Getting caught up in the glitz and glamour of the world’s most affluent country is easy. Multi-billion dollar superyachts moor in the main harbour, private jet brokers have store frontage every few hundred metres, and Prada has not one but two stand-alone stores within the 499 acres the country covers. Wealth and status are overt, and it’s part of the reason people flock to Monaco.
But, behind all the caviar and champagne, a real side to Monaco serves as a quaint home country to some 36,000 Monégasques. Here’s how to discover it — and indulge in just a bit of the pomp — in just one short weekend.
It’ll only take a few minutes on Monégasque soil to find your first pain au chocolat, the flaky, cocoa-filled pastries an apt introduction to Monaco’s mixed culinary scene. Pick up a takeaway coffee from the boulangerie, too, and you’ll be suitably fuelled for the day ahead. Prefer a more leisurely breakfast? Take a seat in the sun on the Café de Paris terrace and enjoy a cappuccino and basket of croissants. Their buttery layers taste infinitely better when paired with a view of the legendary Hôtel de Paris across Place du Casino.
Formula 1 fan or not, walking the 3.3km Circuit de Monaco is a great way to get the lay of the land in the world’s second-smallest country. It takes just 45 minutes to walk from one end of Monaco to the other and around the same time to stroll along the track leisurely. Starting at the grid down by the Monaco Automobile Club, wander around the loop in perfect order, stopping to take photos at Place du Casino, the famed Grand Hotel hairpin (turn 6), and the tunnel along the way.
A mere few metres from the finish line is La Collection Automobiles de S.A.S. le Prince de Monaco — Prince Rainier III’s private collection of vehicles. Once housed in a soulless cavernous space, the prince’s son, Prince Albert, moved the cars to sit in a purpose-built, state-of-the-art building by the harbour. There are some 70-odd cars in the collection, from a baby blue, wicker-seated Fiat Jolly to a loaned Ferrari F1 car driven by born-and-bred Monégasque racer Charles LeClerc. There’s even a little slice of Australia in there — a racing helmet signed by Monaco race winner and Formula 1 favourite Daniel Ricciardo.
Put your feet up for an hour or so over lunch at Bella Vita Brasserie. It’s a local haunt made for the general population, with far less pretension than anything around Place du Casino and far less of a price tag, too. The menu broaches the cuisines of the two countries Monaco is sandwiched between, with a combination of typical French brasserie fare (think boeuf tartare and salade niçiose) and extensive pizza and pasta options. Do as the locals do and enjoy your selection with a bottle of dry, Provençal rosè.
Meander your way back up to Place du Casino, where Louis Vuitton bags are draped liberally on shoulders and Lamborghinis parade slowly by. It’s a spectacle in itself, watching the crowds jostling for a photo by the lineup of supercars out front of Hôtel de Paris and Casino de Monte-Carlo. Even if you’re not a gambler, head inside the latter to see what is, arguably, the world’s most beautiful gaming floor. It’ll cost you €18.00 to access the blackjack and roulette tables and the opulent Belle Époque interiors of their respective rooms. Those who aren’t playing can opt to take a guided tour of the casino instead or simply enjoy the lobby’s grandeur.
Pre-dinner, sip on a fresh mandarin, pear, and cardamom cocktail in the sultry 1920s Le Bar Américain. It harks back to the Gatsby era — burnished leather, soft lighting, cigar lounge and all. Shelter from the afternoon breeze and cosy up inside, or, should the weather be fine, take a seat on the alfresco outside.
Light, bright, and perched high above the harbour, La Môme Monte Carlo is a beautiful addition to the dining scene along Avenue John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Seats on the alfresco are snapped up early, so book well in advance to ensure a seat that affords you the best views of the superyachts below. It’d be remiss to order anything but seafood from the seafood-dominant menu. Still, if you must, the truffle-topped, char-grilled Black Angus tagliata is a more than suitable alternative.
Keep the day alive with one last stop before bed, the exotic Buddha-Bar. Modelled after the Garnier Opera House in Paris, the interior combines gilded mouldings, ancient sculptures, and colonial Asian style. Stay and dance the day away, retiring only when the doors close at 2:00 am.
Start the day in a leisurely fashion, strolling the local market stalls and selecting some fruit for your morning meal. Supplement it with a coffee from a local cafe and a pastry or two if you please.
Despite being surrounded by the ocean, there are few places to submerge yourself in Monaco. A 15-minute walk to the city’s northeast, you’ll find Plage Du Larvotto, a picturesque pebbly beach lined with buzzing eateries and kaftan-selling boutiques. Enjoy the water for a few hours before taking up a spot at one of the beachfront restaurants, all salty-skinned and sun-kissed.
You’ll see Giacomo Monte Carlo well before you’re at the front door, the colourful and eclectic interiors acting like a shining beacon to this Capri-esque restaurant just steps from the shoreline. Lunch is a true Italian affair, with antipasti, primi piatti, and secondi from a menu that changes monthly according to season and the produce brought in. If it’s in season, follow your prosciutto di parma and burrata with la fameuse pâte à la truffe (truffle pasta), and wash it all down with yet another lunchtime bottle of Provençal rosè.
Souvenir shopping happens a little differently in Monaco, with much of it emblazoned in Gucci and Louis Vuitton logos. To add such a souvenir to your collection, spend a few hours perusing the Monte-Carlo Shopping Promenade — a cluster of 40 high-end boutiques near the Place du Casino.
Though Monaco is highly walkable, you’ll want to take the bus (line 1 or 2) to the viewpoint near Palais Princier De Monaco. As it climbs the hill flanking the harbour, you’ll be afforded some of the best views of the main harbour and the best views to come from a public bus ride anywhere in the world. Disembark at the top and wander towards Vue Panoramique sur Monaco on Rue des Remparts, where you can capture framable photos of the city.
Perched high above Monaco is the Palais Princier De Monaco, a Genoese fortress museum and the official residence of the Sovereign Prince of Monaco, Prince Albert II. He opened up a palace wing to the public after discovering and painstakingly restoring the art-covered frescoes, some of which date back to the Italian Renaissance. The restoration efforts began in 2015, with new discoveries happening daily.
The entry fee includes an audio tour to be completed at your own pace. Wander the ornate hallways and rooms slowly, taking in every detail of the Grimaldi empire.
Go out in style with one final fine dining feast at the incomparable Le Louis XV – Alain Ducasse. It’s the epitome of Monégasque grandeur, housed in the Belle Époque Hotel de Paris and holding no less than three Michelin stars. Dinner service takes a few hours, course after course delivered to your table, paired with sommelier-picked wines should you so wish. Such a privilege comes with a substantial price tag, so come prepared to spend upwards of €200.00 per person.
Monaco’s closest airport is the Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport. From there, it’s a short drive and an even shorter train ride to Monte Carlo. The latter option makes Monaco a convenient stop-in on any holiday to the South of France. If you’re coming from Italy, catch a train on the Italian Trenitalia train service, connecting to Monaco from Ventimiglia.
Lead image: Piotr Herman
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