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.
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 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.
Old Monaco’s streets have an undeniable charm to them
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 along Rue Colonel Bellando de Castro in Old Monaco
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’.
I was so lucky to find this spot right outside…. 🙂
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.