Behind the bright lights
Even if you’ve never been, everyone has some idea of what Monaco is like. Its associations with luxury are well-founded; Grace Kelly, the movie star turned princess; the timeless Riviera glamour of the casinos; sleek racing cars tearing around the Grand Prix circuit whilst classic yachts float in the harbour. Monaco is all of this, but it’s more than just a glittering curio where tourists can spot ten celebrities before breakfast. There’s never been a better time to visit this tiny gem of a city-state, nestled between the rural splendour of France and the shocking blue of the Mediterranean.
Glitz and glamour
There are few remaining monarchies in Europe, and even fewer that have survived more than a couple of centuries without passing between different noble families. Incredibly, the Grimaldi dynasty has ruled in Monaco since 1297, conferring an extraordinary sense of history on the reigning Prince Albert II. Monaco’s unique regal heritage is best experienced through a visit to the Prince’s Palace, home to the Grimaldis for more than 700 years. Since the royal family of Monaco lacks the property portfolio of, say, the British royal family (who have twenty residences), the Prince’s Palace is a unique record of Monaco’s fortunes, as those Princes who could afford to do so generally added or rebuilt a tower or wing.
For decades, Monaco was almost exclusively known for its high-class gambling, and although there is now much more on offer, its casinos are still world-famous. Needless to say, formal wear is a must if you’re planning to visit the Casino de Monte-Carlo - and try not to lose your petrol money for the way home!
If you prefer your glamour in the open air, make a point of visiting the exquisite Jardin Exotique. Perched high on the cliffs overlooking the sea, this botanical garden boasts one of the world’s finest collections of succulents, especially cacti. It also incorporates a small but well-stocked museum of prehistoric anthropology, which includes examples of the prehistoric human remains found in the caves beneath the garden itself.
Despite its reputation as a very grown-up playground, there’s plenty to do with your family in Monaco. One of the most spectacular events is the International Fireworks Festival, a month-long tournament which sees the world’s best pyrotechnicians head to Monaco to demonstrate their most beguiling fiery creations. This year’s festival runs from July 19th to August 16th, and it’s visible from almost everywhere in the principality - head towards the port at dusk and you’ll have a fantastic view.
During the hours of daylight, you might want to visit the towering Oceanographic Museum. Opened in 1910 and renovated a century later, the museum took 11 years to build and now houses one of Europe’s most impressive collections of marine flora and fauna, as well as an exhibition devoted to Prince Albert I’s career as an oceanographer. For those who prefer to be in the sea rather than learning about it, everything from jet skis to parasails are available in the harbour for adventurous visitors.
The beauty of a holiday in Monaco is the opportunity to turn it into a road trip - depending on your route; you can tour almost any part of France on your way to the bright lights of Monte Carlo. From Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, you can expect the drive to Monaco to take 11-12 hours; you can power through in one day to spend more time by the beach, or choose to spend a night somewhere and make the most of your picturesque journey.
Getting there and around
From Calais, follow the E17 down towards Arras, and then pick your route. The quickest journey takes you through Reims, Dijon and Lyon, although you could detour through Paris or even take in the charms of Orleans. Either way, you'll find yourself approaching the coast at Marseille and then heading east towards Monaco itself.
Why not choose one route on the way down and then a different one for your return to Eurotunnel Le Shuttle? It's the ideal way to pack as much as possible into your holiday in Monaco.
Driving down to Monaco is a beautiful way to see France, but once you reach the principality you’re unlikely to need your car. Second only to Vatican City in terms of the world’s smallest nations, Monaco is barely two miles long by half a mile wide - and its traffic police are notoriously unforgiving. Leave your car in a long-stay car park and get exploring! The tiny city-state is ideal for energetic walkers, with eight lifts set into the cliff face to help along those with a little less puff - but if you’d prefer to stick to something with four wheels, there are various options.
Given its size, Monaco has a surprisingly efficient range of public transport. The regular buses run along five lines and are cheap, at €5 for a day’s unlimited travel and €1.50 (€2 if you buy on the bus) for a single journey; and a second journey within 30mins of getting on your first bus is free. The same tariffs apply to the ‘bateau bus’ ferry that crosses the harbour. No eating or drinking is allowed on the bus, so keep your picnic wrapped up.
If you’d prefer to take the tourist route, there’s a tour bus that constantly circumnavigates Monaco - the idea is to hop off and on whenever you spot something interesting. A standard daily ticket is €21, with various deals for students and children; the passes can also be bundled with entry to the Oceanographic Museum, saving a few euros along the way.
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