In early April I ventured to the small and beautiful but mighty and certainly wealthy city-State on the French Riviera: Monaco. The setting of two 007 James Bond films, the most famous Formula 1 Race, and home to the Monaco Royal Family, perhaps most famously associated with American Actress Grace Kelly who married into the Monaco Royal Family. It is as one would have imagine full of fancy cars, massive yachts and locals finely dressed in the best of name brands and home to one of the most famous casinos in the world, the Casino Monte-Carlo. Not to mention it is home to the Godfather of French Cuisine, Alain Ducasse’s favorite and flagship restaurant, Louix XV – Alain Ducasse.
However, that being said, I found Monaco to still be welcoming and did not feel that it was overwhelmingly pretentious in any way. It is certainly extra, it is grand and it is rich but it knows that and its part of the Monaco identity. Over all you come to Monaco expecting to spend, but you can still do it on a relatively ok budget, depending on what you want to do. Nonetheless I arrived prepared to spend a little more than usual. And I suppose if you enjoy gambling or the slot machines, you can always head to the Casino to earn some more cash, note however there are strict guidelines with the casino.
Getting to Monaco is not terribly difficult. You fly into Nice from any European gateway or on Delta Air Lines that offers the only nonstop service to the United States. Then you have a few options. You can take the local bus from the airport to Monaco which takes over an hour but is the cheapest. For 22 Euro one way, pay with the driver or at the airport kiosk, you can take the express shuttle from Nice Airport direct to Monaco (it stops in a few stops in Monaco including by the Palace and Monte Carlo), it departs every 20-30 minutes and takes around 30-45 minutes (this is my most recommended method). If you are in a rush and the shuttle schedule doesnt work, you can take a taxi at a fixed rate of 90 Euros. Finally, there is the ultimate splurge, a 5-7 minute helicopter transfer starting at around 150 Euro and up for a one-way transfer. If flying into Nice isnt an option you can also go to other parts of France or even Milan then take a bus or train to Monte Carlo. My flight into Nice was delayed and I had a reservation to get to at Louis XV so I turned a blind eye and went for the taxi to get to Monaco, on my way back I took the express shuttle.
Getting around is also easy. It is most ideal to just go by foot, the country is so tiny. There are bus routes and shuttles and one can certainly rent a car, why not rent from the service that provides Ferraris and other fancy sports cars? But for the most part, parking is hard and expensive and the entire country is hilly and multi-level, as such its really easier and time-saving to just walk. But yes, it is hilly and parts of the city require lots of uphill/downhill steps or inclines.
There are plenty of hotels and airbnbs however there are basically no hostels. I went in early April which is considered shoulder/low season in Monaco just after the winter crowds and before the Formula 1 and summer crowds. The cheapest hotel room for a last minute booking was around 150 Euros. This is the best time to visit Monaco I think, weather was perfect, albeit it rained a bit on my first evening. Everything is bookable and at half the high season prices and its not crowded at all. I booked Hotel Hermitage, through AmEx Fine Hotels and Resorts and received a few additional perks with that including breakfast, free upgrade (I went from a deluxe queen to a Seaview King) and USD$100 (85 Euro) of Food and Beverage credit all for around USD$430. I thought it was well worth it and it was half the price of Monaco’s most famous hotel, Hotel de Paris located right next to the Casino. However, if you stay in any of the hotels that are a part of the greater Monte Carlo central area, they all have similar amenities and access and even have a resort shuttle that runs between the hotels and casino.
Would I recommend Monaco? Yes. I certainly would. I would say April and September/October are probably the ideal times to go with less crowds, better prices and good weather. Plus its probably a lot easier to land a reservation at Louis XV!
- I landed in Nice airport 2 hours behind schedule at around 12:30PM, zipped through customs and immigration and sadly missed the express shuttle which meant that in order to make my 1PM reservation which the restaurant was holding until 1:45PM before kitchen close at 2PM, I had to take the taxi at 90 Euro. I actually did ask the helicopter services their pricing as I read online the cheapest was 115 Euro which I would have done if that was indeed the case, it was not. Unfortunately this also meant that I missed the once a day changing of the guards at the Prince’s Palace that occurs at 11:55AM on the dot.
- Arrived at Hotel de Paris, home to Louis XV in Monte Carlo at 1:30PM and was warmly welcomed by the gracious staff at the restaurant. And so began an incredible culinary journey that I will write about in a separate post (I promise I will, I know I have dropped the ball on saying this before). Suffice to say it was well worth the splurge on both the meal and taxi to get there. Truly exceptional food, full of balance, complexity and subtlety. Not to mention the above and beyond service.
- Lunch took me right to about 4PM. I then walked across the fountain in front of the Casino to the Cafe de Paris and tourist shop thinking it was the tourist office but it wasnt. The tourist office is in fact further up the hill. I proceeded to the Tourist Information Center to get my free Monaco passport stamp.
