It’s not everyday that we are made to feel like rock stars, that we can walk along a stately boulevard with the world’s most famous and well-heeled elite. But then again, Monaco isn’t an everyday kind of place, it’s something special and most certainly unique. Last year I had the unique opportunity to visit many spots along the French Riviera two different times while sailing on cruises. The specific itineraries were a little different, but each ship stopped in a destination I was excited to experience, Monaco. While the specific experiences on each trip were fairly similar, my own time spent in this microstate was just as enjoyable as I had hoped. There are many reasons to visit this, one of the world’s smallest countries, including these personal favorites.
Monaco-Ville is the oldest part of the city, sitting high up on the premonitory simply called The Rock. It’s here were countless generations of people have lived and worked, from the Ancient Greeks through to the modern era. This is also where you’ll find the official royal residence, the Prince’s Palace, as well as sweeping views of Monte Carlo and that famous harbor. Getting to The Rock though is part of the fun, ambling past lush gardens awash in sunlight and jasmine, past the massive buildings that reveal the wealth of the country. The Oceanographic Museum, Saint Nicholas Cathedral, even simple houses aren’t so simple in Monaco, all designed with grace and style. Walking in the footsteps of Princess Grace, it’s easy to imagine yourself a member of those lucky 38,000 who are official residents of the city. Narrow streets lead to The Rock and while they may be packed with restaurants and tourist shops, they also have their own secrets and charms to share. I found myself alone in these small alleyways more than once, amazed at the natural urban splendor of the city itself. Few places can radiate this kind of beauty, which seems second nature throughout the microstate.
My only real impression of Monaco before visiting was what I’d seen in movies and read in books. So, essentially, it was a James Bond image with everyone in white tuxes and betting millions of dollars at the casino. And you know what, I wasn’t too far off. Monaco is simultaneously one of the most fascinating and most frenetic places I’ve ever been, but part of that may have been due to the weekend I was there. The city was already setting up for its famous Grand Prix and a massive auto show had taken up residence in the heart of Monte Carlo. That meant thousands of people were there to see the fancy and impossibly expensive cars as they drove along the city’s famous driving circuit. The Monaco Grand Prix was first run in 1929 and today is considered to be one of the most important and prestigious automobile races in the world. It’s held on a narrow course laid out in the streets of Monaco and includes impossibly tight turns, elevation changes and a tunnel. While I wasn’t there for the race itself, this prelude was a great opportunity to experience what that thrill of race day must feel like.
Monte Carlo is a wildly exciting place, in large part due to the fact that it’s home to the country’s most famous landmarks, from the city streets that form the track of its grand prix to the stately and undeniably elegant casino itself. While I didn’t have any interest in gambling, I was curious about the historic casino in Monte Carlo, and who wouldn’t be? The massive 19th century building looks like it should be a museum or grand palace, but since the 1800s this has been at the heart of the Monte Carlo gambling experience. A draw since the first day it opened, the line still snakes around the corner to catch a glimpse, especially true when dozens of expensive cars are lined up in front. The feeling though couldn’t have been more different than in the older part of the microstate. It was busy but lively, crowded but not claustrophobic. But it was clear to me immediately this is where most of the tourists visit, and with good reason. It’s a beautiful part of the country with stunning views of the sea and the streets that lead down to it.
Monaco is a special place, but not for only for the reasons one might think. Sure, the glamour of the country is undeniable and yes, it is fun to walk along those famous turns of the car race and to amble by the casino pretending to be James Bond. But it’s more than that, it’s a naturally gorgeous country with many special moments to offer, from a quiet lunch I enjoyed in the old part of Monaco to simply admiring it at night from the water, lit up like a thousand fireflies in the evening. Sailing there was a perfect way to experience Monaco, giving me more than enough time to get a better appreciation for the region and to enjoy those languid escapes for which the French Riviera has been so very well known for so very long.