I had always dreamed of visiting Monaco, a luxurious retreat on the Mediterranean coast. I admit—it was the Princess Grace connection. What little girl growing up in the 1970s didn't have a fascination with royalty? Well, at least this little girl who daydreamed of far off places with castles and princesses and sparkling blue water and boats set against blue skies. When I had a chance to visit Monaco for a few lovely spring days with my sister, it truly was a dream come true.
So Where is Monaco?
Monaco is the world's second smallest country, a picture postcard of a country on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It sits at the foot of the majestic French Alps, surrounded by France and Italy.
The history of the tiny principality and the Grimaldi monarchy dates back to the 13th century, but most of us here in the US didn't know much about the magical kingdom until Hollywood movie star Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier in 1956, becoming a real life princess. Even though Princess Grace tragically died in 1982, the couple's three children continue the Grimaldi legacy. The eldest son, His Serene Highness Prince Albert II leads the tiny country today.
The fairytale country might be small, but is one of the most diverse countries for its size. Even though there are only about 32,000 citizens, there are about 120 countries represented from around the globe. While French is the official language and Italian and English are widely spoken, we heard every language imaginable as we explored the winding streets.
Because Monaco sits on the banks of the Mediterranean, the weather is pleasant year round, averaging about 60 degrees, Fahrenheit.
In addition to its ties to America's Hollywood royalty, Monaco is also famous for its Grand Prix de Monaco, which takes place each May in the city's winding streets. The races draw crowds from around the world. Even in non-racing season, the city's famed “S” curves are filled with high performance cars—Maseratis, Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Lamborghinis rev their engines at stop lights and zip along the shore.
I met my sister in Milan and we took the train south into Monaco. It was simple to get our train tickets online before we left the US, board the train in Milan, sit back and relax all the way into the Monaco train station. However, Monaco is also easily accessible by a quick helicopter flight from the nearby airport in Nice or via the high speed train from Paris.
Monaco is a luxurious destination by any standards, but it is also rich with history. I only had three days to visit Monaco, but wish I had three more. At least. There were so many things I didn't have time to explore.
Because Monaco is small, it is easy to get from Monte-Carlo at one end of the municipality, past the ports to Monaco-ville or the Rock, which is the old town at the opposite end, easily and quickly. We were told it takes about 45 minutes to walk the principality end-to-end. I will admit we never walked the entire distance—there are a lot of ups and downs walking the hillsides of Monaco—but we found it easy to jump on the city bus during the day and taxis were plentiful at night.
There is a great map of the municipality that we found ideal for getting around. It is available online, which I downloaded to my phone at the hotel via wi-fi, but it is also available in paper format from most hotels or from the visitor office.
During our visit to Monaco, we spent one day on the Rock, and we loved that day perhaps the most of all our days. It's a gorgeous walk up to Monaco-ville. It is quite steep, but well worth the hike. The cobbled path is not made for heels, so wear your walking shoes.
The views of the harbor and town are breathtaking along the way and at the top is one of those “wow moments” that makes travel unforgettable for me. The air is clear, the wind blows in off the sea, the Alps are in one direction and the yachts are coming and going below you.
The Prince's Palace is the most-visited sight on the Rock. It is open April through October and is the official residence of Prince Albert II. The day we visited, the flag was raised, indicating that the prince was in residence. We did see some official vehicles coming and going, but didn't get a glimpse of anyone who looked official. There are official tours of the residence that take about 30 minutes and I think they are worth they typical wait. The audio guide, available in a multitude of languages, tells the history of the Grimaldi family as you walk through the palace.
The Oceanographic Museum & Aquarium is an impressive building not far from the palace. It seems to hang on the edge of the Rock. The museum is a working institute as well as an aquarium featuring rare species of fish, a Shark Lagoon and a huge pool with coral reefs. The aquarium is also open April through October.
Be sure to spend time wandering the old town. The shops are quaint and there are some great little cafés here.
Stop for a gelato or a glass of wine and watch the crowds for a bit before heading back down into the harbor area.
