Roughly the size of New York’s Central Park at three miles long and one-and-a-half mile wide, Monaco not only enjoys an incredible setting between the Mediterranean and the Alps and between the French and Italian Rivieras, but could be said to be Europe’s own central park –a once-upon-a-time Mediterranean port of call with a royal palace and streets filled with Ferraris, Mercedes Benzes, Rolls Royces and other luxury cars, designer boutiques and sidewalk cafes.
For cruise passengers, the tiny, fairy-tale-like Principality is a happily-ever-after type of place theirs for one day and filled with attractions, gardens and outdoor sculptures including colossal works by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. And perhaps best of all, many of the attractions can be covered comfortably on foot during a port call and a hop-on/hop-off bus is available with a stop near the cruise pier.
Ruled by Prince Albert II, son of Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace (Grace Kelly, Hollywood royalty who lived in real life the fairy tale of becoming the princess of Monaco), Monaco has four districts: Monaco-Ville on the Rock, the old fortified city that includes many of the must-sees; the Condamine or port quarter where luxury yachts bob in the sea; Monte Carlo, the business and recreation center; and Fontvieille, a man-made waterfront area for leisure and light industry.
A good place to start a visit is Monaco-Ville on the top of the Rock of Monaco, with its impressive views of the sea –and a great spot from where to photograph your ship painting a pretty picture down on the harbor. Here the Prince’s Palace is located at Place du Palais. Dating from the 19th century, the palace has opulent state apartments, Napoleonic Museum and a collection of 18th and 19th centuries European art. It is opened seasonally, generally always during the height of the Mediterranean cruise season from May through October, but if it is closed during your visit, you can still view the daily changing of the guard, at 11:55 a.m., in front of the palace.
Steps away from the palace, on Avenue St.-Martin, is the Oceanographic Museum & Aquarium. Founded in 1910 by Albert I, the “Navigator Prince,” and under the direction of Jacques Cousteau for three decades, the attraction has one of the world’s best collections of marine life with more than 4,500 fish in 90 tanks representing species from every ocean on the planet. The aquarium presents marine mammal shows and exhibits deep-sea diving equipment by Cousteau.
From the Oceanographic Museum, visitors may take the Azur Express tourist train. The train features a 30-minute ride to take in the highlights of the Principality including the Casino of Monte Carlo and its gardens and the Old Town with the City Hall and Prince’s Palace.
Also in the Monaco-Ville district, the Monaco Cathedral, 4 rue Colonel Bellando, is elegant and yet unpretentious constructed of La Turbie white stone in Romanesque-Byzantine style. Also known as St. Nicholas Cathedral, it dates back to 1875 and is the burial place of the princes of Monaco. Their tombs, including those of Rainier III and Grace Kelly surround the floor of the main altar.
Like the Cathedral, nobody leaves Monaco without visiting the Monte Carlo Casino at the Place du Casino in Monte Carlo. The casino, in Belle Epoque style, boasts private lounges where heads of state and celebrities have settled at gaming tables since 1863. Access to its Atrium with its marble floor and 28 onyx columns is free. Bring your passport for admittance to the casino and jackets are recommended,
Both the Casino and Opera –or Salle Garnier—were designed by Charles Garnier, one of the most famous architects of the 19th century, who also designed the Paris Opera.
In Belle Epoque style, the Salle Garnier, recently concluded an extensive, multi-million-dollar renovation that respected the orginal design while modernizing it. More than 35 firms of artisans worked on the refurbishment of its murals, the reconstruction of its chandelier and the renovation of the crown of the cupola of its concert hall that rests on a metal frame designed by Gustav Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.
Plant lovers have several gardens to stroll in: Princess Grace’s Rose Garden at Espace Fontvieille with more than 4,500 blooming rose bushes representing some 200 varieties and surrounding a freshwater pond populated by swans; the Japanese Gardens, at Avenue Princesse Grace, dedicated to the memory of Princess Grace and embraced by cherry trees and parasol pines; and the Exotic Garden at the Boulevard du Jardin Exotique with thousands of cacti and other succulents—as well as the Zoological Garden, established in 1954 by Prince Rainier III, with 50 species of animals including white tigers, hippopotamus and exotic birds.
A garden attached to a museum is the National Museum, 17, Avenue Princesse Grace. Designed by Charles Garnier, it has a fragrant garden with more than 40 varieties of roses, including some bred in honor of Princess Grace and Princess Stephanie. The must-see museum also has an excellent collection of automated toys and dolls.
Another noteworthy museum is the Museum of Antique Automobiles at Les Terraces de Fontvieille. It displays the personal collection of Prince Rainier III – 85 restored vintage autos from all over the world and representing almost each decade since the invention of the car. The Grimaldi Forum on 10, Avenue Princesse Grace, is an exhibit hall for art shows and conferences and offers panoramic views of the Mediterranean,
Popular excursions sold onboard ship include city tours and full day programs to such Cote d’Azur locales as Nice, Eze Antibes and Juan-les-Pins.
Local flavors not to be missed include typical Monegasque dishes such as the vegetable torte (with vegetables, rice, cheese and egg) or stocafi, a cod dish with tomato sauce, olives and vegetables. Restaurants to enjoy them in include the Cote Jardin at the Hotel de Paris, where Chef Mario Muratore prepares local feasts.
For a leisurely lunch or dinner (if your ship stays in port till late in the evening) as well as lots of people watching, grab a table at one of the outdoor cafes near the Prince’s Palace. There are plenty of restaurants in Monaco to choose from –more than 130—serving all types of cuisines. For a memorable dinner try one of the restaurants of Chef Alain Ducasse (who recently took charge also of the Jules Verne Restaurant on the Eiffel Tower). One of his restaurants in Monaco, Le Louis XV, at the Hotel de Paris, has a dining room inspired in Versailles as well as an excellent wine list –and it has three stars from Michelin.
Ducasse’s other restaurant, the Bar & Boeuf, Alain Ducasse, opens during the summer tourist season and offers fresh fish in the Bar side and specialties like fried beef on a pan with soy sauce, olives and artichokes.
Good souvenirs of the Principality include t-shirts stamped with the word “Monaco” (there are numerous styles and colors to choose from) and French fashions and perfumes.
Cruise lines that visit Monaco and/or sail from the Principality, include Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian, Oceania, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea, and Windstar.
IF YOU GO – For additional information on Monaco, log on to www.visitmonaco.com.