Monaco is the second smallest country in the world (the total area is not even 1 square mile), preceded by the Vatican. However, with almost 40,000 inhabitants, it is the most densely populated country in the world. This tiny coastal nation on the French Riviera brings into mind glamour, luxury, royalty, and money – the latter of which is apropos because you do need money to spend a day here as everything is expensive. But who doesn’t want to feel like a millionaire even for one day, so why not?
The history of Monaco is directly linked with the Grimaldi family, whose ascent began one night in 1297, when François Grimaldi seized the fortress of Monaco from a rival Italian faction. Disguised as a monk, he successfully led a small army into the fortress and reclaimed it in the name of the Pope. The legacy of his daring victory is recorded on Monaco’s coat of arms, which bears two monks brandishing swords.
The Grimaldi family coat of arms
In 1604, Lord Honore II came to the throne and launched Monaco into its “Great Century”. Egotistically looking at his accomplishments, he decided himself worthy of a new title, Prince Honore II, and the Grimaldi family rulers have proudly held the title of Prince ever since.
The French Revolution took a heavy toll on European royalty, including the Grimaldis, and Monaco was annexed by France, with members of the Monegasque royal family being imprisoned. The annexation was cut short with the abdication of Napoleon in 1814, however, and all rights of the Grimaldis were restored.
In 1861, Monaco relinquished one half of its territory to France in exchange for cash and independence. On the throne at that time was Prince Charles III. He realized that most of Monaco’s natural resources had been lost with the land and something had to be done to reestablish an economic base in the Principality. He decided that the answer was tourism and gambling. In 1863, he established the Societe des Bains de Mer. The company consisted of a handful of hotels, a theater, and a casino, which would soon flourish and become the foundation of the magnificent district of Monte-Carlo.
In 1949, Prince Rainier III ascended to the throne and later caught the world’s attention with his storybook marriage to actress Grace Kelly. Today, Monaco still stands as a proud monarchy with their son, H.S.H. Prince Albert II as its head of state. In 1997, the Grimaldi family celebrated the 700th anniversary of its reign in Monaco. On December 10th, 2014, Charlene (the Princess from South Africa) and Albert became the proud parents of twin babies: a girl called Gabriella and a boy called Jacques. On January 7th, 2015, the babies have been officially presented to the people of Monaco (from the castle’s balcony) - it was a national holiday.
What to see and do during your day in monaco
If Monaco is on your bucket list, a day trip to the principality is a nice way to check that item off. Here are some musts, organized by the different areas of Monaco.
Monaco's districts, source Wikipedia
Le Rocher (the Rock) old town
The Prince’s Palace
This is the home to the royal family, and you can take in the changing of the guard each day at 11:55am. From here, there are nice views of the coast, and pretty buildings surround the square.
The changing of the guard at the Prince's Palace, ©Pixabay
Saint Martin Gardens
Opened in 1816, this is the first public garden in Monaco. It is nice to take a stroll and appreciate amazing views out across the Mediterranean. There are some steep steps and slopes, so take your time and there are numerous spots to rest along the paths and take in some of the biggest yachts in the world.
Saint Martin Gardens, ©Mister No - Wikimedia
The Oceanographic Museum
The building is perched on a cliff overlooking the sea and houses various exhibitions as well as an aquarium. Jacques Cousteau was the director from 1957 to 1988. In addition to the wide array of marine flora and fauna, the museum has a collection of sea-related objects such as tools and weapons, model ships, pearls, and even the laboratory from the Hirondelle, Prince Albert I’s research yacht.
Monte Carlo: The Monte Carlo Casino
Build in 1863 by Charles Garnier (of the Paris Opera house fame), you can enter the casino’s gaming rooms via the lavish marble atrium with its 28 onyx columns. You can visit the casino even if you do not plan to gamble. Or you can install yourself on the terrasse of the Café de Paris across the street to take in the luxury cars that pass by – very chic (and very expensive).
The Monte Carlo Casino, ©Pikist
Princess Grace Rose Garden
The rose garden is located within Fontvieille Park, but is a separate garden. Around 4,000 rose bushes parfum the air and provide a moment of calm and quietude. The garden was cultivated two years after her death by her husband, as Grace’s favorite flower was the rose.
"What is so special about a rose that it seems far more than a flower? Perhaps it is the mystery it has gathered through the ages. Perhaps it is the joy that it continues to give." - Princess Grace
The Cars Collection of HSH the Prince of Monaco
This collection consists of about 100 cars of all ages, some racing cars from the Grand Prix of Monaco, as well as 6 coaches that belongs to Prince Rainier.
The daily market on the Place d’Armes
...and the surrounding streets, are a great place to get a better feel for everyday life in Monaco. It is a favorite location for the locals, and you can people watch while having a drink under the arcades around the square.
This deep-water port welcomes huge yachts and cruise ships. This is a nice stroll on a sunny day, and maybe see a star or two.
Sainte Dévote Chapel
Sainte Dévote is the patron saint of Monaco, and the chapel, which may date back as far as 1070, is located in the Valley of the Gaumates, a short walk from the Condamine neighborhood.
Sainte Dévote Chapel, ©Pikist
In the hills: The Exotic Garden
Overlooking Monaco, this garden is dedicated to cactii and succulent plants. It is a nice and relaxing walk on a warm day, but if you are pressed for time, we think the gardens in Eze are more worthy of a visit.
By the sea: Larvotto Beach
If you really need some beach time (better beaches are elsewhere in the Riviera - see our best French beaches recommendations), the Larvotto beach has both public and private parts for relaxing. The beach is man-made, and the sand is fine gravel that has been imported.
Monaco does make for a nice day trip from France while visitng the Riviera. We do not, however, recommend staying there as the prices are high and it is not centrally located for enjoying the other parts of the region. While it is exciting to be James Bond for a day in Monaco, to really get a feel for the Riviera, we think it is better to be Renoir or Matisse for the other days.
- Laura Crotet, France Just For You
If your dream is to visit Monaco and the French Riviera, discover some of our Riviera sample itineraries for inspiration.