Monaco – The French Riviera’s sparkling crown

Monaco – The French Riviera’s sparkling crown

Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco

Just a short day trip from Nice on the French Riviera lies the Principality of Monaco. Although well-known from countless Hollywood films, Monaco has another side which is rarely shown on the big screen.

Casinos and luxury yachts. Princesses and paparazzi. Film stars and Ferraris. These are my expectations as I arrive into Monaco’s grand train station from Nice. One of the world’s smallest but richest countries due to its extremely low income tax rate, this principality on the French Riviera is home to only 10,000 local Monegasque, as the locals are known.

I’m here to discover the genuine face of Monaco, the one hidden behind fast cars, dazzling pearls and high-end boutiques. A Monaco for the everyday traveller who doesn’t arrive into the city via private helicopter or yacht.

Changing of the Guard ceremony in front of the Princes Palace in Monaco

The changing of the Prince’s guard ceremony in the Place du Palais is attended by hundreds of people daily

The Prince’s Palace

We start our day with a walk up one of Monaco’s many hills, but I choose the one with a Prince’s Palace on top. The official residence of Prince Rainier of Monaco, the Palace is small by comparison to Buckingham Palace in London or the palaces of other European royalty. Nevertheless, it’s gleaming façade lights up the Place du Palais.

Around 11:15am, hordes of tourists begin to swarm toward the square hoping to find the best vantage point to witness the changing of the guard at midday. The Prince’s personal guard, who all swear to protect the royal Grimaldi family, are elaborately dressed in ceremonial white uniform.

The ceremony itself begins with the sound of a marching band, which leads the incoming guard from the other side of the square toward the Palace, before the teams pass responsibility from one to another. A truly historical ceremony, the changing of the guard has been conducted in this fashion for years and represents the traditional face of Monaco.

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The Cathedrale de Monaco
Walking down a street in Old Monaco
The Cathedrale de Monaco

The Cathedrale de Monaco in Vieux (Old) Monaco is where Grace Kelly is buried

Cathedrale de Monaco

Just a short walk down the Rue Colonel Bellando de Castro from the Prince’s palace sits one of the most stunning cathedrals in Europe. The Cathedrale de Monaco was originally built around the turn of the 20th century, but is probably most famous as the scene of the fairy-tale wedding of then-Hollywood star, Grace Kelly, to the Prince of Monaco. She is also buried in the cathedral beside her late husband.

Entering the cathedral, it’s as if no expense has been spared. Columns raise the eye to the high vaulted ceilings and passageways with small, minimalist vaults adorning either side. Perhaps the highlight is the organ on the front wall of the church, illuminated by stunning purple lighting.

An old, but architecturally modern building in 'Old' Monaco

Old Monaco’s streets have an undeniable charm to them

Old Monaco

Continuing down the Rue, the Aquarium of Monaco commands amazing views out over the Mediterranean on your right hand side. Now recognised as one the most important maritime collections in the world, the aquarium is an architectural masterpiece and truly brings the underwater world to life.

While small, Monaco’s old town has charming streets and alleyways reminiscent of any larger European capital. We wandered past many beautiful villas and homes, their brightly coloured flowers blooming in mid-June.

Noting Monaco’s reputation as a haven for the rich and famous before I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by the reasonable, if not good value prices, which abounded. For example, our decision to stop for lunch at Restaurant Aurora on Rue Basse was rewarded by a beautiful pasta, bread and a glass of rosé for around 15 euros.

The view from a lookout on the Rue Bellando de Castro over the Mediterranean Sea

The view from a lookout along Rue Colonel Bellando de Castro in Old Monaco

Beautiful and rich cars lined up in front of the Monte Carlo Casino

The Monte Carlo Casino is the most prominent symbol of New Monaco

New Monaco – Casino and Monte Carlo

But Monaco truly does have two faces and one is perhaps more prominent than the other. Monaco has changed considerably since, in a bid to lure foreign investment, the principality cut tax rates. Although the city-state has grown rich off the back of this decision, most of this money can be seen in one place: Monte Carlo.

Today Monte Carlo consists of exclusive hotels, high-end fashion boutiques such as Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, and of course the ever present red Ferrari’s which patrol the streets. But the magnet which draws the wealthy, like moths to a flame, is the famous Monte Carlo Casino.

Featured in many Hollywood films and TV series to imply the height of wealth and luxury, the Casino is quite a grand structure in and of itself. Although it’s free to enter the lobby to take a look and poke around, entrance to the actual Casino requires adherence to a strict dress code and €10 admission fee. This is Monte Carlo after all!

Perhaps the best ‘sport’ enjoyed by all is car and people-watching from the tables of the Café de Paris, right next to the casino. With a direct line of sight to the Casino’s grand entrance and tables within spitting distance of the passing supercars, this is certainly the place to be in ‘New Monaco’.

A red Ferrari sits in front of the Monte Carlo Casino

I was so lucky to find this spot right outside….   🙂

View of the front of the Monte Carlo Casino with beautiful cars lined up

The rich and famous line up their cars outside the casino, while us mere mortals can only watch on in amazement!

