On more than one occasion, as I explore the streets of Monaco, I worry that I don’t look smart enough. I ask the guide whether I should’ve dressed up, seeing as so many people are wearing suits and formal clothing, even in the middle of the day.
She laughs and reminds me that many of them are just going to the office, and this is just like any other big city where workers would be wearing suits on a weekday.
Amongst all the things to do in Monaco, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s like any other country in many respects. Yes, there are little quirks that are unique to somewhere as small and wealthy as Monaco, but it still has public transport, supermarkets, offices, and homes.
As a visitor, I think the key to exploring Monaco is to see the things that make it special – the glamour and the opulence. But also to go a little deeper to discover its heritage and local life. You’ll find the best things to do in Monaco are a mix of all of these.
What is Monaco?
It’s the wealth of Monaco that first strikes you when you arrive here. Or, to be more accurate, the wealth of the people who come here.
There’s no doubt the country is the playground of the rich and famous, with super yachts moored throughout the harbour and Lamborghinis rolling past you on the street. At Monaco’s best restaurants, tables of white linen look out across the water and the stunning coastal views.
One of the reasons the rich and famous like Monaco is that it’s safe and clean, with the country’s size making it easy for authorities to keep it that way. Monaco is the world’s second smallest country (after Vatican City) and would fit into about half of New York’s Central Park.
It’s governed as a constitutional monarchy, which means there is a royal head of state – currently Prince Albert II – but a government that makes all the decisions. However, in reality, the monarchs have a huge amount of power and, as you visit some of Monaco’s attractions, you’ll see their influence at many sights.
Many people will visit Monaco as a day trip from Nice or other towns along the French Riviera but it deserves much more than that. There are enough things to do in Monaco for at least a couple of days – even longer if you want to spend time making the most of its excellent dining and bar scene.
As you’ll see with this list of suggestions of what to do in Monaco, there’s much more than just the obvious.
Let’s start with one of the things that Monaco is best known for, though: its glitz and glamour. There’s a reason the principality keeps popping up in James Bond films and is a magnet for the world’s wealthy every summer – and that’s because it is luxury to the extreme. Sophisticated luxury, that is.
Monte Carlo Casino
At the centre of Monaco’s opulent district of Monte Carlo is the casino, opened in the 1865 to help attract tourists to the small principality (and make some money – believe it or not, Monaco was struggling financially back then).
Even from the outside, the Monte Carlo Casino is stunning, with its Beaux-Arts facade looking onto a circular driveway where you’ll usually find very expensive cars parked. Inside, each of the rooms is decorated with its own motifs, such as the large Salle Médecin, for example, which has four paintings showing different times of the day.
Although there are some private gaming rooms for the most important guests, anyone can play at the Monte Carlo Casino (except locals!). It costs €17 to go inside (with €10 able to be used as credit) but you can go into the foyer for free. There are guided tours in the morning.
Opera de Monte Carlo
Monaco’s opera theatre, known as the Opera de Monte Carlo, is attached to the same building as the casino, but it’s an attraction in its own right.
The beautiful theatre was opened in the 1870s as Monaco continued to create attractions to bring visitors to the country. It was designed by Charles Garnier, who also did the opera house in Paris, and is covered in ornate decorations on every wall, with large windows on one side looking out towards the water.
There are regular performances at the Opera de Monte Carlo, including more than just operas, and it would certainly be worth seeing one if you have time. Or the morning tours of the casino should also take you here.
Café de Paris
Monaco is full of restaurants and cafés, but none are as famous as Café de Paris. Opposite the casino, it was founded at the same time as Monte Carlo in 1868 (and was originally called Café Divan).
It’s had a few renovations over the years and now looks like an old Parisian bistro. Inside, the stained-glass windows bring in plenty of natural light, but many guests prefer the outdoor terrace, which is great for people watching.
Monaco Yacht Club
Before you get your hopes up, let me remind you that the prestigious Monaco Yacht Club is a private club and only members and their guests can go inside. But, I still think it’s worth heading to its location because this is the best location to do some super yacht spotting!
The modern club building is impressive and you’ll find it at the northeastern end of Hercule Port, just down from the hill with the casino. From here, you can walk along the edge of the port to see the yachts moored just metres away.
The port itself is the deepest in Monaco and has been used since ancient times. Now it can hold about 700 vessels and you’ll find some enormous ones here, particularly during big events like the Grand Prix.
It didn’t take long for me to see the first Lamborghini cruising along the streets of Monaco and, after a while, I realised that was pretty normal here. Quite a few people have very expensive cars and they like to show them off.
But when it comes to fast cars, the most important event is the annual Monaco Grand Prix, first held in 1929. If you can get here for that, it’s quite a spectacle! But there are other races during the same time of year, such as the Formula E ePrix and the Monaco Historic Grand Prix.
