When you think of Monaco, you probably think of flashy sports cars, designer labels and millionaires, however, you may be surprised to discover that the small principality has lots on offer that won’t break the bank balance. We have visited the principality of Monaco on many occasions and have some firm family favourites.
How about car spotting at the casino, a visit to the oceanographic museum or the Prince’s classic car collection, watching the changing of the guards at the Royal Palace, shopping at the local market, swimming at the (almost) Olympic-sized outdoor pool or a trip to the family friendly public beach, Le Larvotto? Here’s our round-up of top Monaco attractions.
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Prince’s Palace of Monaco
No visit to Monaco is complete without visiting the Royal Palace. The impressive residence built in 1191 is perched high on a cliff above the Port and the azure colours of the Mediterranean sea. Originally constructed as a fortress, it has been modified over the years to become the luxurious ‘palais’ you see today.
It has been the home of the Grimaldi family since the 13th Century but underwent a period restoration and improvement during the time of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly. It is now the official residence of Prince Albert II and is both a fully working Palace and business headquarters.
In the summer time, the sumptuous state apartments are open to the public. The design of these ceremonial rooms has been influenced by the Palace of Versailles and feature a mirror gallery, Murano glass chandeliers, lashings of gold and Carrara marble floors. The furniture is as you might expect – ornate and French. Top highlights for me were the panoramic view from the top over Monaco and the coastline beyond, plus the entertaining changing of the guard ceremony.
In the summer, the Palace is open from 10am to 6pm and I would allow around 2 hours for your visit. If you intend to visit the oceanographic museum there is a discounted ticket if you choose to see both.
If you are unlucky enough to visit the principality on a rainy day, or just want to get out of the sun for a while, then head to the fabulous Oceanographic Museum just across the way from the Royal Palace.
Adults and kids will love the large indoor aquariums filled with rare and exciting colourful fish. There are some interactive displays for kids, including a working reproduction of a small wooden submarine as well as some hard-hitting information about the environmental damage we do to our oceans.
And if you are feeling the need for refreshment, take the lift to the roof and enjoy the excellent views from the rooftop café. Adjacent to the café is a children’s play area and real life turtles wonder around in their enclosure. On the way back down, you won’t fail to miss the stunning stainless-steel sculpture of a shark.
Casino de Monte Carlo
This world-famous Casino is the principality’s centerpiece, where billions have been won and lost since it opened in 1856. It’s an architectural marvel, which can’t fail to impress you, along with the line-up of exotic sports cars outside.
With all this glamour, it’s not surprising that the casino has featured in many films over the years, perhaps most famously are the connections with James Bond 007. Never Say Never Again, GoldenEye and Casino Royale all have scenes set here. Ocean’s Twelve used the building as filming location and even scenes from the children’s movie Madagascar 3 depict the casino and the streets of Monaco.
So, what is it like to visit? Well it’s as beautiful in the inside as the outside. It’s free to visit the slot machine area near the entrance and no special dress code is required. However, if you wish to enter the spectacular main gaming area, then there is a 17€ (euros) entrance fee and more for the private rooms.
Men are required to wear a suit and smart shoes, but why not wear a tuxedo, then at least when you lose your holiday money, you can drown your sorrows at the chic bar by ordering multiple martinis and feel like 007. Oh, and don’t forget the obligatory photo on the casino steps to impress your friends and family.
Monaco F1 Circuit
Even if you are just a little bit of a Formula 1 fan, then walking around some, or even all, of this world famous 3.5km long Grand Prix street circuit is a must.
My top highlight was passing through the long tunnel near the port and Monaco Yacht club. You may even be lucky enough to hear a local Ferrari roaring through at the same time.
But with this very special racing circuit there is loads more to see. Just after the start at the first corner is the small chapel of Saint Devota, this turn has historically been the scene of many an incident. The track also takes in the outdoor swimming pool, the glamorous port area with the famous La Rascasse restaurant, the dramatic Grand Hotel hairpin and the unforgettable Casino.
Of course, if you are a serious fan, you may prefer to drive the circuit in your Fiat 500 hire car and use a little imagination.
Monaco Top Cars Collection Museum
Head to the Port Hercule and discover the Monaco Top Cars Collection, a selection of rare and interesting cars which were owned by Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
There are around a 70 classic cars to see inside that will interest any budding petrol head. Headline vehicles include the rally prepared Citroen DS3 driven by Sebastien Loeb, a 1929 Bugatti Type 35 and a cute Renault owned and driven by Princess Grace (Grace Kelly). There is also an excellent array enormous 60s and 70s Cadillac’s, as well as some more modern racing and sports cars. However, my favourite is the ultra-cool white Lamborghini Countach with its scissor doors.
