine life on display, ranging from small invertebrates and plants to a massive shark lagoon. There are also giant, ancient skeleton models and touch pools with friendly animals.
Guests can have lunch at the rooftop restaurant with a stunning sea view. Buy tickets in advance to skip the line and save time.
While you’re here, stop at the Chapelle de la Visitation directly across the street. It’s a small chapel dating back to the 17th century that contains some very old pieces of artwork. It’s a cool, rare piece of Monaco history that hasn’t changed drastically in several centuries.
5. Monaco Cathedral
Address: 4 Rue Colonel Bellando de Castro, 98000 Monaco
One of the other most historic buildings in the principality is the Monaco Cathedral, located in the old town between the palace and the Oceanographic Museum. On maps, this church is sometimes referred to by its formal name, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, or by its former name, Saint Nicholas Cathedral.
The church has a long history, dating back to the 1200s as the first parish in the principality, but the current building was constructed between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Besides beautiful, historic artwork and artifacts, like the altar and throne, this is where much of the reigning Grimaldi family is buried, including Princess Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III.
It’s free to visit and makes for an easy stop when touring the rest of Monaco Ville. Make sure you’re dressed modestly to go inside.
6. Visit the Panoramic Viewpoints
Monaco is a breathtaking place, seemingly everywhere you look. There are a few iconic spots to get a million-dollar (or multi-billion-dollar) view that doesn’t get old, no matter how many times I stop by. Amateur photographers should have no problem getting the shot, but you can even hire a vacation photographer to snap the best memories of Monaco.
The views are easy to find in Monaco Ville: they’re on either side of the palace’s square. If you’re looking at the palace, to the right, there’s an easy-to-spot ledge with panoramic views of Port Hercules and over to Monte Carlo. Watch the questionably large superyachts come in and out – I’ve seen one with not one, not two, but three helipads onboard, just in case they need three helicopters.
To the left of the palace, there’s another stunning cliffside view down to the Port of Fontvieille and its neighborhood. I somewhat prefer this side, as it feels more serene, and there is a lovely network of garden paths along the cliffside with more and more spots to admire.
On the Monte Carlo side, my favorite spot is a large rooftop garden behind the casino that overlooks the other side of Port Hercules and over to Monaco Ville. I believe it’s actually the rooftop of the Fairmont Monte Carlo, but the labyrinth of buildings and tunnels in Monaco makes it difficult to know for sure! Either way, it’s open to the public and a great spot for more views.
7. Explore the Exotic Garden and The Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology
Address: 62 Bd du Jardin Exotique, 98000 Monaco
Speaking of awesome views, there are more of them at the Jardin Exotique, or Exotic Garden in English. However, this place gets a shoutout of its own, as it’s a full attraction itself. You can find it high on the cliffs of Monaco’s southwestern corner, giving it views of the beautiful buildings, ports, and the Mediterranean Sea.
The gardens are home to succulent plants and cacti that thrive in dry zones around the world. Most of the species were brought back to Monaco from Mexico in the 1800s, leading to the construction of their display place in the decades after.
During construction, a grotto was discovered in the mountainside, and it contained evidence of prehistoric human habitation. These findings, plus fossils and other ancient artifacts from around the principality, are displayed at the Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology within the Exotic Garden.
8. Visit the Japanese Garden
Address: 5 Avenue Princesse Grace, 98000 Monaco
On the same subject, a traditional Japanese garden is located on the Monte Carlo side, which is even more convenient. It doesn’t have the panoramic views that the cliffside does, but every detail was carefully planned to maximize Zen and to transport visitors to the land of the rising sun.
A large koi point weaves around the paths of the Japanese Garden and its bridges, lanterns, and tea house. There are quintessential Japanese plants like water lilies, lotus flowers, and bamboo hedges, alongside local plants from around the Mediterranean. I love walking through here on my way to other Monaco attractions, such as the beach and the museums – we’ll cover those soon.
