I have family living in the south of France, almost on the border with Monaco. Over the years, I have come to know the area well.
Put Your Time in Monaco to Good Use
Whether you visit Monaco for a few hours or a few days, you may miss out on getting the most out of your time there. It's all too easy to wander around the casino, the port, and the Palace, missing many alternative things to do, while still spending a great deal of money.
Here, I'm putting forward a few suggestions to make the most of your visit.
Before we go any further, I'll explain the difference between Monaco and Monte Carlo because they seem to be so often confused. The country is called Monaco, whereas Monte Carlo is one of the areas or wards within Monaco.
There are other wards of course: Monaco-ville is the oldest part and also known as Le Rocher (The Rock); Fontvieille is the newest area and was reclaimed from the sea; La Condamine is the area by the old port. There are 10 wards in total with possible plans for at least one other to be built on land to be reclaimed, once again, from the sea.
Where Is Monaco?
It is a small country or principality on the Mediterranean coast, completely surrounded by France, but very near the Italian border.
1. Where to Stay: High End or Budget?
There is no such thing as a budget hotel (as we know it) in Monaco. The Hotel Alexandra shown here used to be the nearest thing and, because of that, it was always full. Sadly, it is now closed and will most likely be made into apartments.
But all is not lost because Monaco is a very small country (very), and within the space of a few hundred metres (yards) you can be in Beausoleil, is over the border in France, and very much less expensive. I stayed in the Appart'Hotel Odalys, Les Hauts de la Principauté, where I found excellent value, with exceptionally good and friendly service.
Staying in Beausoleil will provide you with plenty of exercise as you climb up, either by staircase or road, from Monaco, but this is easier if you use the lifts (ascenseurs publics) and very recently we have seen the installation of a new escalier roulant (escalator) in Beausoleil. Soon it will go all the way to the Riviera Palace.
If you want luxury, there is more than enough choice inside Monaco itself. The Fairmont in Spelugues, with stunning views, and the Meridien in Larvotto, with its own private beach, are my personal favourites but they are by no means the only ones.
2. Getting Around
Monaco is a small country. I've said it before but it's very true. However, it is very far from flat. You can find yourself climbing very steep hills and flights of steps more often than you'd like, and during the summer it can be very hot indeed. There are quite a few public lifts (ascenseurs publics) to take you from one level to another but not all as many as you might think, and at times it feels they are never where you want them to be.
You can, of course, drive a car as many people do, but the roads are very congested and frankly hard work. You cannot depend on GPS systems for finding your way around because the roads can almost literally be on top of each other, 100 metres apart vertically rather than horizontally, and even the GPS gets lost.
You'll probably find it easier to use the excellent and very inexpensive bus system. You can buy yourself a ticket when you get on the bus, but better still buy a ticket worth 6 journeys at a discount. Even better is to buy the ticket from strategically placed ticket machines where a single journey will be at a discount, or you can buy 12 journeys for the price of 6. When boarding the bus you pass the ticket over the electronic reader and it's a simple as that.
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Two or more people can use the same bus ticket, but you have to present it to the bus driver for that. The machines prevent multiple passes. If you have to change lines, you do not need to use up another ticket as long as the changeover takes no longer than 30 minutes.
3. Visit Popular Places Early, but Not Too Early
I went to see around the old part of Monaco, Le Rocher, early one morning and almost had the place to myself. The slight disadvantage to this was that the small shops had not yet opened. I specifically wanted to buy some postcards and found I had to wait until 10:00 am. However this is a good opportunity to look around the whole of the area without having to fight your way through crowds.
The dappled light under the trees was very welcome later on when the sun was beating down. The part of building you see in the background is a restaurant but beyond that is a very pleasant souvenir shop, better than many.
By midday the place was jammed with people wanting to see the changing of the guard and I beat a hasty retreat. The Oceanographic Museum and the Cathedral are also in Monaco Ville. There are often free concerts on in the Cathedral.