If you’ve brought your car, you can drive along the Grand Prix track, which is just normal roads the rest of the year – although Monaco leaves the markings which creates a bit of exhilaration for normal drivers.
Or you can do a special driving experience with the car of your dreams – along the Monaco Grand Prix track and then some of the most scenic roads of the French Riviera. See the details of the Ferrari driving experience here, or the Lamborghini experience here.
We may know Monaco these days for its luxurious side, but before it began chasing the wealthy at the end of the 19th century, it was still a prestigious European principality – and had been for hundreds of years. The most important buildings from the early history until today are in the Old Town.
Officially the Old Town is called Monaco City and is situated on top of a 70-metre-high hill surrounded by water in three directions. Some of the most important things to see in Monaco up here, so I suggest giving yourself about half a day for a visit.
There are less than a thousand residents in the Old Town (Monaco City) but this tiny number includes the most important resident of all – Prince Albert II.
The monarch and his family live in the Prince’s Palace, which is perched at one end of the elevated headland, with views out to the southwest. It dominates the Old Town and all road eventually lead here.
The Prince’s Palace was originally built as a fortress in the 13th century and its location gives you a sense of how it was protected from attackers. But it’s been renovated over the years into a luxurious residence.
In the warmer months of the year, the palace opens the State Apartments for visitors, so you can head in and get a sense of the monarchy’s grandeur.
The next most important building up here in the Old Town is Monaco Cathedral, an imposing church that was consecrated in 1911 after being built in the site of the country’s first church from 1252.
Although most people just call it Monaco Cathedral, its official name is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, but sometimes people call it Saint Nicholas Cathedral, which was the name of the original demolished church.
As well as the impressive architecture and artwork inside the cathedral, the most visited part of the building are the tombs of the ruling Grimaldi family behind the altar. It’s here you’ll find Princess Grace (Kelly) buried.
One of the best things to do in Monaco, the Oceanographic Museum, is more than just an aquarium. It’s an institution that has played a critical part on the study and protection of the oceans for more than a hundred years.
It was founded in 1906 by the then-monarch, Albert I, who was a keen oceanographer (and shows the power you have as the ruler of a small and wealthy nation). It was more than just a hobby, though, and the progressive approach to the study of the sea was ahead of its time.
When you visit the Oceanographic Museum, you’ll find the aquarium on the lower floor, with corridors of tanks full of rare and unusual marine life. The focus is on the Mediterranean, but there are species from across the world represented here as well. Upstairs, in the grand rooms full of heritage, are exhibitions about the history of oceanography – and Monaco’s role in it.
Once you’ve ticked off some of the big Monaco attractions – the casino, the Prince’s Palace, the Oceanographic Museum – I recommend looking at some of the things to do in Monaco that are a bit more local.
I’m talking about the places that are still interesting to tourists, but where you’ll also find the Monégasque, because it’s here that you’ll get a bit more of a look at the real country.
For a country set along a coastline, Monaco doesn’t really have many beaches – certainly not compared to the French Riviera across the border on either side.
But there is one relatively large stretch of sand called Larvotto Beach where people come for a swim and a sunbake. A bit like the market, you’ll find everyone here, including the wealthy wearing jewellery that glitters as much as the turquoise water.
The beach is public and you can pop down your towel wherever you want. There are sunbeds for rent, if you would prefer to have a bit of space.
And right next door is the Le Meridien Hotel that has its own private beach, if you really want to get away from the crowds (and don’t mind paying for the privilege).
On the forecourt of the market, colourful stalls sell fresh fruit and vegetable. Around them is the market hall, which was opened in 1880 and renovated in 1992.
Condamine Market is more than just a place to come and buy fresh produce, though. Much of the internal space is now used for little restaurants and cafes, with about twenty traders selling everything from snacks to hearty meals (with a glass of wine, of course).
This is an excellent way to taste some of the local delicacies of Monaco without breaking the bank – and it’s such an institution, you’ll see all walks of life here.
Just a block or two away from the market is Monaco’s first (and only) distillery, known simply as La Distillerie de Monaco. It’s here that a small but wonderful collection of local spirits and liqueurs are made – and I recommend popping in for a tasting and to pick up a bottle or two.
The distillery makes local gin and vodka, both of which are worth trying. But the signature product is the L’Orangerie, a delicious liqueur that’s made with the bitter oranges grown on trees along the country’s streets.
The oranges have a long history in Monaco but for too long they were just used as decoration. It’s great the distillery has now found a use for them and is able to make a special local product.
The Fontvieille neighbourhood of Monaco is one of the newest, built on reclaimed land between the 1970s and 1990s. For this reason, it may not be full of historic sights, but it does have a wonderful pocket of modern life.