To get to the garden, walk to the left of the casino downhill and down the steps, continuing past the World’s Most Famous Hairpin Curve (you’ll know it when you see it – it’s also marked). Keep walking down the steps next to the Fairmont and along the main road toward the beach. You should walk right through the garden.
9. Get Some Sun at Larvotto Beach
Monaco may be tiny, but that’s not to say that you can’t have a beach day here! The main destination for that is Larvotto Beach, a sandy cove that is actually built on reclaimed land – as much of Monaco is. While that may not feel authentic, the advantage is that, like everything else in Monaco, it’s perfectly crafted.
You can find a couple of beach clubs that rent chairs and umbrellas and serve food and drinks on the sand, but prepare to pay a premium. You can also just lay out a towel and put up your umbrella for free. There are showers, bathrooms, and even a playground for kids.
If having a beach day is important, consider the Le Méridien Beach Plaza for your stay, as they have their private stretch of sand just next to Larvotto. They’ve also got a fantastic outdoor pool and some very luxurious rooms.
See Related: Best Beaches in France
10. Experience the Monaco Grand Prix and Other Racing Events
The country’s streets turn into a real-life racetrack each spring when the famous Monaco Grand Prix by Formula 1 takes place. This race, bigger than the Indianapolis 500 and on par with the 24 Hours at Le Mans, usually happens during the last week of May.
The spectacle is every bit as epic as the Palio of Siena in Tuscany. Race cars zoom around the beautiful historic buildings, up and down the mountainous elevation changes, past the superyachts, and around tight turns – including the aforementioned World’s Most Famous Hairpin Curve. The latter is right in front of the Fairmont Monte Carlo, which is easily walkable from the casino, and there’s a sign that makes for a great photo op.
Around the same months, the country hosts the Monaco ePrix, with electric race cars, and the Historic Grand Prix, with old, classic cars. If you’re traveling during April and May, you can expect the whole country to be a big racing circuit, and navigating from place to place does require a bit more effort due to this – but the experience of it all makes it worth it!
If you’re not there during these months, you can take a Formula 1 walking tour to take in the racing culture and its important sites. There’s another racing event each January called the Monte Carlo Rally, which extends the race track to more streets of the French Riviera, including the mountainous Alps in the backcountry.
11. See the Opera de Monte Carlo
Address: Pl. du Casino, 98000 Monaco
The ultimate place to enjoy live performances of the arts in Monaco is the Opera de Monte Carlo. Interestingly, it’s located in the same building as the famous Monte Carlo Casino, and they share an entrance. That’s probably to tempt showgoers to play a slot on their way in or out!
The ornate addition to the building was designed by Charles Garnier, who also designed the Paris Opera House in the late 1800s. It’s much smaller, though, seating just a few hundred guests, making it nice and exclusive for the Monegasque crowd. The intricate designs and decorations inside are breathtaking.
Visitors can catch frequent opera performances, live music, ballets, and other shows. Check out the opera’s website to see what’s going on during your trip.
12. Tour the New National Museum of Monaco
Address: 17 Avenue Princesse Grace, 98000 Monaco
The best art museum in Monaco is the New National Museum of Monaco. On most maps, you’ll find that its French name is used – le Nouveau Musée National de Monaco. That goes for both locations, as the museum is spread across two beautiful Belle-Epoque villas.
Villa Sauber is the first and original villa, located between the Japanese Garden and Larvotto Beach. It is not even known for sure when the extravagant estate was built, but it was owned by the Sauber family of London before becoming state property in 1969.
The other location is Villa Paloma, located in the heights of the principality near the French border, and whose specific origins are also unknown. It’s believed that an American businessman, Edward Dickerson, combined six plots to construct a villa and gardens here in 1913. It only became state property and a museum venue in recent years.
Villa Sauber and Villa Paloma form the NMNM (an acronym of the French name) and showcase contemporary art in just a few temporary exhibitions per year – usually two. Visitors get the experience of enjoying the art plus the villas; both have excellent gardens to explore as well. Tickets are surprisingly inexpensive.
