Guide to Europe’s Microstates: Monaco

Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Quick facts (most recent available data)
Population: 36,371 (6th smallest country by population)
Area: 2 sq km (2nd smallest country by area)
GDP per capita (PPP): 63,400$ (4th)

Visiting Monaco

Location and how to get there: located on the French Riviera in Southern France. Take the bus from Nice for a scenic 40-minute trip to Monaco. Map

Why visit? It’s not often you get to cross an entire country  from one edge to the other in less than half an hour. On foot. There’s lots to see and do in the second smallest country in the world: the pretty old city (Monaco Ville) perched on a cliff overlooking the sea; the stunning Jardin Exotique botanic garden and the highly appealing Institut Oceanographic; the world famous Monte Carlo Casino; cool city-planning and urban infrastructure; the impeccably-kept city parks and gardens.

Recommended visit duration: 1 day

Fun facts: 

  • Monaco is the most densely populated country in the world, has a land border of only 4.4 km, a coastline of 4.1 km and a width that varies between 1.7 km and 349 meters
  • Hercules himself is said to have passed through the Monaco area in ancient times
  • The country is a constitutional monarchy which has been ruled by the House of Grimaldi (with brief interruptions) since 1297
  • 95% of the principality’s then-territory was ceded to France in the 19th century for 4.1 Million francs
  • The official language is French, but there’s a Monegasque language spoken by about 5,000 persons
  • Monaco has the world’s highest life expectancy at nearly 90 years, the lowest unemployment rate at 0%, the world’s most expensive real estate market and the highest number of millionaires and billionaires per capita in the world.

Review of my trip to Monaco

Monaco was my first visit to an European microstate. I didn’t plan specifically for it but couldn’t miss a daytrip to the second smallest country in the world during a tour of Southern France.

I entered Monaco by bus from Nice after a less than an hour ride along the coast of the  scenic French Riviera. As if trying to dispel Monaco’s perceived opulence, the bus ride cost exactly 1 EUR from Nice’s main bus station.

There are no border formalities when entering the tiny country from France. I briefly see a sign with the country’s name and Bam! I’m in Monaco. The bus climbs some steep roads and soon stops at the park in front of the Casino.

My first stop is at the nearby tourist office to get my obligatory map. I start exploring the nice little park and head towards the world famous Monte Carlo Casino. As it opens to players in the afternoon, I only take some pictures of the nicely decorated building and move on (don’t confuse the Monte Carlo Casino with the other less-famous ones located close by, such as the New York Casino specializing in slot machines).

The casino was founded in the 1850’s and is now the most well-known and respected gambling establishment in the world. The citizens of Monaco are forbidden to enter the gaming rooms, which are only open to out-of-country gamblers.

I head to the other side of the casino and discover an excellent viewpoint for cool pictures. The views of the crisp blue Mediterranean sea are gorgeous. The marina (Port de Monaco) can be seen down below and the old city (Monaco Ville) to the right, high on a cliff. The latter looks really pretty and contrasts with the taller and more modern buildings towards mainland.

I descend to the Port de Monaco to check out cool hi-tech yachts waiting patiently for billionaires to take them sailing. There’s a Ferrari parked in front of one yacht and very few people strolling around. For the most densely populated country in the world, Monaco looks quiet and peaceful in the morning’s early hours. Day-tourists will arrive later in the afternoon, so you’d better do your best to get there before them.

I stop at the Brasserie de Monaco and have the most expensive orange juice in my life, taking in the view. The price seems oddly appropriate in a place where the nominal GDP per capita is more than 3 times higher than in the US and almost five times higher than EU average.

The principality’s golden period started in the late 19th century with a railway to France and the opening of the first casino. Monaco’s appeal as a high-class tourist destination increased continuously since then, aided by mild climate, beautiful landscapes and world-class gambling facilities. The country’s tax haven status didn’t hurt either (Monaco doesn’t have an income tax since 1869).

I continue to circle around the Port de Monaco and head towards the Quai Rainier III and then up towards Monaco Ville, following and incredibly scenic walking route along the coast. With high cliff on one side and the sea on the other, there’s really nothing more you could possibly want. A beautiful and tiny beach reached via steps carved into stone is a nice find.

I reach Monaco Ville via more steps and find more beautiful parks, gardens, steps and city walls. The attention to detail all around is impressive and there’s urban art and modern sculptures everywhere.

I visit the Institut Oceanographique (part aquarium, part art museum) which is spectacular. A huge statue of a white baby greets visitors. Inside, beautiful displays of fishes in all colors, shapes and sizes amaze eyes and photo cameras. There’s some cool art, the world’s first submarine and a nice terrace with cool views of the city and the surrounding hills.

I reach the old city with its narrow streets, cute colorful houses, impeccably-dressed cool-looking police officers (which are to be addressed formally not casually, as I soon discover), souvenir-hunting tourists and the delicious Chocolaterie de Monaco. The Palais Princier and the grand Place du Palais are close by. Monaco Ville is a delight to explore by foot.

I finally leave the old town, head north towards the hills and take one of the numerous public elevators searching for the Jardin Exotique botanic garden. While small, it’s the best I’ve ever seen, full of exotic and colorful plants exquisitely arranged across the garden’s terraces. Definitely one of the highlights of Monaco.

There are even nicer views of Monaco Ville and of Monte Carlo below. Finally, there’s the Observatory Cave in the gardens which has a guided tour and is a delight to visit.

I’d stay here all day but there’s more to explore. I spend a bit more time exploring the hills, more densely populated with tall buildings but lacking tourists, and head back to the Monte Carlo Casino for some gambling action. There are more tourists in the area now and a display of cool cars by the Automobile Club de Monaco in front of the casino. I had to buy a dress shirt to be allowed in the gambling rooms as t-shirts just won’t cut it in this establishment. Also no pictures, obviously.

There’s a 5 euro minimum at the roulette tables and not that many players in the early afternoon. The high-rollers will be here later, and their tables would have much higher minimums. The grand casino eats me alive and I quickly lose my allocated initial investment. I head for the ATM to get more cash but it’s out of order; I take it as a sign to end my stay at the casino right there and move on.

Some more city art later, including shiny chrome spheres and discs that glimmer in the sun, I find the beaches. They’re small but nice, with locals and vacationers lazily roasting in the sun and sipping cocktails. The border with France is literally minutes away.

I’d explore more, but my feet are killing me. I head back to the bus station and return to Nice ending a very agreeable daytrip. Monaco is not all Ferraris and billionaires despite its reputation as a playground for the rich. I find the little country nice and cool. After this trip, I decide that Europe’s other microstates need exploring as well.

See more pictures in my Monaco photo album:

More information available in the Monaco country profiles on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage.

Keep reading: Monaco | San Marino | Vatican City  | Malta | Luxembourg | Liechtenstein | Andorra | Gibraltar | SMOM