What’s the most glamorous destination in the world? Monte Carlo, definitely. Monaco, one of the smallest countries in the world and definitely the most glamorous. And though you probably won’t be able to visit, I’m going to let you come along with me to go inside the palace and meet Prince Albert.
For centuries, this tiny principality has been the playground for royalty, and, more recently, for the rich and famous. Resting on the colorful coast of the French Riviera and overlooking the beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean, its amazing climate, luxurious resorts and world famous casino attracts tourists from all over the world.
With a total area of less than one square mile, this tiny country uses every square inch of space. Once they arrive, visitors are surprised to discover it’s actually divided into four very distinct areas. There are no formal borders between Monaco and France, but the first area you see as you drive here from the Nice Airport is also the newest.
Fortville, is mostly man-made, the majority of the area built on land reclaimed from the sea in the 1970’s. Next is Old Monaco-Ville, also known as “the rock” as it sits on top of a cliff at the highest point. As the name implies, it’s the oldest area and where the palace is located. La Condamine is the northwest section and is known for the main port. Then the most famous area of all… Monte Carlo, known for its casino.
Monte Carlo is the wealthiest area of Monaco, and so widely known that it’s often mistaken for the country’s capital, even though there really isn’t one, mistaken for the principality itself.
From lavish hotels and designer boutiques to the grand elegance of its world famous casino, Monte Carlo is the very definition of glamour.
So: four distinct areas here, but old town Monaco is definitely the place to start. Perched high up on cliffs that seem to shoot straight up from the sea, you can practically see the whole country from up here! The Palais du Prince or prince’s palace is the focal point, which sits at one end of old Monaco. This is has been home to the royal family for hundreds of years, and even today it continues to carry out many of its royal traditions.
If you get there around 11:30 am, you’ll see a lot of people hanging out waiting for something. It’s for the “Changing of the Guard.” At 11:55 am, every day, and it happens and it is quite fun to see. The palace has been home to the Grimaldi family since 1297, and, even though the family still lives there, it’s open for tours during the day. Aside from the state rooms, the cars and carriages of the royal family can be seen as well, on a separate entry ticket.
And one thing you should definitely look for – if the flag is flying over the palace that means the prince is home. And in this case it’s his serene highness, Prince Albert II! You know, I’ve always said that one of the best ways to learn about a destination is to talk to someone who lives there. The flag is flying! Yes, we were lucky enough to be invited to talk with His Serene Highness at the palace to learn a little more about his fascinating country.
I asked His Serene Highness when Monaco went from being a residential area for the wealthy to the great tourist destination that it is today. The principality is, as we know it from the royal family’s presence in Monaco, is 709 years old.
The fortress of the 13th century was captured on the night of January 8th, 1297 by the prince’s ancestor, Francis Grimaldi. Monaco was under different rules at different times of its history. Under French rule, under the Kingdom of Piedmont, Sardinia (before Italy was united as one country) and then it was annexed by Charles of Spain. So Monaco was under Spanish rule for over a hundred years. It was finally recognized by the King of France by the Treaty of Prone in 1641. That’s where the lords of Monaco got the title of “princes.” Straight from the horse’s—oops, I mean prince’s mouth.
Outdoors within the palace there are gardens that used to be the palace stables and one part of the stables is now the garage for vehicles of the royal family. These gardens were rearranged over the years and the final kind of modern lay out was first influenced by the prince’s mother, then his father redesigned them to what they are today. It’s a beautiful little garden and it’s also used for receptions and different official sort of semi-informal ceremonies that they hold in the spring or summer.
Of, course, most important for us to know, is what part of the palace do visitors get to see? So, I asked when the palace was open for tours. Tours start in April and go right through the end of October. Visitors get to visit the western wing of the palace, which is where the big state rooms are, like the throne room, and audience rooms. The state rooms are used for- official ceremonies, the family doesn’t actually live in that part of the palace.
According to the prince, you should not miss seeing the palace and the different museums around Monaco. Obviously the Oceanographic Museum is a must. He feels that just walking through the streets of the old town is a great experience for visitors to get the full flavor of Monaco. I definitely agree with him on that.