See Related: Best Museums in Europe to Visit
13. Explore the Princess Grace Rose Garden and Fontvieille Park
Address: Av. des Papalins, 98000 Monaco
If you have the time, I highly recommend exploring the lesser-traveled Fontvieille neighborhood, which occupies the southwestern corner of the country around the other port. This is where you’ll find the Princess Grace Rose Garden and its adjacent Fontvieille Park. They’re made up of nearly 10 acres of green space between the heliport and Louis II Stadium.
The meandering paths through more than 4,000 roses were dedicated to Grace Kelly in 1984. A statue also commemorates her. The park also includes a large koi pond, which is also home to many duck and goose families. It’s yet another wonderful place to wander around and take in the atmosphere of Monaco.
Pass by the stadium to see where the football clubs of Monaco play on the way here, and take the longer route along the port on the way back. It’s a peaceful stroll that feels a bit quieter than the rest of the principality.
14. Admire the Prince of Monaco’s Car Collection
Address: 54 Rte de la Piscine, 98000 Monaco
Another one of the things to do in Monaco that never gets old for me is walking around the Prince’s Car Collection. It’s open to the public and recently moved into a new exhibition hall in front of Port Hercules. The entry fee is reasonable and worth it, in my opinion.
Prince Albert is an avid automobile enthusiast and has accumulated hundreds of cars, ranging from historic horse carriages to original Model T’s to the newest futuristic vehicles. Most of them, along with photographs and stories, are displayed. It’s fascinating to me that each of them is roadworthy, as his team of mechanics takes meticulous care of the cars.
See Related: Best Car Museums in Italy to Visit
15. Relax at Les Thermes Marins
Address: 2 Av. de Monte-Carlo, 98000 Monaco
Finally, one of the most relaxing things to do in Monaco: Les Thermes Marins. Actually, this wellness, fitness, and health facility has both relaxation and activity, as you can have a great sea-view workout in the gym. However, I prefer the heated pool, jacuzzi, solarium, sauna, and hammam products for a tranquil spa day.
Doctors, therapists, nutritionists, and other health experts are available for consultation to take wellness to a new level beyond just lying by the pool. There’s also a gourmet restaurant inside, meaning you can truly spend an entire day here. Book a massage, facial, body treatment, salon service, or full-day package to get whatever wellness you need.
The facility is located inside the stunning Hôtel Hermitage Monte Carlo, my favorite place to stay in the principality. Hôtel de Paris guests have access to it as well, as the management company of the two are the same. Day guests are more than welcome to book a treatment or pass.
What are the top tourist attractions in Monaco?
The Monte Carlo Casino has to be the top thing to see in Monaco. The Opera de Monte Carlo is in the same building, while the famous Café de Paris is right next door, leaving plenty to do and see in Casino Square. On the other side of the principality, in Monaco Ville, you should not miss the Prince’s Palace, the Oceanographic Museum, and the stunning views of the ports.
What is the best time of year to visit Monaco?
There is no bad time of year to visit Monaco! Summer is the high season on the French Riviera, bringing warm weather for the beach and outdoor activities. The Christmas season sees the whole country light up and full of decorations. April and May bring the racing season when the Monaco Grand Prix and other races turn the town into a giant circuit.
Can budget travelers also enjoy Monaco?
It’s not easy to do Monaco on a budget, but there are ways to save money on a trip to the principality. First, you should probably plan to stay across the border in France, where accommodation is cheaper.
Take the train into Monaco, which isn’t very expensive. You can ride the public bus or the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus from place to place, but really, the whole country is pretty walkable. As for food, any full-service, sit-down restaurant will be expensive, so seek out sandwich shops and other casual spots.
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Woodrow is a travel writer who wants to do and see just about everything. He’s been to 40+ countries, all 50 US states plus Puerto Rico and the USVI, and is currently living in France and exploring Europe. Woodrow is an expert in travel hacking, finding bargain flights, and coined the term “upgrade engineering” referring to his talent to upgrade simple hotel room bookings into suite stays. Woodrow loves SCUBA diving, fishing, and all things aviation.