Monaco is More Than a Tiny Tax Haven
Monaco is a living, breathing museum of money and the moneyed.
A sun-kissed harbor, intimate back streets, and a diamond-encrusted Che Guevara watch say Monaco.
Photos by Kristan Lawson
It’s hard to take Monaco seriously.
Race cars, movie-star princesses, and being nearly 200 times smaller than Albuquerque can do that to a nation.
Facing the Mediterranean Sea and flanked by flamboyant, full-figured, larger-than-life France, narrow Monaco occupies only about three-quarters of one square mile, which renders it the world’s second-smallest country, bigger only than Vatican City.
Founded by oceangoing Greeks during the sixth century B.C., ravaged by Saracens during the fifth century A.D., helmed by Genoese nobles who launched the ruling House of Grimaldi in 1133, captured by French Revolutionaries who sold off the royal art collection in 1793, granted sovereignty by a treaty in 1861, occupied by Italian Fascists and German Nazis during WWII, income tax-free since 1869, and now a stomping-ground for stars ranging from Rihanna (who shops here) to Ringo Starr (who lives here), Monaco has a rich history in more ways than one. But you could stroll the 3 miles from its western border to its eastern one in under two hours.
Hell-bent for Nice or Portofino, most travelers zip through here on the French SNCF rail system’s palm-fringed Marseille-Ventimiglia line without disembarking at Monaco’s sleek, stylish train station, the streams of lights lining its tunnel resembling shiny coins. Some visitors stop just long enough to snap a few faux-regal selfies on the Carrara marble stairways of the 13th-century Palais Princier, or pathetically pulling their pockets inside-out amidst the rococo grandiosity (golden walls within, opulent fountain without) of Le Casino de Monté Carlo. And granted, throngs arrive for the Formula 1 Grand Prix every May; tickets for prime viewing spots cost nearly $3,000 this year.
But far too many travelers consider Monaco too rich, too small, and/or too silly for an extended stay. Yet blessed with incomparable views, red-tile roofs and year-round sunshine, its streets cross-hatched efficiently into quartiers and wards, this pint-sized principality deserves a closer look.
As the Riviera’s pristine, self-contained jewel, it’s symbolized obligingly by the rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and pearls filling its shop windows, looking way too big to be real, yet are, evoking all the royalty, celebrity, and get-rich-quick mythologies that permeate these scenic slopes.
No lie: Monaco is a living, breathing museum of money and the moneyed, with even its Hello Kitty and Che Guevara kitsch measured in carats. It’s fun to stroll the quays lining Port Hercule, craning your neck to see the superyachts while wondering who’ll arrive next on the helicopter landing pads.
But for nature lovers, hikers, dreamers, families, and philatelists, Monaco offers diverse attractions, from a Byzantine cathedral to a zoo and world-class aquarium to glorious parks and gardens to museums addressing naval history, Napoleonic memorabilia, prehistoric anthropology, stamps, coins, vintage cars, and more.
Six convenient bus lines, including a special night bus and a harbor-crossing bateau bus, facilitate touring a micro-state that, while mockably small, is in parts vertiginously tall. An inexpensive day-pass makes getting around even easier.
The Museum of Old Monaco comprises a quick, free, crash-course in local culture. After filling up on Genoese socca chickpea crêpes and fresh local fruit from the historic covered Condamine Market, wander the medieval byways of Le Rocher, the 463-foot “Rock” atop whose sheer nougaty cliffs perches the palace. Crowning The Rock’s southwestern face are panoramic St. Martin Gardens and the monumental, century-old Oceanographic Museum, whose 67,000 square feet boast live-animal environments housing sharks, sea turtles, and more.
A Mediterranean microclimate makes Monaco’s outdoor attractions almost irresistible. Meditate amid the Japanese Garden’s serene teahouse, bamboo groves, and wooden-bridged ponds. Shiver in spooky, stalactite-spiked subterranean Observatory Cave, then emerge into the cliffside Exotic Garden, where more than 1,000 species of cacti and succulents bloom and bask.
At this point you’re drumming your fingertips, wondering churlishly why no one has yet mentioned a beach. That’s because Monaco’s only one is puny, pebbly, waveless, highrise-overhung, jam-packed Larvotto. You’re better off staying fully dressed and sniffing your way around the 8,000-bush Princess Grace Rose Garden—or swimming in the pool at your hotel: Not all of those in Monaco are five-star.
Sure, Monaco is minuscule. Sure, it’s an unapologetic outpost of the .001 percent. But loll under its shady trees, stoked and stroked—as others have been in this same place for 8,000 years—by the warm breath of the sea, and you will know that sometimes luxury is absolutely free.
Port Hercule, www.Monte-Carlo.mc
Japanese Garden, www.VisitMonaco.com
The Observatory Cave, www.Jardin-Exotique.mc/en/The-Observatory-Cave
The Exotic Garden, www.Jardin-Exotique.mc/en/