One thing I’ve always been impressed with here in Monaco is that it’s so safe. This is something the royals have been very concerned about over the last few decades, to keep Monaco a safe and clean place. A lot of people think Monaco is a playground for wealthy adults, but it’s also a fantastic family destination. That’s a misnomer.
My family has been coming here for years and I find it a fantastic family destination. They do have something of special interest to children: the little sightseeing train. It is one thing kids love, and where everyone can get a quick tour of the entire country! Monaco in 30 minutes or less…you go around to all the major sites and listen to the information in the language of your choice…toot toot!
From old Monaco, down to the harbor, and over to Monte Carlo! If you’re only here for a day or visiting off a cruise ship, then this is the perfect way to get a quick look at the Monte Carlo casino as well! If you have lots of time, you can do the entire loop and end up back where you started, ready for exploring on foot next to the palace!
Oh, you’re not done, yet. Everybody’s dazzled by the palace and the changing of the guard and they sometimes miss one of the best things up here at the palace. We are up on the hill with the palace and it is in the midst of old Monaco-Ville. This is what you really have to see. The little shops, alleys and restaurants. You go through an archway and it will take you to the cathedral. Or, pick any of the other archways and see where you end up, it’s fantastic. Just start walking. If you rent a car, it’s easy to park under old Monaco in a modern parking garage built into the rock, with elevators & escalators to the top, where you can start your walking adventure.
Monaco-vile is the oldest part of Monaco, and marks the place where the country got its start. It was once a fortified town, and in some places, the old fort walls still stand. There are so many pretty places up here. You just have to walk around and you discover spots. Take a look at the houses around you. Those belong to the “montegasts.” They’re the old families of Monaco and they’re the only ones allowed to live up here in Monaco-Ville.
You don’t have to worry about getting lost…you might get turned around, but this area on top of the rock is only a few blocks long. All roads lead from the royal palace and the cathedral. If you have a short amount of time this should be number three on your list; first the palace, then the casino, and then the cathedral in old Monaco-Ville. If you are old enough to remember the storybook wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier, you’’ll remember the newsreel footage, you’ll remember they were married in the cathedral. It’s also where they’re buried, and, yes, you can go inside. Built in the late 19th century, the cathedral stands on the site of the first church built in Monaco, dating back to 1252. It’s here that most of the royal family is buried and the great altar and marble throne inside give this sanctuary a truly regal atmosphere. The cathedral is at the opposite end of old Monaco from the palace, but since everything is so close together up here, you can walk the distance in just a few minutes.
Monaco has always had a special connection to the sea thanks to its location on the Mediterranean. And to show the country’s commitment to preserving the ocean habitat, they’ve created a very special place. Here you can sing “We all live in a yellow submarine.” It really exists at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. It’s located at the opposite end of old Monaco from the palace, inaugurated in 1910 by Prince Albert I, the “scientist prince” ! You have to see the aquarium! The museum’s director for 30 years was none other than Jacques Cousteau and it houses an incredible collection of sea life. Definitely a must see!
Something you’ll also want to see are the souvenirs! What a great place to shop. You know, you see these t-shirts that say my mom went to so-and-so and just brought me this lousy t-shirt. Well, here you want to bring home t-shirts. I always stock up. They have the cutest kid’s clothes. I love these little things. The grand prix, everything grand prix up here. I’ve found my best baseball caps here, too. They have fantastic ones. You know, everyone takes Euros. They take credit cards, too, inside the store. One thing you will find is, if you’re looking for something and you can’t find it, it’s probably right around the corner, because everybody carries sort of the same things in Monaco.
While shopping and sightseeing are fantastic, one thing is for sure, all this walking around builds up an appetite. You don’t have to sit down in a restaurant. Up in old Monaco they have these sandwich bars and where you can really save some money. Pizza, 3 Euros. A “croquet monsieur,” which is something the kids really like, is grilled ham and cheese. Quiche, 3 Euros. Oh! The sandwiches here in Monaco – the bread is to die for. And, you know, the best part about getting a sandwich? You can you can keep on shopping. But oh my aching feet!
