Monaco may be the world’s second tiniest country (the Vatican is the smallest), but that doesn’t stop it from being a great place to visit. It’s a principality that has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since the 13th century. Monaco is famous for its gambling, car races and fairy tale romances, such as when the beauty (American actress Grace Kelly) marries the handsome prince (Prince Rainier). Monaco is glitzy and glamorous, and offers travelers a chance to mingle with the rich and famous, if only to ooh and ah over the awesome yachts in the harbor.
Travelers who fear they can’t afford this lifestyle can see the attractions in Monaco on day trips from more budget friendly locations, such as Nice and Menton in France, and San Remo in Italy.
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The Port de Fontvieille truly is a playground for the rich and famous, since only they can afford thousands of dollars a day to berth their boats and yachts in the harbor. The marina has space for 275 vessels of varying sizes, and offers all the amenities the sailors want. Fifty years ago the Port de Fontvieille was just a patch of sand sheltered by rocks. The marina borders the heart of the village of Fontvieille, with streets and buildings at water’s edge. See amazing views of this very scenic marina from the Rock of Monaco.
Every Catholic country has its national cathedral; in Monaco, this is St. Nicholas Cathedral, named for Monaco’s first Catholic church that was built in the 13th century and demolished in the 19th century. The church today is known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. It is the burial place for the Grimaldis, including Grace Kelly and Rainier III. Visitors describe this Romanesque church with its facade of white marble as being quite beautiful and peaceful.
Lovers of all things marine may enjoy a visit to the Oceanographic Museum, which is devoted to marine science. This Baroque Revival building overlooks the Mediterranean. Founded in 1910, famed ocean scientist Jacques-Yves Cousteau served as its director for three decades. It is home to collections of sea life, such as sharks, turtles and shellfish, as well as model ships and sea animal skeletons. An aquarium in the basement is home to 4,000 species of fish. The aquarium features Mediterranean and tropical water ecosystems.
Larvotto Beach is Monaco’s most popular – and only – beach, even though the beach is more pebbly than sandy; beachcombers may want to wear sturdy shoes while walking along the Mediterranean Sea. While some visitors recommend the beach for families because the sea is quieter, parents should know it is popular with topless sunbathers. Some sections of Monaco’s public beach are free to visitors, while others charge admission. The beach is just a few minutes’ walk from Monte Carlo. Avenue Princess Grace runs alongside the beach.
The Jardin Exotique is a must-see for travelers with green thumbs. This botanical garden, built on the side of a cliff, boasts more than 1,000 succulents, most of which are cacti. Some of the plants are more than 100 years old. An underground cave is located at the foot of the cliff; guided tours can be arranged. The garden is also home to the Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology since remains of prehistoric man were found on the site. The garden is a great place to take panoramic photos of Monaco since it overlooks the harbor.
Travelers with a passion for fast cars won’t want to miss the Monaco Grand Prix, which is considered one of the most prestigious car races in the world. Because Monaco’s streets are narrow and have sharp corners, the track is considered one of the most demanding in Formula One racing, with racers having to go slower than the 190 mph mandated under Formula One rules. This Grand Prix has been affiliated with Formula One since 1955, though the first Grand Prix took place in 1929. The race, which takes place in May, follows the same route every year.
Monte Carlo Harbor is another place where the rich and famous dock their expensive yachts. Located in La Condamine, Monaco’s second oldest neighborhood, visitors will find the royal vessel belonging to the Prince of Monaco; it is docked at Port Hercules, among the yachts and ships. The port here can accommodate up to 500 vessels in a very scenic setting. Travelers may want to relax at a waterfront café where they can enjoy the beautiful luxurious yachts and scenery in a glamorous setting.
Monaco-Ville, also known as Le Rocher or The Rock, offers visitors a chance to stroll through the country’s oldest neighborhood. This old town, which is built on rocky land that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea, may date back to the 6th century BC when the ancient Greek established a colony here. In the 13th century, Monaco’s founders, the Grimaldis, made an ancient fortress their headquarters. Monaco-Ville is made up almost entirely of pedestrian streets and passageways and retains its medieval character. There are a number of hotels, restaurant and souvenir shops, as well as several of the city’s famous landmarks, including the Prince’s Palace, the Oceanographic Museum and St. Martin’s Gardens.
Monte Carlo Casino was established in the 19th century to save the Grimaldi family from bankruptcy. At that time, Monaco was poor with little infrastructure to support tourism. The plan worked. The Monte Carlo Casino today lures gamblers to Monaco, with games of chance, including roulette, Baccarat, craps and slot machines; even James Bond tried his luck here. The casino has a dress code and charges admission; foreign visitors need to show passports or other ID as Monaco residents are not allowed inside.
The Prince’s Palace of Monaco is the official home of the country’s rulers, the Grimaldi family, which is currently headed by Prince Albert II, the son of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier. The fairy tale palace began as a fortress in the 12th century, but over the centuries fell into a shambles; Prince Rainier is credited with restoring the palace to its former grandeur. The palace is open to the public annually from June to October. Once inside they‘ll find a courtyard made from 3 million pebbles that form a geometric pattern, and historic Genovese frescoes. Everyday at 11:55 AM, in front of the Palace’s main entrance visitors can watch the changing of the guard ceremony performed by the “Carabiniers”.