Five Places To See In The Principality Of Monaco

Monaco views

I have been spending time in the French Riviera since I was a child. I would spend many summers and winters in the small town of Juan-les-Pins, especially in my teenage years, and it is in the French Riviera that I have made some of my fondest family memories. 

It has been more than fifteen years since I first visited Monaco, and I have returned countless times over the years, both with my family and on my own. The Principality has always been a holiday destination long before Grace Kelly became a princess; in fact, the French Riviera was already quite popular in the 1920s, when Jazz Age writers and artists (including Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda) would spend periods of time devoted to creativity and rest on the French Mediterranean coast, before the advent of World War II, as evidenced by the Assouline volume “The French Riviera in the 1920s” (which is full of wonderful photographs, as are all the books by the luxury publishing house).  

Monaco’s popularity is largely due to the inauguration of the world’s first casino-resort (Casino de Monte-Carlo), which became one of the most glamorous destinations as early as the Victorian era following the legalization of gambling in 1855, and which achieved iconic status among European resorts in the following decades. To this day, Monaco is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the French Riviera, thanks in part to the various events that take place each year, such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix de Monaco and the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters (which I would love to attend someday because I am a huge tennis fan). 

Monaco is one of the cities in Europe that I know the most; my cousin works there and I also have many family friends in the French Riviera. These days I’m not going back very often because I promised myself I would visit new places (this was after realizing that I often tend to go back to cities I have already visited), but I think the city’s landmarks are especially worth seeing. So I decided to do a top five of the must-visit places in Monaco; I recommend going there in the spring months because the French Riviera can be incredibly crowded in the summertime, which may not make you fully appreciate your visit (besides the fact that summers are very hot in the Mediterranean area). 

Casino de Monaco.
Place du Casino

1) Place du Casino: the Place du Casino represents the center of the Principality of Monaco, mainly due to the presence of the imposing Belle Époque-style building built by the famous architect Charles Garnier (who also created the Paris Opera). The building houses the Casino de Monte-Carlo, the headquarters of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and the Grand Théâtre de Monte-Carlo. Both the Casino and the adjacent Hotel de Paris are owned by Monaco SBM (Société des Bains de Mer), a company that owns a number of hotels, restaurants, and other venues in the Principality. The company also offers a loyalty program called MyMontecarlo, which through a card allows members to access a range of discounts and benefits at establishments operated by SBM (which I myself have been a member of in the past). The Casino has also been the location for a number of films over the years, such as Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and the 007 movie GoldenEye (1995). The square has undergone a total makeover in recent years, changing from a dome of turf to a total esplanade of tiles on which a number of palm trees have been planted; the Anish Kapoor mirror in the center, surrounded by a circular fountain, has been retained, and the square now looks very much as it did when it was first inaugurated in 1850. Café de Paris is located on the left side of the square looking at the Casino; it is ideal for coffee, orange juice, breakfast or lunch because of its privileged location that allows a wide view of the surrounding area, which now has a quieter atmosphere thanks to the pedestrianization of the square (although I retain a nostalgic memory of the old square, especially for the lighted trees during Christmas time). Also close to Place Du Casino is One Monte-Carlo (the new fashion district with 24 luxury boutiques, including French brands such as Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton), the Metropole Shopping Center, which, with its elegant marble corridors and crystal chandeliers, includes 80 boutiques and six restaurants, and Les Jardins et Terrasses du Casino, a curated green space in the center of the Principality.

Le Rocher - Monaco.
Streets of Le Rocher

2) Le Rocher: this neighborhood is located in the upper part of Monaco, near the Place du Palais, site of the Palais Princier (the Prince’s residence, where the changing of the guard of the Carabiniers du Prince takes place every day). The old town is characterized by narrow medieval streets in whose surroundings are architectural buildings such as the Palais de Justice, the Palais de la Poste and the Romanesque-Byzantine style Cathedral. Le Rocher is the historical center of the Principality and constitutes one of the main districts of Monaco, as well as the oldest. In the same place are the Town Hall and the Palais Princier, whose apartments are open to the public from April to October, and it is possible to admire an array of period furniture and paintings housed within the halls.  Since the district is a promontory jutting out over the Mediterranean Sea and located in the upper part of the city, I recommend comfortable shoes if you want to reach the place on foot because the walk starting from the Rampe Major is slightly steep but really pleasant also thanks to the panoramic view over the Principality (it is during the walk that I took the photo which opens this article).