If you really want to feel like a local then the sophisticated Larvotto beach is a must, it’s free to visit and there is handy subterranean parking right behind.
The water here is clear, small fish swim freely around you as you swim and there is a net to prevent any unwanted jellyfish from visiting. The beach is made from tiny fragments of shells, so there is no danger of a sandy sandwich nightmare. After a dip in the Mediterranean you can use one of the many beach showers to rinse off all that stingy salt.
To complete the experience, dine at one the trendy beach restaurants, it’s not going to be the cheapest meal you’ve ever had, but the quality of the food is excellent. The restaurants are popular with families at lunch time and there is a more grown up vibe at night.
Monaco Swimming Pool and Port Area
Right in the centre of town next to the ultra-glam Port with its billion-dollar yachts is the superb public swimming pool. There is a reasonable entrance fee and once inside there are clean changing rooms and showers, as perhaps you would expect. The pool is used by locals as much as tourists and there is even a lovely restaurant inside, if want you to make a day of it.
The pool itself is gigantic, but a little short of an actual Olympic sized piscine, due to an error during construction that involved not counting the width of the tiles. At one end of the pool is a diving tower with two different exit levels, the highest is not for the faint hearted.
When we visited there was a relaxed family feel to the place, with a friendly snack bar for drinks and light bites and a small inflatable slide for kids. The comfortable sun beds have an integrated shade for your face and there are parasols dotted around if you plan to lie by the pool.
After a swim its always fun to wonder around the Port Hercule area to admire the massive collection of private yachts, some look more like mini cruise ships complete with helipads. There are also a few well-known local restaurants in this area such as the upmarket La Rascasse and the more budget friendly Stars N Bars. Just behind the swimming pool is a large esplanade which often boasts an excellent fun fair during the school holidays. During the winter holidays the swimming pool is converted into an ice rink.
Parc de la Roseraie (Roseraie Princesse Grace)
If you fancy experiencing a little green gem, amongst what can feel like a concrete jungle, then I recommend visiting the Parc de la Roseraie. It’s free to enter and a short pleasant walk from the Fontvieille shopping mall.
It’s enjoyable for both adults and kids. It’s a large (1500m2) tranquil space with beautiful flowers (including 300 varieties of roses), neatly kept lawns and lovely water features. Some water features have small turtles and birds in them, which our kids and enjoyed watching. There are also some interesting modern sculptures amongst the colourful flowers.
Once you are fed up with all the zen and tranquillity of park life, then head to the Heliport of Monaco, it directly adjoins the Park and is next to the ocean. Here you can experience the impressive sight of the rich and famous taking off and landing just metres away. It’s a favourite activity our son and myself.
The Japanese Gardens
This very impressive Zen garden was designed by the Japanese landscape artist Yasuo Beppu in 1994, it’s centrally located on Avenue Princesse Grace with free entrance.
The garden is an urban oasis which has the power to transport you to another world. Expect to see islands, water features including a waterfall, ponds, bridges and even a traditional tea house with ornate lanterns. Many of the materials were imported from Japan and Mr Beppu visits once a year to ensure the garden remains in top condition.
Our kids loved watching the colourful fish (Koi carp) darting around in the water and exploring the many paths and bridges, as did we.
Mingle with the locals! Perhaps one of the more normal things to do in this haven for the super-rich is to visit the local market at La Condamine and avenue Saint Charles. There is thriving daily market which sells a fine selection of good quality fruit, vegetables and flowers amongst other regional specialities.
Most of the activity is outside, under the shade brightly coloured awnings as market sellers display fresh produce and handmade goods, in the background there is a spectacular mix of buildings and rocky cliffs.
If you venture inside the La Condamine building you will discover a great variety of small restaurants which cook up Italian, Asian, French and Monegasque style menus for reasonable prices. There is relaxed communal seating which makes for a laid-back dinning experience. It’s also possible to just go for a drink at one of the quaint little bars that sell wine, beer and soft drinks.
The market is daily from 6am to 2pm and parking is possible at Parking de la Condamine with a bonus of the first hour being free.
So there you have it! There is a lot more to Monaco than just super cars, luxury boutiques and monster yachts – indeed you may be surprised to find some great attractions that suit the more average bank account balance. What else would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.