Taxi! Oh, somebody snagged him. You know, taxis can be few and far between in the height of the tourist season, so you’ve got to allow about 15 minutes if you’re going to call for one. Good news is, they’re a flat rate no matter where you go in Monaco. Whether it’s two blocks away or border to border.
Old Monaco is the oldest and most historic, but not necessarily the most famous destination in Monaco. That would be Monte Carlo, named to honor prince Charles III in 1866. When Monaco needed to increase revenue, it was he who came up with the bright idea to start a gaming house, and the famous Monte Carlo Casino was born.
Now, please remember when you come here, they don’t allow cameras in the casino. But you’ll have the memories of a once in a life time experience. Fresco lined walls and crystal chandeliers are your first clue that extravagant doesn’t even begin to describe this casino’s decor. But most are here to play with Lady Luck, and, she can be a very tricky lady. This is the big time, the high rollers are in residence throughout the year. And, you need to know proper etiquette at the tables. When you win, you tip and the tradition stands at 10 Euros and that goes up in scale with the more you win. Now if you lose, they don’t tip you back at all. Darn!
Well, you don’t have to gamble to come to the casino. There’s a cabaret show. There’re bars and restaurants. In fact, my favorite restaurant is called the Blue Train. It looks exactly like an antique train car. And antiques galore, like slot machines from the 40’s. You’ll see displays all over. It’s fantastic. Oh, and unlike casinos in Vegas, you have to dress the part at the Monte Carlo casino: coat & tie for men and cocktail or formal dress for women.
Just outside the front door of the Monte Carlo Casino, is one of the most famous hotels in the word, the Hotel de Paris. Built in 1864 to house the casino guests in extravagant luxury, this is where the rich and famous continue to congregate in style. Don’t forget to look up! It looks like a palace, but it’s the lobby, the meeting place here in Monte Carlo. In fact, before a big event in Monaco, the bar is the place to be! My favorite is the statue of Louis XVI on the horse. You’ll note that the horse’s knee is rubbed clean. Legend says if you rub the horse’s knee before you go to the casino, it will bring you good luck!”
One thing that stands out is how clean and manicured everything is in Monaco. There are gardens and flowers everywhere! The gardens in Monte Carlo are spectacular. They’re absolutely perfect. Not one flower is out of place. It’s the strangest thing. You never see a gardener. You never see anybody working on these bushes and flowers. You know what? I bet they have little Monte Carlo fairies that come out at night that trim the bushes and pick all the dead flowers. These guys are good.
But that’s not all that’s good, so is the shopping! Who said this trip isn’t educational? From a corner in Casino Square you can learn French. All right, are you ready? Lavin, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Cartier, Louis Vuitton. Even though these are the high-end boutiques, you can still find a bargain if you know what to look for. This is the most important word you’ll need to know, s-o-l-d-e. Don’t worry about how to pronounce it. Just know what it means, “sale.”
While shopping and sightseeing are fantastic in Monte Carlo, all this walking builds up an appetite. So it’s a good thing that the famous Café de Paris is right across Casino Square from the Hotel de Paris, and next door to the Monte Carlo Casino. And a table here puts you right in the heart of the action! Outside’s where the show is and, smile, you’re on the stage. The people at the tables are the audience. The tables on the outside are the front row, they’re the best seats and what are the patrons watching? Anybody who walks by, including you!
The Café de Paris is one of the oldest restaurants in Monte Carlo and famous for the creation of a culinary classic. This is where the crepe suzette was invented, totally by accident. Apparently, the chef was preparing plain crepes for Prince Edward of England and a special lady friend, when he accidentally caught the Cointreau or flavoring alcohol on fire. Well, rather than admit it was a mistake, he presented the flaming dish and said, ‘ I am naming this a special dish in honor of your friend, Suzette. Voila! The crepe suzette. Just another little story in the fairy tale principality of Monaco!