Le Rocher is indeed a quaint neighborhood, with its narrow streets, restaurants and typical shops, and it is very nice to visit; in fact, it is reminiscent of some of the old villages in the South of France because of its structure. The Old Town is located within the 16th-century ramparts, and its medieval alleys lead to some key places in the neighborhood, such as the Chapel of Mercy (Chapelle de la Miséricorde) and the Cathedral. Also near the Old Town are the Saint-Martin Gardens, which date back to 1816 and were the first public gardens opened in Monaco. They constitute a place of quietness that offers an exceptional view over the sea. Near the gardens is also the Oceanographic Museum, which I have visited several times over the years; in fact, I walked the narrow streets of Le Rocher during one of my last trips to the museum that was created by Prince Albert I in 1910. The other side of Le Rocher offers a view of Port Hercule and the rest of the Principality. I hope to visit Le Rocher more extensively in the future because it is a lovely place that you need to devote a good amount of time to. 

Port Hercule.
Port Hercule

3) Port Hercule: I had the opportunity to visit and photograph Port Hercule both during the day and at night time and it offers wonderful panoramic views. The harbor bay lies at the foot of Le Rocher and is one of the few deep-water ports on the French Riviera. Historically it was used as a trading port in Greek and Roman times, and later two piers were built to protect it from the easterly winds. In addition, a counter pier and seawall were introduced in the 1970s to prevent the harbor from being damaged by storm surges. The new seawall allows the harbor to include large cruise ships, and the new pier accommodated the new Yacht Club; luxury ships are contained thanks to a refurbishment of the water plane inaugurated by Prince Rainier III and completed by H.S.H. Prince Albert II. The walk along the harbor will surely appeal to people like me who love boats because you really get to see some impressive ones. The Port Hercule area is located in the district of La Condamine and there are a number of restaurants and bars in its proximity, as well as the Christmas village in the winter time, with a series of chalets and food stalls, an open-air skating rink and a big ferris wheel with panoramic views. I have wonderful winter memories of Port Hercule because I have visited the Christmas Village plenty of times over the years, even as a child; also, this is where my mother overcame her fear of riding a Ferris wheel so it was a lot of fun. In my Flickr album dedicated to Monaco there are also photos of Christmas installations taken at the Christmas Market, which is free access except for some attractions; it is a beautiful place to visit with your family (I took my grandmother there too) and the atmosphere is magical in the holiday season. In addition, the ice rink at the Stade Nautique Rainier III returns to being a swimming pool in the summertime, and it already existed as a section of the port in 1949. The Port Hercule area offers many entertainment options in both winter and summer, with several bars, restaurants, and traditional brasseries.

Villa Sauber in Monaco.
Villa Sauber

4) Villa Sauber: part of the NMNM (Nouveau Musée National de Monaco), the purpose of Villa Sauber is to enhance the artistic heritage of the Principality of Monaco by hosting temporary exhibitions, both in the spaces of Villa Sauber and in those of Villa Paloma (the latter is located in the Condamine district, near the Jardin Exotique, which is currently closed for renovation). I visited Villa Sauber last summer on the occasion of Helmut Newton’s photo exhibition “Newton, Riviera” that I wrote about in this article. The construction of the Belle Époque-style villa most likely dates back to the late 19th century, when the Larvotto beach, near which the villa is located, did not yet exist; the architectural style is very similar to that of Charles Garnier’s Opera, so the construction of the villa could also be attributed to him. Villa Sauber was purchased in 1904 by the painter Robert Sauber, who located his atelier there. After a series of owners, the Villa was bought back by the Société Immobilière Domaniale de Monaco in 1969, and since then both the building and the garden have been owned by the Monegasque state. After becoming a National Museum in the early 1970s, since 2009 the Villa has been hosting temporary exhibitions and, together with Villa Paloma, constitutes the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco and usually hosts two annual exhibitions; the “Humanoïdes” exhibition by American visual artist George Condo is currently taking place at Villa Paloma, while Villa Sauber will reopen in June with the exhibition “Santo Sospir” by artist Mauro Restiffe, inspired by his stay at Jean Cocteau’s house in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The ticket to visit Villa Sauber is joint with that of Villa Paloma at the price of 6 euros (free every Sunday and with special reductions for some people during weekdays), so it is a wonderful opportunity to explore a vast amount of art at reasonable prices. Across the street from Villa Sauber is the Grimaldi Forum, a congress and cultural center in the Principality of Monaco that also hosts events and exhibitions such as the Christian Louboutin retrospective that I visited last summer and discussed in this article.

