Ever since Grace Kelly glided up the aisle in her iconic wedding dress, Monaco has been sprinkled with stardust. And with its fast cars, designer stores and Michelin-starred restaurants — more per square mile than any other country on the planet — few destinations scream luxury as loudly as this tiny principality.
Little wonder that most visitors come for the jetset dream. This is a place where the standard airport transfer is a helicopter, and a meal out will likely be under the auspices of a world-famous chef. The Champagne will be pink; the car driving past, a Lamborghini. Since the population is split between native Monégasques and tax exiles, your neighbour at the bar is probably a millionaire. Even its ring road is the panoramic drive along the Grande Corniche, its cliff-top views so spectacular that the opening scenes for Goldeneye were filmed here.
It’s that Bond-like glamour that Monaco does so well, of course. Taking a bite out of the Côte d’Azur coastline, its tiny 0.78sq mile footprint is crammed with glitz: the Belle Époque casino of Monte Carlo (designed by Charles Garnier after he’d finished the Paris Opera) squares off against the old town, Monaco-Ville, balanced on a huge rock jutting into the Mediterranean. Between the two yawns the enormous Port Hercule, hundreds of oligarchs’ yachts moored in its harbour, and the F1 Grand Prix route wrapping around the shoreline. Overlooking it all is the royal palace, shimmering white and floodlit to dominate the views for miles around. And the atmosphere is a bewitching fusion of France and Italy, with a touch of Monégasque flair.
But for me, it’s the old-school glamour that pulls me back. This is a place where people still dress up for dinner; where you can follow an out-of-this-world meal with a night aping the high-rollers in the Monte Carlo Casino. Where you can wander through the lush gardens below it and emerge onto the F1 hairpin bend; walk along the shore at Larvotto, beach; or try the latest A-list wellbeing trend at the historic Thermes Marins spa.
There’s nowhere quite like it. And if you’re prepared to splurge for a day or two, there’s nothing like being part of it.
Where to eat
Le Vistamar, the seafood restaurant at Hotel Hermitage, overlooks Port Hercule through floor-to-ceiling windows and from its outdoor terrace. Chef Joël Garault buys his fish from the principality’s only remaining fishing family, while produce comes from a local farmer at the 19th-century Condamine market.
Blue Bay, at the Monte Carlo Bay hotel, fuses French and Caribbean cooking, using local ingredients such as oysters, and herbs that chef Marcel Ravin brought over from his native Martinique to grow in nearby Menton.
Meanwhile, L’Hirondelle, the restaurant at Thermes Marins, goes one further — chef Jacky Oberti creates daily menus based only on what the fishermen and farmers have on offer that day. The people-watching is spectacular (it’s open only for lunch, and many dine in their bathrobes mid-spa), but the real draw is the ‘Menu Santé’, which offers a sublime three-course meal between 500-700 calories.
Monte Carlo’s also home to big name international restauranteurs. Alan Yau of Hakkasan fame opened Song Qi, Monaco’s first fine-dining Chinese restaurant, in 2014, near the Fairmont hotel. And then there’s Cipriani, whose Venetian terrazzo flooring and white-coated waiters need little introduction. The menu’s largely the same as its other branches around the globe: the antipasti is out of this world, and the crab salad and fried zucchini are extraordinary in their simplicity.
The bar at the Metropole is one of my favourites. Set back from the street, it’s been given a dark and sultry feel by designer Jacques Garcia, with low lighting, velvet-backed chairs and bathrooms hidden behind what appears to be a bookshelf. Saphir 24 at the Fairmont enjoys arguably the best views in Monaco — being glass-walled and cantilevered over the Mediterranean. Even better, it’s open 24 hours.
There are, of course, Monte Carlo must-dos. A night at the Casino is one; even for non-gamblers like myself, sitting at the bar watching others play amid the stucco, gilding and glittering chandeliers is out of this world. Evenings are generally seen out at Jimmy’z, a legendary club near the Monte Carlo Bay hotel — things usually get going after about 2am.
By day, the terrace of the Café de Paris, on the Place du Casino, is the perfect place to while away an afternoon. And down on Port Hercule is Wine Palace, which opened last year in Norman Foster’s new Yacht Club building. It stocks 2,300 wines and spirits and has a sommelier with a Michelin background on duty at all times. Once you’ve picked a bottle — for £13-£16,000 — you can either take it away or enjoy it there. Or just indulge by the glass.
Though this is a place where the labels are king, there’s an increasing number of luxe independent shops. Pierre, which opened three years ago on the Rue Grimaldi, is an extraordinary treasure trove of high-end interiors, jewellery and clothes. Its eclectic mix includes everything from bamboo umbrellas used by sailors from south-west France to high-fashion kilts and antique kimonos.
Nearby, gemologist Sophie Avon at Somarina offers a different take on Monaco’s other jewellery stores: her made-to-measure, wraparound ‘birthday bracelets’ represent your date of birth with precious and semi-precious stones of your choice, chosen either by colour or by what they represent.
Some shops even come with a royal stamp of approval. Manufacture de Monaco crafts fine porcelain for the palace. You won’t be able to buy the designs that Prince Albert and family enjoy, but you can splurge on gold-ribboned bowls, Swarowski crystal-encrusted espresso cups, and slightly less outré dinner services at their shop in the Metropole mall.
Rather more affordable is the Chocolaterie de Monaco, which has been making fine chocolate since 1920. Again, it supplies the royal family, who lend a little stardust to the confectionary boxes. ‘Coffrets’ are named after Albert and Charlene, as well as Grace Kelly, whose 1956 wedding the Chocolaterie marked with a special collection of creams. (Albert, by the way, prefers dark chocolate.)
Top 10 local tips
02 Taxis are expensive and can take a while to arrive, but buses are regular, clean and cost €2 (£1.57) per ride.
03 Why struggle up the hillsides when you can use the public lift system? They’re all across the principality, and marked on city maps.
04 Most restaurants — even the Michelin-starred ones — offer great value set menus for lunch and dinner. Local resident Jensen Button loves Il Terrazzino — two-course lunch for £15.
05 Famous sportspeople and wealthy locals go for cryotherapy at the Thermes Marins. A chamber at -110C is said to heal injuries and delay the signs of ageing.
06 Get onboard with Prince Albert’s green initiative by hiring an electric car. The Mobee scheme has two cars for tourist use based at the Fairmont hotel.
07 It may be small but Monaco has its own craft brewery — the portside Brasserie de Monaco. Its restaurant is the perfect place to ‘beer’.
08 Èze, the French cliffside village 20 minutes west of the city, makes for a perfect afternoon out.
09 The journey from Nice airport takes half an hour in a taxi — or seven minutes in a transfer helicopter.
10 Everyone eats out in Monaco — a lot — so always make advance reservations.
Books: Loser Takes All, by Graham Greene, a novella set in Monte Carlo. RRP: £9.99 (Vintage Classics)
Monaco Cool by Robert Eringer, a roman à clef by the American novelist-cum-royal spymaster about life there in the 1990s. RRP: £10.23 (Bartleby Press)
On screen: To Catch a Thief. Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier while filming this iconic movie in Monte Carlo.
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three- night breaks including B&B at Fairmont Monte Carlo, flights and helicopter transfers from £598.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)