The string of restaurants and bars along the western side of Fontvieille Port are lively places with a good range of cuisines and prices, looking across the water to the rocky headland with the Prince’s Palace at the top.
But my favourite spot down here is Les Perles de Monte-Carlo, an oyster bar run by two marine biologists who grow their shellfish in the nearby water and put a big emphasis on sustainability. Even if you don’t like oysters, there’s plenty of other seafood to choose from and the location is fabulous.
Tours of Monaco
It’s not too hard to get around Monaco. Being a relatively small country, you can actually walk from one side to the other in about an hour – and it’s pretty hard to get lost (except when the fences are up for the Grand Prix, as I discovered the hard way!).
When you’re going up the hills, there are usually escalators or lifts (which is a novelty I never get tired of). And even if you don’t want to walk, there is a good bus system, and you can buy a pass of ten trips to save money and hassle.
But, having said all of that, it’s not always obvious what the best things to do in Monaco are – or, at least, what in the onslaught of glamour are the most significant sights.
That’s why I think taking a tour in Monaco is a fantastic way to get to know the country a bit better. I don’t think you need one that just takes you to the main Monaco attractions, but one where a local guide can offer you an insight is fascinating.
So, I think the best option is this hidden gems tour, where the guide will take you beyond the obvious landmarks and help you get beneath the surface.
Another good experience is this evening tour that will show you more of Monaco after dark, including some stunning night viewpoints.
Or you could also take this private tour, where you’ll not just have your guide’s full attention, but you’ll be able to have some input on what you see and do.
Monaco tours from Nice
As you’ve probably gathered from this article, I think staying in Monaco for a night or two gives you the time to get under the skin of the country and experience all the sides of it.
But I know a lot of people will visit as a day trip from somewhere like Nice. So I thought I would recommend this tour of Monaco from Nice, which packs in a lot of highlights. Or there are some more options for other experiences here:
I’ve mentioned a couple already, but there are some other museums in Monaco that are worth talking about. These ones are each quite interesting because although they’re not about Monaco, per se, they do each show you something about the country in their own way.
Cars Collection of HSH the Prince of Monaco
This car museum is quite astounding and has more than a hundred vehicles on display, including some of the most luxurious in the world.
There are Formula 1 racing cars, sports cars like Lamborghinis and Ferraris, some classic models from Rolls Royce and Lincoln, plus some vehicles that played an important historical role in the story of Monaco – in weddings, for instance.
The collection originally belonged to Prince Rainier III who began collecting old cars in the 1950s. As he bought interesting vehicles from around the world, he couldn’t fit them all in the garage at the palace. So that’s why he opened the Cars Collection of HSH the Prince of Monaco museum in 1993 to display them all!
The Naval Museum in Monaco is another product of someone’s passion, this time it was local Claude Pallanca, who spent much of his later life building and buying model ships. He shared that passion with Prince Rainier II and together they have loaned many items in their collection to make this museum.
There are more than 1,200 scale models at the Naval Museum, stretching throughout much of history from Ancient Egypt, to the European ships of the Age of Discovery, and even the Titanic. There are also a large number of military ships and submarines from numerous wars.
You may think this museum may only be of interest to people who like model ships, but the pure scale of the exhibition is quite something to behold!
Museum of Stamps and Coins
Another institution that you may think is just of interest to someone with niche interests is the Museum of Stamps and Coins. But there’s enough here for more than just philatelists.
The museum has examples of all the stamps and currency that has been issued in Monaco, as well as equipment and documents used to print them.
It’s actually quite interesting to see what was printed on the stamps and the coins at different points in history, and we can learn a lot about the culture of the country at different times through this.
Nouveau Musée National de Monaco
Translated into English as the New National Museum, the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco focuses on contemporary art and uses that to show the cultural side of Monaco through an ever-changing schedule of temporary exhibitions.
The museum has two locations, both of which are splendid in their own right because they are each grand historic villas. One of them, Villa Sauber, is near Monte Carlo and has a traditional elegance about it, while Villa Paloma is up on the hill and feels more modernist.
Because the exhibitions change quite regularly, it’s hard for me to say whether you would enjoy the art that’s on display at the moment, but I think it’s worth visiting to see the buildings and possibly find a special show.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN MONACO
There’s only limited hotels in Monaco and they’re not cheap – but it’s worth a splurge to stay in such a special place.
With very affordable rooms for Monaco, Hôtel de France should be the first choice for the more budget-minded traveller.
To get a bit of a feel for local life, Hôtel Columbus is in a quieter neighbourhood that’s a joy to explore.
With its own private beach, Le Méridien Beach Plaza is perfect for a relaxing stay in the warmer months.
And when it comes to luxury accommodation in Monaco, Hôtel de Paris is the most famous – and for good reason!.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Monaco but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.