The Giant Squid.
Musée Océanographique de Monaco – Giant squid model

5) Oceanographic Museum of Monaco: also known as Musée Océanographique de Monaco, it is probably my favorite place in the Principality. I visited the museum for the first time about ten years ago with my parents and grandmother, on a rainy afternoon during winter holidays. I remember we were impressed and fascinated by the beauty of the place and its marine inhabitants. The Oceanographic Museum stands on the base of Le Rocher and is very old; as I mentioned earlier, it was conceived by Prince Albert I in 1906 and to date houses more than 6,000 marine species. With an area of about 6500 sqm, it is an international landmark for ocean lovers; it houses a center for marine conservation and studies that is strongly committed to the protection and preservation of marine environments and the species that inhabit them. Particularly fascinating is the aquarium area dedicated to coral reefs and their inhabitants, thanks to its vivid colors that are perfect for photography enthusiasts. I took many photos at the museum during my various visits, and you can see them in my Flickr album titled “Animal Kingdom”, which will give you an idea of the species you can find there.

In addition to the aquariums, the museum also houses two halls dedicated to the discovery of oceanography through a series of photographs and archival documents, as well as skeletons of marine mammals and other species. Numerous activities for schools are also organized at the touch tanks, along with light and sound games. Through all its areas accessible to the public, the museum promotes ocean awareness through both permanent and temporary exhibits, which allow people to learn about the history of the oceans and understand the importance of protecting them. 

There is an outdoor space opened in 2015 called “L’Odyssée des Tortues Marines” dedicated to sea turtles, which are collected from the sea and cared for at the marine species care center in collaboration with specialized veterinarians. The outdoor tanks provide a better understanding of the life cycle of these wonderful marine animals (I remember spending a lot of time in this area of the museum during my last visit because it was uncrowded so I really enjoyed taking pictures of the turtles). 

In terms of temporary exhibitions, I had the opportunity to visit Immersion, an interactive exhibition dedicated to the Great Barrier Reef that allowed one to virtually “dive” into the ocean and discover its different species (modeled from real images), interacting with them as if one were underwater, surrounded by 650 sqm. of day and night projection scenarios. This exhibition has now closed but you have the chance to visit “Mission Polaire”, dedicated to the ecosystems of the poles and relevant animals such as seals, penguins, whales and orcas.  

There is a dining area on the museum rooftop with a magnificent view over the Principality of Monaco; spending a few hours at the Oceanographic Museum is truly an unforgettable experience!

OTHER PRACTICAL INFO & FOOD RECOMMENDATIONS: Monaco is fairly well connected to the rest of Europe thanks to highways; also, if you are traveling by plane, the Nice Côte d’Azur airport is about half an hour away. The railway station is also particularly charming with its numerous lights (you can see a photo of it on my Flickr) and is connected by direct trains to all the main French Riviera towns. 

In terms of bars and restaurants, it depends on your budget because Monaco can be rather expensive; I have had the opportunity to try and recommend Café de Paris at Place du Casino and Le Bar Américain at the Hotel de Paris, both of which are ideal for breakfast, Le Grill (located on the rooftop of the Hotel de Paris, with panoramic views of Monaco, where I once tried the delicious traditional chocolate soufflé), the Japanese restaurant Nobu and the Horizon Rooftop at the Fairmont Hotel (with Mediterranean cuisine) and La Maison du Caviar; the latter is located in the vicinity of the Place du Casino, has a significantly lower price range than the restaurants mentioned above, and offers both French and Mediterranean cuisine. Other places to eat were also recommended to me by some local friends for future visits to Monaco, including Caffè Milano, Buddha Bar, the Chinese restaurant Song Qi, the Italian restaurants Nonna Maria Montecarlo and Il Giardino (also for pizza), the Peruvian COYA and the Blue Bay restaurant (with Caribbean and Mediterranean cuisine by Michelin-starred chef Marcel Ravin, for food enthusiasts), as well as Blue Gin, Mada One and the Crystal Bar at the Hermitage for aperitifs. 

All pictures are my own. 

For more photos of Monaco you can check out my Monaco album on Flickr. 

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