10 things to do in Monaco



By the middle of the 19th century the ancient House of Grimaldi, which runs Monaco, was on its uppers. Someone – possibly Princess Caroline, shrewd consort of the less, shall we say, business-minded Prince Florestan I – had a bright idea. What better way to get their little Riviera statelet out of financial strife than by opening a casino? A bit of a gamble, you might say. And the more so as, at that time, Monaco was not exactly the navel of the universe. In point of fact, there were no roads or railway lines to get you there, and no places to stay or things to do in the unlikely event that you could be bothered to get yourself there by other means. But the gamble paid off spectacularly well. So much so that, within a decade of the casino’s opening in 1863 – in a canny move that would have a lasting impact on the life of the principality – the Grimaldis were able to abolish income tax for residents. Turnover-wise, the casino at Monte Carlo is not in the same league as those of Macau or Las Vegas. But in potency of aura, of old-school glamour and les jeux sont faits juju, it remains second to none.



Built so the swells would have somewhere suitably salubrious to stay when they swung by the casino next door. Anywhere to stay, for that matter. Otherwise they had to come and go by boat from Menton. Like the casino, the hotel flourished faster than you can say neuf à la banque and became a byword for Belle Epoque grandeur and life lived high on the hog. In 2019 it has emerged from a comprehensive refit which has introduced 21st-century razzle to match the 19th-century dazzle. The stupendous Princesse Grace and Prince Rainier Suites are the finest digs in town; and Alain Ducasse’s three-Michelin-starred Le Louis XV remains, by general consent, one of the great restaurants of the world. There is a bronze equestrian sculpture in the lobby which you are supposed to rub for good luck; but if you are being billeted here you can hardly be down on your luck. Wine buffs should ask to see the cellars beneath the hotel, which are more extensive than most cities’ underground train networks.

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If you have always admired the Palais Garnier, the main opera house in Paris, but felt that it was, perhaps, a touch too large to be entirely cosy or intimate – verging, as it is, on the gargantuan – then the Salle Garnier in Monte Carlo is the opera house for you. Same architect (Charles Garnier), same jewel-box aesthetic (eyelid-twitchingly ornate), but only a quarter of the size, with seats for about 500, as opposed to nearly 2,000. Supposedly it was the solution to a dispute that had arisen between Garnier and his French employers. Garnier, having gone unpaid for years for his work on the Palais, was told that his bill would be settled by the Grimaldis if he would knock up something similar in Monaco in double-quick time. Eight months later, the principality had its very own Salle Garnier, accounts were settled, and Garnier could stop fleeing down cobbled lanes pursued by debt collectors. It is true that the close proximity of the Salle Garnier to the casino is a little confusing – not so much because the two institutions are in fact housed under the same roof but because it is difficult to tell where one fantasy ends and the other begins.



Prince Albert I was, and still is, justly celebrated as a pioneering oceanographer who devoted much of his life to the study of the sea. This museum/aquarium/exhibition space/educational and research facility, in a majestic cliff-top building with sweeping views, is a fine monument to the seriousness of his extracurricular interest. Perhaps its most amusing feature is its cabinet of curiosities, which showcases an extraordinary array of fossils, marine specimens, taxidermied beasts and antique diving gear. Surely worthy of inclusion alongside such marvels, though sadly not on display, is Albert’s own moustache, of which any walrus would have been proud.


There are certain things you do not expect to see in Monaco. Poor people, for example. Or even poorly dressed people. And the closest thing you are going to get to a charity shop in this neck of the woods is Le Dressing. No mouldy old cardigans and soup-stained permanent-press suits on mismatched hangers here. Instead you will find a more rarefied class of cast-offs by Chanel, Hermès and Louis Vuitton. It is particularly good for handbags – which in turn are particularly good for transporting the kind of handbag-sized dogs that get groomed at U Can U Gatu.



Monaco is blessed with a surprising amount of unsurprisingly well-tended gardens and parkland. The Jardin Japonais was supposedly Princess Grace’s favourite, and is indeed very charming, a little slice of Kyoto-sur-Mer; but the Jardin Exotique occupies a special place in the heart of every born-and-bred, card-carrying Monegasque, for it is here that, upon the birth of an infant with the correct bona fides, a cactus is planted by way of celebration. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Italy from its spectacular clifftop position.


Should your appetite for Champagne and caviar begin to pall, ankle over to the Marché de la Condamine, an unpretentious covered market that sells all manner of comestible delights, most typically Monegasque of which are socca – chickpea pancakes, approximately. And for socca, Roger is your man. If you can find him. His little concession is half-hidden in a gloomy corner and his hours are erratic. But his socca are as wholesome and unexpected as the spectacle of normal locals visiting a normal market to shop for normal stuff.



There are newer bars, and older ones, but arguably no watering hole in town is more delightfully disorientating and downright odd than this one. Part temple, part bordello, part David Lynch movie set. Yes, there are other Buddha-Bars, so no prizes for originality there; but for sheer strangeness and freaky feng shui, this joint takes the gilded dumpling.



This immaculate, demure, peaceful, friendly, modest-toned, quietly-spoken little shop sells the most adorable hand-made ickle-wickle baby clothes and accessories you ever did see. Not only that, but all proceeds are directed through the foundation to children’s charities.


If you want the lowdown on what the dirty dogs and conniving kitties of the principality are up to, you should make haste to this one-stop pet-care-and-accessories shop and strike up a conversation with one of the team of convivial groomers led by Sophie Harel. Though the premises are not notably glamorous, the clientele, both human and animal, is, and U Can U Gatu is no less a Monaco institution than the casino. It is also a great place to pick up a present for your own pooch or puss.

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