There is an undeniable charm to Monaco, a pleasant mixing of the old with the new. This city-state, with its prime location on the French Riviera and spectacular surrounds, has truly made itself a unique place for tourists and billionaires alike to enjoy. While you may not be able to berth your million-dollar yacht in the harbour or park you supercar in Monte Carlo, there is so much more to Monaco and it’s worth your visit to find out. Getting to Monaco is easy from the likes of Nice and other beach towns on the French Riviera, without having to break the bank. The train station is a convenient, short walk to the main attractions and the ride itself provides some pretty scenery along the way.

Have you visited Monaco? Give us your two cents worth by commenting below.

Marseille: Why it’s one of my favourite French cities

Marseille: Why it’s one of my favourite French cities

Marseille view from Notre Dame de la Garde

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this unshakeable desire to visit Marseille in the south of France. Not to do anything or try anything particularly new though. In fact, I’d forgotten why exactly I even THOUGHT to travel to this gritty, rough port city with its accented French and notoriously tough reputation. And then I arrived. And it all came back to me…..

“Quoi?” – my teacher looked at me quizzically. I had tried to say “I want to go there” in my elementary French but probably managed to insult her in some way (not an unusual occurrence during my university days). On the screen was a picture of a beautiful Mediterranean port, with dazzling blue water and ships with tall masts. It was Marseille and it looked spectacular.

Marseille old port

Marseille’s beautiful old port is best experienced at sunset

Why go to Marseille?

France’s second largest city, Marseille is, and always has been, a melting pot of cultures, food and styles. Back in the old days the city belonged to the Greeks, Romans and countless others before becoming synonymous in the late 20th century with immigration from the former French colonies and there is now a large North African population. These days, Marseille is well-known for its musical scene and within France as the home of French hip-hop. And in 2013 the city was designated the European capital of culture.

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Marseille pinterest image
Marseille pinterest image

Kim-Ling and I had travelled from Nice to Marseille, where we met up with my brother and his wife for a couple of days to explore the city together. We’d decided to go for an AirBnB and that choice really paid off! We hired a loft apartment close to Marseille’s old port which overlooked a large square and with a rooftop view of the city. Good start Marseille, good start.

Marseille AirBnB accommodation

Marseille’s Old Port

There is something about ports that I just love, and Marseille’s old port is one of the largest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Our little group decided to meet around the port and took a good stroll, French-style, to both ends looking for food. As we walked along the edge, we were entertained by bands, perused knick-knacks at street stalls and stopped for a beer at one of the restaurants overlooking the water. The vibe is so casual and laidback that we often forgot that there was a city behind us!

Marseille street stalls

Street markets line Marseille’s Old Port

Marseille old port

The view of the Old Port is breathtaking

Notre Dame de la Garde

Eager to explore the city, we caught a bus from just north of the port (no. 60, €3,80), arriving at Marseille’s Notre Dame de la Garde church, which has killer 360 degree views over the entire city. These views come with a wind that could pick up small children, so hold on tight to your hats and belongings! The church in its current form was built in 1864, and is much loved by the locals, who believe that the Virgin protects the city. Battling cyclonic winds and fearing that if I flared my lats a little I might fly away (who am I kidding?), we moved inside to take a look at the interior of the church.

Marseille Notre Dame de la Garde

Notre Dame de la Garde

Marseille church statue

Notre Dame de la Garde

The interior of the church is magnificent. It’s extravagant, grabs your attention and won’t let you go. Make sure you give yourself time to explore the cavernous underground with its many shrines and cool statues, before making your way back up to the main cathedral chamber. Here you will find these golden cupolas running through the middle of the church and engraved statues adorning either side. There are also these candy red arches which will remind you of the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain if you’ve ever visited.

Marseille Notre Dame de la Garde interior

Oh, and I should mention the view. Perched high up on the top of a hill, Notre Dame de la Garde overlooks the city and gives you majestic views of Marseille. You will not find a better vantage point in the whole of the city. Besides, entering the church is free and you can get a good sense of Marseille’s cultural history by giving it a visit.

view of Marseille

The Le Panier district of Marseille

We made our way back down into the city after a while and headed towards Marseille’s trendy Le Panier district. Filled with small cafes, street art and a funky bohemian vibe, it’s hard not to love this area. We stopped at one of the bars which spilled out onto the road to rehydrate and take in the atmosphere, but before long we were being ushered off into the kerb as a firetruck – yes a FIRETRUCK – came down along the road. It was a bit of a tight squeeze but literally as soon as it had passed, everyone came rushing back and not a drop was spilled during the whole operation!

Marseille Panier district
Marseille Panier district
Marseille Panier district
Marseille Panier art

MuCEM and Fort St Jean

Drinks complete we wandered off in search of two of Marseille’s highlights: the MuCEM and Fort St Jean. Wandering through some alleys we finally made our way around to the Museum of European and Mediterranean civilisations (or MuCEM for short). Wow, it instantly strikes you as a spectacular work of art/architecture. It’s a brand new building (2012) by architect Rudy Ricciotti and looks fresh, contemporary and cutting edge. It also makes for a stunning night shot!