Incidentally, it's well worth taking the walk down the hill towards the port. You will arrive at the bustling Place d'Armes where there is an excellent Lebanese restaurant, Oliban. They serve a lovely refreshing mint lemonade, apart from anything else.
4. Don't Miss Fontvieille
The most modern part of Monaco, it was built on land reclaimed from the sea. This is where you will find the Philatelic Museum with coins and banknotes as well as stamps, and the Prince's classic car collection. It's a lovely area to wander around and explore. There is a small zoo, statues and sculptures abound, you can stroll around the port, see the famous football (soccer) stadium, and in amongst it all there are a couple of very lovely gardens.
5. Cool Off in Shady Gardens
Everywhere you go, you will find beautiful gardens: around the Casino, the Japanese Garden on the seafront, the UNICEF Garden and Princess Grace's rose garden in Fontvieille. They are wonderful places to cool off and to relax, in contrast with the built environment that surrounds them.
Early in the morning they can be quite damp because of the sprinkling systems to enable them to grow in the dry climate.
6. Do Some Tree-Spotting - Parcours des Arbres Patrimoniaux
In the Casino Gardens you will notice labels by certain trees. If you follow the signs, they provide a short walking tour of beautiful and outstanding trees. The aim is to make us more aware of trees and to highlight the fight against deforestation.
This photo was taken in the early evening as the floodlights came on to illuminate the trees and gardens.
7. Explore the Chemin des Sculptures—The Sculpture Path
Follow the signs for the Chemin des Sculptures to see almost 100 pieces of art on display, some older pieces but mostly modern, in a huge variety of styles. Sculptures can be found throughout Monaco but the Chemin wanders through Fontvieille and that is where the majority of sculptures are.
"Le Poing" or "The Fist" by César is one of my favourites and can be seen in the UNESCO Garden.
8. Fireworks for Free!
Most weekends in the summer you can have a free fireworks display. In fact they also hold a special fireworks competition each year which is truly spectacular. The display is often aimed at the diners in the Sporting Club where they retract the roof so that the diners have a wonderful view of the fireworks. If you happen to be in a high building, you can have a wonderful view of the Sporting Club interior.
9. Stamps and Postcards Make Inexpensive Souvenirs
There are several post offices in Monaco but if you go to the Principal office in the Palais de La Scala, you will find a philatelic desk. You rarely have to queue there and the lady is incredibly helpful. Monaco has always produced some lovely stamps and they are very popular with collectors. I don't collect stamps myself but I do like to see attractive stamps on my postcards.
Be careful where you post your postcards or any other mail home because the borders between Monaco and France are completely open, and Monaco stamps aren't valid for posting in France. The letterboxes are fairly similar but Monagasque ones are red and white or white, while French ones are yellow.
10. Don't Forget to Visit the Hinterland
There are some very beautiful places around Monaco, well worth exploring in their own right: Eze-village, Sainte-Agnès and a beautiful walk along the coast to Cap d'Ail.
Eze-village, not to be confused with Eze-sur-Mer, is a very pretty hill top village with narrow alleys and beautiful views from the top. It's probably best to visit off-season because it does become very busy, but if you don't mind the crowds it's well worth a visit.
Sainte-Agnès is another hilltop village but not only does it have the pretty winding alleys and beautiful views, it also has a fort that was part of the Maginot Line, and which at one time housed the greatest concentration of artillery along the Line. You can follow a guided tour of the underground fort, and that too is well worth a visit.
Sainte-Agnès isn't usually as busy as Eze, probably because it is reached by narrow and meandering hill roads.
You can follow a path, the Sentier Littoral, all the way from Monaco to Cap d'Ail. It runs along the coast, right at the edge of the sea and for that reason it is closed in bad weather. However in the lovely weather that you can usually expect in the area, it offers a wonderful walk with beautiful views. It's only 3.6 miles (5.75 km) but there are cafes/restaurants along the way at convenient stop-off points if you should so wish.