Monaco is the second-smallest microstate in Europe, but is still the most densely-populated country in the world- is it possible to visit for just one day and see it all? Of course not. But you can see the highlights, even if you’re on a budget. Here’s how.
Where to Stay
Unfortunately, Monaco does not have very many budget hotels. The Hotel Forum, literally on the border of France and Monaco, has one of the best prices I could find. There are tons of options in the city of Nice- an easy train or bus ride to Monaco gets you there in 35 minutes. I chose the charming Marcellin Hotel in Beau-lieu Sur Mer, halfway between Nice and Monaco, and wished I had more time to explore the seaside town.
Getting There and Around
Most people arrive to Monaco by bus or train from France or Italy. Once in the principality of Monaco, you can ride any bus (including the harbor “bateau bus”) for €2, or get an all-day pass for 5€- a great value. There are five bus lines inside Monaco going to its neighborhoods: Monaco-Ville, Fontvieille, Monte Carlo, and Condamine.
Of course you can also just walk around all day, enjoying the pathways that loop through gardens, old forts, historic staircases, and even along the Formula 1 track. Because Monaco is a rather vertical city, be sure to take advantage of the many elevators and escalators that are free and open to the public.
If you really feel stylish, for about €100 per person, you can arrive by helicopter from Nice airport (this price increases dramatically during Formula 1 and the Cannes Film Festival). From the heliport, a town car will take you to your hotel.
A good place to start is the Place d’Armes in Condamine. This is where the SNCF train stops, or if arriving by bus from Nice or one of its quaint suburbs, you can take bus 100 and disembark at this stop. There is a morning market here every day, so grab some fruit and a coffee and get ready to walk.
Across the street from the Place d’Armes is a staircase of long, flat steps- the Ramp Majeure– which will take you up to the Palace Square, the heart of Monaco-Ville. Here you can watch the changing of the guards at 11:55 am every day, and you can visit a few rooms in the Palace if you want (€8). From one side of the Palace Square you can look down upon Port Hercule, usually with a cruise ship in dock and mooring space for up to 500 yachts, as well as the stands from the Formula 1 Grand Prix visible. From the other side of the Square you can overlook Fontvieille Harbor, which can hold 60 vessels that are up to 30 m in length.
Atop “le rocher”, or The Rock, are both the Palais Princier and the Old Town. It’s nice to wander through these cobblestone streets, although the shops are mostly cafes and souvenir stands now. The beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate, built in 1875, houses the remains of the princes of Monaco and Princess Grace. Winding through the compact Old Town, at the opposite end of The Rock are the government buildings (Monaco has a Minister of State, rather than a Prime Minister), and the Oceanographic Museum, where you can watch sharks being fed, see models of ships, and view over 4000 species of fish (14€).
To leave Monaco-Ville, you can take a bus down to the harbor area, or walk down through the Jardins St Martin. You’ll end up at Fort Antoine, and then you’ll be at sea level. From here you can walk the track of the Grand Prix (or take a bus) and then visit the Brasserie de Monaco for a refreshing Bavarian beer (check out their half-price Happy Hour specials). Directly behind the Brasserie is a supermarket, if you need to pick up any supplies.
Of course a visit to Monaco would not be complete without seeing the casinos and the fancy cars. Take the Bateau Boat across the harbor (€2), and then ascend the escalators up towards the Princess Grace Theater. You’re now in Monte Carlo, home of some of the most famous hotels and casinos (and shopping) in the world, as well as the Opera House and the Rainier Auditorium. Be sure to bring your passport (locals aren’t allowed to gamble) and in most cases, expect to follow a list of prohibited items such as shirts, sneakers, cameras, etc depending on the time of day and the establishment. But many of the hotels will let you in the lobby to gaze at the sumptuous interiors, and of course you’ll inevitably see the fanciest of cars parked out front.
If you’re an art lover, there’s the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco just below the Monte Carlo casino, which is free every other Sunday, otherwise 6€. The Grimaldi Forum has rotating exhibits, currently one on Salvador Dalí (6€, now through September). The Marlborough Fine Arts Gallery (4 Quai Antonie) also houses some major works by Picasso, Matisse, Chihuly, and more, and is free.
All that should take most of the day! If you have a bit more time, consider taking one of Monaco’s buses to one or more of the following:
The Prince’s Car Collection, which is not actually a museum- it’s literally a private collection of over 100 cars. 6€ for entry, and it is located in the commercial center atop The Carrefour supermarket (also a good place to grab a sandwich and a drink).
The Jardin Exotique (€8) houses thousands of rare plants and has amazing views. It’s a bit far, so take bus number 2.
Visit the beach at Larvotto. There are both public and private sections. The beach can be a bit gravelly in some places and in early June is still quite cold!
Walk the Parcours de Princess Grace. You’ll probably have already encountered bits of this walking path along your day, featuring 25 photographs and descriptions of some of Princess Grace’s activities and her life.
Whether you have a free day in your France or Italy vacation, or a day in port on your cruise, it is possible to see the best of Monaco, so don’t skip it! Do you have a favorite sight in Monaco? If so, tell me in the comments so that I can visit on my next trip!