- I then walked back down the hill and proceeded to walk to Hotel Hermitage, located behind Hotel De Paris. I checked-in and was informed of my near double upgrade to a Seaview King Room. Hotel guests also get complimentary access to La Maree Monaco spa and fitness (sauna, steam, heated salt water pool, jacuzzi, gym and shop; all other services are extra), and its accessible directly from the hotel.
- After settling in, I headed out for a walk and short exploration of Monaco. I walked around and along Port Hercule, lined but not full yet with yachts. Blockades were going up already as construction and preparation for the F1 stands were well under way. I passed the Saint Devote Chapel as well as many statues commemorating great F1 drivers throughout history.
- I then proceeded to climb up the steps to get to the top of The Rock of Monaco. This is a rock/ small peninsula that is home to many of Monaco’s main sites. Here I admired most of the sites from outside. I walked by the Prince’s Palace, which for around 14 euro you can get tickets for that and the Musee Oceanographique, two of the most popular sites. I then headed down the main road to Saint Nicholas Cathedral, where Grace of Monaco is buried and where she got married, it was however closed on this day I was there, but the exterior is beautiful and from peeping inside, so is the interior. I walked by the giant Oceanography Museum before making my way to the end of the rock at Theatre du Fort Antoine. What I really enjoyed about my stroll through town was despite the sprawl of buildings built up the hills and mountains and cliffs, it was still a relatively green and coastal city and the parks had so many sculptures.
- I then headed back down the hill and walked back towards the hotel, stopping by the world’s smallest Brooks Brothers store just out of curiosity, it was indeed a very extra store.
- After my stroll through town I decided it was time to go relax at the Spa. I hit up the sauna and steam as the pool was packed at this pre-dinner hour. The heated outdoor jacuzzi facing the Rock of Monaco was especially excellent in the late afternoon drizzle.
- Fully relaxed, I cleaned up and proceeded to head out for a simple dinner in a not so simple setting, the Casino Monte-Carlo. You can visit and tour the casino during specific daylight hours. Afterwards the stricter rules apply. No shorts, flip flops, tshirt, hats or photography allowed inside. If you are planning to play a table game then no jeans are allowed and you must be wearing collared shirts, yes it is quite the affair. Slots and other machines arent as strict. Entry is 17 Euros, but that can be used to deduct any food and beverage bill, and minimum to play is 33 Euro I believe. I had dinner at one of two restaurants in the casino, Le Salon Rose, the casual bistro. I had steak with ratatouille and creme brule, with Provence Rose. I ordered medium rare, which I believe in some places in Europe leans closer to rare? Either way, it was still delicious and not terribly expensive (Monaco standards). I dont gamble and was not really interested in doing so here either but i will say the main table room is spectacular and beautiful and very much worth a visit, even if you just go to sip a Martini, shaken not stirred. Note the casino starts getting lively after 9PM.
- I still had to use my 85 euro food and beverage credit from Hotel Hermitage as such I returned there and had some night caps at the Crystal Bar. The bar has a solid and affordable selection of champagne. I had a glass of delicious Provence Rose again as well as a fittingly named Monte Carlo Cocktail. Quite a selection of bar snacks came along with the drinks as well.
- After retiring to my room I was hungry again and decided to use the remaining of my credit and pay the difference later and splurge on the Hotel Hermitage Lobster Club Sandwich. It was delicious and probably the best hotel club sandwich I have ever had.
- I then headed to bed.
- The next morning I woke up early and headed to the pool right as it opened at 7AM for a quick swim and to use the sauna and steam again. It was great as very few people were around this early. I also dipped in the jacuzzi one last time before heading out.
- I returned to the room and cleaned up before checking out, settling my bill and headed to breakfast. Breakfast at the Hotel Hermitage is quite an occasion as it is served in the Winter Garden, atop the hotel’s second lobby (I believe formerly main lobby?), designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel himself (yes of Eiffel Tower). It is a stunning work of architecture and design and having breakfast here is so worth it. The breakfast itself is average. Buffet with sufficient selection. You can order fancier items a la carte for extra if you like as well.
- By 9:35 I was out the door heading to the bus stop to wait for the express shuttle back to Nice airport from my noon departure back to the United States.
Had my flight been on time I think I would have made it to see the changing of the guards and also would have spent the money and time to tour the Prince’s Palace. Nonetheless I had a great and relaxing time in Monaco and one of the best meals as well. Monaco is certainly worth checking out. It knows how to do the glitz, the glam but does so without being pretentious, locals here are friendly and welcoming, and service you get here no matter where you go is excellent. Just avoid peak times as itll be crowded and even more expensive than it already is!