Marseille museum of european civilisation
Marseille Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation
Marseille museum of european and mediterranean civilisations

Inside the museum is a bunch of cafes and of course art, sculptures, etc. They have a really good collection of ancient artefacts (Marseille has been a port for the Greek, Romans, Visigoths and numerous others throughout time) which provides a good overview of the city’s history. Entry is €9.5.

When you are finished at the MuCEM, if you head to the roof and cross the walkway you will enter Fort St Jean. This 17th century port has been restored and opened to the public and is a really cool attraction for visitors. It has this interesting mix of history with some contemporary art pieces and some pretty outlandish sculptures thrown in for good measure! Entrance is free to just walk around, etc.

Marseille Fort St Jean
Marseille public art
Marseille old port

Sitting just behind the MuCEM and Fort St Jean is Marseille’s Cathedrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure. There is something about churches in Marseille: they are just so cool! Take this cathedral for example, its striped, candied design is pretty unusual but looks amazing.

Marseille Cathedral

Palais Longchamp

If you are a fan of majestic French architecture and consider yourself somewhat of a romantic, then Palais Longchamp is for you! This 19th century monument houses a few museums and is surrounded by an expansive beautiful green garden, one of the finest in France.

Marseille Palais Longchamp
Marseille Palais Longchamp

La bouillabaisse and Marseille’s most famous dish

Of course, no self-respecting Francophile would visit Marseille and NOT gorge themselves on its world famous dish: La Bouillabaisse. Originally a fisherman’s stew consisting of at least three different types of fish, the rich flavours and fresh seafood became an instant hit and has since been imitated many times around the world.

So after some extensive research (literally 4 and a half minutes on Google in our apartment…), I decided to try out the offering at La Voille Marsellaise down in the port area. Now La Bouillabaisse is expensive (some reaching up to €100) but this place was around €40 or so. And it was spectacular! The sauce was creamy but not too overpowering, and the seafood was to die for. If you’re a seafood fan, you must try Bouillabaisse in Marseille! 

Generally, the food in Marseille was really good, reasonable prices (sometimes difficult to find in France) but all of exceptional quality. I inhaled one of the best burgers I’ve ever had at the port – (ask for the ‘charolais’ burger and thank me later!).

Marseille Bouillabaisse

Plage du Prado

While we were tromping around Marseille, we also decided to head outside the city to the beach, or Plage du Prado as its known in French. Hopping on the No. 19 bus to ‘La Plage’ will drop you off at a nearby shopping centre and you can then cross the road over to the beach. Though it was warm it was a bit too windy for our liking (like a freaking hurricane actually!), the beach was quite large and we were all a bit disappointed not to be able to enjoy it more.

Marseille Plage du Prado

Other things to do in Marseille (that we didn’t get to)

There was a whole heap of things we didn’t get to do in Marseille, but if you do have the time, be sure to fit these into your schedules somewhere:

  • Calanques are narrow rock formations on the coast which look like beautiful isolated lagoons and they have the most amazing blue Mediterranean water. They are mostly outside of Marseille city along the coast so you’ll have to organise a tour or hire a car to reach them. We’ll be back for these!
  • Cruising the harbour – Marseille is a port city so what better way to explore it than hire a boat to take you around. You’ll get stunning views of the port, forts and buildings on the headlands and even see some of the sights outside of the port and its surrounds.

The verdict

Hell, I loved Marseille! All of it. The city was buzzing and alive and much more enjoyable than other reviews had led me to believe. It’s also one of the most stunning French cities I’ve visited with just the right mix of new and old architecture, lively streets and natural beauty. Even the food was noteworthy, but then I never could go past fresh seafood…. What I’m trying to say is Marseille is cool and if you haven’t ever thought about visiting before, definitely include it on your wanderlust list for the future.

Have you visited Marseille? What are your best tips to get the most out of this city? Let us know in the comments below!

Montpellier: Could this French town rival Paris?

Montpellier: Could this French town rival Paris?

When planning a trip to the south of France, you should definitely consider Montpellier. The city used to rival Paris as France’s pre-eminent city back in the day, but how does it compare today? Bustling with young energy, still with plenty of historical monuments to explore and easy access to a beach, Montpellier has a lot going for it.


Create Your Own Perfume in France

Create Your Own Perfume in France

Creating perfume in France is a fun activity

I don’t know if I’d truly classify myself as a “girly girl”, but when it comes to things like shoes, jewellery and perfume, well there is no such thing as too many! So when we were in Nice, being so close to the world’s capital of perfume, Grasse, I couldn’t resist making a signature fragrance of my very own!


How to explore Nice and the French Riviera

How to explore Nice and the French Riviera

The gorgeous blue waters of the Baie des Anges

The gorgeous blue waters of the Baie des Anges

To have a truly spectacular visit to the French Riviera, you need three things: a base to travel from, the favour of the weather gods and the joie de vivre (joy of life!). In mid-June, the forces of the universe combined to give us all three in an amazing three days in Nice and the French Riviera.


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