There are a lot of great places to eat in Monaco, and you won’t be disappointed, thanks to these fantastic French cafes. You can practice your French. Chateau de Briand, omelet, escargot, and chocolate mousse. So, even if the menu’s are not in English, you won’t starve. Bon appetite.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling, after a couple of weeks, no matter how good the food is, I am craving a good old American cheeseburger. Well, here in Monaco, the place to go not only for cheeseburgers, but for barbeque and apple-pie, is Stars’n’Bars. Just a little bit of west Texas in west Monte Carlo, and a sports bar to boot! The story is that having an American joint like this was the first time that it had ever been thought of and the people were ready for it. They were tired of the tuxedos and the gold bars. They wanted to find something that was fun and different and where they could be kids. And so Stars’n’Bars was born.
With three stories of American-style fun, this bar has everything from an outdoor bar, to a mechanical bull, to an arcade. And thanks to a steady stream of celebrity guests, a very impressive decor. They may have the best sports collection in the world. Everything from every major sports champions like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, to Pele, Monica Seles, Pete Samprass. They even have Prince Alberts’ first competition bobsled. There are three cars hanging from the ceiling. And while Stars ‘n’ bars is a great place for adults to unwind, it’s also fun for the kids.
The kids in Monaco insist on coming to Stars ‘n’ Bars on the weekend, for breakfast. It’s the only place that you can go where you actually have a room for them where there’s somebody who takes care of them, plays games with them and makes them feel special. They celebrate all the holidays: Halloween, Christmas, the Easter Bunny stops by every year. It is definitely a kid center, and, as a result, the parents come, the grandparents come—giving a very young ambiance to the place.
There’s always a fun party atmosphere at the Stars ‘n’ Bars, but during one special summer holiday, this is the place to be. There’s no other place to celebrate the 4th of July in Monaco except at Stars ‘n’ Bars, and virtually everybody comes here, including Princess Stephanie of Monaco, to celebrate our independence day. Though there’s plenty to do during the day, when the sun goes down, that’s when Monte Carlo really gets hot! Evenings here are one big party and when the restaurants empty, the casinos fill up. And, even if you’re finished testing your luck with the high rollers, the party continues. Whether you’re taking in a dance review, or shaking your booty with the rich and famous, Monte Carlo comes alive at night!
Being right on the Mediterranean sea has given Monaco something else that’s special. It has one of the most spectacular harbors in the world. When you think of glamorous destinations, you think of the jet set, but here in Monte Carlo they’re far overshadowed by the yachting crowd. You got your small boats, your medium boats, your big boats and then there’s the mega-yacht.
In fact, yachting is such a big deal in Monaco that it is home to the prestigious Monaco Yacht Show. Each September, hundreds of boats of all sizes from all over the world fill Port Hercules so that they can be proudly displayed.
But you don’t have to be mega-wealthy to experience a mega-yacht. If you get together with your friends, normally you can get a maximum of 12 people in six state rooms on a yacht. It’s expensive but it’s affordable if the cost is shared out by the 12 people. And, it makes for one fantastic holiday. And an incredible way to see the Mediterranean!
You basically start with Monaco. It’s where it all begins. Then you go to Portofino. This is exactly the opposite of Monaco. This, originally, was a quiet little fishing village. But, it’s not that quiet anymore. There aren’t many fishermen around these days. You leave and sail on to Canne, back to the high life with casinos and luxurious surroundings, and where the Cannes Film Festival is held each year. Following Cannes, you move to St. Tropez, very highly rated for its night life and for its beautiful village. Great beaches as well. Bridget Bardot made the town famous. I have to admit, while the resorts in Monte Carlo are luxurious, traveling on a personal yacht is vacationing in style.
You can go wherever you want. It gives you a lot of privacy. You don’t have to go into port if you don’t want to. You can stay at anchor and you move freely on board, nobody’s going to bother you. You also become a part of a certain jet set and you can get to the places from the sea-side and be a star. That’s what all that is about, hob-knobbing with the elite.
Monaco is an incredible place to visit, with a fairy tale history and fantastic follow through! With its combination of royalty, posh hotels, extravagant casinos, and world class dining, it’s easy to see why Monte Carlo is the playground for the rich and famous and one of the hottest destinations in all of Europe.
Monaco has the distinction of being the safest and most secure destination in the world. That means you can walk around at night with all your jewelry on and even bring the kids. It’s fantastic and a place you have to visit at least once in a lifetime.