Living the High Life in Monte-Carlo
Monte-Carlo is the end of Monaco that houses the world famous casino. Designed in 1863 and reconstructed and enlarged in 1878 by Charles Garnier, the architect who built the Paris Opera, the Monte-Carlo Casino was another of the “wow moments” during my visit to Monaco.
I was a little afraid it was too cliché to visit the Monte-Carlo Casino, but like all those great landmarks in the world, I knew I need to see it. I was so glad I did. The Atrium, with 28 onyx columns, is free and open to the public. It is such an iconic Belle Epoque building, a shining example of French architecture of that period.
There is an admission fee of €10 to go inside the main Salon Europe, which opens at 2 pm daily. Pay it and go inside. You won't regret it. I was in awe of the stained glass sculptures and bronze fixtures. The 19th-century luxury and sophistication made even today's Las Vegas seem a bit pale in comparison. There is something refined and elegant about Old World money. And yes, I will admit that I expected James Bond to come swaggering across the casino floor at any moment.
There is an additional €10 charge for access to the private lounges, which I didn't pay. Jacket and tie are also required in those private lounges and opening hours vary. Oh, did I gamble in the Monte-Carlo Casino? I played €5 and cashed out at €0.47 so I could keep a memento of my time inside the famed casino.
Shopping in Monaco
Shopping in Monaco is quite the experience. this is the only place in the world (at least where I have been so far) where window shopping has an array of Bentleys, Maseratis and Lamborghinis in shops next to those with Chanel, Gucci and Christian Dior.
I enjoyed exploring the shops at Le Métropole Shopping Center at Métropole Hotel. There are three levels of shops that sell everything from luggage and jewelry to household goods, high fashion and chocolate. I was surprised that prices ranged from ultra expensive to fairly reasonable.
Perhaps the most exclusive shopping area is at the Monte-Carlo Pavilions, a set of futuristic-shaped buildings near the Monte-Carlo Casino housing some of the world's top brands. Shops include Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Boucheron, Bvlgari, Cartier, Rolex, Dior, Hermès, Gucci, Prada and more. The space uniquely houses 40 luxurious brands in a way I've never before seen.
Gardens of Monaco
I think the biggest surprise of my visit to Monaco were all of the gardens. I knew it was on the Mediterranean, but I hadn't expected all of the gardens. There are so many of them located in this tiny principality but I did have a couple of favorites.
The Japanese Gardens are open each day until sunset. It is off Princess Grace Avenue, along the sea after you walk past the Fairmont Monte-Carlo. We walked past the luxury car showrooms and didn't expect to find this tranquil Zen space that took us immediately to Asia. It was such a beautiful spot in April with the cherry blossoms in bloom. There are benches where you can sit and relax, a waterfall, and birds chirp overhead. It is unexpected and beautiful with the touch of Asia set against the Mediterranean on one side with the Alps and Monaco on the other.
Princess Grace Rose Garden was another unexpected gem. Because I was a guest of Monaco, they had me stay at three different types of hotels during my visit to give me a chance to explore different parts of the principality. On my last night there, we stayed at Columbus Hotel, a smaller and more tranquil property in Fontvieille, in the southern part of Monaco. I was thrilled to discover that the Princess Grace Rose Garden was directly across from our hotel.
The original garden was opened in 1984 by Prince Rainier III in honor of his beloved wife. The new, larger garden had just opened when we were there and, on that mid-April day, the roses were so fragrant that we could smell them from our balcony across the street.
The rose garden has 8,000 rose bushes in 300 different varieties.
There are interactive terminals at the rose bushes so you can find out details about each one. It is an unforgettable way to spend some time unwinding while in Monaco.
Sometimes, little girls' dreams really do come true. For me, my chance to visit Monaco was one of those times.
The trip to Monaco was filled with days wandering the shore, watching the yachts sail the crystal blue waters, breathing in the spring air and exploring the historic old town of Monaco-ville. We spent our evenings enjoying great hospitality, watching beautiful night skies, dining on some of the best food of my life, sipping lovely wines from the South of France and feeling lucky to be at that spot at that moment. My chance to visit Monaco with my sister was a chance to live a dream. Be sure to read more on Wander about what to do and see in Monaco.